Homeless in Ireland. Creative Commons CC0

The Ghost of a Country

After the boom, 20 years of growth and affluence, the economic downturn hit and, with it, unemployment, homelessness, and renewed emigration. What is going on in the “Celtic Tiger”? We travel to a country that has rejected its traditions.
John Waters

After the boom, 20 years of growth and affluence, the economic downturn hit and, with it, unemployment, homelessness, and renewed emigration. What is going on in the “Celtic Tiger”? Accompanied by the columnist of The Irish Times, we travel a country that has rejected its traditions too hastily–without deciding what it is running toward–and now awaits something...

On the face of things–at least if we adopt the analysis offered in most of the commentary concerning Ireland now–the past two years has seen the wiping out of perhaps 20 years of progress, prosperity, and confidence-building. But this kind of commentary assumes that the progress, prosperity, and confidence were strongly grounded in reality. Alas, this is not so.

Yes, Irish people are now being forced to rethink everything. Or at least they may finally come to rethink everything once they have recovered from the current phase of blaming and anger-letting, the searching for easy scapegoats, and the bitter recriminations that have followed the disintegration of the banking system and the loss of the prosperity that many Irish people had begun to assume was a natural state of affairs.

What has collapsed in the past two years is the materialist model of Ireland constructed as a reaction to a traditionalist Ireland previously regarded as having failed. In many respects, what has happened was not merely inevitable but an intrinsic consequence of the kind of progress and prosperity that was pursued by those who found themselves in charge of Ireland’s destiny over the past half-century or so.

In the past 50 years, Irish life has been dominated by a series of battles between traditionalists and modernizers on various iconic questions seeming to define two opposing versions of reality. On the one hand, the traditionalists clung to an idea of a pious and God-fearing Ireland, which eschewed materialism and valued itself mainly according to the principles of a simple faith which sought, by and large, to shut out the menace of the modern world. On the other hand were those who argued that, to become a vibrant and prosperous country, Ireland needed to turn its back on the simple verities of the past, to embrace pluralism, equality, and freedom, qualities assumed to be antipathetic to the simplicities of old. This ideological struggle represented a false choice, implying a moment of severance between past and future.

If, in search of the roots of the present crisis, you go back a decade or so, you will find yourself scrutinizing the ruins of a delusional economic policy, characterized by crazy borrowing patterns, a property bubble inflated by a collective feeling of imperviousness to normal risk factors, and a State-revenue strategy disproportionately dependent on these insanities–a Tower of Babel already tottering in the sky. But this is merely to scratch the surface of the puzzle that is the Irish economy, never mind to come to grips with the wider cultural realities that have flowed from this model of Ireland.

After all, Ireland is a country richly endowed with cultural gifts and natural resources, its land is amongst the most fertile in Europe, its climate eminently suited to agriculture. As an island, it has access to virtually unlimited fisheries. It has an unrivaled literary tradition. And its population, at roughly four million, is no more than that of a large city in England or America. On paper, the Irish population should be capable of sustaining itself without difficulty on what is available to it.

And yet, for most of the nine decades since achieving independence from England, Ireland has struggled to survive and to maintain its population. In the 1930s, and again in the 1950s, we suffered severe hemorrhaging of our population, a pattern that had persisted since the Great Famines of the 1840s. There was a brief respite in the 1970s but emigration resumed again and persisted until the miraculous boom of the 1990s, which became known as the Celtic Tiger.

Giving away resources. On the surface, this suggests a pattern whereby modern policies have succeeded in proving that, with the right policies, Ireland is capable of self-sustenance. But, in truth, Ireland has given away its resources for nothing or next to nothing. Today, Irish agriculture comprises mainly beef and dairy farming. If you drive around the fabled countryside of Ireland, you cannot help noticing that almost none of the land is cultivated. Our fisheries are mainly exploited by Spanish fishermen. Our tourism industry is in the doldrums because we cannot decide which version of ourselves–traditionalist kitsch or cutting-edge modernity–we wish to promote. Our literary tradition is drying up by virtue of having ceased to look to itself.

After a long period of economic and cultural stagnation, the 1970s offered a moment of growing exhilaration. It helped greatly that cracks were beginning to appear in some of the institutions identified with holding together a traditionalist view of Ireland. The 1980s were characterized by a series of moral civil wars, in which issues like abortion and divorce became the defining questions of the struggle for the future. In 1992, a leading Irish bishop was discovered to have a teenage son in America, and many of those who had secretly begun to question the model of Catholicism, with which they had been inculcated, began openly to dissent and critique the value-system that had thrown up this scandal. And this, of course, was just the first, and perhaps the most innocent, of a whole series of scandals.

Whatever deeper questions and contradictions this struggle might eventually have raised were soon suppressed, however, by the onset of prosperity, which seemed to offer a vindication of the program of modernization that had been pursued.

