Wednesday, December 01, 2010

The Celtic Tiger (sayonara or hasta la vista?)

I can’t possibly try to work through the ins and outs of what the EU is putting forth to save the Euro, and save (or put under) dear old Ireland, without my head imploding.  But, I have been following the economic crisis in Ireland, if not with a gimlet eye, then with something more than an Irish-American smiling eye. Having seen Irish Finance Minister Brian Lenihan in the bar at Buswell’s Hotel on Molesworthy Street in Dublin years ago, I do feel a bit connected to the scene.  (Not that I recognized Lenihan. We were with an Irish friend who pointed yer man out to us.)

And I do have a big soft spot in my heart (and head) for Ireland, and have been there many times over the years. Since that first trip in the early 1970’s, I’ve seen it shift from the repressed, priest-ridden backwater of yore; to Celtic Tiger, Burning Bright; to its sorrowful and/or frightening and/or sardonic current state.  Knowing the Irish, it’s decidedly possible to imagine many of them holding an equal-parts combo of all three responses.

I would not at all, at all, wish a return to the Ireland of the early 1970’s on them.

Sure, the country was fabulous, the people were wonderful (or at least wonderfully interesting), and we had a great time. But there was something depressing about being there that went beyond the dreary weather, the poor heating, the damp sheets, the disgusting and ubiquitous mushy peas, and the chain smoking.  Most of the older folks we met seemed resigned to the life that the world had dealt Ireland: limited, crabbed, yet still their own. The kids our age (early twenties) that we met in pubs mostly seemed slightly embarrassed to still be in Ireland – as if they bought the idea that if they’d had any gumption, they’d have left. Or they were bitter and condescending about privileged, pretentious, and/or silly ‘kiss-me-I’m-Irish,’ head-up-the-arse Yanks who descended on their country with their fancy backpacks on a post-college, pre-work spree.

Underneath it all there was a pervasive sadness that was brought home to me on the ferry from Dun Laoghaire (just south of Dublin) to Holyhead (Wales). This was the boat to England.

While the boat was still in dock, an Irish social worker (wearing an arm-band that identified her as such) was going from young person to young person interviewing them on why they were leaving Ireland, where they were headed, what they planned on doing there, and whether they intended to come back.

She had clearly pegged me and my friend Joyce as Americans – no Irish kids would have had such  pricey Keltie backpacks, such good teeth, such healthy coloring – so she didn’t bother to quiz us. But we had been hanging out with a young Canadian whose parents had immigrated from Ireland to New Foundland and who looked and dressed a lot more native than we did. So we knew what she was after in her interviews.

The ferry was full of young Irish men and women, heading to England to make a better life for themselves.

And, yes, they’d be coming back: the ferry was long, but it wasn’t an Atlantic crossing in steerage. But it was clear that there was nothing for them in Ireland.

We looked around the lounge area where we were sitting and saw that, along with our Newfie friend Rick, we appeared to be the only non-Irish, non-economic refugees.

My grandmother’s words came to me: If Ireland were so great, we all wouldn’t have had to come over here.  This from someone who had never stepped toe in Ireland. She was no doubt channeling her immigrant parents here, and yet she was so right.

Fast forward to the mid-eighties.

Things were picking up a bit. If nothing else, you could order a G&T in a pub and get ice with it. Still, when you looked at the bulletin boards in the entranceways of the universities, they were cluttered with flyers for jobs somewhere else: England, Germany, Australia, The States.

And so it remained.

I have a friend who’s in her mid-thirties who emigrated after she finished school because of the opportunities in the States. She’s now an American citizen, but here family’s all back in Ireland. Curiously, her parents (who are my age) had immigrated to England, and had not come back to Ireland until their children were half-grown and the economy started to pick up, thanks in no small part to an infusion of EU money.

And pick up it did.

All of a sudden – or so it seemed to tourists on an occasional visit – there were highways. And shopping malls. And new housing being slapped up everywhere you looked. Irish was no longer a nation emigrants. Not only was their greatest export – their young – returning home, but the country was full of immigrants, mainly Eastern European and, to lesser extent, African and Brazilian. Last time we were over (2006), I don’t recall being waited on in a restaurant or pub by anyone who wasn’t Russian, Czech, or Polish. We stopped in a gas station and the folks running it were Brazilian.

