In our house there were small bits of Europe: an ash-tray made of Toledo gold which an aunt had brought back from San Sebastián; small models of the Swiss Guards which another aunt had brought back from Rome; a bottle of Lourdes water. Europe was exotic and exhausting: the heat in France in August was like nothing on earth, my mother said. She had travelled across the country in high summer on her way to Lourdes.
My father explained to my aunt – this must have been 1964 or 1965 – that in the school where he taught they did not keep a list of pupils' names and addresses: these would be used by the communists if they invaded, he said, and it would be better for everyone if such information were to remain secret.
I thought of the communists appearing without a word of the language on the Mill Park Road in Enniscorthy in military formation, their faces severe and inscrutable, and us all hiding in out-of-the-way farmhouses, or under the stairs. I knew that they would catch us no matter what we did. Luckily, Ireland was an island: we were the last place they would invade and thus we would have plenty of warning.
I knew that they would capture priests and put them in prison, starve them, torture them, and I thought of the priests in our town, so well-fed, so full of cheery ease and authority, and it seemed impossible. I hoped that the communists would stay away. We were lucky to be on the edge of Europe.
At the top of Weafer Street lived Mrs Duffy, known to all as Madame Duffy. She had lived in France for years, she loved de Gaulle as well as de Valera, and she taught French to school-children in the town after school and to adults in the evening. She was passionate about French and France, and she was passionate too that the Catholic church should change, should listen to people, pay attention, rather than bossing everyone around.
She viewed the world like no one else in the town; she viewed the immense snobberies in the town as pathetic; the town rich, she said, would be considered as mere tradespeople in France. Her house and her independent attitudes were small beacons of Frenchness in provincial Ireland.
In the mid-1960s the Pope appointed a new bishop to our diocese and he brought some of Europe with him too. He had lived in Italy for many years and he read Latin poetry for recreation. He came to our school once and asked me what I was interested in reading: poetry, I said, Auden, Eliot, Yeats. Compared to Ovid and Virgil, he said, they were no good. He looked at me sadly. You should read the Latin poets, he said. In Enniscorthy Cathedral, he preached to the people about the lacrimae rerum.
And then when Ireland started to look towards Europe, this bishop told us that Europe was not about housekeeping and grants, it was a great concept, a great dream. “Europe,” he said, “is Chartres Cathedral.” He was slightly agitated, almost indignant. Europe was not about money, as most Irish politicians and journalists seemed to be suggesting. Europe, in his opinion, was about culture.
When I was sixteen, I won an essay competition about the future of Europe, and I went from my diocesan boarding-school – this was 1971 – to Dublin to collect the prize which was a substantial book token. I came back to the school with Kafka's The Trial, Camus's The Outsider, Jean-Paul Sartre's The Age of Reason and Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises. In the hallway, two of the priests stopped me and asked me what I had bought. When I showed them the books, they nodded in approval: in three or four years, as we got ready to join the European Union, Ireland was desperately trying to become liberal. We moved in those few years from the nineteenth century into the late twentieth century. The priests thought that these books were important, exactly what I should be reading. A decade earlier, I probably would have been expelled.
The books – Kafka, Camus, Sartre, Hemingway – were strange: the characters, or many of them, believed in nothing. There was no work in Irish literature like this. (I had not read John McGahern at that time, or Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.) They were prepared to make standing alone in a world which made no sense into something like a religion. I was fascinated.
And then the following year something else happened which changed everything. On 30 January 1972, thirteen unarmed civilians were shot dead by the British army in Derry. Our Sunday night film at school was interrupted to tell us the news. A national day of mourning was declared. We prepared to march through the streets of Wexford town. All flights on the national airline were to cease while the dead were being buried. The national television station covered the funerals live. A crowd gathered in Dublin and burned the British Embassy down.
As a society, we had a choice then. We could join in the conflict in the North, have national days of mourning and constant marches. We could burn buildings. Or we could turn our back on it. And that is what we did in the Republic of Ireland in 1972, we faced outwards towards European Union and Anglo-Irish Agreement. We never had another national day of mourning for something that happened in Northern Ireland. No further buildings in the capital city were burned. And this was important for me: some crucial tie to the past had been abandoned. It was like losing my religion. It left me free and oddly guilty.
In 1975 I left Ireland and went to Spain. I had never been to the European mainland before. I knew that we were different in Ireland from the rest of Europe, that every country in the European Union had colonized parts of the world, had become rich on the spoils of Empire. We had not. I knew too that the Romans and the Nazis had sought to take the places in Europe which were worth taking. Neither of them had looked at Ireland. I was now entering a world I only half understood, to which I did not belong and never would.
