Ireland’s is a sad story of the banished young — a pattern long set, recently reversed, and now unhappily resumed. Irish America’s story, meanwhile, is one of arrival and achievement. Yet in Ireland, the old resentments, especially against the British, are largely gone, while, as Saint Patrick’s Day observances in Boston show, the chip is stuck to the shoulder of prominent Irish-Americans.
In the decades after the 19th-century famine, the great outflow of Irish natives from the “ould sod” reduced Ireland’s population by 2 million or more. Most every village had its tradition of the “American wake,” a kind of symbolic funeral for loved ones forced by scarcity and lack of opportunity to leave the island nation. The grief, carried across the Atlantic to the United States, defined not only the sweet nostalgia of toora-loora-loora and the counterbalancing exuberance of Saint Patrick’s Day observances, but also an underside to the Irish-American cult — the shamrock clichés of cutting wit (the masterful passive-aggression on display at the pols’ breakfast in Southie), green beer (the self-destructive elevation of unslakable thirst), and a sly denigration of those outside the tribe (lately, gay people — as if the tribe were only straight).
But in Ireland itself, something remarkable has happened. The “Celtic tiger,” the economic boom of the 1990s, brought the unexpected joys of raised living standards, new ties with Europe, and conditions that allowed, with the Good Friday Agreement, for the end of the old Anglo-Irish conflict. But, most wonderfully, the boom also brought the reversal of the nearly two-century-long forced exile of Irish young people. At last, opportunity beckoned at home — and home was much to be preferred. Unemployment in Ireland went from 15.9 percent in 1993 to 3.6 percent in 2001. Not only could the Irish stay, but emigrants who had left could return. For the first time in history, Ireland became a nation of immigration. The old wound could begin to heal.
The global economic collapse of 2007 to ’08 was doubly tragic for Ireland because once again emigration became the mark of the nation. Not only did the exiled Irish stop returning home; Irish young people, among the best educated in Europe, were forced to leave. The transnational humiliation of having mortgaged the future to a bubble was compounded in Ireland by an economic dislocation that could seem like a familiar curse coming down upon the land. How dare the Irish imagine escaping what by now could seem their pre-ordained destiny! By 2012, unemployment was back up to 15.1 percent, and 35,000 more people departed Ireland than came into it. Ireland has the highest emigration rate of all European Union countries.
But Ireland refused the curse. Today, the country’s economic recovery is slowly underway. “The Irish people,” U2 singer Bono told a gathering of EU leaders in Dublin last week, “bailed the Irish people out.” Unemployment fell in February for the ninth straight month, although it remains at 11.9 percent, compared with 7.5 percent in the United Kingdom. The hangover from massive Irish bank failures remains a drag.
Most tellingly, the post-collapse austerity imposed by Brussels prevents the Irish government from instituting the very social programs needed to support the underemployed young, abetting the next round of their forced emigration. But Bono’s remark was less a jibe at Brussels than a way of putting credit where credit is due. Yes, the renewed loss of a next generation rekindles grief, but today’s Ireland is mainly about the business of the future, not the past.
An Irish-American visitor, especially one from Boston, cannot help but be moved by the restored dilemma of forced banishment of the young. Equally moving, though, is the Irish resolve to do what’s required to remake a place for them here. There is no question of returning to the old resentments, much less the old battles. Thinking of the dark underside of green-fog tribalism in Boston, the visitor sees a difference: Life in the diaspora cut Irish America off from the ancient homeland, but it also severed a crucial link to a source of regeneration. For an image of positive possibility, the banished children of the Emerald Isle should reconnect to the impressive reality of today’s Ireland.James Carroll writes regularly for the Globe.