Alex Massie

A New, Improved, Poorer Ireland!

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Writing at Big Questions Online Brian Kaller, an American now living in Kildare, claims that Ireland and the Irish are better-placed to survive the Age of Austerity than their American cousins. Though he's careful to acknowledge that the boom years swept away much that was rotten and repressive in Ireland the piece ends up as another example of that strange beast - the hymn to Authentic and Authentically Irish Poverty. To wit:

The most important reason was the Famine, of course, and you can still hear the capital F in today’s Ireland. But that epochal crash was just the worst chapter of a history that emptied the land and made Ireland the world’s most famous exporter of sad songs and refugees. Perhaps no other people but the Jews have been so defined by tragedy and exodus.

In the U.S. and around the world, the descendants of the Irish multiplied until they vastly outnumbered the population of Ireland itself, and many retained an (often sentimentalized) love for their ancestral homeland. It’s the reason so many cities celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, why Ireland became such a popular tourist destination as the Land that Time Forgot. Even when Ireland’s cultural exports expanded beyond the Quiet Man stereotypes to U2 and The Commitments, the country retained its image of charming poverty.

Poverty looks better in memoirs or through the tour bus window. When my wife moved to County Clare in the 1970s, indoor plumbing and electricity were new and still not universal. Potatoes and cabbage really were the staple foods, and pubs and gambling houses were more common than libraries or grocery stores.

Perhaps surprisingly, then, most older people I talk to remember those days fondly. They recall a life that few modern people have experienced, spending the days working in the company of family and friends. They speak with pride of being able to provide their own food and fuel. They say that neighbors helped each other through the lean times, weaving a dense web of indebtedness. They too might be sentimentalizing a life most of us would find harsh, but they also tend to agree that in its prosperity, Ireland has lost something precious.

Actually, I think there remain more pubs than libraries in Clare. For that matter, a village needs more pubs than grocery stores. But let's suppose, for a moment, that all this is true. I certainly won't lose any sleep over the demise of once-fine Dublin pubs ruined by rapacious owners keen on creating a facsimile version of Irish bars in Frankfurt so as to squeeze more cash from unwitting foreigners. Nor can anyone really feel any pity for the brasher kind of Dublin 4 swell (UCD, naturally) who thought himself the business when buying a glass shoebox by the Docks for half a million or so only to find himself undone by events.

Nevertheless, these swells did think the world had changed forever and so, more importantly, did Ireland's political class. So, alas, this is just wrong:

More significantly, few people here saw the boom as normal or permanent. No leaders announced grandiose plans for a 21st-century Irish Age, or invested their new wealth in forming a global empire. As religious as Ireland has been, no one decided that Ireland was now the chosen nation of God. In short, the Irish did not react as many of my own countrymen did to the rising economic fortunes of the U.S.

Actually they did. As Bertie Ahern once put it, "The boom times are getting boomier." The property developers agreed and so, in fact, did much of Dublin's middle-class even if the cannier also harboured the ignoble but as it transpired justified suspicion that it might all be too good to be true. But for the most part the country did convince itself - and many others - that it had not only discovered but patented an Elixir of Eternal Prosperity.

With a Panglossian flourish, Kaller concludes:

No one in Ireland would find a post-crash world pleasant or easy, but their culture might allow them to cope better than most. Traditional Ireland, the culture that older people remember and that still exists all around, was a post-crash world, its institutions and customs shaped by the Famine experience. The boom swept away the uglier aspects of the old order — the institutional abuse, the Troubles — but did not fully replace the qualities that older people here miss. These are the traditional Irish virtues that instilled such nostalgia in the millions who left.

Many Irish see austerity not as the end of the world but as the hangover after the party, after which life will go back to normal. They have been here before. This is where they lived.

Except for those - and there were many of them - who left. Kaller's conclusion, alas, is typical of a certain Anglo-American view of Ireland: our poverty is grim but Irish poverty is charming and somehow noble and alleviated anyway by all those Saints and Scholars don't you know? This, you see, is the natural, proper state of affairs.

It's true, as I've argued, that the folk memory of Haughey's austerity government in the late 1980s provides some meagre solace for the current predicament. But in truth that's a flimsy straw at which to clutch. There were more options back then and, for that matter, the global economy (plus control of the punt) was in a position to help.

Nostalgia is often pernicious and rarely more so than when lamenting what was, by at least one definition, a failed state. An Ireland that could not keep its people nor provide them with work was a failing Ireland. There was freedom for sure: the freedom to leave. That Ireland and emigration were the subject of so much sentimental claptrap in the past is no excuse for indulging in more of the same now.

There's a bumper sticker I once saw in Aberdeen that applies to Ireland too: Please God, grant us another oil boom. We promise not to piss this one away. Or words to that effect. The problem was not the boom but the way in which is was mismanaged and the fashion in which a wealthy elite were granted relief from the rules of the game and, for that matter, from the obligations of citizenship.

Kaller may speak regularly with old people who are fine with a return to bankrupt "life as normal" but I've yet to encounter any young or, since it's my friends and contemporaries of whom I write, soon-to-be-middle-aged Irish person who views returning to 1980 (or earlier!) with anything but horror.

The present correction is deep and unpleasant but it's not nearly so rotten, in some senses anyway, as the notion that poverty reacquaints Ireland with the time-honoured, proper, authentic sense of what it is to be Irish. "Traditional" Ireland had its merits but it was an illiberal, repressive, reactionary, often dismal, impoverished, theocratic, desperate place.

Poverty is not ennobling even if it demands people make the most of what they have and share. Nor should the Irish be expected to believe that this must be their lot. They have every reason to be angry with the political and business classes but also, I hazard, with those that suggest, even if unwittingly, that dignified distress is their natural station.

[Hat-tip: The League of Ordinary Gentlemen]

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

Topics in this articlePoliticsireland