Mary Robinson's New Ireland

By Caldwell, Christopher | The American Spectator, November 1997 | Go to article overview

Mary Robinson's New Ireland


Caldwell, Christopher, The American Spectator


Prosperity, sex, and feminism are turning Ireland into a place like anywhere else. Under the wildly popular New Age president Mary Robinson, a procession of reforms made the country seem at times like a Bacchanalian revel, at others like a Jacobin purge. Giddiness may have eplaced traditional gloom, but there'll be a price to pay.

When Circle of Friends, Maeve Binchy's novel about coming of age in fifties Ireland, was being adapted for the cinema, Binchy, who lives just south of Dublin, was often present at the filming. One afternoon, an actress took the author aside and told her how much she loved to do these old costume dramas. "Oh, this isn't costume drama," Binchy remembers telling her. "Costume drama is the French Revolution, it's...it's Regency England. Costume drama is about ancient history. This is just about growing up. It's about my youth." To which the actress replied, "Your youth is ancient history. There are no lines on the roads in this movie. People ride horses and buggies. They're scared of priests. This is costume drama."

She wouldn't have been right in, say, 198o, but she is now. The Republic of Ireland that still existed in pockets even twenty years ago-the Ireland of saints and scholars, the "priest-ridden" Ireland, the Ireland that missed the Industrial Revolution and the Second World War, the Old Sod, Romantic Ireland-is dead and gone. The most stunning evidence is the wealth of the place. Across the country, housing prices have doubled in the past decade, and in Dublin they've tripled, to an average cost of close to $150,000. Ireland now looks and feels like America or Europe: Dublin's Grafton Street, even in the 1980's a hodgepodge of fancy department stores and seedy knick-knack shops and fish-n-chippers, has been bricked over for pedestrians, much like the main drag in an American "latte town." Its landscape-Burger King, the Body Shop, Patagonia-is one that any Valley Girl would recognize. In the rinky-ink market town of Mallow in County Cork, there's something on the main drag that looks very much like a strip joint. Even in rural County Kerry, pubs where you can drink espresso, eat insalata caprese, and watch "Seinfeld" on an 84-inch TV screen are not a rarity.

The country, as many of its natives say, is having its sixties, seventies, and eighties at the same time. Everyone talks about the New Ireland, as if they've just come through a revolution, and those who defend the "Old Ireland" are considered beyondthe-fringe troglodytes. When they talk in this vein, the Irish are not alluding to Intel's assembly plant outside of Dublin or Apple's in Cork. For the economic revolution going on pales next to the moral one-a source of exhilaration, optimism, and excitement, as well as instability, uncertainty, and occasional muttered warnings from the Old Irish of spiritual peril.

Defrocked Priests

For the biggest change in mores is the declining influence of the Catholic Church. Ireland is still the most religious European country; the preamble to its constitution still invokes the Holy Trinity. But polls show Mass attendance has fallen by a quarter since the early 1980's, and in European Union "values surveys," Irish scores are plummeting on such indices as belief in the afterlife and belief in the soul. As gauged by such soundings, the Republic of Ireland has dropped behind the Protestant north in many measures of piety. This year's entering class at the national seminary in Maynooth will produce only an estimated eighteen ordained priests-roughly a tenth of the level of thirty years ago. Irish religiosity has not been gradually on the wane: It receded by tiny degrees between Vatican II and the late 1980's, but since then the bottom has fallen out of it.

It has thus been tempting to chalk it up to a backlash against a few spectacular priestly scandals in the last few years. In 1992, Eamonn Casey, Bishop of Galway, was revealed to have had a longstanding affair with an American woman, to have fathered a child by her in 1974, and to have paid her tens of thousands of dollars in hush money out of diocesan funds. …

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