Our last full day in Dublin, and in Ireland. Tomorrow Mary and I go much against the grain to get up an some ungodly hour so we can be on a ferry to Wales, then a train to London. Dad will be flying, content to substitute quickness for scenery. Today we had breakfast with a good friend of Mary's from grad school; Eileen and her family live in England now, as she's teaching at the University of Warwick. Her perspective as an American citizen making a life in England was pretty interesting; she has a stake in the local politics and economics but still views things as an outsider at times.
I'd forgotten how often the Irish will ask if you've family connections here; the reasonable assumption is most Americans who choose to come here do so at least in part because of ancestral connections. Mary and I have discussed more than once the funny way she, James and I all identify with being Irish in particular ways, even though we know nothing of the specifics other than our last name and the fact that everywhere we turn here we see relatives. By contrast we have a fairly extensive genealogical map of Mom's side of the family, some lines traced back to tenth century Wales. The vast majority of the names are Welsh, Cornish, Scots and probably Irish, so I like to pretend sometimes that we're basically Celts, but the fact is we're probably mixed-biscuits like most Americans, a mish-mash of western Europe, with one legendary great-grandfather who was American Indian. (Lots of Americans believe they have such an ancestor, however, and it rarely turns out to be true.) We know we romanticize Ireland big-time; maybe no one does it more than Irish-Americans. Americans can be fond of tracing 'their roots'. We crave a sense of cultural tradition and belonging that other cultures take for granted. We feel like our country is too young to have much of an identity yet, and the more honest of us recognize that it was always a big messy gumbo anyway.
On this trip though I became more aware of the way eastern Irish (mostly urban Dubliners) can romanticize the west themselves. (Well, what they do is romanticise, but it's much the same process.) Many people there and elsewhere still see it as the repository of Irishness at its most authentic. The language is most vigorous out there (both B&Bs Mary and I stayed at were run by bilingual households), the rural ties are still strongly evident, and of course there are ruins and abandoned villages all over the place to stand as stark reminders of the various invasions and devastations the country has experienced. The stage Irishman that came into being during the Irish Renaissance was intended in part to counter the previous version, that of a drunken, lazy, slovenly braggart always ready for a fight. Reams of pages have been written about the fact that the Irish Renaissance and the Independence Movement in general was dominated by members of the Anglo-Irish Protestant Aristocracy. On more than one occasion we were told that we couldn't truly claim Irish heritage since our name was not Irish, but Norman. No one went so far this time, but more than one person did make sure to mention the fact. So even our sole tenuous claim --Dad knows nothing of his family history beyond the names of his parents, and it took the Freedom of Information act for him to learn the date of his father's birth-- is seen by some as dubious at best. We nod solemnly, accept our pretender status, then smile as we hear laughs and see faces that could easily belong to close relatives, I mean, like siblings. Culture is more than genetics and bloodlines, of course, but whenever we've spent time in Ireland, we can't help but wonder if genetics plays a part in more aspects of our personalities than is presently understood. Our family sense of humor, for example, seems to fit into the collective understanding in Galway or County Clare in ways it doesn't always in Indiana.
I said we romanticize the place, didn't I? Shush.
We saw a new play, still in previews, at the Abbey Theatre (The national) last night. By Bernard Farrell, it's titled Bookworms, and all four of us (Dad, Mary, her friend Eileen and I) loved it. A nice mix of farce and political commentary, I'll be curious to see if it plays outside the country. I've a collection of other plays of his that was given to me years ago, but haven't read it. That will be added to the list when I get home. Tonight we hope to see Stoppard's Arcadia at the Gate theatre. Oh, the show last night cost us 18 Euros, Dad got a senior discount at 13. Sure it was a preview still, but did I mention it was at the NATIONAL THEATRE, written by a well-established and -loved playwright? Picture seeing a new work by Tony Kushner for about $25, and buying the ticket an hour before the show. Maybe the tickets tonight will be unavailable, but they won't be substantially more expensive. Yes, this is largely due to the size of the country; Dublin is about 1million strong, and post-Celtic Tiger the country as a whole is around 5 million. That is less than half the size of New York City, I believe. But there's also just a different attitude towards theatre there, as there is in England. People go. They think it's fun. They can afford to go, especially if they're students and can avail themselves of some fantastic deals. In this country, if you're spending nearly (or in some cases more than) one hundred dollars on a ticket, you understandably expect it to be SPEC-FUCKIN-TACULAR. Oh, the things I have to say about theatre in this country. Sigh.
Today we went to the national art museum, in particular to see the Jack B. Yeats collection, but we took in some of the new collection as well. Then Mary and Dad headed back to the hotel for 'restorative naps' and I decided to take a stroll along Grafton street, to see if memory was triggered more fully than it has been thus far. It was loads of fun, I do love walking streets, and things are looking very spruced up since the last time I was here in 1993. That was pre-Celtic Tiger, so even though the country is in a recession now, there are still plenty of signs of improved infrastructure and such. Most notably there are new-to-me trams running through the city and they seem very popular. I do love public transportation when it's done well. I have lots to say on that topic too.
Feeling a bit bashful, I nonetheless stepped into a woolens store to see about sweaters, hats and scarves. I always figure those things are mostly for tourists, and maybe they are, but on this occasion I was heartened to see Gabriel Byrne in the store looking at jackets and vests. He was wearing clothes that may very well have come from the same place.
I've come to realize I have almost no recollections of London; the last time I was there was in 1981. A favorite restaurant, some spots on the Heath, and big tourist spots like Trafalgar are the only memories I'm conjuring at this point. But Mary and Dad have tons of fond memories and favorite spots between them (each has been back several times since then, usually for several months while they led foreign study groups), so I'm looking forward to seeing the place with them, and starting to collect new memories of my own.