Return to a more peaceful Ireland

Published 12:47 pm Tuesday, August 28, 2012

I recently returned to Ireland after a 32-year absence. Apparently, nobody missed me much.

Thirty-two years ago, Ireland was the poorest country in Europe and I was a backpacker with a scraggly orange beard.

Today, Ireland is one of the richest countries in Europe and I am a Southern bidnessman. Funny how times change.

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

There are actually two Irelands — the Republic of Ireland, which is its own independent country with a Catholic majority, and Northern Ireland which is part of the United Kingdom and is majority Protestant (mainly Presbyterians from Scotland).

During “The Troubles” from the 1970s to the 1990s, there were many bombings and deaths in Northern Ireland. The Irish Republican Army (IRA) wanted Northern Ireland to join the Republic of Ireland. They were willing to use force.

The IRA met its match in the Scotch — a people long known for their tenacity. Violence was met with violence and then some. It was a long bitter struggle.

Compounding the tension was the fact that Northern Ireland was significantly more prosperous than its southern neighbor. That has now changed.

Ireland is part of the European Union and uses the Euro for currency. Northern Ireland still uses the British pound.

Once part of the European Union, Ireland was able to embark on a 20-year boom. It earned the nickname “The Celtic Tiger.”

Although the financial collapse of 2008 has caused some backsliding, Ireland’s per capita GDP of $37,300 is still higher than Germany, France, Italy and most other European nations. The United Kingdom’s per capita GDP is $34,800. The United State’s is $48,000 by comparison, the highest of any major nation.

The change in wealth was immediately apparent to me in Dublin, where Ginny and I stopped for a few days prior to a church mission trip to Northern Ireland.

Thirty-two years ago, Dublin was a quiet, charming city with great pubs and Irish music. Today, it is a tourist mecca with an incredibly well-oiled tourism machine. The city is full of gorgeous parks, walking streets, elegant shops, restaurants and every type day tour you could possibly imagine. Ireland gets seven million tourists a year!

All day long multiple double decker buses tour the city, stopping at 20 or so key destinations. You can sit open-air on the top of the bus and get a beautiful view of the city, stopping wherever you like. They call it the “Hop On, Hop Off Bus.”

We found the Irish food to be both unique and delicious. The Dingle crab claws put our measly blue crab claws to shame.

True to form, the Dublin pub music scene was layers and layers rich and deep. Where do these great musicians come from? There were at least a dozen places to hear great music. The pros work the early tourist crowd with tried and true sing along playlists. Then the younger players show up with the cutting edge tunes – modern, yet still so true to the Irish style. It is amazing how these great young passionate musicians keep welling up from the Dublin streets.

It had been 10 years since Ginny and I had taken a vacation without the children. Not complaining, but that’s just the way it is for parents with young children. It was amazing how well we got along without the stresses of child rearing to get in the way. We’ve still got it!

I had been dreading the long flight over. My how that has changed. Last time I flew over the pond, I had to stare over someone’s big head to watch a movie I didn’t even want to watch shown just as I was going to sleep.

Now I had my own video screen, a huge selection of movies to watch when I wanted to watch them. I had dinner with wine, watched two great movies and was in Dublin before I even shut my eyes.

The biggest problem with European travel is jet lag. Our bodies just don’t quite adjust. Meanwhile your senses are bombarded with smells, sights and sounds with which you are totally unfamiliar. The result can be exhausting.

We lucked out and got into our room early and took a big nap, waking at around 4 p.m. just in time to head out for some sightseeing.

I brought some over-the-counter melatonin and old-timey four-hour antihistamines (Chlortrimeton). One of each before bed knocked me out, despite the change in biorhythms. When I started to drag in the day, I chewed a piece of nicotine gum. Dr. Emmerich’s self-medicating recipe worked like a charm and for the first time ever, I felt like I defeated jet lag.

There is at least a month’s worth of high-quality sightseeing in Ireland. The countryside is beautiful and, of course, green and lush. With ample rain, its green grass supports lots of beef cattle, dairy cattle and sheep, much of which is exported.

An ongoing program to reforest the country has worked and now nine percent of Ireland is forest.

Compared to most of Europe, Ireland is not densely populated. Ireland and Northern Ireland combined have a population of about six million on a land area about two-thirds the size of Mississippi. In comparison, much of Europe has population densities 10 times that of Mississippi.

Even so, I can’t go to Europe without feeling like I’m in a land of slightly smaller everything. The houses are smaller, the hotel rooms are smaller, the restaurants are smaller, the cars are smaller and so on. Returning to America, I really appreciated our key resource – space!

The sister church we visited, the Ballygrainey Protestant Church, needs a new building, both because of depreciation and space. But the government won’t let them touch their existing building because of historical preservation. In America, we just tear things down and start over. What a difference in philosophy.

There were a thousand other subtle differences in our cultures. In Belfast, there was a news article pointing out the city councilors were all driving tax-funded Jaguars. The councilors defended their nice cars on the grounds that they deserved such a perk for the responsibility of running the city. That just wouldn’t happen in America. In America, a businessman can drive a Jaguar, but not a city councilor.