St Patrick’s Day offers a unique opportunity to indulge in crass generalisations about what it means to be Irish. Today we can speak loosely in the knowledge that anything we say will not be as offensive as the things being done in our name on the streets of New York and Boston. At least we’re not drinking green beer.
So here is a truth that is rarely acknowledged in the pages of this or any other newspaper in Ireland: Dublin is one of the great small capitals of the world.
Handsome, intimate and charming, the city is worth celebrating for many reasons. But you don’t believe me, right? Of course not. You’re from Dublin. And if you’re not from Dublin you’re a culchie, which means you definitely don’t believe me. Your contempt is detrimental to your own interests. Maybe you need to get over yourself.
Are you offended? Sit down, I’m only getting started. There are four kinds of people in Ireland today: Dubliners, Dubs, culchies and foreigners. I am employing vernacular terms because my aim here is not simply to diagnose a problem but also to provoke a response.
If you're not offended by the following generalisations it's because you need to sober up: Dubliners read The Irish Times. They know that Ross O'Carroll-Kelly is satire, without acknowledging what satire means. If they care about the city, that concern is demonstrated in rants about Dublin's obvious failings – such as the traffic, the crime and the weather – down the pub. When Eamon Dunphy called the place a kip they nodded sagely, because Eamon Dunphy can surely recognise a kip when he sees one. However, Dubliners have a perverse idea of what's worth saving. For example, they lament the anodyne makeover of the Smithfield Horse Fair, whereas Dubs think it was a dirty, anarchic affair that was long overdue a clean-up.
Dubs are Dubliners who self-identify as working class, even when they’re not. Dubs know the real divide in this city is not between north and south, but between east and west. This does not mean they are above reheating shibboleths. One day we will all get over the river. Dubs regard themselves as the only legitimate residents of Dublin, and in a way they are right. After all, they are the only people who unequivocally love this town, which is what they call this city.
Culchies are people who live outside Dublin, but not exclusively. Many have lived here for years, leaving only for Christmas, weekends and most bank holidays. They control the civic apparatus, which is to say: they edit our newspapers, they run the civil service and their children fill our universities. They express affection for our city in the same way Londoners claim to like, say, Wales: it’s hard to tell where the pity stops and the contempt begins. Everyone knows they hate the place.
This may have something to do with history (culchies have long memories). After all, Dublin was the centre of colonial occupation until just 93 years ago.
What about all those bloody foreigners? For them, Dublin really can be heaven. They cherish the city’s intimacy and the conviviality of the locals. They marvel at the proximity of sea and mountains. They love our pubs and they even pretend to like the food. We are, of course, lucky to have the new Irish. For while they often live in conditions – and work in jobs – that would disgust us, they toil harder and are more law-abiding than most of the natives.
How are you feeling now? Angry?
Good. These caricatures lead us to a serious conclusion. Dublin is unloved by most Irish people, and we cannot afford for it to remain unloved. Do you think I’m joking? Not any more.
In 2010 a nationwide survey of 1,000 adults, produced for Dublin City Council by Millward Brown, revealed that only 26 per cent of Irish people feel any emotional connection to Dublin. The figure goes down to 15 per cent when you exclude people who live in the city. In other words, three out of four Irish people don’t care about the fate of their own capital.
Even in bald economic terms, this makes no sense. Dublin is the powerhouse of Ireland’s economy, accounting for four out of every 10 jobs, half the goods and services, and more than 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 most of us, and there is a very real sense in which it remains not quite Irish.
I have written about the results of that survey before, and I make no apology for repeating its findings. In the Little Museum of Dublin I meet tourists every day. They tell me how much they love this city and its people. And I believe them.
Dubliners are friendly, frank and full of mischief, and are celebrated the world over; everywhere, that is, but in Ireland. For the past four years I have tried to convince our tourist board to make more of this fact. Yes, they say, it’s true that the friendliness of the locals is consistently cited as the highlight of a trip to Dublin, but that’s not why visitors come here in the first place. Hence one of the best things about this city is ignored by the very people responsible for its promotion in the international marketplace.
Instead of talking about the reality of life in Dublin today, the city is sold as the birthplace of dead writers such as Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw, whose childhood home has been closed for years because no one in authority could be bothered to see it open.
(To be fair, this ambivalence was shared by Shaw, who emigrated as a teenager and said his affection for Ireland did not extend to its capital, yet kept his Dublin accent all his life. He died at the age of 94.) I love our rich literary heritage as much as anyone else, but if we’re going to milk great writers, let’s at least have the decency to preserve their Dublin.
Finally, one more example of the gulf between perception and reality: the largest city on “the food island” is fast becoming the childhood obesity capital of Europe. In poorer parts of the city, kids are subjected to gob-loads of advertising for junk food. I have never heard an Irish politician call for the abolition of such marketing.
Meanwhile the burghers of Ranelagh boast that McDonald’s closed down in that smuggest of suburbs. They neglect to mention Ranelagh was once home to two farmer’s markets. Both closed for want of business.
Dublin hardly knows herself. Let’s be more honest about her flaws and her many, many virtues. And as for you culchies: the more you resent your capital, the longer she will remain on her knees. For the sake of the country, it’s time we all reached out to Dublin. So please give her a hug. The old girl needs all the love she can get.
Trevor White is director of the Little Museum of Dublin