Letter from Dublin: Winter Journal, March 2022

Letter from Dublin/Timothy Kirk,

It has been a rocky road back to normality in Dublin. In early December, the city started to be itself again. Buskers were back on Grafton Street and live music returned to the pubs. Then the Omicron wave hit.  The government was forced to tighten Covid restrictions on Dec. 20, just before Christmas.  With 97 percent of the population vaccinated, demoralized Dubliners reacted with resignation: “Ach, sure we’ve done all that’s been asked of us, but lookit, here we are.”

January 11:

Christy Moore Show Goes on

Before Omicron, we had started to get tickets for concerts and plays again, but most shows were canceled. One of our favorite artists, Christy Moore, went forward with his shows at Vicar Street.  The new restrictions meant the gigs would start and end early, at 50 percent capacity, and with concert-goers required to wear N95 masks and have “Covid certs.”  Even so, we were excited and a bit nervous to get out again. 

He brought the same passion and artistry to his craft that he has since his start in the 1960s. His concerts are transcendent voyages through Ireland and the world’s tumultuous history, rich culture, and current events.  Ballads about the great famine, emigration, Chile under Pinochet, and the Holocaust are blended with love songs, sing-a-longs about the joy of Ireland’s world cup run of 1988, and working with a shovel in London. His repertoire of thousands of songs takes the crowd anywhere he chooses. Songs like “Michael Hatton” and “Back Home in Derry,” (both written by Bobby Sands before his death by hunger strike in 1981)  were intermingled with “North and South of the River,” co-written with Bono, songs about Nelson Mandela, the nuclear freeze movement, the Stardust concert tragedy, and the looming disaster of climate breakdown.

Christy calls out powerful hypocrites, from Margaret Thatcher and Catholic bishops to Boris Johnson in a style that is both biting and fun.  He praises the Irish who fought against fascism in Spain in the ’30s while his haunting “Go, Move, Shift” shines a light on the treatment of Irish Travelers and morphs into a call for compassion for today’s refugees from Iraq, Syria, Yemen, or El Salvador.  His music asks all of us to answer questions:  Who are we?  Where are we going? What does our experience call us to do in the world?  It is an expression of values and an invitation to share them. Christy‘s authentic Irish traditional music gives voice to the downtrodden, laborers, and rebels who resist injustice in all its forms. “Ordinary Man” and “The Time Has Come” (which he also sang at Martin McGuiness’s funeral in 2017) are woven in with love songs like “Nancy Spain.”

To do all this without sounding holier than thou, especially in Ireland where someone on a pedestal is soon toppled, is not an easy task. Somehow, Christy Moore became a living legend without inspiring too many hard feelings. By contrast, Bono is acknowledged as a star, but is not truly beloved in Ireland. Maybe his massive global success and infamous tax avoidance, his born-again-Christian-inspired (and well-publicized) humanitarian efforts, combined with Ireland’s tradition of begrudgery, make him appear a self-serving “Goodie two shoes.”

Despite his fame, Christy has remained “one of the lads.” Perhaps his openness about his own journey with alcohol from “A Weekend in Amsterdam” to “Delirium Tremens” humanizes him. While he has been sober for many years, he is not a scold. Although, it must be said, he has been known to tell the odd overserved loudmouth in the crowd to “Shut up!” usually to cheers.

Memory is nonlinear. Anyone who has fallen in love or lost a loved one knows that joys and sorrows can be retrieved from our memories in an instant by the sight of a photograph, a few bars of a song, or the smell of a leaf fire on a bright fall day. “The past is never dead.  It’s not even past,” wrote William Faulkner. Christy’s Moore’s music has the ability to transport concertgoers, who on this particular night ranged in age from teenagers to octogenarians, across time and space.  Respectful of this power, he has stopped singing some of his more stridently republican songs that might encourage the nurturing of old grievances.  He gave thanks to the roadies, other songwriters, listeners, and to his inspirations like the late Liam Clancy.  Musically speaking, Christy is still great, and at 76 years of age, he seems to be getting even better. His new album, “Flying into Mystery,” is outstanding (my favorite track is “Johnny Boy”). Toward the end of the show, he thanked long-dead Scottish songwriter Hamish Imlach, pointing heavenward and saying “See you soon, Hamish.”   We all hope that day never comes.  Christy Moore is like a national druid connecting our time to all time.

January 12:
Ashling Murphy’s Murder

The following day, Ireland was shocked by the news of the murder of Ashling Murphy, a 23-year-old schoolteacher, Gaelic games athlete, and traditional fiddle player who was out for a run along the Grand Canal at 3 pm in her hometown of Tullamore, Co. Offaly. Her murder has inspired an enormous expression of grief, anger, and resolve. Vigils of remembrance and protests of violence against women were held across the country as well as in Boston, New York, London, and Australia. Organizers were encouraged by the presence of many men at the vigils.  For far too long, violence against women has been blamed on the victims.  The insinuation that the victim was “out too late at night, alone, had been drinking, was in a dangerous part of town” is always wrong, and in this case obviously so.  The tragic case puts to lie previous assumptions that women are responsible for their own attacks. The vigil outside Leinster House in Dublin was beautiful and poignant.  A traditional music band played before a crowd of thousands without an amplifier. The song “Only a Woman” by Eleanor McEvoy was difficult to hear at first, but the crowd began to sing along softly and the song rippled through the rows of the crowd outward like a mournfully chanted prayer. Ireland honors its dead in a caring and empathetic way without going too far into the maudlin or exploitative. 

