Age-old miracle of a thousand Irish welcomes
The shine of the copper cauldrons and vats and pipes remains with me, as does the musical cacophony of the St James's Gate brewery in Dublin. In the 1970s, visitors were invited to tour the place where the world's finest stout was brewed and given ample time for free samples.
For a teenager fresh off the boat from Wales (£3 each way), the Guinness brewery was little short of miraculous – as was the welcome in what was still a strange land. In Killorglin, Co Kerry, I stumbled into the middle of the Puck Fair, a manifestation of joy of the kind that had eluded my life so far. The simple answer to the question "What time do the pubs close?" was "October". With negligible funds, I relied on the kindness of strangers from Sneem to Dun Laoghaire, and the tolerance of the gardaí [police] in Galway when I inadvertently pitched my tent on a school playing field.
It was an easy seduction but, for the next couple of decades, my relationship with Ireland was difficult. The people were their welcoming selves but economically the Republic felt bleak while the Ulster Troubles rumbled on.
The transformation came in 1991, when Dublin succeeded Glasgow as Europe's Capital of Culture and started to believe in itself again. The down-at-heel core of the city, Temple Bar, narrowly avoided demolition and was revived to become one of the great party zones of Europe. Art infiltrated the metropolis, while innovative chefs began to transform Irish cuisine. As U2 became global cultural champions, a deadbeat airline called Ryanair transformed aviation – first across the Irish Sea, and then across Europe. It now flies more international passengers than any other. Ryanair has exported the freedom to travel just as assiduously as the Irish pub has become the emblem of conviviality from Dallas to Dubai. When last I stayed in Dublin, my abode was Paddy's Palace – and my room-mates were half a dozen Ukrainians. I first went to Ireland to feel enriched by humanity; in the new Europe, young men and women are lured first by the promise of financial reward. But they soon become imbued with the national tradition of failte, or welcome. The couple who picked me up from the roadside, and insisted we visit a pub en route to Cork airport for a glass of Guinness, were from Spain and working in a hotel. But I think they were Irish as well.