Title: Ireland Unhinged: Encounters with a Wildly Changing Country
Author: David Monagan
In 2000, David and his family- his wife, Jamie, and three children, Laura, Harris, and Owen- are living in rural Connecticut. The winters are cold and the family doesn’t live near neighbors; they enjoy the rural lifestyle but they keenly feel a lack of community. As David and Jamie begin middle-age, the take stock of their family, their jobs, and their town and decide that they would like a change. Both descendant from Irish immigrants to America, they sell their home, say goodbye the America, and move to Cork, Ireland. The Monagans arrive in Ireland at a unique time; they arrive early enough to benefit from the Ireland’s economic boom- the Celtic Tiger explosion where high-rises and luxury health spas are springing up right and left and roads where every third car is an SUV- and stay long enough to be hit hard by country’s catastrophic collapse of the economic, caused in part by dishonest bankers, corrupt politicians, and an undiversified economy that relied almost completely on the investments of foreign property developers. As a foreigner who chose to make Ireland his home, Monagan offers a unique perspective of life there during the country’s current struggles.
This is another one of those books that I came across randomly at work. The cover was what made me pull this one off the shelves, which I know is technically not what you’re supposed to do, but come on, look at the cover! If walking by that doesn’t get your attention, then I don’t know what will. Anyway, I scanned the summary and grabbed it. But when it got time to settle down and actually read the book, I suddenly wasn’t so sure. I had never heard of Monagan and the contents of the inside flap didn’t fill me with confidence (which doesn’t necessarily mean anything, as I find I more often than not hate most books summaries). Luckily, I was quickly reassured by the second paragraph that I had made a good choice and that the cover did, in fact, match the inside when I came across this lovely gem:
“Other people came to Ireland for a week or two, unlimbered their bank cards, got drunk in a castle, bashed golf balls through the rain, then followed their post cards home to reality: the office, the landscaping business, the spreadsheets, the lawsuits in L.A. or London… not me.”
And then Monagan goes on to describe the afternoon he goes to an art exhibition in the Church of Ireland Cork Cathedral , gets roped into acting a bartender distributing the free wine, and gets thrown out with the rest when the bishop finally has enough of the rowdy, 200+, drunk Catholics- a surprisingly large portion of which belonged to the local homeless population- who had come more for the free drink then the free art.
And so Ireland Unhinged continues. Monagan chronicles daily family life in Cork: his writer’s block, his daughter’s troubles adjusting to her first year at Trinity, and his family’s new dream– a life in the Irish countryside which, when finally realized after a long search, brings its own set of troubles. Namely: slugs that completely destroy their newly inherited vegetable gardens and a dog that so fully abandons them on arriving in the country that they eventually see him being walked regularly in the morning around town by a neighbor.
But Monagan doesn’t just stick to his family life. He also travels the country, detailing the frenzied days of Ireland’s economic renewal (who knew that the Irish suburban family’s must have’s in the early 2000s were a large trampoline in the backyard, a bouncy castle for First Communion celebrations, and of course the quintessential SUV?) and the aftermath of the total economic collapse. He tracks down the side of the family that didn’t immigrate to America, dines with a modern-day white witch, drinks in many, many pubs, tours Northern Ireland, and travels to Dublin in an effort to find out how the economy could have fallen so sharply, so quickly, and so disastrously. While I admit that I preferred the parts of the book that dealt with Monagan and his family, the entire read was engaging and lively. When exposing the bankers and politicians who doomed the economy through their unscrupulous, and frankly illegal, behavior he also parallels how his own life is affected by the downfall; life in the little village of Ballyduff goes from idyllic to depressing, with the local pub and hardware store, the cornerstones of the community, closing.
And while I believe that Monagan’s position of outsider gives him a unique and valuable perspective of modern Ireland, I also found it amusing just how Irish he had become after living there for over a decade. He went to so many pubs while traveling and while at home, that I found it almost a bit ridiculous- and this is from someone who lived in England for a year and was constantly going to pubs for a chat for an afternoon meal. His disgust and confusion on seeing the Saint Patrick Day’s celebrations in Chicago was also amusing and revealing. While life has certainly become more difficult for Monagan and his family with the economic downturn, they only very briefly think about moving back to New England. Ireland is the home they chose and they are staying, no matter which way the wind blows.
This was a very solid find for me. Although some of the people Monagan talked to I found more interesting than others, I was never bored. I think I enjoyed this book as much as I did because I went to Ireland for a bit four years ago. I knew the economy had stalled but at the time I hadn’t realized just how bad it was. And my God! The miles and miles and miles of suburban hell the bus went through to take us into Dublin from where we were staying was astounding. I never in my life saw such a huge expanse of suburbia, literally thousands upon thousands of houses, virtually identical and side by side with no end in sight. It was truly horrible and I hope I never see anything like that again.
Monagan has written two books previously about Ireland, but as I read this one, I don’t think I will read them; by reading Ireland Unhinged I already know the latest goings-on of his family in Ireland, at least up til 2010. If I come across a newer book of his in the future, I would be very happy to pick it up and see how he and his adopted home are faring.
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