When we head back this spring, that probably won’t be the case.

Although the historic emigration of their young likely will be back again, as a new generation who wants to do more with their educations, their lives will be heading elsewhere. England. Germany. Australia. Probably not Amerikay this time around.

I suppose I should save all of my sympathies for the Americans who are falling off the unemployment rolls into the abyss. Falling into bankruptcy. Falling from the middle class. Falling into the slough of despond every time they think about their 401K’s, Social Security, healthcare costs, [insertyour favorite economic woe here].

Think globally, sympathize locally, and all that.

Still, I do feel for the Irish. They endured so many centuries of hard-bitten economic misery. They were not, of course, the only people to have done so. But they were certainly among Europe’s most economically downtrodden and backward for a good long time. And then they had broken through to a far more prosperous life for themselves.

Much of it, we now see, was – like so much of America’s recent prosperity – built on a foundation of sand. Sometimes the foundation was swamp.

On our last trip over, we drove through an area outside of Galway that I had recalled as wetlands. Yet there were all these new homes on the spot.

I asked a friend, who is in the construction business, about it, and he told us that this development had cut a lot of corners in the making, including scant attention paid to drainage.  Mold was creeping up through the walls, the homes were ruined, the buyers in despair.

An apt metaphor for much of the Irish economic boom. But not all.  Companies were drawn to Ireland for its educated workforce, its English-speaking populace, and its way-low corporate taxes. Not all the boom came from swinging a hammer. So there is some reason for optimism.

But recovery will be slow and painful. (As will ours.)

I wonder what we’ll find next May.

Plenty of gloom, I suppose.

I saw an article in The Irish Times the other day about an Australian woman who, after 13 years in Ireland, was heading back down under with her Irish partner and their two small children. She was quoted:

“I am sick of it. You can’t open a newspaper without being told that you are buggered, that small businesses are closing down, there’s negativity everywhere. It’s as though people are shut off to anything good ever happening again. People seem to have forgotten that we still had fun when we were waiting tables for a fiver an hour, we just did it differently. I don’t see anyone being happy anymore.”

I hope that’s not the case.

I certainly hope that the Irish can draw on their ample stoicism, their race memory for how to get through the bad times, and their ample humor, to weather this crisis.

Both my brother-in-law Rick and my cousin Mary Beth sent me an article they’d seen on a recent comedy-economics festival held in Kilkenny.  The festival was:

…a uniquely Irish blend of tragedy and satire. Sharing
the same stage, economists and standup comedians are trying to help thousands of shellshocked citizens get a grip on their nation's spectacular economic fall…"We're here to wallow in how immensely bad it can get. Us Irish, we love the idea of a hard old time on the way," [Joe] Rooney
declared… Rooney mocked his fellow countrymen as
deferential masochists -- in sharp contrast to the French, who "burn cars and throw sheep" every time their government even thinks about reforms.

"The Irish, we'll take anything. When we go to restaurant,
if the food is (expletive) we don't complain," he complained.
"Will we send it back? Never! I wouldn't give them the
satisfaction! I'll eat it all and throw up at home." (Source: AP article by Shawn Pogatchnik.)

I have to say I laughed out loud when I read this. As long as Ireland is capable of mounting an economics-comedy festival, I do believe they’ll be alright.

1 comment:

Rick said... left out the other good joke from the article, about how the two major rating agencies were going to get together to rate Irish debt, calling the new agency "Moody & Poor."

Unfortunately, the Irish politicians brought this all on themselves two years ago when, following the example of the US government, which happens to own a money printing press that the Irish lack, it guaranteed not only the deposits by Irish citizens in Irish banks, but all the debts of those banks, including massive loans by speculators who were being well paid to take the risk. The banks have all effectively failed, although they are technically still alive as zombies, and the government has to make good on those promises. Irish citizens, who weren't paid a farthing to take on risk, now will suffer for years to insure that the investors who were well paid for enabling the Irish banks to make so many bad loans are made whole. Pretty disgusting, IMO. Most of the holders of Irish bank debt are French and German banks; Germany figured out that it was cheaper to "help" Ireland pay off its banks than have to rescue its banks directly if they failed.