Monday, April 22, 2013

Perceptions of Ireland: The rose-coloured glasses girl, the cynical student, & me

The other day, in the midst of my search for 'the perfect suitcase' — FOUND: a compact carry-on bag in which I can now fit everything but the kitchen sink — I had a conversation with the young sales associate at the shop. We were talking about various travel destinations, including Ireland, and Eva told me that she really wants to travel to Ireland because her favourite movie is 'Leap Year'. Truth be told, I cringed a bit. Although I am a fan of Amy Adams, and the movie is meant to be a sweet rom-com, aside from the gorgeous aerial shots of the landscape, it completely misses the mark when it comes to Ireland. However, I really enjoy talking to people, and like to find out why they like the things they like, so I bit my tongue and asked Eva why the movie is her favourite.

'Why?', she said. "Well, because Ireland is a magical place. All the little towns are beautiful, and all the people there are so funny and so nice, even though they all drink a lot." Eva went on to tell me that she finds the backwardness of the place endearing. 'You know', she said, 'like, hardly any trains, and the sweet old drunks in the pub.' Most of all, she'd really like to visit the romantic castle they go to in the movie, and see the old fashioned red phone box in the park.

Oh dear, thought I, she's stuck in MOVIE IRELAND, and I began to tell her Ireland is not actually as it's portrayed in the film, but I could tell by the look on her face that she is married to this fantasy. Not wanting to burst the bubble in her Hibernian dream, I didn't tell her the train system in Ireland is quite modern and relatively efficient, and most pubs (aside from those aimed at college-aged tourists in Temple Bar) are family oriented and without the stage drunks. I didn't mention the fact that the castle in the movie doesn't actually exist, but is a digital enhancement of ruins in Portlaoise, and there is no English-style red phone box anywhere in St. Stephen's Green. Instead I thanked Eva for her help, and said I hoped she would one day take the opportunity to travel to Ireland.

Left: An entrance to St. Stephen's Green featured in the movie 'Leap Year'. No red phone box in sight.
Right: The sort of telephone booths you do see in urban Ireland.
Top: One of several Luas (pronounced Louis) tram lines you will find in the city of Dublin.
Bottom: The Dart commuter train system. This one is stopped at Bray, County Wicklow.
The ancient past and the modern present co-exist.
Top image: The Rock of Cashel as you approach it through the town of Cashel, County Tipperary.
Bottom image: Swords Castle in downtown Swords, County Dublin.
Talking with Eva reminded me of another conversation I had, this one with a Polish student named Pawel, who is now living in Ireland while attending university. We were on the Dublin bus travelling down Stillorgan Road toward the Belfield campus of UCD — me to the archives, him to a campus orientation — and he asked me if we were getting close to the university. Our accents marked our mutual status as outsiders and led to conversation.

Pawel said he had already been living in Dublin for a while, and he bombarded me with exactly what he liked about it and what he didn't. He told me that the Irish are great talkers, but poor listeners, and think they know everything, and think everyone who is not Irish is stupid. He told me he hated all the rainy days, and the homeless people and the drug addicts in the street. His deeply negative attitude made me wonder why he would choose Ireland for study, but Pawel was a great talker and a poor listener, so he didn't answer my question.

Me? My opinion lies somewhere down the middle, between Eva's rose-coloured Ireland and Pawel's deeply cynical one.

It is true, in Ireland there is a serious problem with heroin addiction, and if you travel there, you may come across addicts in certain areas. On a couple of occasions I've 'interacted' with addicts in Dublin, on the quays, and on Marlborough Street near the Pro-Cathedral. This mostly involved refusing to give them money, and being very assertive in telling them to move away from me. Last summer, during a very early morning bike ride on the quays, I fast tracked away from a couple of addicts who were injecting drugs while seated on a bench across from the Custom House. As a historian, I am saddened by the fact that these days the grounds of Croppies Acre in front of Collins Barracks, as well as the grounds of the Golden Bridge cemetery, are locked up to keep the addicts out.

Also, it is true there are Irish who are great talkers and poor listeners, but I believe you will find people like that in every country in the world. It also strikes me that if you treat people the way you want to be treated, then most of them will respond in kind. If you are friendly and open and respectful, then they will be too. I think Pawel has failed to understand that fact.

One thing which seems to surprise some people, like Pawel, is the fact that many Irish are very well read, are engaged and interested in many topics, and have the expectation that others are as well. Personally, I have enjoyed discussions with taxi drivers, wait staff and guests in restaurants, and hotel desk clerks, as well as members of my own Irish family, on a wide range of topics, including Irish history. In my travels I have encountered people from many countries who do not know the history of their own country as well as some Irish know the history of Ireland.

As for Eva's impressions, the landscape of Ireland is absolutely magnificent, and is spotted with many charming towns and handsome cities, as well as beautiful castles and ancient ruins, and in that respect I also feel as though the island is a magical place. However, the mark of recession blots many Irish towns and cities, and there you get a dose of reality when you see shops boarded up, and once thriving businesses that have closed their doors.

