At the start of our recent tour of Ireland, during the evening of 6th July, Ruth and I arrived at our little campsite a few miles outside Youghal as the sun moved fast towards the horizon and the midges, that love my skin so much, started to rise out of the grass. It was a beautifully green and manicured site, if a little cramped for our not-so-pop-up tent.
The lovely people around the camp site seemed determined to fit our British stereotype of the Irish: friendly fun loving hospitable people. The campsite owner welcomed us like long lost friends, and invited us to attend the rather noisy but good natured “Mad Hat” birthday party barbecue underway for her 30 year old daughter. And while erecting the tent I was hindered by the good intentions of an older relation of the owner’s, giving me his life story, his favourable prognosis for the weeks weather ahead, and his depressing if realistic prognosis for the Irish economy for the decade ahead.
But it was when we took an evening walk in Youghal itself that we really saw the contrasts that make this beautiful, welcoming, but troubled land so intriguing.
For Youghal is a lovely place resplendent in the faded 18th century splendour of an ancient walled port. So much so that it reminded us of a wonderful architectural mash up of the grandeur of Crieff in Pershire, the quiet harbour delights of North Berwick in Lothian, and the faded Victorian seaside attractions of Felixtowe in Suffolk!
But Youghal is also a place where – post tiger economy boom – only the pubs and the national church seemed to be getting any investment. We found the local park teaming with youngsters who were partying in the dusk; literally intoxicated by the worlds temporary liquid pleasures in a seemingly vain attempt to forget the spiritual and economic challenges their country faces. Perhaps it is little surprise that we discovered the net influx of young from around the world in the first decade of the new century has now reversed with emigration jumping back to 87K a year in 2012 as Ireland’s young once again strive for a better life overseas.
The more we talked to people as the week went on the more we understood that, with under 200 evangelical churches in the whole of the Republic, and despite the impressive buildings of the established church all around, their was a desperate shortage of people to quietly witness in word and deed to Jesus, the one true hope for a people who feel betrayed by their political class and betrayed by their national church.
While English speaking Ireland might look like an obvious place for us to consider spending the next phase of our lives, it fast became clear that despite the common language we needed to remember the huge cultural differences that appeared to lie just below the surface.
Like so many places we have recently visited, Ireland may give the visitor a lovely welcome, but it is also a troubled land that desperately needs to be loved and reached anew with Jesus’ Good News about true life in all its fullness.