The numbers are staggering. According to a display on “The Irish Diaspora” at the Dublin Airport, no less than 70 million people worldwide claim Irish descent-42 million in the United States alone. Since 1841, an estimated half of all people born in Ireland emigrated. The blight wiped out the potato crop each year from 1845 to 1850, and the potato was virtually the only crop. One million people died, and 1.2 million emigrated, “the single greatest exodus in the 19th century.”

At the presidential mansion in Dublin’s Phoenix Park-a giant former game reserve now open to the public-a single light shines perpetually in one of the upper-story windows. It was put there by Ireland’s first female president, Mary Robinson, in the 1990s to commemorate all the émigrés who left and to say thanks for the monetary support they sent back, which helped the country through some of its darkest hours.

“History is not about power and triumph nearly so often as it is about suffering and vulnerability,” Robinson said. “The Famine is a central part of our past, a motif of powerlessness which runs through our national consciousness. It is also a human drama upon which we, as Irish people, place an enormous value, and by which we have been radically instructed.”

You can’t understand Ireland unless you understand that for 150 years, this island’s biggest export was its own people-and you can’t begin to appreciate the remarkable turnaround that has taken place in just the past 20 years. Some 200,000 Eastern Europeans have immigrated here in the last dozen years because the economy has outperformed most other European nations. A low corporate tax rate and an educated population have convinced companies like Microsoft to make Ireland their European headquarters.

Best of all, the Irish themselves no longer have to leave.

The population is educated because you don’t have to pay to go to college. That’s right, college is paid for. They’ve also banned smoking and plastic shopping bags started an aggressive anti-littering campaign. They’re closer to unity with Northern Ireland than anyone would have imagined 20-30 years ago. And judging by the raised social consciousness in evidence there, Bono of U2 is no aberration.

Next time someone tells you what can’t be done in the United States, tell them to visit Ireland.

But none of this was evident 34 years ago when I first visited the land of my ancestors-or the previous 800 years for that matter. For all the upbeat images people conjure when they think of Ireland, the story of the last eight centuries has largely been a tale of unrelenting misery, peppered by rebellion against the British overlords.

In 1973, Ireland was a lovely land with a depressed economy and a repressed culture. O’Connell Street was deserted and dark at night, making each doorway a safe refuge for young couples and their amorous encounters.

But at 6:30 a.m., Oct. 8, as my son and I got off the airport bus at Parnell Square in North Dublin at the head of O’Connell Street, the entire city seemed to explode all around us. People, mostly young, stormed past us in both directions heading to work. Nobody walks as fast as everyone does in Dublin. Bus after double-decker bus passed by, packed with commuters. If you’re smart, you don’t drive here. It was rush hour and most of it was taking place on the sidewalks.

The desk clerk let us stash our bags in a vault, so we took a walk that basically lasted till 6 that evening. How Dublin turned from a cultural tomb into one of the most vibrant cities I had visited was a mystery, but a very pleasant surprise. The place felt electric.

We set off for St. James Gate and the Guinness Brewery tour, walking through the winding streets of this fair city-where the girls really are so pretty-past pubs and parish churches, colorful Georgian rowhouse doors, and bastions of bustling modern commerce.

The Guinness tour, located in a reconfigured storehouse with a seven-story atrium shaped like a beer glass, is a shrine to Arthur Guinness and his foresight. Guinness managed somehow to negotiate a 9,000-year lease for 45 pounds a year for this land on the River Liffey. Wonder if he had to pay it all upfront.

A circular ramp winds ever upward, exhibit after hyperbolic exhibit (this is the company, after all, that claims “Guinness is good for you!”) to an enclosed observation deck with a 360-degree view where you can peruse the port, the Wicklow Mountains (where the 8 million liters of water per day comes from), and Phoenix Park (the largest city park in Europe, twice as large as New York’s Central Park) while sipping a complementary pint of “ruby-red” (another questionable claim), creamy-headed (nitrogenated) stout. Best to go first thing in the morning before the crowds swell.

We roamed and ranged far through this lovely city until we finally came to Croke Park, an enormous stadium where the All Ireland Hurling and Gaelic Football championships take place each year. Soccer and Rugby came from the English, so they’re secondary to the two all-amateur national sports where county still competes against county for bragging rights (Kilkenny is the current Hurling champ while Kerry claimed the Gaelic Football championship).