Also, there are many nice, welcoming, and funny Irish people to meet in Ireland, but no, not everyone is very welcoming. Just as in other countries, some people are caught up in their own lives and couldn't care less about tourists. If you take a local bus, you will find some operators who will barely acknowledge you, other than to tell you to buy a map, while others will happily help direct you to your destination and beyond. If you venture off the beaten path and go into pubs frequented by locals, in some you will be welcomed with open arms, while in others you may be viewed with suspicion.

In Ireland, when I asked one of my aunts named Kathleen (I have a few) about perceptions of Ireland and the Irish, she told me she believes most Irish are very down to earth and easy going, and in favour of an enjoyable time, and a good laugh. However, she said at times some Irish, including her, look at tourists and just wonder what it is they want from 'us'. Aunt Kathleen put it best when she said,

At times Jenn, it's as if some of them are waiting for us to break into song or recite our party piece. We're not perfect. We're real people with real problems who just happen to live in a beautiful land with a remarkable history. We're not leprechauns or fairies, and we have no magic dust.

Aunt Kathleen paused for a moment, and I could see in her eyes that she didn't want to let me down, and then with a smile she added, 'well maybe just a little magic dust'.



  1. Great post, Jennifer. It's so easy to assume what we see in movies is real and that the they portray reality about every aspect of the people, the environment, the activities, etc. (I think we usually understand that the story is fiction.) Neither I or my family have ever been to Ireland though I'd love to visit sometime, but this post reminded me of an anecdote told by daughter. She'd been invited to spend a late-autumn holiday travelling with one of her roommates to the southern part of Utah (or possibly some other south-western state). As she looked out the window all she could see wherever she looked was green. She remarked, "This reminds me of Ireland." To which her roommate responded, "Have you ever been to Ireland? This does not look like Ireland!" I felt sorry for my daughter's choice of words. Maybe better to have said, "This makes me think of Ireland...." I love reading your blog posts. I learn so much. Thank you.

    1. Hello Nancy,

      Thank you for your thoughtful comments. As always, they are much appreciated. It is so true, as you say, that we sometimes see things in movies and think they are real. Perhaps we see places or people as magical or special because we need them to be that way, given all the bad things that go on in this world. In a way I envy Eva's rose-coloured vision, and I definitely feel sorry for Pawel because of his deeply negative one. It's nice to think your daughter saw beauty and connected it in a positive way to Ireland. I see a kindness and a hopefulness in that.

      Cheers to you,

  2. Thanks for a great post Jennifer which certainly resonates with me. As an Australian I find it frustrating that so many people's perception of my country are also based on films/ movies and especially TV programmes like "Neighbours". Problems arise when they choose to immmigrate based on these false ideas and then get grumpy and complain an awful lot when faced with the reality of life in Australia. They miss their family, they miss their friends and don't realise that the warm weather can also be oppressive heat, accompanied often by a myriad of flies etc...

    Then again... I've also been guilty of the same. My perception of the USA, based upon the many TV shows and a 3 week holiday, was that it was culturally very much like Australia. I hadn't lived in the USA for very long before realising how very different it actually is culturally and in day to day living and also became became quite irritated at people's disappointment that I wasn't the quintessential Aussie they expected.

    Guess there's a lesson here for all of us and the saying " A person's perception is their reality" rings true. Thanks again for such a thought provoking post Jennifer.

    Cheers, Catherine

    1. Hello Catherine,

      Thank you for your thoughtful comments. They are always much appreciated. You've absolutely hit the nail on the head with the saying "A person's perception is their reality". Thank you for sharing your feelings about your own experiences both as an Australian and as an Australian living in the US. I can only imagine what sort of 'quintessential Aussie' people expected you to be.

      I wrote this post because the ideas resonate with me as well. It teaches me to consider my own assumptions about other people and their assumptions about me, and my own place in this world as a first generation Canadian in a wholly Irish family.

      In writing the post I was also reminded of another Aunt Kathleen, my dad's sister whom we called Kathy. Aunt Kathy moved to London, England from Ireland and worked her way up into a high powered position in the British Home Office. Despite all that she achieved in her profession, her colleagues always viewed her as 'the Irish one'. I remember her writing to me about her disgust over her colleagues wanting her to comment on the book 'Angela's Ashes', as though she had some special insight simply because she was Irish. Kathy said they seemed disappointed when she told them she had not read the book, had never been to Limerick, and had never picked up bits of coal in the street. While Aunt Kathy hated the very idea of that book, my dad read it and thought some of the episodes in it were very funny. Again — perception is reality.

      Cheers to you,

  3. I am tempted to say it's why we should travel, to see the reality of where we want to visit and compare it to our imaginings. Then again your story of Pawel undermines that. Perhaps he was just homesick?

    After all the Irish nuns and priests of my childhood I was ambivalent about travelling to Ireland, only to discover that they may/may not have been typical of their era, but not of the present day. It was also an Aha moment to have a clear sense of how Australians gained some of their attitudes and approaches to life...and not just down to the convicts either.

    I was reminded of the words of 84 Charing Cross Rd where she's told that she'll find whichever London she's looking for.



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Cheers, Jennifer

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