Saturday, May 8, 2010

Ireland is ruined for me.

Before you (or mainly, my mom) freak out, you should know that the title of this blog is mostly a misnomer. (Long-time readers will also have noted by now that the whole 'titling-every-post-with-a-funny-quote' thing didn't really last. It wasn't working. But don't worry--they'll still pop up.)

When I was about 12, I made a list of things I wanted to do before I die. In the interest of full disclosure, I'm not entirely certain this list was ever committed to paper, but it definitely lived in my head. And at this point, the only things I can remember being on it were "live in Ireland" and "swim with dolphins, but not somewhere they make you wear a safety vest with a logo on it".

Since then, the list has become a half-joke with myself, and I add celebrity things to it, like "kiss John Cusack on the cheek" and "give Michael Stipe a hug". But I still haven't swum (swam? swimmed? Swommeled?) with dolphins.

In 2003, from January to May, I participated in a semester abroad in Galway, Ireland. I relished every minute of it, and while other students were consistently travelling to Rome or Athens, I was consistently sitting around talking to locals and falling deeply in love with one or two or three Irish young men who may or may not have been attractive, given the amount of alcohol consumed, but who were witty and hilarious and quick and I loved them.

After graduating college in 2004, I went back to Ireland from September to December, lived in Dublin and worked at the Irish Film Institute, in their archive. The job wasn't as sexy as it sounds, and being in Dublin was much lonelier and less personal than Galway had been. The point is, though, I spent a fair amount of time in Ireland.

This means that, in my small, American outsider way, I kind of know what Ireland's like, or at  least what it was like til the end of 2004. And that means that, in America, Ireland is ruined for me.

Before I lived in Galway (which is a great town and you should visit--Dublin could be any big city anywhere, for the most part), I was an aficionado for all things Irish. I had those obnoxious Putamayo Celtic music cds, I had read "Angela's Ashes" three times, and I told myself I loved Yeats and the movie "The Commitments", even though neither of those things were true.

 As much as Americans want to tell you that we are culturally sensitive, there's a small-to-large part of us that thinks and hopes that Irish people are actually leprechauns. Americans get off the plane at Shannon or Dublin International shouting "Erin Go Braaaa!" and "Top o' the mornin' to ya!!!" without realizing a crucial fact:

No one in Ireland talks this way. No one. 

They also don't have Lucky Charms for sale in the supermarket. Most of them don't live in thatched-roof houses and sit by the fire, staring at the sea and talking about silkies, either. 

Dublin made me bitter and angry toward tourists in the extreme. In Galway, I was constantly getting mistaken for Irish by the American tourists ("Oh, God, Hal, she's American!" I remember one woman saying, with the strongest midwestern accent I have ever heard.), but I didn't watch them interact with the culture much. Most of the tourists who made it to Galway seemed to be a little more aware, anyway. 

In Dublin, one of my bus stops was also a bus stop for those obnoxious red sightseeing buses (my other bus stop was in front of a strip club). And one day, the bus driver/tour guide was talking the last of his passengers off his bus. They were a middle aged couple. They were very fat. They were carrying eight shopping bags each (this is the equivalent of wearing a target across your face). They were taking their sweet time. 

The man was asking the driver about more shopping. He responded in a strong Dubliner accent, his speech peppered with all sorts of clever and expected "Irish-isms". And I looked at this man, and thought, "Wow, he's literally jolly." And he chortled, and the Americans laughed loudly, and shuffled down the street, weighed down by their Aran sweaters and Irish linens. 

The man walked up to the window of the sandwich shop behind me, leaving his bus, and sat heavily at the outdoor counter with a sigh. "Is this day over yet?" he said to the shop owner wearily. Or, I should say, he said to the shop owner in a completely different accent. Still Irish, but mellower, less campy. 

Now, you can either get frustrated at this man for faking these people out, or you can think about the fact that he gets tipped by Americans, and the more he gives Americans what they want to see, the bigger his tips will be.

