When I first went to Ireland in 1962, it seemed like a foreign country – more foreign than France, even though the inhabitants spoke the same language as I did. Dark and shabby, Dublin still felt like the Dublin of Ulysses, and though Joyce was long gone, we had the boozy and boisterous figure of Brendan Behan to personify the spirit of the natives. They talked more, they drank more and, above all, they had religion. You were aware of that as soon as you boarded the Aer Lingus plane for Dublin, as there were always two or three priests or nuns on board, seeming to guarantee a safe journey for all of us.
When I last visited Dublin a few years ago, it had all gone. Thanks perhaps to the affluence that EU membership had brought, the shabby old city had become almost indistinguishable from London – the same shops, the same crowds of tourists, the same loud music, much of it created by millionaire Irish pop singers.
Though well aware for some time that the old Ireland had gone for ever, I still felt a sense of shock in May at the sight of crowds of young Irish women screaming and whooping for joy at Dublin Castle to greet the triumph of the Yes campaign in the abortion referendum.
“All changed, changed utterly,” Yeats had written after the Easter Rising of 1917. “A terrible beauty is born.”
And now another supposedly historic moment of change was being hailed, though one without much beauty – the promise of thousands of unwanted pregnancies being legally terminated, a promise greeted by rapturous hysteria on the streets.
Coincidentally, a few weeks after that dramatic turning point, the last book of stories by William Trevor was posthumously published – appropriately, too, as no one described the old Ireland, which I could dimly remember, so memorably and with such obvious affection.
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