A memorial errected at the site of the suspected mass grave where 796 babies are buried. Photo by: Cahir O'Doherty.

Ireland can handle its future but not its past


A memorial errected at the site of the suspected mass grave where 796 babies are buried. Photo by: Cahir O'Doherty.

Garth Brooks is not for everyone. Even in Ireland he has a particular following: mammies and daddies, mostly. People who respond to his syrupy songs with titles like “Papa Loved Mama” or “What She’s Doing Now.”

In some parts of Ireland his songs clear late night dance floors; in other parts he fills them. Myself, I have not and I am quite certain I will not ever dance to “I Have Friends in Low Places.”

But it has been fascinating to watch the percentage of the people in Ireland who idolize him threaten – and then carry out – their vow to take to the capital’s streets to protest the cancellation of his five mega concerts that were set for Croke Park at the end of this month.

I can’t remember witnessing such mass outrage and high dudgeon in Ireland. Even during the worst atrocities of The Troubles or the darkest days of the banking collapse and the austerity that followed, the nation’s airwaves weren’t thick was so much unbridled fury. It was a puzzle.

I had an opportunity to take Ireland’s temperature when I returned there last month after some years away. I felt like Oisin back from Tir na n’Og.

Even after taking a few steps in Shannon Airport it all came back to me so quickly -- the amazingly tasty Irish breakfasts, the radio playing hits of the 1980s as though no one had told them the decade had ended, the fresh air that wakes you up, and the sheer good humor and decency of the Irish people themselves. They’re remarkable in their laughter and resilience.

They’re charming as all hell. They thank you a million.

But I wasn’t there to be wined and dined. I wasn’t there to catch up with old friends. I was there on an assignment.

The record of almost 800 infant deaths had been discovered for a former mother and baby home in Tuam, Co. Galway. The disturbing thing was that no one knew where these missing infants were buried, or how they had been buried. A scandal was brewing.

On the way to Galway I passed by so many For Sale signs in front of bungalows and two story houses that I stopped counting. A woman in the seat behind me spent the whole trip calling her friends on her mobile to say her car had broken down at the airport and could someone meet her in Eyre Square. You could see the financial squeeze was general.

Irish people who emigrate often experience the Rip Van Winkle phenomenon. Each time you return the currency has changed, or all the pay phones have a new carrier, or it’s a boom or a bust.

As I walked through Galway and Tuam I would catch glimpses of the long dead Celtic Tiger economy in the shuttered shops and abandoned estates. But I could also see further back too into the last century to the grey rook covered buildings that once housed the unwanted women and children we had decided could not belong to the nation.

In 2014 Tuam young people sip lattes at the gorgeous café that dominates the center of the town. But out in the fields beyond there are buried secrets that complicate this cheerful picture. Fewer people want to talk about them.

The thing that’s particularly unique about Ireland is the unruly dance that happens between the past and the present there. It can beguile you one minute and threaten you the next.

The radio plays George’s Michael’s “Careless Whisper” and then follows it immediately with One Direction’s “What Makes You Beautiful.” You are neither here nor there, the music tells you, you’re in both places at once.

I think that’s what makes the Irish so leery of engaging with the past. They know its attractions and how quickly it can decide the terms.

I think the Irish press were so slow to report on Tuam but filled the papers with screaming headlines about Brooks because they understood the distinction. One had happened, the other might not happen. There’s much more wiggle room in a “might.”

For weeks after the Tuam story broke even the papers of record stayed away from the mother and babies home scandal, only weighing in sourly to dispute the findings without actually doing any investigation of their own.

What it told me is that we’re much more comfortable with the future than the past. We cannot bear too much reality.

We can take any manner of hard knocks, but our dreams – which Brooks seems to have accessed – well those are a different story.


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