Working at the Irish Film Institute, I also got to see movies like "Adam and Paul" (view the trailer on YouTube here), about two heroin addicts in Dublin. It's a really good film, but it will never be distributed in the states, because it ruins the image that Americans have of the Irish. We might know there are heroin addicts everywhere, but we don't want to see it. Incidentally, most of "Adam and Paul" was filmed either in the neighborhood I lived in, or in the section of Dublin where I worked. 

So now, whenever someone suggests something "Irish" to me, I all but recoil. Movies are overdrawn, most of the music either makes me painfully nostalgic or just puts me in pain, and most books, shows, stories and the like are either too overdrawn to be tolerated or are too spot on to be endured. 

There are, of course, exceptions. If you haven't seen "My Left Foot", you should, mostly because Daniel Day-Lewis is in it and Daniel Day-Lewis is in the business of Changing Your Life. 

And for the dozens of people who have said, "Oh, you have cerebral palsy. Yeah, I've seen 'My Left Foot'."--I have cerebral palsy, but I don't have it like that.  Okay? 

I will probably go back to Ireland at some point, but it won't be for a while. I have never liked being a tourist, but maybe if I wait long enough, I can go back and be that woman on the bus, buying green and orange trinkets for everyone she knows. I might even love it.

Do you have places or memories like this, that have almost spoiled an idea over time? What do you do with it? 


  1. well...I do want to go to Ireland, being that I am a whopping 1/8 Irish (though enough to get the name O'Brien :-)) I know that it's not like the movies though and that there are some that are awesome and some things that aren't so awesome, much like everywhere else in the world.'

    One movie I did see that took place in Ireland was a fairly unknown movie, though you may have seen it since you seem to know many unknown movies (I mean that in a good way too) but...The Secret of Roan Inish

    you SHOULD check it out ;-) if you haven't yet

  2. As a matter of fact, I *have* seen "Roan Inish". :) I agree, it's enjoyable (and the inspiration for the whole "sitting by the fire talking about silkies" bit), and as you go far out on the coast, you can still find areas like that. The villages will just be dotted with knick knack shops, usually. :)

  3. I could verbosely meander all through this. But Ill refrain...mostly.
    Romance and Disillusionment.
    Truthfully, maybe disturbingly, I dont think I realized how much experience I have with this kind of thing till i started thinking about your post a bit.
    Maybe thats why ive become such a proponent of the romance of the small.
    I wonder how many things really are as romatic in the macro as they seem initially. I also wonder if finding romance and laughter in the short-comings is of infinite value in the long run.

  4. I really like the phrase "romance of the small", Aaron. Because the fact is, I still do LOVE Ireland, but I don't love it in the way I did as an observer before actually going there. Now the things that I love are the people who I met individually, or the way that one street gave you a perfect view of the sea when you came around the corner...the small things.

    One of the kids who lived next door to me in Dublin told me via Facebook that he liked this post. That's about the highest praise I think it can receive. :)

  5. Heather, this was an interesting post. I had a similar experience with Australia, having had a lifelong crush on the country (I'm now in my 40's). I lived there for six months in my 20's and was there again last year. Living there didn't ruin it for me, but it did change the way I saw it. Less romance, more realism. My crush is primarily on the land -- and the land can never disappoint, it remains as beautiful as ever -- and only secondarily on the people and culture. I've written about it at length on my blog because it remains a conundrum to me, the pull it continues to hold for me.

    But your point is well taken on the whole trumped up farce that is the tourist parade. I stay as far from that as I can in my travels. It leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I'd prefer to have a more authentic experience of whatever country I'm visiting.

    Perhaps your appreciation of Ireland today is more akin to a mature "love affair" based on knowing the true nature of the place, warts and all, as opposed to the adolescent-like romance some never seem to outgrow when it comes to foreign lands (or new loves).

  6. I love the way you guys are talking about this. @Kristin, you're absolutely spot on with the 'mature love affair' idea. And, like many relationships, I deeply prefer that to the adolescent, butterflies-in-tummy sense I had before I landed on Irish soil!