From the cliff's edge - a view of now

The sun was shining the day I arrived back in Dublin. The busmen were three weeks into their semiannual strike. Every place were smiling faces. Around the corner from where I live, the worst riot since the civil war. Unpacking a trunkful of books which had occasioned disbelieving (and expensive) grimaces from porters all over England, I relaxed my mental and physical muscles. It was good to be back.

But I never really know why. The grand bourgeois area south of London which I had left had everything. In fact, that was its problem. In Dublin, even the richest areas have a patina of neglect: walls crumble and shrubbery overgrows as if the inhabitants had exercised clemency in the battle with nature so that even in defeat, it might know that defeat was not utter.

It is different in the English ''stockbroker belt.'' Nature has not merely been tamed but eradicated. Lawns look as if made of nylon, or at least as if manicured with scissors rather than mowed: the very dogs discreet in their behaviour.

There are many things we have missed out on in Ireland. One of them is people. A population halved through famine makes an impact on a country. We have also missed out on the Renaissance, the rise of humanism, the Reformation (largely), the Enlightenment, and the Industrial Revolution. We are, in many ways, living in the Middle Ages. And in many ways this is not a bad thing.

There is a sense of being, of thereness, in Ireland that I haven't met with anywhere else. It's not just that people have time for one another (although they do) or that work is regarded with - at best - amused tolerance (although it is). It is something different still - something to do with the moisture-saturated air, with the sea which is never far away and reminds one with its ancient presence that, however much one may alter the configurations of the earth, it's not going to make much difference a million years from now. There is a sense of timelessness.

In contrast, there are weekdays on London's Oxford Street when it looks to me like man is overbusy - a slave to time. It feels like there is no being - all is becoming. People don't seem to be buying things there: things buy and sell people. The usurpation of material objects is not, of course, confined to London - the city is merely a paradigm. An obsession with becoming is a fear that one is incomplete: it is in attempting to complete ourselves that we fall into thralldom to the world of objects.

And there is a sense of being, of wholeness, here. Most Irish people don't know it, because most of them don't go abroad for long enough to feel the lack elsewhere. There is a sense of creation. It's difficult to define. Our record in cultural preservation is appalling (though we don't require artists or writers to pay taxes). Yet our aesthetics has a streak of darkness to it. From Swift's Yahoos to the lost characters of Beckett, from Dracula to Heathcliff, from the dark dreams of Poe to the Henry James of The Turn of the Screw (there is an Irish background or environment for all of these), the shadows of this ancient land brood over a ''foreign'' literature. Wandering down the Quays - the setting of Joyce's marvellous last story in Dubliners - and breathing the peculiar river-distillery-sea aroma, it comes to one with extraordinary sharpness that what is so special about Ireland is an inability, or unwillingness, to sweep things under the carpet of workaday existence.

It is an unwillingness that has its perils. The Irish obsession with darkness goes too far. And yet - can one really comprehend the day without knowing something also of the night, if only to decry it?

There are breathless cliffs on the southwest coast of Ireland, called the Cliffs of Moher. No one lives there, or no one that I know of. If you look out on a clear day you can see, perhaps, Atlantis, or perhaps the Land of Youth where they never grow old. Or perhaps just a jet, banking for America. Living in Ireland is like living on such a cliff. For one is aware, as perhaps in few other places, of the glory of the world; and of its depths and chasms also. Other places, tawdry cardboard walls are built to block from view the sublime chasm, to paint it in bright colours, and call it the world.

Our view is glorious: we don't need a wall.

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