IRELAND prides itself upon its reputation as a society which is welcoming to strangers and willing to offer refuge to people in need. For over 300 years Irish people have been forced from their homes by war, famine and disease and have put down roots in the New Worlds of America, Australia, New Zealand and even the industrial cities of the old enemy Britain. For generations there has been a sense that the Irish owe the world a favour.
This island is a land of céad míle fáilte, one hundred thousand welcomes, a slogan which has served the tourist industry well for more than 80 years and brought hundreds of thousands of visitors to see the humble hearths that gave the world American Presidents from Andrew Jackson to Joe Biden and film stars from John Wayne to Liam Neeson. A statue to Grace Kelly, who became princess Grace of Monaco, was unveiled in Newport county Mayo in March. Her grandfather emigrated from nearby Drimurla to Philadelphia in 1887. She visited the old homestead three times.
Even the most out of the way places will offer a sincere welcome and some depend upon visitors for their livelihoods. The Gunpowder Distillery in Leitrim, traditionally one of the most emigration-stricken counties in Ireland, is a classic example and is now a major employer and tourist attraction in Drumshanbo. There are 59 major festivals taking place this summer from the Blackwater Opera festival in Waterford and New Ross Piano festival in Wexford to the Cat Laughs comedy festival in Kilkenny. Actor Tom Hanks will attend Dalkey Book festival later this month. Almost every small town hosts smaller events to attract visitors. Ballyshannon in Donegal has a blues festival this month and a folk festival in August.
While there are no shortage of violent criminals in this country the vast majority of Irish folk are forgiving and open-hearted, eager to share their stories and enjoy a drink with new friends. Earlier this month I spent a pleasant afternoon, over a couple of stout, with my neighbour’s brother from Ohio. I have cousins in Traverse City in Michigan. Even the disgraced former President of the United States Donald Trump gets a cheerful reception when he visits his loss-making golf course at Doonbeg in county Clare, after all he does pay the bills.
But Ireland is changing fast. The Blarney and the welcome, for many, are wearing thin. For visitors the high price of accommodation and the cost of food and drink are becoming a real deterrent to a holiday in a country which many formed their opinions about by watching The Quiet Man or The Banshees of Inisherin. The reality of a vacation in modern Ireland is very different if you have only a modest budget which must be carefully spent. A week’s holiday rental in Cong or Achill, where these iconic movies were filmed, will set you back anything up to 2000 euro. One night in a four star hotel room is a bargain if you can find it at 550 euro. Prices in Dublin are in a whole different league. Some Irish people chose to fly to Rome to see Bruce Springsteen, he gave three shows in Dublin last month, because hotel rooms were too expensive in their own capital city. A pint of Guinness in Templebar will set you back 10 euro.
Nonetheless the winding roads of the Wild Atlantic Way will be jammed with coaches and mobile homes for much of the summer though finding the unspoiled Ireland of the movie industry is almost impossible. There will be queues for the popular attractions in Dublin, Belfast, Galway and Cork. Coach trips to must-see places like the Cliffs of Moher, Giants’ Causeway, Titanic Centre and Game of Thrones locations, need to be booked in advance now Covid is a thing of the past and the cruise ships have returned.
In many ways Ireland’s tourist industry has done too good a job of bringing in the business. While there are still plenty of backpackers the strategic focus is now fixed upon tempting them back when they are wealthy travellers and the development of quality packages which will appeal to the more discerning spender with an interest in Ireland’s true heritage and culture not the ersatz Erin beloved of Hollywood moguls.
Ireland’s traditional fáilte has also been extended to the asylum seeker and refugees fleeing war and persecution in places like Ukraine and Sudan but the system is now straining at the seams, according to the latest figures from the government in the Republic. A country which cannot seem to put a roof over the heads of thousands of its own citizens is now spending around 90 million euro a year financing shelters for 84,000 people seeking sanctuary. Four more centres, designed to hold the incoming, are to open later this month in a bid to house up to 500 homeless people who are living in tents in Dublin city centre. The situation is simply unsustainable.
The government is keen to play it down but An Garda Síochána is concerned about growing anti-immigration feeling and a developing protest movement. There have been 125 anti-immigration protests this year alone. Last month a small group of homeless foreign nationals was violently ejected from a makeshift camp in the centre of Dublin and protestors blocked roads in county Clare to prevent fresh arrivals from Ukraine reaching their allocated hotel rooms. There have been protests outside a hotel in my home, Bangor City county Down, though none of those who stay there have proved to be a problem for their neighbours.
There may be some truth in the widespread belief that hatred has been stirred-up by elements from outside the island. Some commentators have openly pointed the finger at English racists but there is no doubt Ireland has racists of its own, they are growing in number and ambition.
Our legendary welcome for the stranger may soon be a welcome for the wealthy only.