It is difficult to argue with success. The official record indicated that, by eliminating Irish attachments to tradition, nationalism, religiosity, and singularity, they had succeeded in opening Ireland up to the outside world and creating an economic model based on this openness. But nobody anticipated the vulnerability this would bring. The two brief periods of resurgence of the Irish economy in the 1970s and 1990s were based mainly on two phenomena: budget deficits and invited dependency. The economic model pursued by latter-day politicians abandoned development of indigenous resources in favor of deals with the outside world. Thus, Ireland has the lowest corporation tax rate in the world, so as to attract multinational operators. Our fishing rights were traded as part of our European Union membership, in return for structural funds to build motorways.

For a long time, in fact, there have been two Irish economies. On the one hand there is the highly efficient, successful transnational industrial sector, producing computer components and pharmaceuticals, as well as a thriving international financial sector. It is this cuckoo-in-the-nest economy that has broken all records in the past two decades. On the other hand, there is the indigenous economy–underperforming and barely functioning. If Ireland were to rely on what it is currently capable of generating within itself, its people would be starving again. The policy pursued by successive governments has been to avail itself of Ireland’s openness to the global economy in order to benefit from the overflow wealth from the prosperity and success of other societies. What is Irish about this is hardly worth talking about. Although surrounded by the sea, it does not know whether it wishes to be a sea or a land animal–surviving instead on the “splash” generated by the activities of larger economies.

The reasons for this are complex and profound. They relate to Ireland’s traumatic and disruptive history, and in particular to the mentality that has arisen from this experience.

A recalcitrant virus.
Ireland was never, strictly speaking, a colony, but the nature of the relationship with England was essentially colonial, which is to say based on the concept of master and slave. Ireland’s problems–its failure to provide for its own people, its inability to perceive the abundance of gifts it has been given and make use of them, its constant searching for some new dependency to enter into–are all symptoms of an historical experience that remains to be assimilated at a cultural level.

The core problem is that Ireland has never stopped to look at itself since independence and ask: What could we become by being true to ourselves? Our leaders took the easy, short-term options: availing of EU supports without acknowledging that these came with a heavy price-tag. The core problem is cultural: a lack of self-belief–indeed, a self-hatred inculcated as part of the process of oppression and domination and which remains in the Irish mind like a recalcitrant virus that sleeps and sleeps and then erupts once again. This has rendered it impossible for Ireland to retrace the line of its own destiny, to re-imagine, after its long period of being dominated, how it might function in the world with its own energy and ideas. The result is a society that can see very little of value within itself, which seeks its answers always in imitation of what others have found useful for themselves.

A core symptom of this underlying condition has been that emigration has always siphoned off the energy of the young which, had it remained, might have forced a change of thinking. Now, emigration has started again, threatening (again) to sabotage the process of learning that might flow from current misfortunes.

As for where faith fits into this, the truth is that, in terms of the public discussion at least, it doesn’t fit in at all. “Faith” in Irish culture means, really, blind adherence to imposed prescriptions: there is little or no sense of a connection between what reality proposes and the idea of God or Providence. Public culture is split into those who cling to the simple pieties and those who reject any connection between Christianity and public life, including public culture. Thus, it is not possible to identify a point of starting over, other than in the mechanics of the economic realities. The result is a sterile discussion, devoid of fundamental understandings. In part because of its bruised state following the continuing raft of revelations about clerical abuse and its cover-up, the Irish Church contributes little or nothing to the public discussion that might prove helpful. As we await, then, a deus ex machina, the drama of Ireland is stalled in a phase of repetition and shrillness, a stuck record of an uninteresting and untruthful song. These conditions are underpinned by the ubiquitous generational problem, whereby the disruption of the natural flow of succession has been interrupted by the failure of the middle-aged and older to devolve power downwards, to integrate the energies and enthusiasms of youth in the creation of a society that will soon belong to this new generation. Thus, every prescription that is offered tends to come from the perspectives forged in the era of failure, and dissent in general tends to be confined to the splenetic reactionism of the blogosphere and the radio phone-in.

A sign on the horizon. We need, as in even bigger things, to go back to the beginning. We need to open our eyes and look at everything as though we were seeing it for the first time. Where such clarity might come from now, and how it might be communicated to the greater number, is hard to say. But hope lies in believing that something will happen, something unexpected and unpredictable. The Celtic Tiger boom of the mid-1990s, for all its damaging consequences, offers us now at least the memory of something happening that we did not plan, that was not the obvious result of human preparation and scheming: it merely manifested itself as the outcome of a confluence of circumstances which nobody had really remarked upon.

We can be certain that, already, a new confluence will soon occur in a similar way, perhaps one involving a realization at the heart of Europe that the failures of the recent past cannot be undone by repeating the same policy mistakes that created them, and listening to the same voices that advocated those polici­­es. We wait, then, for an event to occur, knowing not what it may be. Returned to our natural condition, we watch the skyline for signs. I do not think we have long to wait.