Dot writes: I’ve been rather mobile in the last few weeks, with two trips across the Irish sea to conferences so far this month, one by plane and coach to Leeds and one by boat, car and train to London. The conferences themselves have issued in a lot of feverish note-making for my book (which is much clearer in my head as a result; I wonder how long it’ll take me to actually write it?). The travelling, and the visits to old friends accomplished along the way, have involved catching up but also comparison. I took a day-trip to York at the end of the Leeds conference and was reminded what an enormously beautiful place it is and what a wrench it was to move away. London makes Dublin seem very small and sleepy (though this may also have to do with the way half Dublin’s rush hour traffic has mysteriously disappeared in the unusually sunny weather). London is in-yer-face huge, busy, booming, and casually stuffed with world class museums, architecture historical, modern and monumental, theatrical offerings of every variety, umpteen universities etc etc – though I did not, in the three days I was there, manage to find a reasonably attractive floppy hat. But these days I always feel relieved to get back to Ireland. Some of it’s relinquishing the strain of travel and returning to my family. Some of it, however, is about Ireland itself.
Places change when you leave them. They change both objectively and subjectively: objectively because time passes and things are built and made over and moved around, and subjectively because one’s sense of normal alters. I grew up in the country and found my first months living in a town claustrophobic and chaotic. The town was Oxford, as it happens, hardly the most grittily urban place, but I remember how I’d go for a long walk up Port Meadow every week just to get away from the buildings. Now when I return to England I find it all a bit much. It’s too crowded, too built-up, and too hectically full of stuff. Everywhere is full of signs telling you to do things or (more commonly) not do things. Every opportunity is an opportunity to buy something. It’s all very shiny but it’s a constant pressure that I feel lifting when I get back to Ireland. Dublin is a city of a million people, but you can always see the hills and you’re never far from the sea, and life is still that bit slower here.
I find myself repeatedly having the same conversations, at the conferences and with the old friends. Basically, they all boil down to: can you believe this government? Who voted for this crowd? Specific focuses are their attitude to the universities, their parcelling off of the NHS, cuts to this that and the other. At least in Ireland the government is cutting things because the IMF is telling them to. I know the current government in Westminster is a coalition and doesn’t have an overwhelming mandate from the people, but at the same time one still feels like a person standing on a sandbar as the tide comes up, the tide being the waves of all the people who just don’t care about the things I care about – like public services, the arts, intellectual inquiry, education for citizenship rather than just for jobs. My friend Suzanne, who was born in the US, says she feels in Britain that at least it’s better there than in her home country. She has had cancer treatment over the last few years and is a big fan of the NHS. But as an academic, despite the brutal funding cuts, pay cuts and staff freezes that we have experienced in the last few years in Irish Higher Education, I feel lucky to be where I am and not in Britain. At least we are spared idiocies like the REF and some measure of the galloping managerialism afflicting our colleagues across the sea.
In light of the above it may make sense that I’m investigating applying for Irish citizenship. However, it’s not really out of a desire to wash the dust of my native country from my feet in disgust. I will never cease to be English or consider myself Irish, though I love Ireland and feel at home here. The real reason, in fact, is that I now only seem able to engage with the public life of my own country in these dimensions of comparison (ooh! isn’t it big!) and jeremiad (it’s gone downhill since I left). I’m not caught up in the detail of it. It’s Ireland where I am personally and constantly affected by political processes, where I’m following the arguments from day to day in the papers and making my own small contributions through my engagement with my students and colleagues (and voting – let’s not forget voting). It’s Ireland, in fact, where I’m behaving like a citizen, rather than just a gossip. So I think it might make sense for this English woman to see about getting an Irish passport.