For the Irish, the arts offer hope, albeit faint


DUBLIN, Ireland -- Ireland of the welcomes was always, in reality, Ireland of the sad goodbyes, the principal commodity, sent out to the world, its own children.

In the last century the Irish held wakes at dockside for those embarking for America, Australia and other destinations of the economic pilgrims. They were not expected to be seen again.

Things change, and the experience softens. There is a play doing well at the Peacock Theater here about today's emigrants.

"Away Alone" is about young Irish illegals jammed into squalid apartments in the Bronx, working dirt jobs for starvation wages, ducking immigration agents, frightened to the marrow by a level of social violence in New York not comprehensible to them -- or to any other average European.

It's a comedy.

Well, it's an Irish comedy, with one of the protagonists dying at the end, and everyone mending their lives around that event, comforting each other, dreaming of the home they left with relief and regret, meanwhile putting themselves ever distant from the thought of return.

Some come back only to leave again. They become people unfixed on the earth, absent a sense of home and determined to grow a callous about themselves deep enough to dull the hurt of that condition.

A country that sends more people out than it takes in must be counted a failure. If so, Ireland has never been a success. But it is a dynamic failure at least.

The dynamism is generated by all the thousands of would-be emigrants streaming through the Dublin night, the young men and women with their funny haircuts, shaggy clothing, conversations percolating with indifferent profanity.

This is today's Hibernian renaissance, all about youth in the streets, children brimming with energy, in search of a success of some sort, in anything.

Maybe it should have been expected that the Irish would find a kind of completion in the arts. This land of famous spurned authors, dead poets, poetical politicians and political playwrights even more today the land of the rock star.

U2, Van Morrison, Hothouse Flowers, The Pogues and Sinead O'Connor are well known to young people who fancy that music.

How deep an impression has their success made? Well, during the recent rape/abortion controversy here, Prime Minister Albert Reynolds received Ms. O'Connor, while not having time for female members of Parliament who wanted to press him on the same issue.

The most significant thing to occur of late in the lives of all these acolytes in the church of rock was the movie "The Commitments."

It was about a young Irishman, filled with expectations of good outcomes, who assembles a band made up of non-musicians and non-singers and finds a very brief success.

As with much Irish art, it has a preposterous premise and a realistic resolution. The band, having stepped up to the table of success, is pulled back before it can take a bite and ripped apart by the selfishness of its members.

It rose and fell, just like that, as things often do.

It persuaded the thousands of young people who are determined to emulate the experience of the players in "The Commitments" that maybe you don't need talent so much as a bit of Irish luck, which, considering this country's history, may be a contradiction.

They are all over the streets of Dublin, these emulators. They play flutes, banjos and saxophones outside of cinemas and pubs and on the bridges across the Liffey River. They practice anywhere they can.

The last couple of nights before this was written a drummer had managed to penetrate a gated parking lot behind Buswell's Hotel. In his nightly din, out there in the damp cold, it was hard to detect even the smallest trace of talent to keep his hopes alive and warm.

Another young hoper named Sean was down on O'Connell Street shining shoes for about $1. He had that fresh Irish skin with the pink in the cheeks and black hair that looked like a storm at sea.

But shining shoes isn't his true vocation. "I'm a blues singer," he announced. "I want to go to America and be an Elvis impersonator."

People like Sean have already canonized Jimi Hendrix and Chuck Berry without so much as a by-your-leave from the pope. They know who their true saints are.

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