By Stephen McKinley
DUBLIN — On the last flight to Dublin from New York on New Year’s Eve, the cabin crew entertained passengers with not one, but two New Year’s celebrations — midnight New York time and Irish time.
To applause and cheers, Captain Finbar Murphy sang “Auld Lang Syne” somewhere near Greenland as midnight struck, Irish time.
“Should auld be forgot, or friendship e’er grow cold?” he sang. One auld acquaintance was very much in mind, he reminded passengers — the punt, which along with 10 other European currencies, were about to be replaced with the euro. But on board flight EI 104, as far as flight attendants were concerned, only dollars or punts for duty free items were acceptable, all the way to arrival in Dublin at 5:50 a.m.
On the ground it was a different story. Signs all over the arrivals terminal indicated that the euro itself had arrived. Dual pricing in punts and euros adorned car rental booths, coffee shops and newsagents.
But at 7 a.m., cash machines and pay phones on the arrivals concourse were all out of action. Customers stood for more than 15 minutes trying to rent a car. One American visitor who gave his name as Austin, said: “It’s the new currency. These guys don’t seem ready for it.”
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Even the Bureau de Change was temporarily closed. Was it Cead Mile Failte — or was the much-planned, much-vaunted changeover becoming a euro pain in the neck? Where, oh where, was the euro?
Five days later, the answer seemed to be “everywhere,” as the unprecedented changeover glided along with only minor hitches here and there across Europe.
In Dublin, consumers offered largely upbeat assessments of their new currency.
“It’s great, apart from figuring out what something was worth in the old money, and then figuring out if it’s been marked up,” said Mark Murphy, who was shopping in Waterstone’s bookstore.
“At my local shop, I spent more time with the assistant doing the maths whenever I gave him money in pounds for something,” said Ciara Smith on Grafton Street. “Normally you might not spend any time speaking to the staff, you’d just pay and leave. So I think it’s even bringing people together a little. We’re all in this together after all.”
Everywhere on Dublin’s busiest shopping streets, was evidence of dual pricing — or even just prices marked in euros alone. Cash registers in most stores were capable of taking either punts or euros, ringing up the price in euros, and giving the correct change in euros at the touch of a button. A staff member in Brown Thomas men’s wear store said that people were fascinated with the new money.
“They’re turning over the notes and staring at them,” he said. “Even outside a cash machine, where they ought not to be standing with a wad of notes in their hand.”
Eugene, visiting from Northern Ireland, was a little skeptical about some businesses handling of the euro changeover. “I am sure that businesses large and small will try to rip people off with higher prices,” he said. “It’s only natural.” He admitted that “doing the sums” in his head was “too much of a bother,” and that unless he thought he was being overcharged by an unusually large amount, he would just accept the price on the label. He also noted that on the train journey from Belfast to Dublin, staff were now having to deal with three currencies: pounds sterling, punts and euros. “Maybe that’s why they announced that they’d run out of tea, coffee and beer,” he said. grinning.
One way of getting rid of Irish coins was charity: near Powerscourt shopping mall on Great Georges Street, a homeless woman with a cup was begging for money. She said that people had been off-loading Irish coins in her cup, as well as “some euros.” She didn’t know where she would go to change her Irish money into euros.
Nowhere was there much evidence of nostalgia for that auld acquaintance, the punt.
“Our currency was irrelevant in Europe and the wider world, except for anyone who had to come here to visit or work,” said Martin McAuley, a post-graduate student. “Yes, it may have been a symbol of Ireland and of nationhood, but I think the euro is a symbol of something greater, our partnership with our European partners. It speaks of the future, of planning for the future. It may seem like a big experiment, but it’s going to work.”
It seems that Ireland has welcomed the euro like a new friend: a little cautiously, but warmly.
As the assistant at Brown Thomas put it, “You see people looking at it as if it’s magic.”