Come home and make this place poor again

A friend from Ireland who now lives abroad told me this week about how his father had said to him, “My hope for you is that you’ll eventually come back to Ireland and make this place poor again”.

Anyone who has ever met an Irish person whose memory stretches back beyond the early 90’s has probably at some stage heard tales of hardship and poverty, which are invariably concluded with the Irish-as-it-gets coda, “We hadn’t much, but we were happy”. Ireland was dirt poor back then, and yet in these times of huge economic success, it’s still the tough times that we recall most fondly.

Thinking about this, I’ve noticed that the people I talk to about the state of the nation are almost always friends of mine who have moved away but that I keep in touch with. I guess nothing makes you question your own national identity more than leaving it behind. They think about what their Ireland was like, and if they will be able to reconnect with it in the same way if they ever decide to return – if their stride will fall in with the pace of new Irish life.

If someone from another country asks me what Ireland is like, I find it really difficult to provide a straight answer. How can you talk about Ireland today without reference to Ireland twenty years ago, even though they are completely different countries? Things are expensive now, they were cheap then (but we couldn’t afford them anyway); we’re all sophisticated now, we were oh-so-unknowing then; things are exciting and fast now – things were slow then.

That’s what people miss when they get nostalgic: the pace, the slowness. Here we are, crashing headlong into a bright new era where we’ve got all this choice and freedom and opportunity (and don’t get me wrong, this is certainly A Good Thing). But when we all become busy, successful city-dwellers, we miss out on the interactions that slow-paced country life affords us. Sure, it’s partly a romantic conceit, but it’s also a human need for close contact and reflection. That’s not an Irish thing, it’s universal.

It seems that the spiritually-attuned East is leading the way in active change here. Kakegawa City has declared itself a “Slow Life city”, and drawn up this Slow Life manifesto:

SLOW PACE: We value the culture of walking, to be fit and to reduce traffic accidents. SLOW WEAR: We respect and cherish our beautiful traditional costumes, including woven and dyed fabrics, Japanese kimonos and Japanese night robes (yukata). SLOW FOOD: We enjoy Japanese food culture, such as Japanese dishes and tea ceremony, and safe local ingredients. SLOW HOUSE: We respect houses built with wood, bamboo, and paper, lasting over one hundred or two hundred years, and are careful to make things durably, and ultimately, to conserve our environment. SLOW INDUSTRY: We take care of our forests, through our agriculture and forestry, conduct sustainable farming with human labor, and ultimately spread urban farms and green tourism. SLOW EDUCATION: We pay less attention to academic achievement, and create a society in which people can enjoy arts, hobbies, and sports throughout our lifetimes, and where all generations can communicate well with each other. SLOW AGING: We aim to age with grace and be self-reliant throughout our lifetimes. SLOW LIFE: Based on the philosophy of life stated above, we live our lives with nature and the seasons, saving our resources and energy.

None of this requires you to be poor, or pre-modern, or unsuccessful. It just requires you to reasses what you deem success to be.

So what did my friend’s Dad mean when he said he wanted Ireland to be poor again? I’m pretty sure he wasn’t wishing that we all had less money. Obviously he wanted his son to come home. Maybe he also wanted him bring with him some perspective on the country, a change of pace, and the return of what he misses about the romantic Ireland (dead and gone?) that his son lived in.


(For more on this, see The Pope’s Children, Japan Grows a Beard, Wabi-Sabi, Slow Food Ireland, Griffner Coillte, and the wonderful RTÉ documentary series ‘Hands’)

— 21 Jan 2006