Effie Caldarola

When our youngest daughter shopped for clothes for high school dances, her father would often comment, “I hope that dress is on sale for half-price, because it’s half a dress.”

It was a joke, but it made his point. Our youngest child was pretty with an eye-catching figure, and she hit the social scene just as skirts got tighter and shorter and her parents got older. It’s not easy being the fashion arbiter to a 16-year-old.

When I was in Ireland last spring, I was reminded of his observation on the last night we spent in Dublin. The hotel lobby was crowded. Maybe something special was going on for youth somewhere in the hotel — a dance, a school or college event — or perhaps it was just a typical night out.

But I found myself gaping at the outfits I saw on the bevy of very young ladies who glided and giggled through the foyer. Very short, very tight and … is that opaque? And oh, my goodness, did your dad let you leave the house in that?

For me, it was a journey back to Ireland after years of absence. When I was a young teacher, I spent my first year’s paychecks traveling to Ireland for the summer. I met an older teacher on my Aer Lingus flight, and she told me she visited Ireland every year.

That’s what I want to do, I thought. Then life happened and decades passed.

The Ireland I visited this year was very different from the one I saw when I was young. Since I was on a parish pilgrimage, we saw much of Catholic Ireland. I visited St. Patrick’s tomb — well, OK, one of them, but I choose to believe I nailed it. We visited the Holy Well of St. Brigid, where I circled the well in traditional prayer and was touched by the hundreds of notes hung in the cave nearby, notes of thanks and prayers of remembrance.

And at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Killarney, I wept at the large tree that grows over the site of a mass famine grave.

But I was aware of a new Ireland as well. Membership in the European Union has changed the Republic.

Want an old-time thatched roof, the kind I saw when I visited decades ago? Today, you need to prove you’ve applied the right fire retardant. I have pictures of friends dangling their legs over the Cliffs of Moher many years ago; today, fences and warnings keep folks from the edge. I felt as if Ireland was fighting to retain its charm, while becoming modern and efficient.

If you know anything about Irish history, you know that at one point, Ireland was basically a theocracy. The Catholic Church, hand in hand with Eamon de Valera, ruled Ireland with an iron hand. Some bad things happened: Magdalene Laundries held unwed mothers hostage in disgrace, clerical sexual and physical abuse was a hidden plague, many of Ireland’s great authors fled to escape censorship.

Today’s newfound freedom presents opportunity, but brings with it sobering responsibility. Church attendance has dropped precipitously and a recent vote took away an amendment that protected an unborn baby’s right to life. I found myself praying that all the beauty and truth of the Irish faith could remain — the monks, the mystics, the heritage of Celtic spirituality — while the scourge of patriarchal domination and clericalism might disappear.

But freedom isn’t easy and it comes with risk. I thought about that as I saw young girls disappearing into the Dublin evening, each wearing half a dress.