It’s not surprising cocaine has become rural Ireland’s new poitín
Michael Harding: When I walk down empty streets, I see young people with no dreams
The blight of emigration on small towns in Ireland is still a curious cancer that eats at those who are left behind. Photograph: iStock
Sometimes when I’m lying in bed in the morning, the daughter appears in the room. I can see her face and hear her voice, even though she’s thousands of miles away. It might be a cold and dark winter in Leitrim, but where she stands, the sun is shining and it’s a summer’s day.
I find it hard to be spontaneous on the internet. I never put emotional stuff on Facebook and I don’t tweet my anger. I struggle to find my socks in the morning, and I can’t cope with anything beyond the pillow until I get my glasses on. And yet there she is, all of a sudden, getting into a car and heading off for a meal with a stranger in Melbourne.
Sometimes it’s too much to take in.
These apparitions began on the lady wife’s iPad. I would stand aloof, gawking over her shoulder, as mother and daughter chatted, like they were in the same room.
Occasionally a few words might be addressed to me.
“You’re looking tired,” she might say.
I might want to tell her that I didn’t sleep well, although it always seemed inappropriate to be so intimate with an iPad. So I stood gawking, like a rabbit transfixed by headlamps, peering over the lady wife’s shoulder at the whites of my daughter’s eyes, far away in Australia.
But the more I see her on the screen, the less sad I feel about her being so far away.
And besides, the word “emigration” doesn’t have the same ring of tragedy to it as it had years ago.
They’re lucky to be out in the world, I think.
I regret I didn’t leave Ireland myself, when I was in my 20s. A few years in New York or London would have done me no harm. Instead I played it safe and got a job as a teacher.
Humans are like birds; coming and going from one hemisphere to another is as natural for us as it is for salmon or eels. And we’ve been doing it for thousands of years. War, or variations in climate or food sources have always driven people across the oceans. The tragedy is not so much that people travel, but that affluent societies put so many obstacles in their path.
And sometimes it’s the people who are left behind who suffer most. There’s no need to point out that for every refugee who lands safely in Ireland, or for every Irish person who landed safely in America in the 19th century, there was another one who died on the roads of Connacht, the streets of Aleppo or in the sea along the coast of Greece.
The blight of emigration on small towns in Ireland is still a curious cancer that eats at those who are left behind. When I walk down empty streets, past boarded-up buildings with grass growing in the gutters of what were once busy cinemas or dancehalls or cattle marts in the 1970s, I see young people eating soggy chips or pizzas, with no dreams beyond the empty alleyways. So it’s not entirely surprising that cocaine has become the new poitín in rural Ireland.
Even where I live, in the beautiful hills above Lough Allen, the Sitka trees are growing and the neighbours aren’t getting any younger.
For me going to Dublin on the train is still as much of a thrill as it was when I was 10, and my mother would let me loose on O’Connell Street for an hour while she went over to Clery’s to buy underwear, and I’d walk up and down the street beneath Nelson’s Pillar and get so puffed up with city life that I’d finally go into the Pillar Cafe and order beans and chips as if I were an adult.
Last week I was in Dublin for a radio interview with Barry Egan, which will go out on Newstalk on Christmas Day. We were scheduled to meet at 10.30am on Sunday, so I got the train and stayed in a hotel on Talbot Street. On Sunday morning I walked through Temple Bar, where restaurants were offering breakfasts and young people from across the world rambled about in furry anoraks. They pulled little suitcases on wheels or lugged backpacks and rucksacks along the pavement.
The iPhone in my hand vibrated, and suddenly I saw her face on the screen.
“Good morning, my daughter,” I declared with unguarded joy; and it felt like the most natural thing in the world.