Through (smiling) Irish Eyes

The first thing that hits you about Ireland is how welcoming everyone is.

I say ‘welcoming’ and not ‘nice’ because there is a difference. ‘Nice’ is surface: it is civil, it is just enough. ‘Welcoming’ is warm, it is open, it is deep. ‘Welcoming’ is the taxi driver who fetches you from the airport singing a song about Irish statues to you and your toddler. ‘Welcoming’ is the shop assistant kindly and quietly vacuuming up the chocolate crumbs your jet-lagged and hungry toddler has left everywhere. ‘Welcoming’ is patiently explaining directions to a store that is literally around the corner 3 or 4 times to a tired, hungry, jet-lagged young mom.

‘Welcoming’ is hard to do when you’re engaging with a tourist whose only information about your home comes from guidebooks and fragments of Dylan Moran stand-up. But welcoming is what my son, my sister and I got on our recent trip. We were there ostensibly for the Motherhood Initiative on Research and Community Involvement (MIRCI) conference at which I was presenting a paper. Conferencing – or, as much conferencing as one can expect a toddler to really do – mostly happened inbetween exploration and adventuring through Dublin and Galway.

Seen in Dublin
Seen in Dublin

Ireland is as beautiful as you’ve heard. There is lush green for miles; there are rivers that cut through cities lined with quaint cobblestone paths. There is art everywhere. Modern street art, paying homage to the country’s present. Statues telling of its storied past. It’s almost impossible to navigate the country without experiencing art.  And not just visual art. Everywhere we went, from busy, bustling Dublin, to relaxed seaside Galway, there was live music, easily accessible to all. Lines of poetry and prose written by (in)famous countrymen and women are graffitied onto buildings and carefully etched into shopfront windows. This is a place that has truly taken its broken heart and made art of it. The beautiful resilience of the place and its people shines through its celebration of art and artists.  I know I haven’t seen much of the world, but I haven’t seen a place that values art in the way Ireland does. In this age of STEM, and tech, there’s something spectacular about being in a place that tells you that anyone with a pen and paper, or paint and a canvas, or a voice and a drum to beat can occupy equal space in the zeitgeist. It was hard to tear one’s senses away from the artistry of the place. It’s lingered in my memory and will remain there for a while.

An apology to Sinead O'Connor from Dublin
To Sinead, from Ireland, with love

Before this trip, I had a relatively limited understanding of Ireland’s pain. Most of it came from peripheral mentions in various history classes taken over the years. And, yes, Dylan Moran, and – I regret to admit – a little Bono. I am Zimbabwean by birth and South African by some degree of choice. I know of the pain of colonialism and the very particular damage wrought by Britain’s relentless imperialism.

My home countries may never recover.  Ireland shares that pain. What struck me about Ireland is how integrated the pain is into their story. By this I mean Ireland is not trying to hide the ugliest parts of their history for me. My friend, who, along with her toddler, joined us on this trip observed that “it’s almost like the are obsessed with their misery”. And, yes, it does seem that way. I come from a part of the world that is similarly steeped in its bloody past. But the difference is that there seems to be general agreement in Ireland about what that past is. In South Africa, we can barely agree on the broad strokes of our story, let alone access some of the more horrific details. There are still parents, children, siblings who were vanished by the apartheid government and whose stories are still the subject of inquests and investigations. We are not even three decades out from our most recent iteration of the pain. It’s taken Ireland a full century to come to grips with what happened, what continues to happen. The turmoil has found varied forms of expression. But the people of Ireland can all agree on the turmoil. As a result of this, there is an authenticity to this expression of  misery that is unique. It is not hidden away in museum exhibits, or explained away by overly-bright narratives of ‘rainbow’ nationalism. It is there, in plain sight, celebrated, vaunted as an important part of the Irish experience for both natives and outsiders.

The sea at Salt Hill, Galway
Beautiful Galway

I’m a Capetonian. I understand the insanity of living on the doorstep of the most majestic features nature has to offer and only being able to access them because I am middle class and relatively privileged. It is criminal that there are people who have lived in my city for all their lives who have never been up Table Mountain, or who only go to the beach once a year.  As a visitor to Ireland, I was struck by how incredibly accessible its public spaces are. Parks and beaches and rivers are all short bus or train trips away so that everyone who is able to afford a monthly public transport ticket can also afford to see the most beautiful parts of their own city.  There is something to be said for public spaces that are public in the broad sense of the word. It is liberating to be able to enjoy them with the knowledge that my enjoyment is not linked to any unearned privilege.

Love locks on Ha'penny Bridge, Dublin
To Dublin, with love from two happy toddlers


I realise my opinions are those of someone whose time in Ireland was very short, tourist-oriented, and seen through the fog of parenting-whilst-traveling. But I also know this: I’m a career outsider. I have always been some kind of ‘different’ in my contexts, either as a former ex-pat in Zimbabwe, or as an immigrant in South Africa. I know how rare it is to experience ‘welcoming’ and I know it when I do. For all of its malaise and misery, Ireland is especially ‘welcoming’. That’s a rarity in a world where borders are being insistently closed, and difference is being legislated and hounded out of our midsts (yes, even here in South Africa). And that’s something to smile about.

Go raibh maith agat, Éireann.

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