It was 1st January 1973 and I no longer felt like a young person living on a cold, bleak island off another cold bleak island. Now we were part of the great European community, the world which had given birth to Michelangelo and Van Gogh, the world where the Pope lived in his own independent republic, where Grace Kelly became a princess, where gondolas sailed through the streets, where people wore clogs and drank beer and ate pasta and yes, where it was always summer.
This was the effect that joining the EEC had on me in 1973. The UK and Denmark joined at the same time, fellow travellers so to speak as we dipped our toes into this strange, new world. We had always felt tethered to the UK so it was good to feel loose and opinionated and to have new horizons. There was a feeling of approval too, like passing the Leaving Cert or a Driving test. There was also the discovery that membership meant we could live and work in the EEC. We were only four years out of school so friends and classmates would have been some of the first to settle in as Europeans. This of course has led to a scattering of Irish people all over Europe and indeed beyond and it also resulted in cheap holidays for all their friends and neighbours! It was also quite exotic, before the invention of Ryanair when a trip to Europe was complicated and expensive.
That summer I travelled to the Netherlands to a conference on the developing world and exchanged knowing glances with my Danish counterpart, we were part of this club together! But in my innocence, I thought we were equal with the original signatories of the Treaty of Rome, Belgium, Italy, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, France and Germany, old Europe. In those early years they called the shots and made the decisions.
And then we needed MEPs, so the Oireachtas got to nominate them, household names like Conor Cruise O’Brien, Brian Lenihan, Richie Ryan and David Thornley. It was six years before we had an actual election and probably before we realised the significance of sending representatives to Europe.
Then there was the money, investment in infrastructure and goodbye to the clumps of grass growing down the middle of some of our roads, the Common Agriculture Policy, the treatment of raw sewage, the discovery of organic farming and the birth of Erasmus when we sent our sons and daughters away to turn them into Europeans and enable them to chatter away in all the tongues of what is now the EU. My own children ‘did’ their Erasmus year in Milan, Copenhagen, Berlin and Nuremberg and came back speaking the language fluently and having made good friends. When I was young, we hopped on a train to visit our rural connections but my own children jump on planes and treat the entire continent as their stomping ground. And if you want to take Fido or Felix with you on your travels, the EU says ‘Yes’!
Of course, there are negative aspects too, the EU’s protective attitude towards our peat bogs hasn’t gone down too well. It has been seen in many rural households as an interference with a traditional way of life, with entire families who spent the summer days in the bog, cutting the turf by hand and making strong tea over an open fire. And as for the emissions from our farting cows! Fishermen haven’t been too happy either as large factory boats cruised into our waters and scooped up our fish. Yes, there’s been give and take.
But if you want a party, well, that’s something we do well! The Presidency of the EU rotates and each country gets a six month stint at the helm. We celebrated the seventh Irish Presidency in 2013. There were several different meetings scattered around the country. The flags went up, the limos arrived, the hotels were booked up, the reporters descended and the visitors were given the best ‘Cead Mile Failte’ of their careers. In addition, there were cute little umbrellas, wallets notebooks, brief cases, miniature whiskeys and even chocolates to take away and remember us!
Being officially European has given us a stake in some of the major events over those years. We could feel the empathy as the Berlin wall came down. There were great celebrations in Berlin and everyone was so happy but there was great sadness too from the families of those who had been shot while trying to escape to the west, some only weeks before the wall fell. I remember the car dealers setting up their shiny new showrooms, the appearance of bananas after decades without, the huge piles of toilet paper tied to the roofs of the Trabbies as people drove to the west to stock up. People would walk up to you in the street and ask what shoe size you wore and could they please buy them from you. They had been a people with money but with nothing to spend it on. The remaining Russian soldiers were left with nothing and they set up stalls on the streets of Berlin selling their leather bags, their tin plates, their caps, even their medals, to passing tourists.
There isn’t a family in Ireland which hasn’t been affected by membership of the EU because we have become the EU. Every aspect of our lives is directed and the standard of living here has jumped accordingly. Would we go back? Could we go back? We have lost our boreens, our peat bogs, our dirty water, the thatched roof nostalgia for a bygone time. We don’t gather in our gardens to listen to the GAA finals on a portable radio anymore or depend on mass emigration to our nearest neighbour. We are becoming more idealistic as a people, more concerned about our environment and global warming and there is a growing concern about poverty and what lies beyond our own shores, a consideration for people on the other side of the earth oppressed by war and hunger and a realisation that we are all one, that we can work together to create not only a better Europe, as in the original EEC, but a better world for everyone.
In partnership with the Irish Foreign Ministry as part of the Communication Europe Initiative, our Ireland EU 50 series is a selection of unique stories from writers from Ireland and elsewhere. The CEI was established in 1995 to raise awareness about the European Union and to improve the quality and accessibility of public information on European issues.