The stadium also houses the Gaelic Athletic Association Museum, which includes an interactive exhibit where we took a few swipes with a hurling paddle (like an oversized field hockey stick). The Irish claim it’s the fastest field sport in the world, and judging from the film clips, it’s not for the faint of heart. But it’s all for local pride. The athletes don’t get paid.

A way with words

Dublin is a city you could spend a full week walking in, but all we had was a full week and a booked tour, titled “A Taste of Ireland,” through CIE International (Corus Iompar Erin or “Ireland Transport Company”). The next day, after visiting St. Stephen’s Green and the Grafton Street Mall (a prominent location in the Irish film Once), we hooked up with our tour group, led by guide Dominic Dixon who did all the driving-and most of the talking-for the next five days.

Not that any of us were complaining. As eloquent as any people on earth, the Irish have a gift for gab and a way with words as enjoyable to listen to as the sights are pleasing to the eye.

As Dominic drove around Dublin, a woman named Maura gave the first tour, explaining at the outset that “we were all bread and buttered here, and we’re still living here for our sins.” She pointed out the parliament building as we passed, “where you sell your soul.” The museum of natural history, she described as, “our dead zoo.” The statue of Molly Malone (cockles and mussels, alive-alive oh) at one end of the Grafton Mall (which disproves our notion that pedestrian malls don’t work) was known, she said, locally as either “The Dish with the Fish, the Tart with the Cart, or the Trollop with the Scallop.” The giant spire sculpture on O’Connell Street-tallest in the world-a boondoggle meant to commemorate the new millennium, has been branded “the Stiletto in the Ghetto, the Nail in the Pale, or the Shaft in the Draft”-along with a number of obscene designations she couldn’t mention.

Maura noted that Guinness brews 4 million pints daily and exports 60 percent of it. “I haven’t a clue what we do with the rest,” she said coyly. “It’s an acquired taste, but once acquired, it’s hard to lose.” Doctors once recommended it as a tonic for nursing mothers. Since Arthur Guinness had 21 children, she added, his wife really needed it, whereas “[Arthur] needed to give it up.”

Later, we watched one of the Rugby World Cup matches in our hotel room, where the announcers described the action in very un-American terms-“brilliant,” “mighty,” “riveting.” One clutch play generated the admiring adage, “Cometh the moment, cometh the man.”

Though Gaelic (or “Irish”) is the national language (found first on every sign), this long-oppressed people not only absorbed the oppressors’ language, they spoke and wrote rings around it. The Irish have produced four Nobel Prize winners in literature-William Butler Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, Samuel Beckett, and Seamus Heaney-more than any other nation, and that doesn’t even include the likes of James Joyce, Jonathan Swift or Oscar Wilde. The latter’s statue can be found reclining, a little tipsy-looking, on a large boulder in the corner of Merrion Square park, gazing bemused across the street at the Georgian home where he once lived. A small shrine lists some of his more colorful quotes:

“There is no sin except stupidity.”

“I drink to keep body and soul apart.”

“Only dull people are brilliant at breakfast.”

“Most people are other people.”

“We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”

“This suspense is terrible. I hope it will last.”

“Lying, the telling of beautiful untrue things, is the proper aim of art.”

“Nothing that is worth knowing can be taught.”

Varnishing the truth

Verbal artistry, as every tourist in Ireland knows, is bestowed by kissing the Blarney Stone down near Cork, where we made our way the next day. I’ve now kissed it three times, and bent over backward to do so.

Blarney is a national pastime, and according to the explanation on the wall of the castle turret where we waited in line for this ridiculous ritual, blarney is not the same as baloney. Baloney is b.s. Meeting a higher standard, blarney is “the varnished truth.”

Dominic was definitely a practitioner, and I could have listened to him talk all day. As a matter of fact, we did. As we drove south and west, beyond the pale (the “Pale” being the seat of British rule immediately surrounding Dublin Castle-going “beyond the pale” meant the British were likely to get shot at), past Cork to the Ring of Kerry and up to the Cliffs of Moher, Dominic regaled us with stories about the history, geography, and cultural achievements of the island.

The patchwork-quilt countryside, he pointed out, was formed by the thick, brambly hedgerows, planted to soak up Ireland’s excessive rainfall and make the fields arable. We passed a surprising number of palm trees, which survive and even thrive in this non-tropical northern clime because the weather is never extreme-except last summer when they endured 90 straight days of rain. During our mid-October week, it never rained and the temperature hovered around 60, which was fortunate since I forgot to bring along a coat.

