DUBLIN — Oscar Wilde still lounges, louche-like, on a boulder in Merrion Square. As always, the Liffey, a river crossed by bridges named for playwrights and patriots, lumbers its way to the sea. Grafton Street is packed with moneyed pedestrians. But Irish ayes are missing.
The Gathering, as they call this year, is a campaign backed by the government and the tourism industry to induce the clamorous clans of Erin to pay a visit here. Given that half the world is Irish and the other half wants to be, in Bill Clinton’s phrase, it’s an easy sell.
Yet what should be a year of discovery, a diaspora of 70 million summoned to the home of their not-so-distant ancestors, is clouded by a bittersweet anniversary. Fifty years ago the last king of Ireland, President John F. Kennedy, came to the land of his great-grandfather Patrick. A few months later, he was gone, shot by an assassin in Dallas.
To look back now, at a time when Ireland and the United States are staggered by doubt, is to realize how much has changed in the half-century since he was here — change, in too many respects, for the worse.
Kennedy was mobbed. Over several days, he delighted a lyrical people with his wit and his one-liners. He charmed old ladies, nuns, and schoolgirls. He lifted hearts by his very presence: Here was the leader of the free world, the descendant of people who fled a famine that killed a million Irish.
To see what time and good fortune had done to produce that youthful leader was to believe that anything was possible.
The Ireland he toured was the youngest of old countries, an independent nation barely 40 years on, finding its footing after 750 years of British occupation enforced by hangman’s noose and cannon. It was a poor island of farmers, shopkeepers, and laborers, a nation of devout Catholics.
It had a tomorrow, one that would lead to the Celtic Tiger period of a few years ago — an Ireland of unfathomable, and unsustainable, prosperity. Hipsters from Google and Facebook flooded pubs in Dublin’s Temple Bar area and danced to traditional music as mournful as it was infectious.
The crucifixes are gone from many homes, after an epic institutional failure of a church that protected pedophiles and abusers among its clerics. The belief in government as a force of good has been displaced as well. The ruling elite, aided and abetted by bankers, financiers, and insurers, wrecked this economy, and then got out on the bailout express.
Everyone else paid a price — in higher taxes, in across-the-board slashing of essential services, in real pain. The unemployment rate is still 15 percent, and nearly 1 in 4 mortgages are in arrears. Once again, the numbers are up regarding the greatest of all Irish exports — people. Since 2008, more than 300,000 have left.
What remains, in homes and shops and pubs, are pictures of Kennedy. He is forever frozen at age 46, when the American century was in full flower.
We could do things then — go to the moon, ensure health care for the elderly, legislate full citizenship rights for a race of people originally shipped to the country as property. Landmark environmental laws were passed under President Nixon, with robust support from both parties.
Ronald Reagan brought optimism and Cold War closure. Clinton, who idolized Kennedy, raised taxes and ushered in years of balanced budgets and record job gains.
It baffles people here why the US government was shut down and the global economy threatened with catastrophe.
It does no good to wonder what could have been — if Kennedy had lived, if a domino effect of downward economic moves had never happened, if one blow after another had not produced a Western world where too many people feel that the game is rigged against them.
But looking back is always productive. Memory is embedded in every square foot of Irish sod. These days, Kennedy’s visage is on posters and pamphlets at the Dublin airport — an effort to use him to inspire others to help Ireland. It’s a straightforward proposition: Bring a job to Ireland, and earn a government reward of 1,500 euros.
Well, it’s something. But at the same time, both countries would do well to recall the feeling of doubtless possibility from Kennedy’s era. It hasn’t entirely disappeared; it’s just so much harder to find.