20 April 2003

 A happy Easter. Easter, from the ancient goddess Estra or Eostre, representing fertility. Thus Easter eggs, rabbits and flowers, as we nod backwards to a long-forgotten past and overlay (for some) a far more recent -- 'recent' being relative here, at two millennia -- Christian celebration on the old, so old, birth/rebirth symbolism. For the Irish, there's also the anniversary of the 1916 Easter Uprising, which launched Ireland's 20th century struggle for independence (the period of rebirth and resurrection of course suiting the Uprising's leaders' symbolic agenda).

With all our recent sunshine, I have a window box upstairs absolutely overflowing with purple and yellow pansies -- a pleasant if unintended Easter gesture -- with typical Irish weather, usually it would be another month or so before the flowers really kick in. I read too that London has effectively had no rain now for 40 days and 40 nights -- a kind of Biblical reversal whose symbolic interpretation I will leave to others [grin].

Ireland is far less overtly religious than it was when I first visited in the 80s, but the rhythms of Catholicism remain central to daily life, though many younger people might dispute that because they don't notice. As an outsider, I do -- from the daily ringing of recorded Angelus bells at noon and 6pm on the main national radio station, to the friends who close conversations with "God bless" even though they are definitely not church-goers. The whole country happily eats pancakes on Shrove Tuesday. Many of my friends give up something for Lent every single year -- usually alcohol or chocolate, the two Irish favourites -- though again, they will not cross the door of a church today and no longer attend mass.

And despite this being an island nation, with some of the world's most unpolluted open seas off the west coast, Irish people still tend to spurn fish and seafood of all types, it obviously being associated with the deprivation of Friday no-'meat' dinners. Forget cockles and mussels, alive, alive-O -- Dublin has only a tiny handful of really good fishmongers and really good fish restaurants. Compare that to, say, any Mediterrannean or Scandinavian port city.

In the years I've lived here, I've watched Ireland go from a quite religiously-oriented country, in which the church had great secular power, to a secular country in which the church has struggled -- continues to struggle -- through major scandals. The country has also gone from being one of the poorest in the EU to one of the wealthiest. Many now argue that, with the eclipsing of the church's influence and rapid growth of affluence, Irish society has lost a common moral and civil grounding and, failing to replace it with anything new, is adrift, with rising levels of lawlessness, casual violence, drunkenness and grotesque public behaviour (for example, if I'm coming home from the city centre any evening, it is not unusual to see at least a half dozen men peeing in the open on city streets -- these days, not even bothering to hunt down a discreet place. Most mornings -- not just weekends -- I have to dodge the vomit left on the streets around the Irish Times).

The country faces some serious challenges at the moment, with a government -- and indeed, a population -- that seemingly has little will to tackle them, because of course quality of life comes not just from formal civil structures but from a civil life (in all senses) collectively supported and believed in by a people. Quality of life is not some hazy abstraction but a key element for ensuring both the psychological and economic health of a nation. The rapid exit of religion as one pervasive foundation for social structures seems to have created a vacuum -- but how do you begin to create something to replace 2000 years of traditions (or indeed, what some would see as restrictions and oppressions), on short order? Not to enter a debate on whether it is a good or bad thing to have the religious structures per se -- more just to wonder, what happens now? If nothing happens, Ireland will see emigrations again, but with people driven out by the bad side effects of a good economy rather than, as in previous centuries, a bad economy.

11:25:55 AM  #   your two cents []