Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Sunday Tea and Pussy Riots

Last Sunday, I had tea with Roddy Doyle’s mother.

According to Mr Grumble, this is the sort of thing that you DON’T share. It’s plain name-dropping, and there’s hardly a bigger crime than that in my book. But I couldn’t resist such a catchy first sentence. Besides, I just want to make a point here.

This is Ireland for you. You meet Bono in a shop in Dalkey and he says a casual "Hello". You go to Bewley's café theatre and Ulick O’Connor comes over to you for a friendly chat. You call the Abbey theatre to ask where you can buy the music of a play you liked and they get the sound designer to send you a home-made CD. You bump into the President and he stops to talk and pose for a photo. You drop two lines to Roddy Doyle on Facebook and he invites you for tea with his mum.

No wonder I’m still living in rainy Ireland after nearly 7 years. I love it — all this makes me feel like everything is possible. And it is: since I moved here, I’ve dared things like jumping out of a plane, giving birth to a baby, clowning around in front of an audience… and there is more to come I hope.

But to paraphrase Hamlet, there's something rotten in the kingdom of Eire. I’m ready to take my pink sunglasses off and have a good, square look at my adopted country. It took me a while.

I had just moved here when John Boorman’s film The Tiger’s Tail was released, in 2006. During the promotion of his film, the director had a go at Ireland, reading out a commentary he'd entitled “The good, the bad and the ugly in new Ireland” in which he listed “the conviviality of the pub and the binge drinking. The welcoming smile to the stranger and the rabid xenophobia. The affection for children and their sexual abuse. Poets and scholars and the highest illiteracy rate in Europe. The new prosperity and the vulgar flaunting of wealth. A blue-eyed black-haired Galway girl and a dyed blonde in an SUV with a phone glued to her ear. National neutrality and the raging gun and drug wars. The rule of law and the grotesque greed of lawyers. Stunning landscapes and the plague of ugly bungalows. The Craíc and the crack-up.”

When I read that at the time, I was shocked. I didn’t see Ireland that way. I thought Boorman was exaggerating, and I was mildly disturbed that a foreigner (and a Brit) living here would take the liberty to criticize his host country so harshly. When I read it now though, I think he has a point. Maybe I should watch the film again. But I really wasn't impressed the first time.

Most of the Irish people I meet seem to promote an embellished vision of their country. When I was chatting with a fellow school mum about our children’s teacher, who is French and very nice (or should I say "but"?), she remarked, “He’s been in Ireland a long time” as if that explained his niceness. And when a waitress in a pub proved to be incredibly unpleasant, a friend of mine asked, in shock: “Is she Irish?” If you're a foreigner, it's OK to be horrible. Expected even.

Most people here are indeed amazingly friendly, and that’s why a Parisian girl like me fell in love with Dublin. If you say "Hello" to someone on the street in Paris, they stare at you as if you've just escaped from the looney bin. Normal interaction over there is to push people out of your way. But the fantasy of the perfect Irish is getting on my nerves. A bit of constructive criticism would be welcome. Jeeze, every time I go so far as questioning something, I get: “Where are you from?”

Now that Ireland is in the throes of recession and that the banks have been bailed out with public money, the only thing the Irish will rebel against is the €100 household tax. I wish they would stop saying “Sorry” when somebody steps on their toes. It’s not that cute after all. It's meek. Even back in the day, the Republicans fighting for freedom were but a handful, and the majority wanted a status quo. Mr Grumble likes to point out that the reason why he is not Irish today, even though he has an Irish surname, is that his ancestors fought for this country – and subsequently had to flee. So what does it mean to be Irish? That you're nice? Too nice to rebel?

Until they were disbanded last March, the members of Occupy Dame Street could be counted on your fingers. Each good cause that has dragged me out of home in the past 7 years only mustered a few dozens of protesters. Where’s your fight gone, Ireland?

Now the Irish parliament is shyly debating whether or not to grant abortion when the mother’s health is at stake, a mere 45 years after the UK legalized it, shortly followed by Canada, the United States and the rest of Europe. While the French are joking that their government should grant French citizenship to the Pussy Riot group, now that Putin has given Russian citizenship to poor billionaire Gérard Depardieu who felt he had too much tax to pay in France, it looks like Ireland needs radical activists even more than France to get things to change.

I want a better world where Savita Halappanavar doesn’t have to die, where a woman’s body doesn’t belong to her husband or her God, but to herself, and where gay people can get married if they feel like it. I want food and shelter for everyone, fair trade, wind farms and electric cars. Oh, and a cup of tea, please.