Friday, March 16, 2012

Answering Ireland’s Call

The first time I went to Ireland, nearly 40 years ago now, I was struck by how familiar it all was.

Everyone looked pretty much like everyone looked back home. Factor out the brogue and factor in the Massachusetts accent – informed in large part by the number of Irish immigrants who settled here – and everyone pretty much talked the same way: story telling, blather, blarney, indirection, put downs. So many of the churches were crowned with the same sort of cupola as my home parish church. And the body language: hey, where have I seen those crossed arms before?

Bonus points for how closely parts of the New England countryside resemble Ireland, stones walls rocky fields and all – it’s no wonder so many of them settled here.

Having grown up in a largely Irish-American neighborhood, this all should have been duh obvious to me. But my understanding that American Irishness – at least in my second- and third-generation ‘hood – was a chip off the old sod  really only dawned on me once I stepped off the night boat in Dun Laoghaire and felt completely at home. (Ah, that’s where it comes from…)

Since that first trip, I’ve been to Ireland many times, so the familiar feeling now is as much from those 15 or so trips as it is from the derivative Irishness of my Main South Worcester childhood.

And, across the years, Ireland itself has changed, of course.

When I first went, the country was still pretty darned poor, its most important export its young. There was, among many of those you met, a mild sense of embarrassment  - shame is too strong a word - over the way people lived, so materially deprived when compared to their relations who’d crossed the big pond to America, and even those who’d crossed the little pond to England. There were apologies for the lousy heat, the mushy peas, the damp loos.

Then it got better. Way better.

Decent heat. Great food. Higher quality toilet paper in the no longer damp loos.

Sure, there were still plenty of poor rural outposts, but the cities and their environs were, all of a sudden, like everywhere else in the modern Euro-American world. More prosperous, even. Trendier.

And no more were they exporting their young. All of a sudden, they were net importers from somewhere else: Poland, Russia, the Czech Republic.

And then it got worse.

Most of those my age and older, who remembered back when, had never trusted the prosperity – not really. Still, they were saddened by what the downturn was doing to their young. Once again, they were watching their children head off to someplace else. (Worse, they were also seeing an upsurge in suicide.)

These days, it’s no longer a matter of holding an American Wake for your children who will never return – Aer Lingus gets them back for Christmas and other holidays – but it’s still the hollow and sad feeling that your kids will be building their lives (and having your grandchildren) far and away.

Unlike some of the PIIGS, Ireland is on the mend. Behaving, in fact, like a Euro exemplar of the “right way” to dig yourself out of the economic bog. (I guess all those years getting whacked around by Christian Brothers inured the Irish to taking their medicine and keeping their gobs shut. Even for us Irish Americans, the motto Erin Go Bragh could just as easily have been translated as ‘Suck it up’ as ‘Ireland Forever.” Me? I can’t help but feel a bit proud of how Ireland has sucked it up.)

The country’s economy barely grew in 2011. Inspired by German-style economics, the Troika takes a dim view of any kind of stimulus—tax cuts or public-works spending—choosing instead to allow wages to fall over time, increasing competitiveness. Evidence suggests this is happening: Ireland’s unit cost of labor has dropped 12 percent in the past two years. But this kind of readjustment is a slow process, leaving Ireland a painful experiment in austerity. Unemployment has stayed above 14 percent for almost 12 months. And in the fiscal year ending in April 2011, Ireland saw the most outward emigration since the 19th century. (Source: Business Week.)

Despite all the gloomy-doom, Ireland is on the road back. But the road they’re on is long, and hilly, and rocky – and the wind may not always be to their backs.

So they’re over in Amerikay, looking for a bit of a lift. In February, “they” – Prime Minister Enda Kenny; Richard Bruton, Ireland’s Minister for Jobs, Enterprise, and Innovation; and Barry O’Leary, who runs the country’s Industrial Development Agency (with a boost from Bill Clinton) – came to the U.S. looking for some private sector stimulus of the sort that got the Celtic Tiger going a generation ago.

“You can’t grow our economy or any other economy by an austerity program on its own,” said Kenny onstage in New York.

So part of what they’re looking for is outside investment, and they’re counting on the vast diaspora to help them out.

When approaching an American company, [O’Leary] says, “if there’s somebody at C level in the company who has an Irish name, it sure is a good starting point.”

If I had a business, I’d consider investing in Ireland.

Hey, it’s almost home.

Anyway, Happy St. Patrick’s Day to everyone in the diaspora. (Other than those wearing big foam leprechaun hats and puking in the gutters to celebrate, and those who persist in using “St. Patty” when anyone with half an Irish brain knows it’s “St. Paddy.”)

I’ve been celebrating Paddy’s day on Pink Slip since the get-go. Some of these are pretty darned good…

2011: St. Patrick’s Day 2011

2010: St. Paddy’s Day No More We’ll Keep.

2009: Irish Eyes Not So Smiling These Days.

2008: You Say Po-tay-to, I say Po-tah-to. Who’s Irish and Who’s Not.

2007: Kiss Me, I’m Irish.

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