Since Ashling Murphy’s murder, there have been renewed calls to combat violence against women.  Ireland has been here before, but there is a sense that society has finally internalized that it is not a question of women changing their behavior; it is a societal imperative to eliminate violence against them.

January 16
Dublin Castle Commemoration

A ceremony was held at Dublin Castle, known as the Bastille of Ireland, to commemorate the centenary of the official transfer of power from the British Empire to the Irish Free State 100 years ago.  Michael Collins and his team arrived by taxi, over an hour late, to a brief meeting where Viceroy Lord Fitzalan transferred authority to the Irish.  The British described the event as an administrative formality, but Collins described the event as “British surrender.”

The ceremony included President Michael D. Higgins, Prime Minister Micheal Martin, past presidents and past prime ministers. A military honor guard marched, the Army’s Number 1 Band played the national anthem, and the tricolor was raised. The actor Phelim Drew read a brief narrative of the original event with the distinctive voice, face, and beard that he inherited from his late father, the great Ronnie Drew of the Dubliners who used to perform with Christy Moore.  The younger Drew is “the stamp of his father.”

It was a reverent observance, but considering it was the celebration marking Ireland’s first 100 years of independence, the 45-minute event seemed remarkably low key to my American eyes.  There is a discomfort with pomp and circumstance in Ireland. An attempt at the grandeur of a military parade one might see in Paris would seem out of place in Dublin.

January 21
“And just like that, it's over”*

On Friday, January 21, at 6 p.m., in a formal address to the nation, the Taoiseach announced that on the following day, nearly all Covid restrictions – the 8 p.m. closing time, the vaccine certificates, limitations on the number of people in restaurants, pubs, concert halls, and sporting venues – will be lifted. The rapid spread and lower lethality of Omicron, combined with a 97 percent vaccination rate, meant there was no longer a public health rationale for continued restrictions. Almost two years of heavy regulation was coming to an abrupt end.  Listening to the speech, I was convinced that the pubs and restaurants would stay open late that next night, but I was wrong.  In a stroll through the Temple Bar neighborhood, we were surprised that all the pubs and restaurants had closed their doors by 8 p.m.  While the Irish have a well-deserved reputation for rebellion, they also have a keen sense of fairness and follow reasonable rules.  The dots on sidewalks and in stores indicating recommended spacing and the omnipresent plexiglass screens began to disappear.

*T Greenwood: The Reopening of Ireland

An Aside: Observing corruption
and instability in the UK

“Across the water” in Britain, Boris Johnson and his Tory government have been a parade of sleaze, corruption, lies, investigations, and clownish incompetence.  From the parties held at Downing Street during the Covid restrictions, sweetheart deals for the well connected, and the botched implementation of Brexit, their performance has been appalling.  Irish people remember past shadiness in their own government and are surprised to see that in this era, Ireland is demonstrably less corrupt than the UK.  In previous generations, Irish politics involved cash-stuffed brown envelopes given to ministers in exchange for favors.  Today, it is the British government making a mockery of their own cherished rule of law.  The schadenfreude in Ireland for England's distress is mixed with the fear that a drowning man is dangerous to those close by.  Will an embattled Johnson lash out at Ireland and the EU by suspending the Northern Ireland protocol by invoking Article 16, scrapping the agreement altogether as new Brexit grace periods end in February, or worse?  Time will tell.

January 26
The Boom is back

In the meantime, Ireland’s economy is booming.  Late in the month it was announced that since Brexit’s passage in 2016, over $200 billion has been moved from financial services firms based in London to Ireland.  With the broader economy now reopening, Ireland is poised for robust growth.  On Jan. 26, it was projected that Ireland’s economy will grow at 7 percent  in 2022,  that 167,000 jobs will be added over the next two years, approaching “full employment,” and that the tax haul in 2021 was the highest in the history of the state. The North’s economic growth far outstrips anywhere else in the (barely) United Kingdom, thanks to the Northern Irish Protocol.  With Brexit and Covid receding in the rearview mirror, Ireland will return to the problems that dominated politics prior to those twin crises: building more affordable housing, improving the health service, pursuing climate-friendly policies, and eliminating homelessness.

February 1
St Brigid’s Day

One of the best parts of living through the dark Irish winter is that the first day of spring is Feb. 1.  Imbolc is the Gaelic celebration of spring that was grafted to Christianity as St. Brigid’s Day,  just as Samhain became Halloween.  St. Brigid’s day is a celebration of fertility, generosity, and new beginnings.  With the economy humming, peace prevailing, and the bands performing again, there is every reason to be hopeful for the spring in Ireland.