'A CITY A WEEK...' resumes this week with the first of a two-part focus on Dublin, Ireland. 'Part I' is a recollection of my long ago time there as a high school exchange student while 'Part II' will focus on Dublin as the marvelous present day destination it has become.
...and for those who want a more literary focus on Dublin, as part of Scuppernong Book's Travel Talk series, I will be leading a discussion of James Joyce's The Dubliners next Thursday, July 14, 2016, at 7:00 p.m.
I was once an exchange student in Dublin—the first semester of my senior year in high school, during the fall of 1973. That Dublin—the Dublin of ’73—was a place of great foreignness to me, a then moderately well-traveled 17-year-old from a comfortable background who--when not on this Irish adventure--attended a small, progressive private school in Charlotte, North Carolina.
I knew very, very little of Ireland’s strengths—her native sons’ and daughters’ towering literary achievements might never have been published given the illumination they had provided me before my time in Dublin. I had read Wilde, Swift and that then great favorite of all disaffected youths, Samuel Beckett, but none had acquainted me with the essentials of being Irish—how deeply different being Irish was—and is—from being English. Those that might have helped with this understanding—Joyce and Synge, in particular—were still up ahead in my reading life.
I also had only the barest grasp of Ireland’s traumatizing political history. I was at least marginally up on my facts. As I recall I did know the date of Irish Independence—December 6, 1921—thanks to my high school’s very strong history department. What I was not up on—what I had no inkling of—was the residue left by centuries of humiliating English domination. Experiencing the freshness and depth of the enmity most Irish felt towards the English was as bracing as a slap. This was bone-deep and utterly elemental stuff with absolutely no correlates for a kid from the American suburbs of the 1970’s.
My Protestant background was a source of further opacity and consternation. While in Dublin, I attended a Catholic girls school where even my Southern manners worked against me. My form of highest respect—‘yes ma’am’ or ‘no ma’am’—seemed to be nothing short of an excruciating insult to the nuns. Unfortunately for all involved, very rarely was my first response the appropriate, expected ‘yes, sister’/‘no, sister’. I persisted with ‘ma’am’ until the end. Not out of spite but out of a nervous if misguided desire to please. Not that the nuns knew or cared. To them, I was clearly and simply a bold creature for whom there was no hope or redemption.
And finally, there was the ‘material modesty’, for lack of a better phrase. I had grown up in that era of great American plenty, the post-war years. I was used to so much. My family was, indeed, solidly 'comfortable' but no more than that and so the difference was not in wealth, per se. Nonetheless, as an American, I was just accustomed to so much. Our cars were so big. Our houses, so big. Our everything, so big. Ireland was then the poorest country in Europe and while I saw little outright poverty in and around Dublin, I was constantly aware of a carefulness in regards to every material thing. This was a final source of constant contrast between what I had known before and this other life—one which was apparently being lived by an entire nation without grave ill effects.
I was so homesick during that fall that at any given moment—for the entire stay—I knew exactly how many days I had left in this strange place—how many days before I could go home. I had figuratively if not literally gone a very long way out from shore, from the shore of home, the known and the comfortable. It was a big experience and I was really just a kid, after all.
Despite all this though and in a very real way, my experiences in Dublin mark the beginning of my abiding appreciation and love of travel.
When I finally returned to the US a few days before Christmas in 1973, home seemed different—everything seemed different. America literally hurt my eyes—its bigness was now too bright. Strangely, it had only taken four months to become unaccustomed to all I had ever known.
The old cliché has it that ‘travel broadens the mind’. After my experiences in Ireland that long ago fall, it has always seemed more accurate to say ‘travel broadens the world’.