Gone are the days when ten and twelve children per family was typical of an Irish household. Somewhere around the early 70’s when television became standard, incomes and education rose and birth control, even in Catholic Ireland, became accessible, family sizes shrank. Compared with America’s 2.3 births per family, the Irish weigh in at 2.1, nowhere near the number seen 40 years ago, but still the highest in Europe. What I find even more interesting is the age, 31, at which Irish women give birth for the first time compared with America’s 25. The times they are a-changing.
What does this mean for Irish fiction? Unless an author is writing about experiences taking place before the 70’s, it means that cultural differences are much more subtle. With the exception of terminology (footpaths not sidewalks and car parks not parking lots) no garbage disposals or window screens, very little ice in your drinks and relatively few air-conditioned buildings, the creation of a contemporary Irish novel cannot ignore expensive cars, manicured toenails, designer clothing, fine dining, gracious homes, no smoking in the pubs and the breath-stealing cost of a haircut and color. What is left, you might ask if the cottage with its peat fire, the pint all around, tweed-capped men riding bicycles and the warm invitation of a pot of tea complete with scones has been relegated to the same compost pile as yesterday’s cabbage?
While I haven’t seen a tweed cap on a man under the age of 50 in a long time, except in America's swing-dance scenarios, there is still much to write about if your story is set in the Emerald Isle. Nothing, absolutely nothing, in all of Europe compares with the beautiful green and gold patchwork of the Irish countryside, the willingness of her people to engage in conversation, or the mind-boggling realization that the town where you stop for your tea and pastry dates back to the 12th century.
What I look for in a novel with an Irish setting is something that cannot be generated by research across the water in America or on the Internet. Somehow, back in the annals of time, the Irish people developed minds so witty, so rapid in response, so able to twist language to their advantage, the words so powerful and perfect in their innuendo, this ability so singularly cultural that it simply must be ingrained in their DNA memory.
Those not native born are left with eyes wide and mouths agape unable to compete and sometimes even engage. There is nothing left if we want to capture this phenomenon but to develop a good memory, keep a tape recorder in our bags or plan a lengthy visit, not too bad an idea. There is, after all, that pot of tea complete with homemade scones.