Sean Moncrieff: Ireland used to be a killer of dreams. We’ve come a long way

My children are leaving Ireland but without the baggage that burdened my generation

 

When I was in school, the general plan was to go to college afterwards. Not to learn anything. Emigration was all the rage, along with straggly hair, leather bikers’ jackets and big jumpers.

College was a glorified airport waiting room. You’d hang around there until your flight was called.

You might go to what was then called UCG and do an arts degree: it qualified you for virtually nothing and so reduced parental expectation. Thus unburdened, you’d spend your time growing a beard (if hormones allowed), drinking pints of Guinness, occasionally smoking green stuff you hoped was a controlled substance and having Olympic amounts of sex. Or you hoped to.

You’d study for a fortnight, scrape a pass and spend the summer learning something actually useful. You’d go to Germany or New York to make impressive amounts of money digging holes. This money would be splashed on alcohol and more baggy jumpers before returning to college. At the end of three or four years of this, you’d get your degree, emigrate and embark on a long, disappointed life pining for the good old days.

As it turned out, none of this happened to me. But variants of it templated the lives of many people I knew. Life would go a certain way because of the realities of the time. Ireland, while home, was a killer of dreams. It was economically and psychically depressed, still suffocated by history and Catholic hegemony. You’d leave home, and contact with your family would be reduced to a weekly chat from a payphone. There would be a lot of things you wouldn’t tell them. You’d know they wouldn’t approve.

This sounds grim, but it wasn’t. Apart from the economic necessity, leaving Ireland wasn’t so much a rejection of the country: it was a way to reinvent Irishness outside of the strictures laid down by parents and the parish priest.

Emptying nest

This summer, I got a strong sense of that again. Daughter No 1 had already moved to London, while Daughter No 2 went to Berlin after her college exams. Daughter No 3 followed her there a couple of weeks later. In two days, Son No 1 will decamp to Colombia.  

I’ve been anticipating the prospect of having four of my five children out of the country, and having decidedly mixed feelings about it. There’s always the worry: one that is never mitigated by the “they’re adults now” rationalisation. There’s missing them, collectively and individually. But with that, an almost masochistic pleasure in the fact that, while I feel their absence, they’ll be doing what many of my peers did decades ago: discovering who they are, or more precisely, who they want to be, free of any stifling influences.

But this is a load of nonsense. Their reasons for leaving the country differ wildly from those of my generation. They got on planes not to flee anything but simply to see what other places are like: places that, in many respects, might not be a patch on Ireland. They feel no need to present an edited version of their lives to me, which would have horrified my parents; which occasionally horrifies me.

Last week, Daughter No 2 came back from Berlin. She could have stayed until the end of the summer, but didn’t feel the need to, and in making this decision there wasn’t any hint of failure, of not being able to hack it in a different place. She had left Ireland unburdened in a way my generation never quite managed: that inferiority complex, that sense that everywhere else is better doesn’t exist for her. She has grown up in a country that would have been scarcely imaginable to my 20-year-old self.

We can and will still bitch about the state of Ireland. But it’s worth an occasional pause to reflect on the fact that, to paraphrase Fatboy Slim, Esther Phillips and a cigarette advert, we’ve come a long way, baby.

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