Why do Irish people take so little pride in Dublin?
Our capital city is regarded with detachment by many, and remains not quite Irish, but the city is there for the taking
What does it mean to be Irish? It means to ask what it means to be Irish. St Patrick’s Day is high season for ruminations on the Gaelic soul, and this year even our President, Michael D Higgins, has become involved in the search for meaning, with his nationwide ethical initiative, “Shaping Ireland’s Shared Future.”
The President’s intervention is laudable, not least because anguished queries about what it means to be Irish are seldom followed by sincere answers. The small size of our nation should make it possible to cultivate a common set of values and a shared identity, yet the Republic is arguably more fractured today than at any point in the last 50 years. Among the problems is most of us take no pride in our first city.
In the most literal sense it is true, of course, that Ireland has a capital. But can one really say that Dublin is a capital, with all that term implies? Does the city represent our country? Is it an expression and symbol of the nation-state? Is it ever an unqualified source of pride? Of course slagging is part of what makes us Irish, and there is always tension between a capital and the rest of a country, but most of our citizens can’t stand Dublin, and that includes many Dubliners. Even in basic economic terms this makes no sense.
The greater Dublin region accounts for four out of every 10 jobs in this country. It is responsible for nearly half of all the goods and services produced here, and nearly half of the tax revenue. To put it simply, without a strong capital the rest of the country is banjaxed. Yet Dublin is regarded with detachment by many – including some Dubliners – and there is a very real sense in which it remains not quite Irish.
This suspicion was confirmed in 2010 when a survey commissioned by Dublin City Council revealed that just 26 per cent of Irish people have any emotional connection to the capital. The figure drops to 15 per cent when you exclude Dubliners. So, only one in four Irish people feel any emotional connection to their own capital.
The results of that survey were, of course, ignored by every media outlet in the capital. How does Dublin respond to anti-Dublin bigotry? Not, as the shibboleth has it, by lording it over the natives, but by keeping her head down. Like a long-suffering wife who does most of the work and gets none of the praise, Dublin regards rural Ireland with a deference that borders on fear.
We all know Friday crusaders who colonise defensible pockets of the countryside like Baltimore and Westport. (Roundstone in Connemara is known locally as G4.) The neo-colonial will claim to be welcomed by local communities. It is polite to pretend to believe such claims. If the weekend colonists were ever to listen to community radio outside “The Pale” they would quickly realise how unwelcome they really are. Dublin has LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook, but it still can’t connect to Galway.
There are historical explanations for Dublin’s unpopularity. It was the centre of colonial occupation. In many ways – both good and bad – it still resembles a British city. And it’s true that Dublin gets a large slice of the national pie. As it should. Together these gripes speak to the immaturity of a tribe who are no closer to their own capital than they were in 1922.
This is not an assault on “Culchies”. There is fault on both sides. Indeed it is not just that the capital has a dysfunctional relationship with the rest of Ireland. We “Jackeens” also have a dysfunctional relationship with ourselves. For example, most of us self-define as Northsiders or Southsiders. We are so small we can’t get over a river.
Parochial v provincial
Patrick Kavanagh drew a distinction between the parochial and the provincial. The poet lamented that provincials have no mind of their own, because they are always trying to ape foreign customs. “A provincial,” he wrote, “is always trying to live by someone else’s loves, but a parochial is self-sufficient.” To understand how little we have matured since Kavanagh wrote those lines (he was lamenting the provincialism of middle-class Catholic Dubliners in the 1950s) it is necessary to admit that even Dublin’s defenders still see the capital through the prism of other cities.
Perhaps the loudest of the city’s champions is an entrepreneur, Niall Harbison, who runs a website, Lovin’ Dublin, that has 200,000 visitors a month. Harbison says his ambition is to make Dublin more like Berlin. Really? Meanwhile a rival website to Lovin’ Dublin has the unfortunate title Le Cool. These digital biographies are both trying hard, but the slavish references to somewhere else suggest that Dublin is not worth loving on its own terms.
Admirers claim Dublin is Europe’s internet capital, an artistic powerhouse and the world’sfriendliest city. Yet at its best the city is sui generis . Dubliners walk in the shadow of Emmet, Wilde and Joyce.
Annoying and amusing in largely equal measure, we talk at a pace that frightens visitors, our conversation constitutionally remarkable. When the city grates we escape to the theatre or sea, and there’s always the snug in Kehoe’s. Sociable, compact and cultural, Dublin is essential to far more than the national economy.
In Ireland, the gulf between town and country is all too evident. But there are signs of hope. When you think of someone like Brian O’Driscoll (claimed by north and south Dublin) you are reminded that great leaders make us see the world anew. On Saturday O’Driscoll will receive the Freedom of Dublin, and I don’t think anyone in the country will begrudge him that. Also, this year’s rash of navel-gazing prefaces the centenary of the Easter Rising, the formative act in the struggle for Irish independence. Get ready for a bad-tempered but valuable argument between the Commemorators and the Celebrators. The centenary will encourage all Irish people to embrace Dublin’s story as part of their own: 2016 may even produce a transformative act of reconciliation.
What does it mean to be Irish? Today it means to be fractured. Fintan O’Toole has written that Ireland “is a State to which many of its decent, respectable inhabitants feel no attachment whatsoever”. We have a stark choice: “Watch the State dwindle away or get serious about building a real republic.”
O’Toole recognises the urgency of this moment, just as our President does; they’re right. We need some sort of ethical revolution that might result in a positive shared vision for the future of our nation. But we also need to take ownership of Dublin. For the country needs a capital, and the city of Dublin is there for the taking.
Trevor White is the director of the Little Museum o fDublin