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Ireland Unleashed

A booming economy has fueled prosperity, transforming a society long burdened by oppression and poverty

Inevitably, social tensions are rising. “Being a multiethnic society is completely new to us,” says Garvan Corkery. “We’ve always been a homogeneous, all-white country and prided ourselves on not being racist. Of course, that was easy when there were no other races here.” Astudent newspaper at University College Dublin recently asked students, provocatively, which ethnic minority they hated most. In January 2003, an Irish newspaper reporter, Alanna Gallagher, donned a burqa to pose as a Muslim. “Quite simply,” she wrote, “I have never experienced such hatred in Irish eyes before . . . . Racism has become the nation’s final frontier.”

W. B. Yeats’ lines, written in 1913, take on new meaning: “Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone, / It’s with O’Leary in the grave.” In its place are rapidly escalating housing prices, sprawling supermarkets, an increase in greenhouse gas emissions, rising alcoholism, drug use and crime. At the same time, the Catholic Church, so integral here that the phrase “Irish Catholic” was redundant, is in retreat. Divorce was legalized in strictly limited circumstances in 1995, and abortion, though virtually impossible to obtain, is also legal. A number of child abuse scandals involving priests in Ireland has further eroded the moral authority of the church.

“Secular materialism has changed ideas here on what constitutes a successful or fulfilled life,” says Father Kevin Doran, director of vocations for the archdiocese of Dublin. “The Irish no longer identify automatically with the church.” Sunday Mass attendance, close to 100 percent a century ago, now hovers around 60 percent nationwide, far lower in Dublin. Six of Ireland’s national seminaries for aspiring priests have closed; only two remain.

Traditional Irish culture is changing along with other aspects of Irish life. The government offers occasional gestures to the old ways—such as rejecting postal codes in favor of county names for mail addresses. But conservationists are dismayed by an erosion of the nation’s archaeological heritage, and a report commissioned by the Irish Heritage Council, an organization dedicated to preserving Ireland’s cultural legacy, states that Ireland’s archaeological sites are in danger of being destroyed at the rate of 10 percent per decade. “Due to rampant housing development, many thatched-roof houses are unfortunately disappearing,” says Eithne Verling of the Irish Heritage Council. “Amajor highway now goes through the area of the 4,000-year-old ceremonial site at the Royal Hill of Tara, a place of huge archaeological importance.” That storied landscape now lies at the center of an even more acrimonious dispute: Ireland’s National Roads Authority has proposed that a four-lane motorway be built just east of the hill—a project vehemently opposed by archaeologists and preservationists. A number of sites have vanished—medieval ring forts, Bronze Age cooking sites, burial grounds, and holy wells dating back to a.d. 500. “We’ve got prosperity, but we’ve lost a lot. We’re paying a price,” says Terry Barry of the Medieval History Department at Trinity College Dublin, who has opposed construction of a highway over the ruins of 13th-century CarrickminesCastle.

And out in Galway, Anne OMáille is convinced that traditional Irish crafts such as Aran knitting are doomed. Her shop, OMáille’s, established by her husband’s uncle in 1938, specializes in wearable art created by some of Ireland’s most skilled knitters. None of them is under 30; most are over 50; some are in their 80s. “Girls today aren’t learning how to knit,” OMáille laments. “Schools no longer teach it, and they’re not learning it at home as I did. The situation changed dramatically after Ireland joined the European Union. Also, women used to stay home and knitted in the evening to pass the time and make a little extra money, they didn’t have careers and go out to pubs at night like now. The knowledge of how to do intricate knitting is being lost; a whole sector of Irish popular culture is going by the day.”

Is Irish popular culture, indeed, the Irish soul, really in trouble? “The challenge for us is how to maintain a state of Irishness while being deeply embedded in globalization,” muses historian Kevin Whelan from his office in Newman House on Saint Stephen’s Green. “In fact, it’s very Irish to ask about the state of our soul. The day we don’t ask that anymore, you’ll know we have lost it.”

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