Dominic, who has spent a lot of time in the Aran Islands off the west coast, claimed that when Gaelic speakers greet one another, the first says, “God be with you.” The other replies, “God and Mary be with you.” To which the first says, “God and Mary and Patrick be with you,” which is followed by “God and Mary and Patrick and Bridget” and so on, all the way to Columkille if they feel like it. “Nobody says ‘Top of the morning’ or ‘Faith and Begorrah’ in Ireland,” he assured us.

And he also cleared up the nagging misperception that somehow we were driving on “the wrong side of the road.” The custom, he said, goes back to medieval times when knights, approaching on another on horseback, needed to be on the left so their sword-hand (the right) would be ready in the event of conflict. “So no more lip,” Dominic said. “We drive on the original side of the road.” He blamed the switch on Napolean.

Hurling, he added, is the national sport, not something that takes place outside the pub late on a Saturday night.

A new day

In Ireland, you can’t escape history and Dominic summarized the full sweep of the last 800 years-which was beneficial for my son, who has been interested in his heritage and found this a most pleasant way to hear it all for the first time.

And what a saga it is-rebellion after rebellion, ever on the brink of independence, it seemed, each episode ending, Dominic would say, in “total catastrophe.”

“A terrible beauty is born,” wrote Yeats of Irish independence, when it finally happened in the 1920s. Ireland has always been equal parts “terrible” and “beauty.”

But in just the last 12 years, “terrible” has faded. Seeing Ireland as a prosperous country takes some getting used to. Of course, the prices have also shot up (along with an unfavorable Euro exchange), but who can begrudge them, knowing their history?

The scenery hasn’t changed, however, and even though our tour was geared for the first-time mainstream tourist, I was relieved to see the country hadn’t turned into some giant theme park for nostalgic Irish-Americans. It remains a beautiful land, especially in the rugged west, with its perpetual interplay between clouds and light-a dance of sunshine and shadow-which parallels the endless dialectic between past and present.

“Sometimes,” Dominic noted, “we get all four seasons in one day.”

Pubs, of course, are plentiful and the “pub grub” now of higher quality (to go with the higher prices). The music, played on fiddles, banjos, button accordions, tin pipes and bhodrans, along with lively step-dancing, are mighty diversions (“craic” in native parlance). The pub experience, at its best, allows you to thumb your nose at the tyranny of time.

And yes, you’re going to hear “Danny Boy,” which has become a cultural cliché in the U.S., but here turns back into an anthem to the émigré experience. The only thing comparable in our culture is “Shenandoah,” another song about departing and never returning. “Danny Boy” (technically “Londonderry Air”) is just such a song of loss and nostalgia, and the number of Americans who return here each year is testament to the truth of its sentimentality. It touches the mutual ache that binds the Irish to those who left.

For all the “lilt of Irish laughter” we romanticize, Irish songs are often sad, reflecting a painful history. As we drove through Tralee, Dominic told the true story of their famous “Rose,” commemorated each August with a festival during which, beauty pageant-like, a new Rose is crowned. Any girl of Irish descent is eligible. The event is televised.

“It’s an absolutely dreadful competition,” Dominic said. “They lay it on with a trowel.”

The heart-broken suitor, one William Mulchinock back in 1820, was born into a wealthy family but fell in love with a servant girl. His family tried to break up the romance by framing him for a murder at one of Daniel O’Connell’s “monster meetings” during the push for Irish independence. To avoid prison, William lived in exile for a couple of years. When he came back, he discovered that his beloved Mary O’Connor had died the week before of tuberculosis.

A broken man, he “took to the bottle,” but he also composed one of Ireland’s loveliest, sad songs, which Dominic proceeded to sing for us, a number of passengers joining in.

The pale moon was rising above the green mountain

The sun was declining beneath the blue sea

When I strayed with my love to the pure crystal fountain

That stands in beautiful vale of Tralee.

Later that day, I stood at the edge of the 700-foot Cliffs of Moher next to my son, who is roughly the age I was when I first visited Ireland 34 years ago-two descendents of émigrés, looking over the ocean upon which our shared ancestors embarked.

“This pretty much ruins the rest of the Earth for me,” he said, as we gazed down.

He’s definitely getting the hang of this blarney thing.

The Irish say you get 20 years of being born, 20 years of growing, 20 years of living, and 20 years of dying. You know you’re in the presence of a terrible beauty when it breaks your heart a little to leave because you don’t know if you’ll ever be back.

That’s Ireland for you.

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