Monday, February 2, 2015

Ireland: In One Lifetime How the Tide Has Changed

I've lived in Ireland now for almost 33 years. With the advantage of hindsight, what I did not know when I moved here in 1982 but what I do now is that in only my lifetime - within the span of a single generation - Ireland would fundamentally change.

As I've said many times in the pages of this Blog, Ireland is no longer a twee little country sporting only carts and donkeys, coal fireplaces, and potholed narrow country lanes. It is no longer a land of poverty and ignorance. It is not a country of Leprechauns, pots of gold, or faeries. Yes, if you look hard enough you can find some of these. Even Leprechauns, I suspect, if you've drunk a belly full of porter. While such things aren't quite dead, most have been replaced by a resurgent Ireland that sports its modernity like a newly married groom. Even in the grips of astounding recession, this country is now renowned for its industry, relative wealth, and forward-looking thinking.

Much has changed since 1982. Many of those changes were wanted. Ireland was bloody poor when I moved here. And though few noticed because most of us were poor, it was heart-breaking to hear of families (including mine) who couldn't heat the house properly, couldn't eat properly, couldn't phone a relative, and couldn't take a Sunday drive simply due to the lack of a few bob. Today, most (but not all) do not want for such basics.

And yet....

I must admit that I find that I (like many Irish) miss a few things. Items or behaviours that have disappeared or changed completely because they've been washed away by the tsunami of the New Ireland. I thought I'd share a few of these with you. Perhaps it will give you a taste of what Ireland once was - of the simplicity that was to be found here.

  • Milk Bottles and Un-homogenized Milk - today we go to the store and buy milk in large plastic or paper containers. And like most places it's all homogenized and most of it tastes the same. Back years ago when I came here, milk came to the door in bottles. Bottles were capped by a foil rapper. The milk wasn't homogenized. Instead, you could see the thick cream floating at the top. Shake if you wanted full milk. Skim the cream off if you wanted a treat. My but I miss the stuff.
  • Open fires - are all but disappearing, replaced in many parts of the country by natural gas central heating. I am lucky to still have a real fire: an amazing Swedish stove that lights up like a rocket when I bother to fill the damned thing. But I still miss: the pungent smell mix of burning coal and wood blocks. The piles of turf that I used to add to it which made an ash as fine as snow. The slack - fine coal - that I'd mix with water and pour on top of the burning fire and which formed a thick cap, allowing the heat to last for hours. The crack and spark of the coal as it warmed the cockles of our hearts.
  • The Pub / Grocery / Funeral Home - all mixed together like an unexpected smorgasbord. One of these could be found in most towns. Walk in and order a pint. Step a little down the bar and order tinned goods, bread, and maybe thick slices of cold ham. Step even further, and organize an entire funeral - funeral wreaths hung from walls; pamphlets describing the hearse were piled nearby. In such a place, you could eat, drink and die, God bless 'em.
  • Old Money - we have euro now for our currency, just like much of Europe. But back when I moved over we had good old fashioned Irish Pounds and pence. Also called punts, they came in various colours and sizes to mark the various denominations. Back then, a pound would buy a few packs of cigarettes. Three or four pints. Five or six loaves of bread. God knows how many pints of milk. The coins were thick and solid. They jangled in pockets like miniature marching bands. As most say now, that was REAL money. Just don't ask me about the really old Irish money, before decimalization. It was before my time and thank God for that. I would never have bent my brain around the shillings, crowns, half-crowns, and all the rest.
  • Fresh Bread - most towns had a local bakery. In Navan, it was Spicers. And the breads that they baked! I can smell the aroma even from the distance of the years. Fat wrapped pans. Brown and soda bread still warm from the ovens. All delivered directly to your door in the electric cart that they used for such purposes, carried by the smiling Spicers Man who would also relieve you of the few pence such items might cost. Today, we buy most of our bread at the grocery store, just like the rest of the world. And frankly, it just doesn't taste quite as good.
  • Fish and Chips Wrapped in Newspaper - back then they'd wrap the fish and chips in yesterday's front pages. You could munch away and read the news at the same time. And the vinegar they'd splash over the chips somehow mixed with the newsprint for a taste that was out of this world. Today, of course, health and safety legislation has ruled against such practices. 'Tis a shame. I would rather take the risk of indigestion for that salty mix of so long ago.
  • Zero  Security - we usually didn't lock the front door. No one else did either. We didn't because we didn't have to. Ireland had unusually low crime back then. And no one had much of value to steal. Things have changed of course. Now most people lock up their houses tighter than Fort Knox. They do because they have to.
  • No Telephone - when I first moved here acquiring a telephone was virtually impossible. Few had them because a) a phone was so expensive (at the time, installation was equal to a month's wages for most people)  b) call costs were crippling and c) it could take almost a year to finally get a phone once the order - and monstrous deposit - was placed. So most people did without them. At the time, and as a young Yank, I was incensed. Me? With no Phone? Unheard of! But today I look back at the absence of a phone and almost delight at it. No calls. No one to bother you with crummy news. In fact, I wonder at the complexity that we have today and sometimes wish for those bygone years: no phones, no cell phones, no smart phones, computers, laptops, PCs, iPads... the world today is connected which is wonderful. But I sometimes wonder if by losing our isolation and time to contemplate, we haven't also lost something of ourselves.
The list, of course, goes on and on. But these are some that come to mind. Ireland continues to be a wonderful place. Certainly, where I now live in Eyeries, County Cork, continues to capture some of the joys of living in this country.

Though we now enjoy the wonders of a modern Ireland, I sometimes find that I miss those things that have passed on. A simplicity that's hard to find anymore. And a joy of living that far surpassed the material goods that most can acquire today.

Yes, that's what I miss most. The simplicity of older Ireland.

(Though I must admit: it's nice not to freeze anymore. It's nice to make a phone call when I want to. But by God, I still miss bottled milk.)

1 comment:

  1. I imagine this is true of every place. The US has changed quite a bit since 1982 as well. I would not necessarily say it's a bad thing, but it hasn't always been good. Sometimes I think we lose far more than we gain as time passes.