DUBLIN – A waiter at an outdoor coffee place that I frequent in the city asked me a couple of days ago: "Do people freak out when they hear your accent?" Later that day, we were in line at the General Post Office to send a package to our niece and the postal clerk was literally singing to his customers as he served one after the other, with a “God Bless” and “All the best” at the end of each interaction. A smile greeted me when it was my turn, but when I opened my masked mouth and asked for postage to Boston, the singing stopped, and his tone turned cold. He did not even touch my envelope. So accustomed to Irish cheerfulness, I was taken aback, but then I connected these abrupt exchanges with stories like this from the Irish Post last week:
“Flights are still entering Ireland from the US, and American tourists have been reported in some of Ireland’s most popular tourist spots – several of which have said they did not self-isolate upon arrival.”
One Irishman wrote (in part) on social media: “I’m Irish. I’ve been cocooning for 4 months. I barely left my home, and neither have my family… And now a whole plane load of American tourists arrived in Ireland. From places that are a [expletive] mess, like Texas. Many have ADMITTED that they haven't bothered to quarantine once they arrived here. We. Don’t. [Expletive]. Want. You. Here. Play some River Dance music, close your eyes, and DONT COME HERE.”
Incidents of American tourists flouting quarantine rules have become a tipping point in terms of Irish attitudes toward America and Americans, but they have not sprung up in a vacuum. This palpable shift in mood must be considered in the context of Ireland's own experience of the pandemic, its evolving relationship with the EU and UK with regard to Brexit, and the nation’s close observation of the behavior of the United States both on the world stage and inside the country itself
Ireland meets the pandemic
Officials here took swift and decisive measures to protect the country’s health service and its people as the virus hit in March. All St. Patrick’s festivities were cancelled, and all schools, childcare facilities, theaters, restaurants, pubs, concert venues, and stores were closed, with the exception of grocery stores. Only essential frontline workers were permitted on public transportation. All private hospitals were nationalized for the period of the pandemic. Retired nurses and doctors or those who had emigrated were invited back to Ireland to serve in the health service. The paucity of PPE equipment was acknowledged and remedied. Mistakes by public officials, like the failure to stockpile adequate supplies, were admitted to and corrected. The government moved quickly to provide unprecedented financial support to businesses and the hundreds of thousands of people suddenly out of work. Masses and funerals were cancelled. Travel on the island beyond two kilometers was prohibited, sporting events were suspended, and non-essential travel was cancelled. Roadblocks were set up to cordially but firmly enforce the rules.
In all, extraordinary government intervention into every aspect of life was implemented and accepted by the people during a time when the sitting prime minister and the government had lost the February election and were acting only as caretakers. While there were some isolated incidents of people in Ireland disobeying the rules of the lockdown, people generally stayed indoors, trusted their medical experts and public health officials, and rode out the storm in solidarity. Even Matt Damon and his family, trapped in Ireland by the shutdown, stayed inside and weathered the quarantine in Dalkey, south of Dublin.
The per-day death toll peaked on the 18th of April with 50 known COVID-19 deaths, but Ireland “bent the curve” and now the death toll hovers between 0-2 per day. To date, Ireland’s handling of the pandemic has been a huge success and a tribute to its citizens’ collective sacrifice of everything they love to do: Gather at pubs for pints and the craic, make new friends, attend funerals of loved ones, do hard honest work, go to GAA football and hurling matches, and enjoy the theatre, concerts, political rallies, and their summer holidays abroad.
This being our first summer in Ireland, I did not fully understand how big a sacrifice foregoing vacation travel to warmer places like Spain, France, or Portugal really was, but wearing a fleece and a raincoat in late July on yet another cloudy day has underlined the significance of $50 RyanAir flights to Portugal (Please, God, don't make that just a memory!). Ireland might have as many words for rain as the Eskimos have for snow: “showers followed by downpours” … “sprinkles” … “sideways rain” … “dirty rain” … “rotten rain” … “pelting rain,” … “lashing rain.” “Fresh by the coast, colder on higher ground, and some sunny spells’ is not an unusual July forecast.
