One sure way to take the temperature of a town is to check its improv and stage scene. Here in Dublin, jokes about hooking up and abortion get big laughs at clubs, according to Ryan Cullen, a 28-year-old stand-up at the International Comedy Club. “A year or so ago, they would have gotten me booed out of the room,” he said.  In the same vein, a comedy titled The Snapper, dealing with an unwed expectant mother, is a hot ticket at the Gate Theater, while A Day in May, about gay marriage, opens soon at the Olympia during Pride Week.

Peter Bart

The message: Dublin arguably is the fastest-changing city in Europe in terms of its social attitudes as well as its economics. Until recently a citadel of Catholic conservatism, Ireland now has a gay prime minister and has overwhelmingly passed initiatives removing abortion restrictions and affirming gay marriage. While I was visiting this week, Dublin issued a formal apology for having criminalized gays in years past. In the words of Prime Minister (called “Taoiseach”) Leo Varadkar, these changes “are showcasing an open and inclusive Ireland.”

Ireland’s intensely progressive re-invention is gaining momentum thanks in part to the impetus of American technology. My visit coincided with that of Apple chief Tim Cook, who declared he would position another major data center in Dublin. A week earlier, Amazon announced 1,000 new jobs in Ireland, making it the nation’s biggest tech employer, with 3,500 employees already toiling here.

“I used to drive tourists around, telling them about the history of the famine crisis and the nightmares of Misery Hill, but now people want to see is the new Google skyscraper,” says taxi driver Daniel Lennox. “Techie companies are even taking over the creaky old warehouses that I used to play in. I thought they were occupied by ghosts.”

Guinness Dublin
REX/Shutterstock

Dublin’s tourist guides still highlight the sprawling Guinness plant with its giant tanks of booze, but even that company now is pitching lighter Hop House 13 beer to younger drinkers. While the town reveres its stately old pubs, its Samuel Beckett bridge and its statues of Oscar Wilde (and even Molly Malone), nowadays a burgeoning nightclub scene keeps buzzing until dawn, and restaurants, which once stopped serving by 9 PM, now function more on a Spanish schedule. American visitors crowd a museum connecting them to ancestors who escaped the devastating potato famine of the mid-1800s, only to be reminded that Britain failed to extend much support to its neighbors to the west.

Another reminder of the past: The myriad bullet holes in the big central post office, reflecting the epic sectarian battles that ended only a decade ago.

Reaction to the semi-revolutionary atmosphere is evident in the letters sections of the Irish newspapers, where regrets of the voting minority take center stage. “Lifting the baptism barriers in primary school, removing the saints names from hospital wards and even proposed removal of the blasphemy law reflects an effort to completely de-Christianize our country,” writes Aisling Bastible in the Irish Independent. “I find the constant negativity toward the Catholic church excessive and insulting.” Stung by the scandals of recent years, some church officials are promising an evangelical-like campaign to reverse these rulings and eagerly anticipate the visit of Pope Francis later in the year — the first papal visit since 1979. The church is no longer the dominant voice in society,” reflects Dr. Leo O’Reilly, the Bishop of Kilmore. “Many regrettably are now cultural Catholics rather than Catholics by conviction.”

These sentiments seem to defy the mood of the moment, however. “The vibe calls for change and challenge,” says Cullen, who is sharpening his act to take to the Edinburgh Fringe comedy festival next month. “People in the new Dublin want to party. They want the excitement and the great new jobs.” His club is usually packed. And among its patrons are Americans of Irish heritage, who have returned to Ireland to cast their votes in the contentious elections and, in some cases, decided to stay. After all, they’ve noticed, it’s no longer the Ireland they once fled but more like the America they set out to discover.