June 2009 Reflection

Throughout my undergraduate years at the Irish-centric University of Notre Dame, there was much discussion about a ‘new Ireland’—a dialogue that presumed the ongoing departure of the ‘old Ireland.’ This discourse declared that the Celtic tiger had brought wealth to Ireland, but it had also altered the face and culture of the island, so much so that a new nation emerged. The ‘old Ireland’ of Blarney castle, fiddles and tin whistles, and white-haired men in village pubs was receding into a burgeoning multicultural society marked by affluent housing developments and a rise in SUV sales. Ireland was entering the globalized elite in terms of culture and capital, a move fueled by forward-thinking citizens pushing their nation into the modern world. This entrepreneurial narrative of the ‘new Ireland’, it seems, is a rather simplified portrait of complex changes and processes occurring in Ireland over the last decade.

As my year in Ireland draws to a close, I find myself again reflecting on this new-old dialectic. For the people of Ireland, the dichotomy is often clouded with negative impressions of the ‘new’, hung upon two large areas of migration and economy. While these two matters are undoubtedly linked and intermingled in Ireland (as they are across the world), the effects of each are viewed as separate phenomena. Some traditional thinkers lament the loss of the ‘old Ireland’ and are distressed by the seemingly sudden and ever-increasing presence of so many ethnicities and cultures in what was for so long a monochromatic society. Others regret that the ‘new Ireland’ seems to be a place where consumerism beats out Ireland’s long-standing ethic of care. One Dublin cab driver eloquently lamented this shift in priorities to me, stating of his countrymen, “We were once a caring people.” But the sense is that today’s Paddys (and Patricias, no doubt) focus on themselves alone, working toward a house in the suburbs for their families and a nice car for their commutes—a familiar American dream image, really, of man striving to get ahead.

Despite these common lamentations of a changing demographic and a lost concern for one’s neighbor (two seemingly contradictory notions that are often located in the same mind: a wariness of ‘the other’ combined with a desire for a Christian ethic), one thing is clear: the ‘new Ireland’ is far more complex than these vanguard notions allow.

After living and studying in Ireland for a year, to me, the ‘new Ireland’ is my friend Ting-Ting: despite her Chinese name and Hong Kong-born parents, she has a vast knowledge and love of Irish culture—as well as one of the most charming Dublin accents of anyone I’ve met this year. To me, the ‘new Ireland’ is a refugee I’ve befriended through my research: a young Kurdish woman who is excelling in her college studies and leading a student group on a foreign language trip to Spain next year. These are remarkable achievements for a girl who spent the first fifteen years of life in a refugee camp, never setting foot in a classroom before her arrival to Ireland just three years ago. To me, the ‘new Ireland’ is one of my classmates: a young Irishman who has never lived anywhere but his family farm near our university in Maynooth, but who has a fervent interest in anthropology and international cultures. He will live in India next year to study gender issues among Hindi women in Jaipur.

I think the best of the emergent Ireland is the widening of an outward-looking, global-thinking perspective among Ireland’s people. The ‘new Ireland’ that I have seen is rooted in a population of young people—some recently arrived to the island, some with roots in the Celtic soil for centuries—who are seeking to navigate the very real demographic and economic changes in their nation, while also preserving some treasured aspects of the ‘old.’ These individuals were not the brokers behind the Celtic tiger but they are the generation who will determine the still-changing nation’s course throughout their adult lives.

There could not have been a more interesting backdrop for my research on migration and refugees in Ireland than the constant presence of these questions about ‘Irishness’ and belonging. These matters arose largely in humorous ways for me personally, as my Irish classmates routinely chuckled and poked fun at my lack of understanding when it came to Irish phrases and slang. Some friends were playfully indignant at my total lack of Irish heritage or ancestry, giving me a window (however humorous) into the socio-politics of belonging here in Ireland.

Throughout the year, far more serious occasions arose in which Irish identity and history had to be re-visited and considered. March brought the first sectarian murders in Northern Ireland in over a decade, for instance. While just two weeks ago, a report detailing decades of abuse in schools raised questions about the Catholic Church in contemporary Irish society. These are a couple prominent examples of issues that will continue to be confronted as Ireland adjusts to its relatively new wealth and its resulting role as a global player. All of this is, of course, complicated even further by the worldwide economic downturn and its acute effects in this country.

In August, I will begin studying at New York University School of Law, where I intend to specialize in international and human rights law with a particular focus on transitional justice. It has been fascinating to live in Ireland this year—in a nation that is, in many social and economic ways, still a nation in transition. I experienced the kindness and warmth of the classic ‘old Ireland’ at every turn, while also spending much time with young people who are melding old and new—in everything from founding politically-active groups with global missions but traditional Irish names to playing fresh versions of traditional Irish songs. Of the many representations of a ‘new Ireland,’ I believe this vision should be heralded and encouraged to grow: a new generation navigating the past of their nation while continually moving forward with a global outlook. I look forward to watching where the incredible young people I have met in Ireland choose to take their nation throughout the coming decades of our lives.

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