WHY is Irish society more civil when it is actually not a civil society?
What I mean by that is, quite simply, why do the Irish seem friendlier than the English when it is the English who still have some of the traits of a public society whereas the Irish only have a private one.
Take for instance what happened during the boom. Suddenly there appeared, throughout Ireland, swimming pools and sports facilities where before there had been none. These were great boons for any community, great assets.
The only thing was that these were not public pools or public facilities but private ones. To use them you had to pay expensive membership fees. The idea that a country awash with money, to use Charlie McCreevy’s phrase, might use that money to provide open facilities did not even appear to be a topic to be discussed.
In fact such is the lack of public facilities in Ireland that when Bertie Ahern declared himself a socialist the only example he could think of as something that epitomised his beliefs was the Botanic Gardens as it is the only place you can get in to for free. In England if you fancy a swim you simply go to the local pool, pay a small fee and go in. In Ireland if you fancy a swim you go up to the local leisure centre and pay a heavy membership fee. And I mean heavy.
Now it might seem a little bizarre to use swimming as an example but having children makes it an easy one. In doing so I am only trying to suggest one thing — in England with the introduction of the NHS and the welfare state there came the idea of a public society and a public wealth.
That might well have been eroded over the years and especially since Margaret Thatcher but the idea is still there. In Ireland that idea never seems to have existed.
There never seems to have been the idea that there should be such a thing as public wealth. Volunteers for sure, running sports teams and tidy towns. But no notion that society itself should provide social facilities.
So why is it then that Irish society is still that bit friendlier, that bit warmer. I will say at this stage that the unfriendliness of English people is exaggerated. A lot of the myth of people not talking to each other is just the experience of life in a big city.
Like the Crocodile Dundee scene you do not or cannot say hello to people passing by you on a city street. But there is no denying that Ireland still seems more of a friendlier place, more of a society where a stranger will strike up a conversation with you.
So why is that? Is it just that Ireland is smaller? It is a place, after all, where somebody always seems to know someone else who knows someone else who knows someone else who knows you. This is both a good and a bad thing.
The knowing someone who knows you, the close links, has often appeared as the thing that has fed the corruption that has blighted Irish political and business life. In that way it is too small.
Even on a personal level, and maybe this is because I grew up in a city, I find the closeness of society here veers between a warm embrace and a smothering blanket. The flip side of the warm hello is Yeats’ ‘great hatred, little room’ and if you think hatred is too strong a word you only have to think about land disputes or GAA feuds. Bitter’s not the word.
But civil society, private society, public society, small society, whatever the case the fact remains that Irish people are by and large just that bit friendlier than English people, that bit warmer, that bit more likely to say hello. If I was out walking in an English country spot I would hesitate in saying hello to someone passing by as having done so I’ve been looked at as if I was something dangerous and odd.
By contrast if I am walking on an Irish country lane I would feel that not saying hello to someone passing by would be the thing that marked me as something dangerous and odd. Why is that? Why are — and of course we’re talking huge generalisations here — Irish people friendlier than English people? Because they are, aren’t they?