Projections put the total Irish death toll at approximately 2,000 in a country of five million, which compares very favorably to the state of things in Massachusetts, a commonwealth of six million with an anticipated total death count of more than 10,000. The Bay State is considered a success story in comparison to other US states, but considering its concentration of wealth, world class hospitals, labs, and universities, Massachusetts should stop patting itself on the back and study what went wrong. Gov. Baker should also stop meeting with Mike Pence on Nantucket.
Ireland has suppressed the COVID-19 pandemic with competent leadership, collective sacrifice, solidarity, and self-discipline. The reward is that the economy is starting to reopen, cautiously. Outdoor restaurants were first, then indoors with social distancing. Some games have returned to the television, but the pubs, theatres, schools, and concert venues are still closed. Life is far from normal, but the Irish take rightful pride in their progress.
Brexit, the EU and the UK
The pandemic hovers over the Brexit negotiations, a period of anticipated structural change for Ireland and its larger neighbor with whom Ireland has a long and varied history. I will not go into all of the details of the Brexit saga. Instead, I point readers to Fintan O’Toole’s “Heroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics of Pain” (and everything else he writes) for excellent reporting, historical context, and insight.
Briefly, and for the purposes of this essay, Ireland and the United Kingdom both joined the EU (it was then called the European Economic Community) in 1973 with inverse effects on their respective countries’ psychologies. For England (and, to a lesser extent, her dominions of Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland) EU membership felt like further diminishment after the loss of empire during and after the World War II years, a forfeiture of their independence. The UK (in reality, just England) sees the world as divided through the imperial dichotomy lens of the dominators or the dominated. Since the UK was clearly not the dominator of the EU, it felt it was being dominated. These feelings festered for 40 years, and were cynically activated by the Brexiteers, who unexpectedly won a narrow “victory” in 2016 with their slogan “Take Back Control.” Britain’s grandiose vision of itself has resulted in its shooting itself in the foot while attempting to shoot Ireland in the head in the process. Just last week, a CNN headline read “Boris Johnson’s dream of a global Britain is turning into a nightmare.”
For Ireland, EU membership has had the opposite effect. It meant an assertion of its independence from its largest trading partner and former ruler. In joining the EU, Ireland became part of a much bigger family, escaping its former place under the UK’s shadow. But because Ireland and England shared the common concerns of Island nations like protecting the fisheries, one of the unforeseen but happy consequences of EU membership was that they became closer friends and neighbors than ever before, with the queen visiting Ireland, wearing green, almost apologizing (but close enough), and shaking hands with Martin McGuinness.
Then came Brexit, a surprise to everyone, even those, like Boris Johnson, who championed it. It has had far-reaching effects, but of immediate concern to Ireland, north and south, was the protection of the fragile peace framework by not reintroducing a physical border across the island between Dundalk and Derry.
Most Irish leaders and citizens held their breath as the negotiations unfolded, feeling that the troublesome question of the border between the Republic of Ireland (part of the EU) and the six-county statelet of Northern Ireland (still part of the UK and now outside the EU) would ultimately result in Ireland’s interests being sold down the river by the Germans and the French.
The worry was that the peace framework would be imperiled because when push came to shove, France and Germany would prioritize the trading relationship with the UK over the peace process in tiny Ireland. But the Irish have been surprised, in the positive, over this last year by how supportive Europe has been. Ireland resisted Boris Johnson’s pressure to make the negotiations a matter between the UK and Ireland. “BoJo” still approached Ireland from the asymmetrical imperial mindset. The UK’s economy is 11.5 times larger than Ireland’s and gives Johnson a strong hand with which to force the island to the UK’s will. But the UK’s GDP only represented between 12-15 percent of the EU before its departure. Ireland’s deferring to the EU’s chief negotiator, Frenchman Michel Barnier, to represent Ireland’s interests in negotiating Brexit was a leap of faith that has been rewarded.
We think of the EU as an economic common market, a vast bureaucracy of bookkeepers and rule makers, but the EU itself is fundamentally, like the island of Ireland, a peace framework/process. Yes, it manages the world’s largest common market, but at its foundation, it is an arrangement to prevent another war between France and Germany.
