I returned to France this weekend from a two-week visit to Belfast and was struck, not for the first time, that no one I met during my homeward journey, via Dublin, was Irish. Everyone I encountered on the Irish Ferries ship, the mv Epsilon, was from Eastern Europe, mainly Poland. If there was an Irish crew member on board, he was keeping himself quiet.
Mind you, most of the truckers using the route, that plies weekly from Dublin to Cherbourg, were also East European, working I would say for Irish hauliers. Of the car-owners, maybe half were Irish, others French and the rest, so far as I could tell, Polish and Romanian.
The same was true in the terminal area, where the only Irish citizens I encountered were either police officers or immigration officials, and in the motorway service area just outside Dublin where we stopped to buy diesel and sandwiches. There were Poles and (I would guess) Lithuanians, Latvians and Slovaks. There were also Africans, most likely from Nigeria or Somalia. But the fact is, had I gone for lunch in Dublin, or stayed overnight in any of the city’s many grand hotels, the demographics would have been much the same.
Most of the jobs I have described pay a decent wage. Some are highly skilled. Nearly all require an ability to deal efficiently with the travelling public. So my question is, why are there no Irish people working on Irish Ferries, or in Irish motorway service areas, or Irish hotels, or Irish restaurants? Where have they all gone? Are they hiding or maybe in the back offices counting the money? They can’t all be making their fortunes in Brussels and Brooklyn. They can’t all own bars in Paris, Rome and Barcelona.
I should add that I’m not complaining. Everyone I came across on board the Epsilon or in the M50 service area was polite and hard-working. and the country is clearly booming – well on the way, you’d have to say, to its next existential crisis. But you do have to wonder about the long-term impact of the transformation.
When I worked for the Irish Times in Dublin back in the 1970s, you hardly ever met anyone, other than tourists, who wasn’t Irish. There were maybe three Indian and half a dozen Chinese restaurants in the city centre area, at least one of which served after-hours dishes from a bucket, plus, if I remember rightly, some sort of Russian tearoom. The few Italian restaurants there were were late-night spaghetti joints and the only half-decent French eatery, off Grafton Street, was patronised primarily by the business class trying to impress clients.
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To say that Dublin has changed since those distant days is to say the least. But I repeat, my concern is not with the improvements that foreign workers and investors have brought about over the last 20 years or so, but with the effective disappearance of the Irish from their own shopfront
Are they all so bloody well-educated these days that they wouldn’t be seen dead working in a hotel or restaurant, never mind a cross-channel ferry? Are they all bankers now, or traders, or contract lawyers, or Ryanair pilots, or writers? Would they die of shame if their son or daughter drove a taxi or took a job on the reception desk at the Gresham?
If so, how come so many of them work in bars in New York, Paris and London? Are these the ones who couldn’t make the grade, or are they part of some kind of artisan exchange scheme in which everyone earns more and feels better about themselves just as long as they are employed anywhere else other than in their own country?
The population of the Republic is currently reckoned at around 4.65 million – well up on the three million that struggled to earn a crust in my young day. The total would be higher if hundreds of thousands of would-be workers, including a majority of graduates, hadn’t left the country in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, and again in the five years after the financial crash of 2008. Given that contraception ceased to be a mortal sin sometime around 1973, there had to be an explanation for the increase, and there was. Following the accession to the EU of the former East Bloc in 2004, the ongoing Irish exodus was met, and surpassed, by a countervailing incursion from Poland and other East European countries that recently passed the quarter of a million mark. Add to these a similar influx from the UK and the rest of the world, including Africa, and the Oul Sod is starting to look less Irish than Kilburn.
It’s partly a class thing. The educated middle classes are thriving. South Dublin in particular could give Notting Hill and Hampstead a run for their money. It’s the working class that is fast disappearing, often to London, New York or Sydney. If things go on as they have in recent years, the plain people of Ireland, certainly in the greater Dublin area, will soon only exist in the pages of Roddy Doyle novels, either replaced or culturally overlaid by citizens of foreign origin. Maybe this is no bad thing. It could be that the Irish gene will have gone global, benefiting humanity as a whole, while in Ireland itself all that remains will be the “brand” and the idea, or commodity, of history as a misery memoir.
The fact of the matter is that the Irish have either moved up or moved on, and as proof of their newly elevated status they have handed over their dungarees and high-visibility vests to the new gastarbeiter class. You’ll still meet the odd traditional Dub turning the corner in Baggot Street or propping up the bar in Doheny & Nesbitt’s, or maybe stepping out the way of a puddle of British sick after midnight on Temple Bar. But mainly they are working hard at turning themselves into a minority in their own country. Either that or they’ve found the crock of gold at the end of the rainbow and they wouldn’t pick up a shovel or pull a pint if you paid them.