Alex Massie

Poverty: Grim but Authentic!

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There is, as you might expect, some good stuff in Christopher Caldwell's Weekly Standard piece on the rise and fall of the Celtic Tiger. But it also contains some strange thinking, albeit of a kind that is often found when foreigners consider the Irish. Thus:

This [prosperity and immigration] is all very exciting for the Irish, but there is nothing particularly Irish about it. Irish identity has often been--explicitly and officially--a matter of protecting citizens from both the temptations of modernity and the vicissitudes of prosperity...

De Valera's Irish Republic was organized around the idea that money doesn't matter that much. This may have been a noble aspiration, it may have been sanctimony and foolishness, but there was at the very least something bold and, as Yeats would say, indomitable about it. Next to De Valera's uncompromising Christian renunciation, those two something-for-nothing ideologies, modern capitalism and modern socialism, are practically indistinguishable. Over the last 20 years, Ireland found riches a good substitute for its traditional culture. But now the country has been harder hit by the financial downturn than any country in Western Europe. We may be about to discover what happens when a traditionally poor country returns to poverty without its culture. This is rum, hyperbolic stuff. The Irish economy may contract by 10% this year and, on a per capita basis, the 26 Counties aren't likely to remain amongst the richest dozen countries in the world, but Ireland is not, despite its problems, going to return to its impoverished roots.

What's more perplexing is why anyone should want it to. Caldwell doesn't quite say it, but the implication to be drawn from his piece - and from others like it - was that Ireland was a better, more wholesome, happier place when it was poor and that it was foolish for the Irish to believe that they could ever aspire to something more than that. Didn't they realise their lot was to be backward and patronised?

Sure, maybe it was all too much to be entirely true and, sure, perhaps the good times couldn't last forever. But that's no reason to suggest that poverty was somehow ennobling and more authentic than prosperity. Them good old days - back when the Irish were all saints and cholars don't you know - were so good that thousands of young Irishmen and women were forced to leave their native heath in search of work and prosperity elsewhere. Dev's Ireland - and its legacy - was a failure, even if it was bold.

It's all very well for foreigners to bemoan the cost of the Celtic Tiger - especially its vulgarity - and wax lyrical about them Rare Ould Times, but they (we) didn't have to live there. For that matter, the schadenfreude with which Ireland's economic woes has been greeted on this side of the Irish Sea is pretty unbecoming.

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.

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