Experiences and encounters in Ireland
A relatively small island with approximately four million people: Nevertheless, there are treasures to find in Ireland, which in first place seem to be the nature and its countless beauty spots. While travelling through this country you recognise there is a lot more to it than this. It has not only been its history – with the different influences, its distresses, its fight for freedom and independence – but mainly the people that have shaped the countenance of today’s Ireland.
Our plan was to visit and experience the ways of life of the Irish people. In fact, we two students from Poland and Germany also wanted to check whether our theoretical knowledge about this country would mirror reality.
The Dublin extremes
The decision to travel the long way from Germany by car just after two hours in Dublin appeared to be one of the worst that we have ever taken. After having parked in the centre of the city the car disappeared, but fortunately was detected by the police just a few blocks farther away. The window was broken, the steering damaged, and, worst of all, some important items including our passports were stolen. The worst case scenario would have become reality, if there weren’t those people. With the stolen car parked right in front of their house, they indeed felt ashamed of what their countrymen had done. Their help began with a cup of coffee and the very essential moral support and peaked in the payment of the bill for the repair of the car and additional financial support – they collected it in the parish – which was enough for the following week we spent in the country. They also provided us with free accommodation in a private house, drove us to the embassies and to the very helpful office of the tourist victim support, a service run by volunteers. Most striking to us was the fact that these people are not just formal Catholics, but truly live their belief in human values. It wasn’t a duty for them to help us, but came right from their hearts. That was what real help can feel like.
However, the tourist victim support was also astonishingly helpful. The
people there let us feel their deep concern, and they helped by letting
us phone our home countries and even provided us with free vouchers for
lunch and free tickets to two of Dublin’s attractions, Dublinia
and the Dublin Castle. With our troubles almost forgotten, we had four
days to explore Ireland’s pulsating capital. An image we will never
forget is that of youths jumping into the river Liffey right in the centre
of Dublin, in close vicinity to the new financial district. Despite its
position as the most important economic and cultural centre of the country,
Dublin has kept the atmosphere of a friendly and open city, where the
visitors and the inhabitants do not lose themselves in anonymity. In fact,
it seems to be the people who create the city, without being overwhelmed
by the hectic business of everyday life. It is also the people as pedestrians
who rule on the streets, paying no attention to any red lights. You really
have the impression that cars are not as dangerous as they are in other
European countries, and the drivers seem well prepared for unexpected
A journey across a changing country
Indeed, knowing that we have found friends in Dublin, we were well prepared to head towards the south of the country. Once we started our tour to the southwest with the repaired car, we also decided to note all the things that would come to our mind as typically Irish and distinctive from those in Germany and Poland.
First, we were astonished to see so many children on the streets. We
heard from our friends in Dublin that the birth-rate is on the rise again
and that it is also quite high in comparison with most of the countries
on continental Europe, including Germany, Poland, Italy, or Spain. However,
it also shows that Irish society and its people develop and blossom, because
it is the children and the youth that are the important part of each society
and its future. Nevertheless, it was the determination of the elder generations
that won Irish freedom and that built wealth and whom we also have experienced
as the most helpful people.
The country is approximately the area of Bavaria in Germany, so that the distances between the different destinations are quite short, thanks to the relatively low fuel prices travelling is also cheaper than in the rest of the EU. There are two images that Ireland is known for to almost everyone on the continent and which totally seem to mirror reality: the cattle and the sheep on the wide grass lands, and the countless pubs. The first one might be the reason for the high rate of consumption of meat – even for breakfast – and the delicious milk. As to the second image, the atmosphere that encloses the visitor in the pubs is one of a familiar kind, one you expect to enjoy at a meeting with your family or your best friends. Additionally, it is astonishing that the prices for a pint (a little bit more than half a litre) of beer are almost the same in different places, be it a four-star hotel or a small pub in a little village. However, it is not the drinks, it is rather the people why the people are in the pubs. And people are in the public houses in plenty. There you can very often listen to traditional – and modern – Irish music, which seems to include all of the countless sides of the “Irish soul”: it is warm and sad, daring and rebellious, funny and straightforward, simply honest. It is surely influenced by the climate and the nature, and also by religion; or better, by the beliefs of the Irish people now and then.