(As an aside: The German wars of 1871, WWI and WWII were, essentially, fights over the rich coal and iron ore deposits in the borderlands between France and Germany. To our eyes in the post-coal economy, it seems crazy that we sacrificed multiple generations fighting over such things. Just as wars in the past over salt are insane to us now, and as our wars over oil will appear to our descendants. The clear skies over these once polluted and disputed territories prove the wisdom of John F. Kennedy’s words in his American University speech in June of 1963:
“History teaches us that enmities between nations, as between individuals, do not last forever. However fixed our likes and dislikes may seem, the tide of time and events will often bring surprising changes in the relations between nations and neighbors.”)
Surprises for Ireland in the Trump-Covid Era
America has long been the repository of hopes and dreams for Irish people, most all of whom have relatives in the US, and many of whom have lived there themselves for short or long periods of time. For survivors of the Great Hunger, for political refugees from John Boyle O’Reilly to the modern era, America has been a refuge and a land of opportunity. And Irish America has been a dependable source of fundraising and moral support for John Devoy’s Clann na Gael in the late 19th century to the peace process a century later. After the Easter Rising in 1916 failed, but his life was spared, Eamon deValera came over to the US and addressed the then-largest crowd ever assembled in Fenway Park as part of his drive to raise money and awareness to continue his campaign for Irish Independence.
Even today Irish political leaders of every persuasion Enda Kenny, Brian Cowen, Gerry Adams, Bertie Ahern, John Bruton, John Hume, Leo Varadkar, and Micheal Martin (Fianna Fail’s new prime minister) all have made pilgrimages to the USA: Boston, New York, Chicago, Washington DC and beyond. The United States has been Ireland’s largest foreign investor; its most generous benefactor, with groups like the American Ireland Fund and the Irish American Partnership; the indispensable sponsor and negotiator of peace, notably with Bill Clinton’s special envoy, George Mitchell, cajoling unionists and republicans to reach a peace framework with the Good Friday Agreement; and the guarantor of these agreements when the British government has attempted to backslide on its commitments. All of this remains true today, but the mood has changed.
While European leaders surprised Ireland with their loyalty and solidarity during Brexit and the pandemic, Ireland has been stunned in the negative by the direction America has taken under Donald Trump. It is worth noting that news from America is a part of every Irish news program and every newspaper every day. While most Americans don't follow news in Ireland unless there is a dissident killing or a funny story about wild foxes befriended by farmers, Irish people do follow US current events. The Irish know that Trump supported Brexit and that he likes the perpetually lying Boris Johnson. They know Trump has abandoned the Iran nuclear deal, exited the Paris Climate accord, withdrawn from the WHO during the pandemic, and supports Benjamin Netanyahu’s brutalization of the Palestinian people. They know that Trump’s botched pandemic response has resulted in 150,000 American dead so far, that he reacted with callous indifference to the death of George Floyd, and that he has sent unidentified federal forces into American cities to kidnap Black Lives Matter protestors, rushing the country toward autocracy. The Irish are horrified by all of this and are shocked that many Americans embrace his racism, his misogyny, his bizarre defense of the confederate flag, and his flouting of the US constitution. Irish people openly ask me: “Have they all gone mad?”
One measure of how crazy American politics appears to an Irish observer was a question I received today – “Do you think Kanye West has a chance?” While the answer is obviously “no,” it does not seem that nutty a question when you consider who is president now: A thrice-married failed casino developer, a real estate fraud, a former reality tv star with a bad hairdo and a worse attitude who has been boasting this week about being able to remember “Person, Woman, Man, Camera, TV.” He is considered by everyone I know in Ireland to be “mad” and that affects how the US is viewed from here. “Countries have the governments they deserve'' wrote James Joyce. Kanye’s run for president is not met with laughter. To answer my questioner, I pointed out that Kanye’s wife has appealed for compassion during what she describes as a bi-polar induced psychotic event (meaning his campaign for president) but she replied, “Well, not so different from the president now then.”
