When we first visited Ireland back in the ‘80's, before Nancy's strokes, we drove all over the country just taking in the beauty and simplicity of life. The rural quality of Ireland, reinforced by sprinklings of homes in the lush valleys and the welcome appearance of small villages gathered near the banks of rivers was calming and soothing. We loved that on the narrow country roads, we were more often sharing the road with cows, pigs, and sheep rather than other cars. It was especially pleasing to come over a hill and suddenly see in the not-too-far-off distance, thatched roof cottages with smoke curling upwards from stone chimneys.
But there was another side of life in Ireland not so pleasant and not so immediately apparent. At that time, poverty, unemployment, fear, and the feeling of hopelessness was everywhere. Young people especially, were leaving the country
in droves because there was no future for them if they stayed in the country of their birth.
We visited the factory at Waterford, home of the renowned Waterford crystal and glass works. On the workshop floor, we chatted with a young man, about 30, who was taking a cigarette break.
His job was to get a glob of molten glass on the end of a blowpipe from the oven, then transfer it to the blower who would systematically shape it into a vase, bottle, or whatever. The blower
would blow a little, and as the glass cooled, he would give back the pipe and this fellow would heat it a little more, then pass it back to the blower. Hour after hour. Day after day.
We asked him, “Have you thought about doing something beside passing the glass back and forth?”
“Of course”, he replied, “every one of us working here wants to be a glassblower, but there is a hierarchy here, and no one can move up till someone above them dies. There's no place else for me to go, and I'm lucky to have this job. There's many around that's got no jobs at all”.
In those few words, he had summarized centuries of social problems, and the tone of his voice left no doubt about the depth of his anger and frustration.
Between our first and second visit, Ireland underwent a complete transformation in its character. Industry was booming everywhere; property values exploded, times were flush and the living
was good. Ireland even began importing workers from other countries in Europe.
One of the most impressive changes we noted was the grass roots movement being created among workers in cottage industries. Instead of waiting for the government to get around to taking care of their needs, artisans, craftsmen and women, musicians and performers banded together to form cooperatives which were useful in providing immediate support, both financial and psychological. These mostly young people found that having some success resulted in having more success, and many of them were able to measurably improve their lives. Pride and increasing self-esteem were seen and felt everywhere.
Unfortunately, the Great Recession has reversed some of the gains we saw on our second trip, but the people had learned valuable lessons they will draw on again to rebuild another time. Hope is no longer dead in Ireland.
Ever since Nancy and I started traveling., we have been aware of how fortunate we are to live in America, where anyone can advance beyond the circumstances into which he or she was born. We all have
the opportunity to literally become the best we can be, and anyone with a dream or an idea, some hard work and perseverance can "make it" in the US. The heavy limitations imposed under the Class System in Ireland prevented many people from "rising above their station". Rigidity and discrimination have always stifled initiative and destroyed hope and opportunity. Ireland was losing its younger population because there was no work for them. Countless young people left to become house servants or take dead end, low level positions in England- causing social and economic tensions in both countries.
In the 21st Century, it is good to see that people with dreams- and a willingness to persevere, have come to realize they can still accomplish what they wish, wherever they are in the world.