THIS EDITION OF The Scottish Review of Books takes its lead from First Minister, Alex Salmond, who is eager that we engage in a national conversation. Not content, however, simply to talk to ourselves we have engaged in a dialogue with our Irish cousins. For facilitating this we are grateful to the Arts and Humanities Research Council Centre for Irish and Scottish Studies at the University of Aberdeen which, together with its partners, Queens University, Belfast, and Trinity College, Dublin, is responsible for studying how Scot-land and Ireland connect contemporaneously and historically. In particular, we would like to acknowledge the help and suggestions given by Dr Cairns Craig, the Centre’s Director.
In his book, Luck and the Irish, reviewed here by Graham Walker, Roy Foster notes that the pace of change in Ireland over the past three decades has been “bewildering”. In part, says Foster, this was because “the archaic nature of life in Ireland up to then” made the shock of the new seem all the more radical. In Scotland, as he intimates, many people looked westwards where they saw many parallels to their own situation. These Foster describes as “intriguing”, as undoubtedly they are. How meaningful and helpful they are is another matter. Of late, for example, the Scottish government appears to have been looking eastwards, to Scandinavian countries such as Norway, for ideas about this country’s future direction.
No one, though, least of all Mr Salmond, is likely to underplay or underestimate the importance of Ireland to Scotland and vice versa. To Scottish eyes what has happened in Ireland since the 1970s is nothing short of remarkable. Our first visit was in the 1980s and even then Ireland seemed begrimed in the kind of poverty which in previous generations forced many of its citizens to flee elsewhere. It was, however, rich in culture. The pubs around Grafton Street, familiar to readers of James Joyce and Flann O’Brien, Brendan Behan and Patrick Kavanagh, reeked of character and literary lore, as pungently evoked in Anthony Cronin’s Dead as Doornails. This was bohemian Dublin, a place where more novels and poems were lost in alcoholic hazes than were ever written.
With each visit, though, Dublin changed, at first subtly, then dramatically, then utterly. Dublin today, Ireland today, are not like they were yesterday. One small amazing fact, as related here by Hugo Hamilton: more people in Ireland speak Chinese than Irish. Walk down O’Connell Street and you will hear the evidence. This is a multi-cultural Ireland, a far cry from the parochial – but charming – backwater of old. There are those who think this a wonder to behold, others who bemoan the descent into international sameness. It is a similar story in Scotland. But where Ireland and Scotland palpably differ is constitutionally. Ireland, at least in the south, is an independent nation. As a challenging Irish-Scottish Forum in Aberdeen last November on economic and cultural development brought clearly into focus, Ireland can do things Scotland can’t. Scotland is a nation, but it is not independent. Whether it becomes such we will know shortly. In the meantime, Scotland looks to Ire-land in the hope of foretelling its future. What it sees is partly what concerns this issue of The Scottish Review of Books. It is a complex, fascinating and contentious story.
On a recent visit to Ireland we met a writer, a novelist, who has done well out of the new Ireland. For him, Ireland’s sloughing off of its past was double-edged. He was happy that the Troubles in the north have been resolved and that Ireland is thriving economically. He was pleased, too, to see the influence of the Catholic church diminished and to feel the bracing air of liberal modernity blow through daily life. For him, as for many others, there was the option of working in his homeland and making a decent living. This was not something that previous generations of writers and artists could countenance. On the other hand, he had the feeling that the good times couldn’t last and he was worried about what might happen if the economy buckled. In the times of plenty, had the money been well spent? Had Ireland invested properly in its infrastructure? These questions remain unanswered. How they are resolved is hopefully for future Irish-Scottish issues of The Scottish Review of Books to address. Meanwhile, we hope you enjoy this one.
IN THE LAST issue of The Scottish Review of Books we explained that we expect soon to announce the membership of a Board of Trustees, which will become the new publisher of the magazine. This is imminent and will be in place by the next issue which is due out in December. For the moment, however, it is very much business as usual.