The divided nation
Irish history, which was so much determined by British oppression until the early 20th century, is now being exposed with pride and confidence, since the Irish declared the Free Irish State in 1922. Unfortunately, that date was also the beginning of the partition of the country, with the six northern counties (Ulster) – out of a total of thirty-two – remaining in the United Kingdom. We would like to recommend a trip to the Northern Ireland, but honestly we do not want to. Our one-day visit in (London)Derry was an experience accompanied by mixed emotions, since we automatically compared the atmosphere in the streets of the city with that in Republic Ireland, which was quite different, easy, and simply good. We saw people marching in the streets of Derry, moreover, there were children of eight or nine years, who had cold faces which they seemed to have inherited from their parents and which were not filled with the longing for peace, but rather with hate and false pride. We saw signs on the streets like “Real IRA” (Irish Republican Army) and the visit in Derry’s Tower Museum was disappointing in that it showed hardly any signs that gave hope for a real and daring approach between the Protestants and the Catholics in the near future. It seemed very symbolic, when a woman told us that it is “quiet in the city”, but that statement did not sound very optimistic. Quiet does not mean peace. Rather it described the tense atmosphere and the division between Catholics and Protestants, who in large numbers still live on different sides of the river Foyle. Driving through Northern Ireland, we saw plenty of British flags, which apparently were an instrument to show up and to make clear, who is the ruler of this part of the island. We had a bad feeling noticing all that, and the fact that religion and nationality can divide people who even speak the same language, left a bad taste of Northern Ireland. It was hard to understand for us, that such a religious division can still exist in 21st century Europe. Nevertheless, we hope that the peace process that again was started at the end of the 90’s will some day lead to a solution, which itself can be a beginning of a new start for the people there. (see article “Wo kein Wille ist, ist auch kein Weg” in this magazine, page …)
Taking its chances – and the right decisions
However, today it is not England’s difficulty that is Ireland’s opportunity – an old saying in Ireland. Since its access to the EEC in 1973, and especially since the eighties its economy has developed very well, partly because of the intelligent usage of European funds. Almost every road that was or still is under construction was built with financial support provided by the European Union. Even tourist spots that are far out of reach, are co-funded by the EU. The tourism industry is well developed and is attracting more and more tourists from abroad, especially from the US, France, Spain, and Germany. Thanks to a National Development Plan (NDP), the future of the infrastructure development seems to be secured at least until 2006. Besides, Ireland has managed to attract the international computer industry in the early 90’s, and especially the last decade of the 20th century saw a return of many Irish emigrants, who again are finding opportunities in their mother country and who bring with them skills and experience. However, it is also Irelands youth, its children, who receive better education than their parents and grandparents and who are both, a joy and an inspiration for the present as well as the makers of the future.
Even when our description sounds to you as Irish quite positive, there weren’t indeed many negative things that we have recognised. However, the dirt on the streets, in the parks and even on beautiful and not overcrowded beaches is sometimes very repulsive. Besides, food and beverages in Ireland are expensive, in comparison with Germany you sometimes pay twice as much. The newspapers are also quite expensive, probably because of the relatively small circulation. However, these things do not really disturb the atmosphere that you feel in the country, an atmosphere of freedom and close community between the people. We recognised that hardly anyone that we have met during our four weeks in Ireland discriminates against you as a foreigner. When you are interested and are asking questions, people treat you openly and friendly, helping you and answering your requests to the very end. A lot of people honestly assured us that our English knowledge was ‘brilliant’, although we know it is not. You gain the impression that you are welcome, not because you are a tourist who spends money – we didn’t spend that much – but rather because of the curiosity of the people there. Although one meets quite a lot of tourists, there aren’t thousands of us. Living on an island – even on such a big one – means, that there are not as many foreigners as, for instance, in continental Europe.
“The good outweighs the bad”
Ireland is developing in many different ways. It has so many different
sides which can be detected, and as in every country it is the people
who create the present as well as the future. A married couple from Germany
whom we met in a pub told us that their first visit there dates back to
1980. They explained that you either never come again, or you forever
feel connected to that country. That summer was their ninth visit to Ireland,
meanwhile as a family with two daughters. Summarising our own visit, it
definitively was not the last one.
One of our saviours in Dublin told us, citing Oscar Wilde, that a real cynic is a person who knows the price of everything, but the value of nothing.
However, there is a lot to value about Ireland.
Jan Opielka / Katarzyna Barcik
This text was corrected by Mrs. Kinsella, the librarian of the English