National Geographic : 1994 Sep
back the other way, in a widening gyre, golden hair spread out in the sun. A flock of small children played in a gutted delivery van nearby. "Are you from the police?" a boy asked, sticking his head through the blown-out rear window. Assured that I wasn't, he said, "Somebody stole it and left it over there. We took the wheels off so the police wouldn't take it away." The van was their playhouse, Ballymun having been built without adequate shops, playgrounds, or other basic facilities. Such public-housing estates sprang up all over ur ban Ireland in the 1960s and '70s, often on the isolated fringes of big cities, like shelf space for the unemployed and the unwanted. "People hear Ballymun and they think you're a junkie or a thief or a suicidal case," a local man told me. "But the majority of people are decent." He looked at the dingy row of high-rise build ings. "The gray, gray towers of home." In the van the boy proudly showed me how he and his friends had stripped the rubber lin ers from around the doors and slung them from holes poked in the roof to make trapezes, on which two youngsters went careening from one side of the van to the other. Another group of children began pelting the van with dirt bombs. "My name is Stephen McNevin, my name is," the boy was saying. But the din, plus the bawling of his three-year-old niece, plus the possibility that the real Stephen McNevin might show up from the building next door to reclaim his name, all drove him to distraction. He thrust his head back out the rear window and roared, "Hold yer flippin' fire; there's a child in here!" The words "real Ireland" came to mind. It's a phrase the Irish use to describe any place other than where they are right now. By "real Ireland" the Irish usually mean postcard Ire land, even mythic Ireland, a not-too-distant past for which they suffer pangs of longing and also embarrassment: A smart city type in a recent play by Brian Friel peers around a rural landscape and with a shudder declares, "Bloody Indian territory!" Real Ireland is an urban nation now. A quarter of the population lives in metropolitan Dublin alone, and manufacturing, not farm ing, is the engine of the Irish economy, mostly under the control of multinational companies. It is the youngest country in Europe, with almost half the population under 25. It has also lately realized that half its population is female: The Irish Constitution still says a woman's place is in the home, but women now constitute a third of the workforce, and they've become a dynamic element in public life, most visibly with the election of Mary Robinson as Ireland's first female president. The light in Ireland now is often neon. Scruffy neighborhoods like Ballymun have in spired a string of eccentric hit movies, among them My Left Foot, The Crying Game, and The Commitments, in which pale-faced jackeens (the slang term for Dubliners) growled "I'm ELEGANTAD on a tour bus promotes visits to Dublin'sGeorgian-style Custom House. Merrion Square row houses share the design tradition.Elsewhere vintage buildingsfall to new construction,raisingthe ire of preserva tionists who decry the razing of the nation's architecturalpatrimony.