Moving through Shannon International for the first time in fifteen years, I sense that Ireland has changed -- perhaps even, as Yeats had it, changed utterly.
The people piling off our Aer Lingus flight are different from the way they were, if similarly freckled. Younger and well dressed, they lug better luggage than the people I recall. There are many more of them than there used to be; the plane was full. They are smiling, and so are the kin who greet them in baggage claim. There is none of the slowness, the sense of mourn that I remember.
"And how old is the wee one?" asks Mary, the clerk at the hire-car desk, tickling our baby under the chin. Everyone's named Mary here -- Mary or John or a variation on John.
"Lovely. Hello, wee one. Your first visit?"
"It is," I answer for Caroline. "Daddy was here once before -- a while ago."
"Ah," says Mary. "Well, it's better now."
That's what we'd heard; that's why we're here. My last trip over certainly wasn't a bad one. After all, I got to tee it up at six of the great links courses. But there was a melancholy tinge to the visit. I was playing ancient games in what seemed a very old land: worn, tattered, wispy haired, tired. Ireland was a lament. Things were lousy with the British, and every youth who had not fled in the diaspora was unemployed. The golf courses were undeniably lovely -- they confirmed the old saw that all of the best golf courses in Scotland are in Ireland -- and they left vivid memories. But images of a thousand tinkers camping by the roadside were equally indelible. Loving Ireland as I did -- loving the idea of it, the people who lived there, the place itself -- I didn't want to go back. It made me sad to think about it.
Then things started to happen. Irish culture exploded -- the music, the movies, that weird boy Michael Flatley, Frank McCourt. Mary Robinson happened -- a woman president in Ireland. Mirabile dictu, a cease-fire happened. The European Economic Community happened, and emptied pots of gold onto the island. Second homes sprouted on the moors; Irish yuppies developed a taste for fine wines. "The Celtic Tiger," they called this new economy. "The kids are going back," my paddy friend Mike told me at Molly's one night. "Ireland's hot. Even the food's good." Surely, this was an impossibility. It was time to investigate.