I arrived looking for signs of despair, but saw only smiles
Kevin Abosch's Faces of Ireland exhibition line the walls at Dublin Airport. Potograph Curtesy of Kevin Abosch
Niall McArdle (left) with his family.
On a recent visit home, a Dublin emigrant found that his city had changed less than expected. But he was different
At first, nothing was different. I arrived in the rain, which is the way it should be, comforted to see the unmanned customs desk was for decorative purposes only, just as it was on my last visit four years ago. A sign encouraged sheltered visitors “unfamiliar with escalators” to use the stairs instead.
I rounded the corner to be greeted by a hundred Irish faces lining the corridor like portraits by an old master. Gabriel Byrne, Roddy Doyle, Mary Robinson, Brian O’Driscoll and Enda Kenny looked at me as if to say: “We knew you’d come back.”
On the bus, we travelled through the tunnel and past the 02. I had forgotten how small the houses look, how crammed they are, with their square patches of green grass marked off from their neighbours’ garden by ridiculous, low brick walls. In the part of the world where I live, with its vast open spaces, you expect to have distance between you and your neighbour.
I had to call a friend to say I’d arrived from a reeking phone box outside a pub, which ate €2 even though my friend didn’t answer. I went into a shop to use a landline, and the lady asked where I was coming from. “Canada,” I said, “I’ve been on the go since early yesterday morning.” She looked at me with an expression of warmth you can only find here. “You must be knackered.” Then I knew I was home.
I haven’t lived in Ireland since 2002 and this visit, for my sister’s wedding, was only my second since then. When I left, the economy was plush. On my first trip back in 2009, it was a moth-eaten rug. In 2013, that rug has been taken away, completely showing up all the dust and dirt that’s been swept underneath.
Before coming, all I had heard was doom and gloom, how the Germans owned the place and the country was haunted by ghost estates. Just days before I flew in, I watched a short film on YouTube featuring a despondent young man bemoaning the state of things in a strident Al Pacino-out-of-Donaghmede sort of way.
I arrived looking for signs of despair, but saw only smiles. There were changes, of course. There were many empty shopfronts. The Montrose Hotel, where we used to drink when the bar in Belfield got overrun with agriculture students, was in total darkness. There were hardly any new cars, and hardly any new jobs. Everybody seems to be on some sort of government Back to Business scheme. Whatever it’s called, they are happy to admit it’s the same old dole, just all gussied up. “We’re the funemployed,” someone told me.
People still want craic, and are still happy to go out and spend. Perhaps they feel duty-bound to put money back into the tills of as many shops and restaurants as possible in an effort to keep the place going. My friends enjoy going out but are more careful with their money. After dinner and drinks at the Market Bar we scrutinised the bill to figure out who owed what, in stark contrast to the days when people threw cash down with the nonchalance of a Bourbon king.