I landed in Barcelona two months before the dictator Franco died. I remember the heat and the noises in the street and the odd smells in the city. And I remember vividly the first night I found Plaça del Rei in the city (although it was called Plaza del Rey at the time before they changed the names of the streets of the city into Catalan). It was like something from the theatre when you came across it first, the dim lights high on the old stone, shadows everywhere, and a sense of splendour which was completely new to me. I did not know then that it was the place where Ferdinand and Isabella had received Christopher Columbus after he discovered the New World for them, but it was easy to imagine that such a scene had taken place there. This was the fourteenth-century part of the city, built at a time when Catalonia was strong and Barcelona an important port and the Mediterranean the centre of the universe.
In the months after I arrived everything changed. Once the possibility of democracy appeared, the way people walked in the streets in Barcelona changed. In the Republic of Ireland, hardly anyone, even students, had strong political views. It was as though Ireland had fought so long and hard for radical change, and been the first country from which the British withdrew, that it had then settled down into deep political slumber.
Barcelona in 1976 and 1977 was exactly the opposite: everyone had a strong opinion. I worked teaching English and I taught a number of IBM executives, one of whom was an anarchist. I could not believe this. He had to explain that he was serious about his politics, he did not want to throw bombs or kill people at random, but he was fundamentally opposed to all political systems, all government. Others in the city were republicans or fierce Catalan nationalists (there were a lot of fierce Catalan nationalists). Others were happy with the Socialists or the new king, but the level of debate was astonishing.
I became interested in Catalan nationalism. I found that I understood the emotions and the attachments in a way that English or American people in the city did not. I discovered that almost everything that had happened in Catalonia in the previous hundred and fifty years had an equivalent in Ireland.
Catalan nationalism and Irish nationalism grew in the same year – 1848. Both were based on an idea of an ancient glory which had been destroyed by an outside power. Both used culture as much as politics to achieve their aims. Out of the extraordinary cultural and political ferment a number of geniuses emerged: the Irish poet Yeats and the Catalan architect Gaudí, both visionary nationalists; James Joyce and Picasso, both sceptics who got out to Paris as soon as they could; Beckett and Miró, minimalists who were, despite their private natures, deeply involved in the opposition to fascism.
Thus, an Irish boy began to feel at home in Europe. It was much more complex, and much closer to home than he had thought. Issues of nationalism and identity mattered just as much in Barcelona in those years, and indeed still, as they ever did in Ireland.
There were other similarities I recognized. No one who participated in the Civil War in Barcelona, as far as I could make out, ever spoke to their families about it. This silence, too, was often maintained in Irish families whose members took part in the War of Independence or the Civil War.
But there were differences too. What I noticed more than anything was a sense of plenty, which was something I had never seen before. For many centuries they had grown things on the shores of the Mediterranean that were not really needed: oranges, lemons, peaches, grapes, rather than just potatoes. They had built palaces and magnificent churches, great halls of state, and most of it was still intact. They were open and frank about things which in Ireland we hesitated then to discuss – sex and money. The Catalan rituals around death were brusque and short, compared to the Irish ones. In Ireland the dead remained important; in Catalonia they did not. I wondered about this, I wondered when you lived on a small island at the edge of things if those who came before you did not remain important, almost present, whereas if you lived on a vast continent, there was more air, it was easier to release the dead, let them go.
The Ireland I came back to in the late 1970s was starting to change. There were obvious things: new and better roads; changes in legislation which made things less Catholic and more liberal; better education; better opportunities for women. And some things not so good: old family-run industries going to the wall; a new wave of emigration in the early 1980s; a new dependence on Brussels to cure all our ills.
But by the early 1990s the country began to change almost daily. I remember when a friend from Belfast who worked in computers in Barcelona phoned a free-phone number looking for information about a computer system. He spoke in Spanish to a man who was from Barcelona. Except the man was speaking from Galway in the west of Ireland, where the free-phone system was located. This is the best image of Ireland in those years, where suddenly the lack of an industrial base (no Roman invasion, no Reformation, no Enlightenment, no Industrial Revolution, no Second World War) has made it easier to set up high tech industries, where there was no rigid class-system, where Irish engineers were talking Spanish from Barcelona to Spanish computer experts who lived in the West of Ireland.
The rhetoric became one of optimism; the forecast was for continuing economic growth; house prices went into the sky; the car parks in Dublin airport increased and multiplied. Ireland had for so long been locked out from the world of plenty that all this was new; Ireland had felt like a victim for so long, it was hard not to be uneasy about what was happening.
Bust followed boom. The feeling that we would be protected under the benign umbrella of Europe dissolved with the economic downturn that began in around 2008. In a way, the bishop was right. When Europe tried to prove itself as an economic system, it failed us. When we saw it as a culture, however, it came to mean something even more essential as we moved into middle age, and the art, the books, the films, the music, and the cast of mind offered us great comfort over the long winters and the rainy summers. It became clear to me that I didn’t need to go to Paris anymore to go into exile, I could be a good, old-fashioned, messed-up European in the comfort of home.