In Ireland Unhinged, the Author Searches for Ireland’s Heart and Soul in the Shadow of the ‘Celtic Tiger’
By Peter F. Stevens
In 2000, the author David Monagan did something many Irish Americans dream of, but never get around to doing for countless reasons personal and professional. He and his family sold their home in Connecticut and moved the proverbial “lock, stock, and barrel” to Cork where he embarked upon a self-avowed search for “Ireland’s soul,” the Ireland he remembered and cherished from a year spent in Dublin in the early 1970s.
What he, his wife, and his children found when they set foot in Ireland was a nation grappling with the tenets and traditions of the past in the face of the spreading sweep of the economic force dubbed the “Celtic Tiger.” Monagan’s incisive, witty, and compelling account of his first few years in Ireland was Jaywalking with the Irish (2004), which established him as a unique and uniquely gifted observer of his adopted home.
What he observed over the past six years or so in Ireland infuses the pages of his new book, Ireland Unhinged: Encounters with a Wildly Changing Country, and he has crafted a work that is wildly entertaining, often disturbing, sometimes gut-wrenching, sometimes fall-down funny, and always an illuminating look at what remains of old Irish ways, what the new ways have wrought, and what the road beyond the fallen Tiger might hold. From his conversations with such literary titans as Seamus Heaney and J.P. Donleavy, whose international 1955 bestseller The Ginger Man is often called the Irish Catcher in the Rye, to a Donegal witch, IRA gunmen, avaricious speculators, and myriad other memorable characters in travels throughout the island, Monagan has peered into his adopted country then and now with insights that are must reading for anyone interested in Ireland.
Monagan, who also wrote the critically acclaimed Journey into the Heart (Penguin, 2007), about pioneers of modern medicine, has contributed articles on Ireland to a wide array of publications including Forbes Life, Los Angeles Times, Miami Herald, San Francisco Chronicle, the Sunday Times, The Guardian, and numerous Irish newspapers and magazines. In Boston to kick off his book tour for Ireland Unhinged, Monagan sat down with the BIR to talk about his work.
Q. What factor or factors compelled you to write Ireland Unhinged?
A. I started the book some three years ago – before the big crash. From almost the moment we arrived in Ireland, it felt like a Gold Rush coming everywhere, and in many ways traditional values were going out the window. It grew, and it became obvious that the Ireland we had moved to was changing radically. The sense was one of emotional weight.
Q. As a transplant, do you believe that you were – are – able to view the economic blight through a different prism or viewpoint?
A. Perhaps because I’d relocated there seeking some inherent, immutable essence of Irish life, I could see how things were disappearing. I found myself thinking that I don’t know what Ireland’s becoming anymore. Still, in many areas, all that makes Ireland and the Irish such a unique people remains, always will, I believe.
What I did see was a nation that made a lot of bad choices, and while the bankers and speculators brought all to their knees, the fact is that the middle class bought into it all, bought into sheer speculation in real estate. Everyone was betting on the next pot of gold, on the idea that the boom would never end.
A neighbor told me, “You can never lose on Irish real estate.” There was just this delirium about property in Ireland.” As it was all happening – even before the bust – I was wondering what’s the emotional and spiritual relevance here?
Q. Do you believe that at least in part, the real-estate “delirium” had some grounding in traditional Irish views of property – for example, the historical fact that for centuries, even owning a small plot was denied so many in Ireland?
A. I do think that there’s some validity to the theme that land is historically it for the Irish. When you break Irish confidence in property, you’re hitting deep at the very spirit of the Irish. Still, I refuse to accept any so-called gospel truth about the so-called Irish character. I do believe that confidence doesn’t come naturally to Ireland – for reasons historical, cultural, social, and religious. It’s complicated stuff. I also believe that in Ireland there’s still a sense of wonder, versus the weariness and outright cynicism in so many other places.
Q. Have you found that there are some in Ireland who blame the U.S. for the collapse?
A. Actually, I’ve found that there’s very little blame on the U.S. Instead, the Irish have this national sense of “what did we do wrong, where did we go wrong?” The middle-class understands that they bought into this. Many in Ireland believe that the U.S. is the only one that can lead everyone out of this mess.
Q. Do you still feel like a bit of an outsider and still somewhat impartial observer, or more someone with an Irish sensibility?
A. I’m a person between two worlds – not fully an outsider. I think that I grow more Irish every day, but will never be as Irish as someone born there. As a writer and observer, it perhaps allows a bit more acuity.
Ireland Unhinged: Encounters with a Wildly Changing Country, by David Monagan; Council Oak Books; ISBN 978-1-57178-252-6; hardcover; 286 pages; $28.