My lesson for prospective immigrants reading this post is: you cannot always believe what you see, hear, or read when you are on the outside looking in. The reality in country is likely to be quite different.
Beyond the logistical and bureaucratic hassles that affect everyday life, the biggest obstacles that immigrants grapple with are the cultural paradoxes and conundrums that, before you’ve fully integrated yourself into the culture, simply defy all sense of logic, and defy the preconceived notions that you moved with. Take, for instance, Ireland.
Lately, I’ve been puzzling over the differences in what people perceive as “life in Ireland” and the actual experience of life (albeit as an immigrant) in Ireland. From the outside, the Irish are thought to be friendly, easy-going, live and let live folk. Happily that is mostly true. But if you read Irish history, you begin to realize that the Irish also fought like mad for their independence, and they did it over and over again.
Based on that reading, you could be forgiven for imagining that living in Ireland would put you amongst people who love the idea of determining their own way forward, in rugged hard-won independence, and love the idea of keeping “authority” in check while refusing to be told how to live. Reality is quite different. For people whose ancestors fought so hard for independence, freedom, and self-governance, the Irish, in general, seem quite content to be told what to do, and are all too willing to trust the authority figures in their lives, be they hobbyists, doctors, or leaders in government. At least that’s been my experience, and the experience of many other immigrants (and Irish) that I’ve spoken to.
Shortly after moving to Ireland, I tried to get involved with a local model boat club. But I quickly discovered that the group has a small contingent of “experts” and experienced builders who build all of the boats, and then sell them to others, or tell them how things should be done. The vast majority of group members play around at modeling, but slavishly adhere to the “expert” advice. There’s no sense of experimentation, only doctrine.
I’m also a beekeeper, or was back in the U.S. I’ve looked into it here in Ireland, and have gone to a number of meetings with local beekeepers. I’ve also corresponded with beekeepers in the U.K. and elsewhere in Europe and Australia, but I cannot bring myself to get deeply involved with the beekeeping community in Ireland. They don’t think for themselves. It drives me mental.
For me, the best part of beekeeping was simply figuring it out (through books, online communities, or an apprenticeship to a local beekeeper). In my experience, and from what I’ve gleaned in corresponding with “beeks” from around the world, the best part of beekeeping meetings is simply chatting about what’s going on “with your girls” (in your hives). In Ireland they don’t do that. Beekeepers here like to be lectured to, and engage in endless rounds of classes and testing for certifications that have no legal standing, don’t prevent you from doing anything, or entitle you to anything special.
The meetings I’ve attended were exclusively taken up with experts and authority figures lecturing on various subjects. And, while that’s helpful, the obligatory post-lecture Q&A was limited to perhaps five minutes of hastily answered questions, which, if remotely varied from the lecturer’s spiel, were simply brushed aside. When I first encountered this, I thought perhaps it is just hobbyists. Then I began to see the way that nobody questions doctors in Ireland.
As someone with a lifelong handicap, I’ve been to a lot of doctors, and have always taken an active role in my healthcare. In Ireland, with rare exception, when you see a specialist you are seen as uppity if you ask questions, or try to get them to elaborate. Thou shalt not question your doctor. Then again, religion in Ireland comes with its own heavenly host of authority issues.
For me, the deference shown to the church in all matters is maddening. We have friends who have been told not to question the unacceptable level of religion in their child’s schooling because the local “bishop” won’t like it. And in the recent abortion debate and legislative sham, the notion that “we can’t do anything without consulting the church first” should have been insulting to anyone who votes. But it was a fait accompli.
Being fair, I understand the historical advantages of having had the church manage education and healthcare in the early years of the republic. They were already established at the parish level, so it was a compromise with logical efficiencies. But surely the time has come to dial back the church’s hand in government. I say that, but actually Ireland has already ceded some of its governance to another authority.
Rather than take the time to figure out what’s best for Ireland, time and again we hear, “well that’s how it’s always been done”, or worse, “that will put us in lockstep with other countries”, seemingly with no understanding that Ireland has completely different resources and long-term concerns than those countries. While entry into the EEC (now the EU/European Community) offered Ireland a host of economic benefits, I’m still somewhat baffled that a country which fought so hard for self-governance, chose, in its first hundred years, to wed itself to a coalition of nations amongst which it will probably always be counted as one of the least powerful. Do the Irish believe that much in the idea of a unified Europe?
Perhaps I’m still ruled by the American cowboy attitude of “Nobody is going to tell us what to do”, but I am genuinely mystified by the way the Irish seem to be so willing to let others tell them what to do and how to do it. I suspect that much of this is a result of Ireland being a very young republic, still learning to govern itself.
To be fair, membership in the EU may have given Ireland access to more experienced legislative and fiscal counsel. But surely there were (and are) benefits to joining the EU that go beyond the purely economic and governmental. As someone new to Ireland, I don’t know what those are, and would genuinely like to know. Whether I am right or wrong about that, I genuinely want guidance on this point.
But, for immigrants, cultural disconnects of this type are not limited just to Ireland. Take, for example, my own home country.
The U.S. has historically been seen from afar as the land of opportunity. And, while it is still true that it can be a land of opportunity, those opportunities are often limited by the resources immigrants bring with them (or inherit, or are given). Tax codes that favor corporations and the wealthy, lack of affordable healthcare, lack of public transportation, and other class-based restrictions often make it all but impossible for immigrants (and many others) to elevate themselves above the lower and middle classes. From the outside, the opportunities may appear to be boundless, but the practicalities of everyday life are often quite different.
For immigrants leaving Greece, Portugal, Spain and other countries due to economic strife, Ireland may look like a land of opportunity. And, in relation to conditions back at home, we, in Ireland, may indeed have it “good”. But the job prospects here are reasonably grim, and immigrants fleeing downturns in their own country may find real life in Ireland other countries to be far from utopian.
With the wealth of information that we are lucky to have in the modern age, you would think that we’d get closer to the “truth” of life in another country. But for me, Ireland’s relationship with authority figures, and it’s willingness to be told what’s “right” for it, the unseen class constraints of the U.S., and the perceived wealth of one country over another are precisely the nuanced cultural realities that are invisible to even the most “wired/connected” outsiders, but subtly affect so much, and often confuse and confound modern immigrants.
Things to look forward to in upcoming posts:
Corporate Taxes Abroad, and the Con Artistry of Luring Foreign Investment
Ireland’s Upward Only Rent Review