Koreans On Craic


‘No more drink for you today,’ said the bartender to the man perched on the stool next to me. It was midday in a pub on Usher’s Island (which isn’t one it’s a street running beside the river Liffey, at the wrong end of Dublin), where all the people who haven’t yet been bitten by the Celtic Tiger go to drink.

‘I’m just looking for one pint,’ said the about-to-be-barred bloke. He was tipsy, merry and rolling slightly. Or to put it in Gaelic: dead sober, no trouble to anyone.

‘No, you had too much. Go home!’

He slid off the stool with perfect poise, and steadied himself to deliver a parting broadside: ‘It’s a feckin’ disgrace when a man can’t get a feckin’ drink in his own country.’ He turned and walked out with dignity hitting only one side of the door jamb.

His own country? Well, that’s the detail I haven’t mentioned. The bartender was Korean. As were all the staff. As are most of the bartenders in Dublin now. Except for those who are Chinese. Or Polish.

And I agreed with the spurned drinker, who was simply within the acceptable bandwidth of intoxication for a country where Guinness is an all-day drink. ‘I don’t think he was drunk, do you?’ said the drinker to my left, and then to the bartender, ‘I really don’t think he was drunk.’

‘He has one or two,’ the bartender said wearily, ‘and then he’ll start to hit people.’

The other drinker looked at him for a second, with a twinkle in his eye. ‘So?’

Image by Stock X-Change

After a decade of prosperity which has transformed the city out of all recognition, Dublin is undergoing yet another, more fundamental change it is hosting mass waves of immigration (as opposed to colonisation) from the A8 the eight Eastern European countries admitted to the EU in 2004 and from thousands of Asian students.

Dublin is not the only EU city to do this, of course. But whereas the other major destination, London, is to a degree little more than the residue of successive waves of immigrants (from Huguenots to Moldovans, via Trinidad and Bengal), Dublin has been monocultural for so long, and Irish identity so much bound up in a sense of ethnic unity under oppression, that its sudden transformation into a multicultural centre is deeply jarring.

Visiting Dublin used to be a trip into the past. The food was appalling, the coffee … well, the coffee wasn’t, the conversation could be a little parochial, and there was something a trifle museum-ish about it. But the place had a distinctive identity even as amazing economic growth was intensifying class divisions.

Now, Dublin’s buzzing, vibrant, much-restauranted; but a certain distinctive flavour has been lost.

Dublin became a chic European city because it existed as a holdover from another era one far beyond the living memory of most of central Europe. It became celebrated as a vanguard wave of European artists and writers, took advantage not only of the unique no-tax regime for artistic earnings, but also of a certain wildness in Irish life, compared to the achingly correct manners, especially of middle-class northern Europe. The familiarity, the easy-goingness, the untranslatable notion of craic fun as a sort of spirit takes people to a point that many northern Europeans are unwilling or unable to go.

So if you’ve been oppressed for 800 years, if strength of your identity is its solidarity against an alien ethnic power, if the pressure of that struggle has turned everyday clay to diamond Swift, Wilde, Yeats, Shaw, Joyce, Beckett, even Frank fecking McCourt how do you adapt to being master and host, to being served?

As with London, Dublin is full of Poles willing to sleep eight to a room and live off leftovers in order to save enough for a business or a house back home. But London, and any other big city that plays host to the desperate, has long since developed a comportment towards the latest arrivals and if it is not particularly generous, nor is it intolerant or lacking in understanding.

But the first wave of arrivals in a monoculture are greeted less with welcome or hostility than with a degree of incomprehension. It is a situation that has not even begun to settle.

‘What do you think of the new Ireland?’ I asked one bloke a self-described ‘tinker’ who I had snookered me in a pub practically in the shadow of the monument to the 1916 Uprising. ‘Ah, it’s all going to go off man. They’re going to get it.’

‘Who? the immigrants?’ He looked at me as if I was mad. ‘No, the gardaí [police], man.’ Typical vengeful drunk, I thought. Until the next day, when the news broke that a 70 kilogram bomb had been found in the half-built holiday home of the appealingly named Lord Ballyedmond real name Edward Haughey, a millionaire who, despite being Catholic, is a leading Unionist.

Earlier there had been arson attacks and sabotage of the Dublin “Belfast rail line, an act of almost ceremonial significance.

With the process of north-south governance stalled, and Ian Paisley’s DUP rising as the leading Unionist party, the break-away groups known as the Continuity IRA (CIRA) and the Real IRA (RIRA) both of whom have been observing a de facto ceasefire since the bloody disaster of the 1998 Omagh bombing have promised a renewal of violent action.

There is no base of public support, in either North or South, for a recommencement of a bombing campaign, but the power and curse of Irish politics has been the notion of transferred legitimacy the notion that the authority of a united Ireland rests with the most uncompromising group.

Thus did the Provisionals edge out the Official IRA in 1969.

Now that the Provos are Sinn Fein a savvy, European-oriented Party banking on the sheer fact of demographics to win unity by the ballot-box militant republicans are unconcerned by a lack of public support. The 1916 Easter Uprising only acquired popular backing in retrospect, and a similar strategy of confrontation may soon be underway.

Dublin , of course, is rarely directly troubled by the Troubles, at least in the form of bombs. But the divisions can come to dominate its domestic politics, as fundamental questions of loyalty and identity start to overshadow bread ‘n’ butter economic issues.

Yet what would such a renewed struggle even mean in the new Ireland?

In the upscale bars of Fade Street, as Asian and Polish waiters buzz back and forth in the fusion bistros (when I asked to go somewhere with Irish cuisine, my host an architect whose shelves groan with volumes of Koolhaas and Gehry stared at me for a long time before saying, ‘I don’t even know what that would be’), the notion of armed struggle for a united Ireland seems about as relevant as a suggestion of droving cattle would be in Glebe or Fitzroy.

How would this nascent multicultural society react? And what happens as one of the few people willing to talk about immigration said to me when the ‘good times run out. What are we going to do with these people?’

Does modernisation simply dissolve all the assumptions and identities that monoculturalism draws on, such that people forget what all the fuss was about? Or could it be the new class divisions that may breed resentment with the possibility that Korean bartenders will be in for a bit more than bar-room craic in the days to come?

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.