My trip to Ireland gave me a shock. I knew the economy was booming and money was flowing, but I had no idea that sprawl had changed so much of the Irish landscape. The small towns are clogged with traffic and new construction. Stores and houses (all pastel colored) have sprung up everywhere. The first time visitor would never notice these signs of growth, especially an American visitor, but for one who has gone back and forth over the last twelve years and driven some 12,000 miles of Irish roads in all 32 counties, the difference economic development has made rings out.
I spent the better part of my life living in the middle of suburban sprawl. My full time job is offering economic development assistance to rural Maryland, so I'm all too familiar with the impact of unplanned growth on communities. I fear for Ireland but trust that she'll gather herself together during this surge in the economy, preserve what is worth holding on to, and nix the exploitation of her unique charism, her wild and untidy countryside, her symbols of heritage and the open hearts of her people.
While the Ireland I knew as recently as three years ago was quaint and attractive to tourists, signs of want and need were visible in communities. Most families only had one automobile. Young people were wanting for employment opportunities and many couldn't go on to college. Amenities like shopping and medical facilities were limited as were access to avenues into the world beyond Ireland. Today, farmers are accessing the Internet for information on animal vaccines, property rights and the weather. Islanders are buying goods online, every town has an Internet cafe, and EVERYONE has a website.
Amenities flourish, the job market is booming and houses, houses, houses, are dotting the Irish countryside in yellow, white, pink and pale blue. The pictures below of Hore Abbey in County Tipperary illustrate this. The first image is one I took five years ago. The second one I took on my February visit. The crane, construction sites and newly built homes are a common scene in almost every Irish town.
Amazing - isn't it?
The roads were full of cars and seemed challenged to handle the traffic. The roads in rural Ireland seem the same to me - primarily two land roads that wind and twist with little or no shoulder. The directional signs have improved but the slender ribbons of asphalt often don't accommodate the vast numbers of vehicles that pound them day and evening.
While listening to the Irish radio stations during my 1800 miles of driving this past February I learned that the Irish know of this gridlock problem on their roadways. While they are quickly improving the rail system and expanding service in airports, the highways and bi-ways are suffering. One radio talk show host stated that there are in excess of 100,000 Irish citizens on a waiting list to obtain an Irish drivers license.
However, the Garda does seem to have a greater presence and I understand the a "point" system has begun for traffic offenders so the Irish are making strides in catching up to their growth.
By and large Ireland is still a magnificent country to visit. Surprisingly, I saw a large number of historic building ruins that are in the process of renovation or preservation. It is apparent that the Irish are investing heavily into properly preserving their heritage. This has been evident for years in the Irish signage. All place signs have both English and Irish written... but then there's Dingle which has only Irish. Signs to Dingle say Daingean Uí Chúis or simply Daingean.
I had an unpleasant experience in Dingle this trip. I was sitting in a cafe, eating a fish sandwich in the town of Dingle. I looked up from my lunch and a local teenager walked in wearing a T-shirt with two side-by-side photos - one of Osama bin Laden and the other George Bush. The caption above the photos was written in bold red TWIN TERRORS.
I felt a little sad seeing that. Young people always hold so much promise. I love talking to teenagers, feeling their zest and enthusiasm - even when it is sometimes misguides or not fully informed. I wondered if that young man had any clue regarding the scope of the US / Iraq conflict. How could he?
As a visiting American I was privately stung, but silent. I left the cafe quickly. I noticed the same contempt for America and our President when I visited a friend in Mayo. All I could say was that their media didn't give the full picture. I considered this political discussion not worth having - and I'm always up for a good debate.
Though Ireland has changed, her sons and daughters have not. The characters are still the same and the thin places - though sometimes hidden from view - are still there and still powerful.
I'm thinking about putting together a Thin Places tour perhaps including the sites in the west. The whole country is too much to do at once. April will be a good time.