By Maureen O’Hare and Richard Quest, CNN
With St. Patrick’s Day a global phenomenon and Irish pubs found everywhere from Peru to Lanzarote, it can be easy to think you have a sense of Ireland without visiting, especially if you’re one of the 70 million people worldwide who can claim Irish heritage.
However, to get a true feel for the modern energy of this little island nation, you need to visit, and most people start their journey on the streets of Dublin.
It’s a compact, walkable capital city, its low-rise skyline and Georgian granite landmarks built on a human scale.
You can follow the River Liffey through the city center from Phoenix Park and Kilmainham Gaol in the west, past the Guinness Storehouse, Saint Patrick’s Cathedral and Dublin Castle, out east to the newly rejuvenated Docklands.
Standing on Butt Bridge, you can see the old and new: traditional Dublin represented by the neoclassical Custom House, and beyond, the new towers of finance and the sweep of cranes, showing it getting even larger.
Best in Europe
On Custom House Quay sits one of the city’s newest attractions: the EPIC Irish Emigration Museum, winner of Europe’s Leading Tourist Attraction by the World Travel Awards for the past three years in a row.
Designed by the same award-winning team as Belfast’s Titanic Museum, it tells the stories of 10 ten million or so people who have departed from Ireland over the centuries, for reasons ranging from famine to economic necessity to conflict to religious persecution.
They went to Britain, the United States, Australia and beyond, building railroads and farming frontier territory.
They brought their culture with them, storytelling ambassadors in their new nations, and created a new Irish mythology abroad. They and their descendants are the diaspora which museums such as EPIC wish to attract, and in 2013 an Irish tourism initiative, The Gathering, was dedicated to just this audience.
Tearful goodbyes and longed-for returns have become part of the national identity, the arrivals area at its airports filled with billboards aimed at homesick expats, hungry for Brennan’s bread and Tayto crisps.
As then President Mary Robinson put it in 1996, “this great narrative of dispossession and belonging […] has become, with a certain amount of historic irony, one of the treasures of our society.” It’s made the Irish an outward-looking people, strongly pro-European, and it’s perhaps this legacy of hardship that makes it one of the world’s most generous nations when it comes to charity donations.
Music and dancing
The best known of Ireland’s cultural exports is, of course, the pub, but in pandemic-hit Ireland, many were forced to close for good.
CNN visited The Cobblestone, a north Dublin institution famed for its live traditional music that has just won a legal battle allowing it to survive.
“Believe it or not, this being the nation’s capital, there’s not many places that you can actually go and engage with that aspect of our culture here on a daily basis,” said Tomás Mulligan, whose father Tom took over the Smithfield pub 30 years ago and turned it into the live music hub it is today.
The revival of Irish trad music went mainstream in the 1960s, emblematic of a new national pride in this still young nation, which this year marks 100 years of independence.
Tom Mulligan spoke recently on the Irish History Podcast about the global influences found in traditional Irish music and dancing, from Africa, Spain, America and beyond. “Ireland borrowed, certainly from being part of the British Empire and mainland Europe, they borrowed comings and goings,” he said.
From “Danny Boy” (written by an Englishman) to “The Fields of Athenry,” Ireland’s most famous folk songs have been tales of exile and longing, while the now popular standard “She Moved Through the Fair” was a lost classic that only became popular again in Ireland after being rediscovered in America.
Similarly, country music is so popular in Ireland, it has its own subgenre: Country ‘n’ Irish. Riverdance also was an Irish-American global phenomenon born in Chicago.
The literary tradition
Modernity and transformation has altered much here, but it hasn’t changed those parts of Dublin life that make this city what it is, and the institutions upon whose history it grew and still rests.
Trinity College, founded in 1592, is Ireland’s oldest surviving university. The Brian Boru harp, Ireland’s oldest, and the model for the country’s insignia, is held in the spectacular Long Room library at Trinity College, also home to the ninth-century Gospel manuscript “The Book of Kells.”
Ireland prides itself on its storytelling traditions: it’s birthed four Nobel Literary laureates — W.B. Yeats, G. B. Shaw, Samuel Beckett and Seamus Heaney — although all but one reached the end of their lives on foreign shores.
Two of Ireland’s most celebrated writers, Oscar Wilde and James Joyce, were in their time pariahs and exiles, excoriated for outrages against what was then regarded as public decency.
The Anglo-Irish artist Francis Bacon, a trailblazing giant of contemporary art, left Ireland for England in his teens: An openly gay man at a time when it was illegal on both islands, he would not have been easily accepted in the society of his homeland for much of his life.
But as with Wilde and Joyce, he has been embraced posthumously. The entire contents of his artist’s studio were acquired by Dublin’s Hugh Lane gallery, where they have been reassembled just as they were when Bacon was creating his legendary artworks. It’s one of the city’s better-kept secrets, and best of all, entry is free.
Although Joyce spent much of his life in mainland Europe, his greatest work, the modernist classic “Ulysses” — which also celebrates its 100th anniversary this year — is a love letter to his home city, an odyssey following one man, Leopold Bloom, on a day’s journey around Dublin.
The novel’s opening scenes take place at a Martello tower on the coastline in the southern suburb of Sandycove, now a James Joyce museum and pilgrimage site for the fans who each year celebrate Bloomsday on June 16.
The area is a popular site for bathers, with sea swimming becoming increasingly popular since Covid hit.
Celebrities are even getting involved. Harry Styles was spotted this week having a dip at nearby Vico Baths, following in the footsteps of Matt Damon who appeared there in 2020 after he and his family were in Covid lockdown in the area.
CNN joined local group The Ripple Effect for an early morning swim at the 40 Foot promontory.
“During lockdown, a lot of people couldn’t meet indoors, so a lot of people started connecting outside,” explains member Katie Clark. “It was just a nice place to come and rediscover the sea.”
As for the group’s name, fellow member Mandy Lacey says, “Irish people love to help people! It’s in our nature. I think The Ripple Effect is an Irish thing. It’s part of our history. Whether we go through hard times, good times, everyone is there to really, really support each other.”
The ones who stayed, the ones who left
Earlier this year British filmmaker Kenneth Branagh won an Oscar for “Belfast,” a semi-autobiographical film about his Northern Irish childhood before the 30-year conflict known as The Troubles forced his family to flee to England. It ends with the dedication: “For the ones who stayed. For the ones who left. And for all the ones who were lost.”
But while in centuries past, leave-takings often meant permanent exile, it’s now a door that swings both ways.
Many Irish expats, reassessing their priorities in the wake of the pandemic, have returned home for new lives with their young families. And as has always been the case, returnees bring the expertise and knowledge they’ve gained overseas, which can help their home country thrive.
In 2015, Ireland became the first country in the world to legalize same-sex marriage by popular vote, and it’s now far from being the homogenously Catholic country of popular imagination. This nation of emigrants has also been enriched in recent decades by inward migration. There’s a new confidence in this modern, increasingly multicultural Ireland.
Ireland has changed a lot since it was hailed at the turn of this century as the “Celtic Tiger.” What followed was a decade or more of huge economic growth and great optimism. Now, like the rest of the world, Ireland is searching for its post-pandemic purpose.
But, as history has shown, this small, youthful nation can do it by looking first towards each other, then outwards to the world.
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