Witnessing the great republic across the Atlantic buckling under the double strain of the pandemic and immoral and incompetent leadership, Ireland’s traditional strong feelings of admiration, love, respect, as well as the less common envy and hatred, have been replaced by the unfamiliar emotion of pity, wrote Fintan O’Toole in April in the Irish Times. Pity has collided with other new emotions, like disdain for the systemic racism embodied in the killing of George Floyd and the subsequent brutal repression of protesters, and disgust for the incompetent and poisonous “leadership” of Donald Trump. Pity, disdain, disgust. The shamrock bowl will still be delivered to the White House on St Patrick’s Day, but if Trump is still president in 2021 and if the pandemic still rages unchecked in the USA, the Waterford Crystal bowl and shamrocks might be sent by post.
These two latter-day surprises for Ireland – on the one hand Europe’s loyalty and adherence to their values of solidarity and charter of peace, and on the other hand, America’s acceleration into the abyss of racism, autocracy and madness – have led the Irish people to reconsider their allegiances and their future. Boston will always remain the “next parish over,” and familial, cultural, business and political ties will certainly remain in place, but Ireland's sense of the future has turned its gaze to the east, to Brussels, Paris, and Berlin rather than west, to Washington, Boston, New York, and Chicago.
This context of America coming off the rails informs how the stories of individual Americans’ behavior when visiting Ireland in a time of pandemic were interpreted as the country started tentatively to reopen after a punishing confinement.
(“People could put up with being bit by a wolf but what properly riled them was a bite from a sheep,” wrote James Joyce.)
Trump being inconsiderate is one thing; it’s like hearing Boris Johnson lie. It's what they do. But seeing American tourists flouting the 14-day quarantine has angered the Irish, a people preternaturally inclined to friendliness, especially toward Americans who come to Ireland by the millions to search for their roots, to wander through graveyards, to listen to music, and to spend money in hotels, shops, restaurants, golf links, theatres, and pubs. At this moment the clear message to Americans is: Do Not Come Here. The negative impression my suddenly sometimes unwelcome accent receives in Ireland is a new experience. It is certainly not a slammed door, but the frostier-than-usual welcome Americans should expect to receive in Ireland during this time – more like 50,000 “welcomes” than the standard 100,000 – is real.
Lingering Effects of the Pandemic
“There can be no reconciliation without a sundering” wrote Joyce 100 years ago. Ireland’s reaction to America in 2020 may sunder the Irish American relationship as we know it, but what replaces it might be better. Ireland recently won a seat on the UN Security Council, another sign of the country’s growing confidence and its earned respect from the world community. Just this week the headlines following a very favorable outcome from the EU pandemic bailout negotiations described Ireland as the “Tiny Diplomatic Superpower.” Ireland is now the only native English language-speaking country in the EU. What will this new confidence and prominence mean to Irish American relations? At a human level, it might mean that Irish hosts will insist their American guests wear masks and respect the quarantine. The Irish obeyed their lockdown rules. Many have lost both jobs and loved ones. They have given up everything that makes life worth living and don't want their hard-won progress ruined by inconsiderate tourists.
The pandemic will end someday, but just like the disease itself that can leave long- term scarring on the lungs as well as persistent neurological and cardiac damage, there will be lingering effects. Socially, there surely will be lingering cultural effects. One of the long-lasting impacts of this pandemic may be that Irish Americans visiting or living in Ireland should expect to earn the respect and trust of the Irish, not just receive it.
In his inaugural address in January 1961, John F. Kennedy envisioned a world where the “strong are just, the weak secure, and the peace preserved.” America’s behavior and direction in recent years has left Ireland confused and alienated. By observing not just what America says but also what it does, it is reasonable for Ireland to orient to Europe, both to advance the vision Kennedy articulated and to embrace a future of solidarity, shared prosperity, and ecological sanity. Brexit may ultimately result in a united Ireland and a disUnited Kingdom (topics for a different day), but what it has already done is drive Ireland to a closer relationship with her mainland European partners. It is evidence not so much of Ireland turning away from the United States, but of the United States turning away from its own principles, beliefs, and aspirations.
Tim Kirk is a software professional who left Needham, Massachusetts, last year and settled permanently in Dublin.