DUBLIN, Ireland — There are no people on Earth as romantic as the French. No one is punctual like the Swiss. The Germans have defined a sense of order. The Italians know how to eat. And no one, I mean no one, does misery like the Irish.
Ireland's well-chronicled story of rags to riches to rags again is a cautionary tale of the early 21st century. A country reared on hardship, famine and oppression has, after a brief turn in the economic sun, been cast back into the misty gloom of struggle.
FOR THE RECORD:
Ireland: In the Sept. 30 Travel section, an information box accompanying an article about Ireland said that prices for a double room at Ashford Castle range from $114. That rate is per person. The article also said that the $486 airfare to Dublin, Ireland, included taxes and fees. It did not. The correct airfare, including taxes and fees, is about $1,000. —
But lately I've begun to notice that a mischievous quality has sneaked in under the cloak of misery the Irish have put back on with disarming ease after the good times ended. There is still plenty of suffering to go around, but the place has begun to get a buzz about it again — one that reminds me of the country I knew and loved so well.
I first landed in Ireland 25 years ago, and as it is today, The Misery was on the land. The '80s were a dreary time of inflation, double-digit interest rates and a stagnant economy.
Yet the very direness of the situation swung doors wide to me that might never have opened had the people's necessity not dictated. I paid strangers just a few pounds to sleep in their spare rooms. I ate breakfast at the family table and in the evening watched the Rose of Tralee beauty contest on a black-and-white television beside a mother and father with a vested interest.
Of course, I drank too much in smoky and welcoming pubs, and I played bad golf on wild, spectacular and deserted courses. For a few hundred dollars I joined one such club in Lahinch, and to this day I receive my annual bag tag, one of my most prized possessions.
I returned to Ireland every year — until I missed a year, and then another, and then nearly a decade had passed. When I finally returned, the economic upturn known as the Celtic Tiger had begun its voracious assault on the land — a change that seemed at first as miraculous as it did unlikely.
Within a few years at the turn of this century, Ireland began to transform from a charming bog to the poster child of European Union dreams. Farmers put down their beloved Guinness and picked up Pinot Grigio. Dublin morphed from a dank backwater into a sophisticated metropolis. Helicopters were chartered to fly across the country for a lunch of fresh Galway oysters at Moran's, and then back to the posh suburb of Dalkey in time for dinner. Property prices soared, and credit was easy. The going was good.
I too succumbed to the fever that was gripping the land and bought a home. Yet from my outsider's perspective, something in the auld sod was being lost along the way to prosperity. The pubs banned smoking, but the warm welcome also seemed to go up in smoke. The playful twinkle in the eye and the friendly slag were replaced by an aloof disinterest. The good-natured blarney had become boasting bluster.
Neither people nor countries get rich quick gracefully, I concluded. I was glad the Irish were finally having their moment in the sun, but for me, the place had begun to lose its magic.
And then it all went to hell. Seemingly overnight, housing prices plummeted (and are down 55% from their height in 2007). Unemployment recently hit 14.9%. Many of the Eastern European laborers who had flooded the land have gone home.
The Irish have been left alone to nurse a vicious hangover.
Yet in the midst of all this hardship something strange has begun to happen: The restaurants appear packed again, pubs are overflowing onto the street, there's laughter around town. Could the Irish really be rising up and dusting themselves off?
Is this just wishful thinking on my part — a desire to recapture an earlier time of innocence? I decide to head to the one place in Ireland a man goes when looking for answers to life's bigger questions.
At the bustling bar in Kehoe's Pub on South Anne Street in Dublin, the Guinness is flowing and the chat is in full swing. On first glance, not much has changed since the gold rush days of 2004.