Two new books by Irish writers have highlighted modern Ireland in all her graces and faults. Both works of fiction; they are grounded in the realities of recent Irish history. The Spinning Heart, by Donal Ryan, tells of what happens to a small Irish community in the aftermath of the collapse of the Celtic Tiger economy, and has been reviewed by Sandy Boyer on the WG site. A Mad and Wonderful Thing, by Mark Mulholland, deals with the Northern Irish Troubles and it is Mulholland’s comments on the Celtic Tiger in a recent interview that interest the present writer. He says: “I never believed in the Celtic Tiger. We all just got caught up in nonsense; it is as if the whole country went mad. It was a delusion, a house of cards.”
For the present writer no remarks in hindsight are relevant or necessary and I publish here a piece I wrote on the phenomenon of the Celtic Tiger in 1997. And I might add it gives me no satisfaction to see how it all turned out for the 'auld sod.'
“It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.” The memorable words of Charles Dickens come to mind as one contemplates the “new” Ireland at the end of the twentieth century.
Back on the “auld sod” after almost 30 years in Australia I am bombarded with the achievements of the “Celtic Tiger” economy. Television, radio, newspapers and magazines roar their message of growth and success.
And the facts and figures are there to support the claim. “The growth in the economy (is) unprecedented in the history of the state”. (Irish Times editorial). A report by the Economic and Social Research Institute predicts the economy will expand by seven per cent this year and that 50,000 new jobs will be created. In the past three years around 46,000 jobs were created annually.
Towns that once were little more than service centres for farmers have become centres for light industry. New factories produce high-tech products, car accessories and pharmaceutical items. Over 75 per cent of goods are exported.
Family and friends urge me to recognise “How far we have come” and there are veiled suggestions that perhaps I “didn’t have to” emigrate all those years ago. I remind them that former President Mary Robinson had kept a lighted candle in her window as a reminder of the Irish “diaspora”. Since the middle of the last century almost five million people have left Ireland in search of a new life. Those that went had made it easier for those that were left to share what work there was.
Now, for those who stayed, all has changed utterly. A new prosperity has been born. Times have never been so good.
But even in the best of times for some there are the worst of times and there is another side to the tale of Ireland’s new prosperity. The average worker can expect a pay increase of 2.25 per cent this year and has been tied to an agreed total of 7.25 per cent until the year 2000. With inflation expected to go to 2.5 per cent per annum over the next three years, many workers feel that in effect this perpetuates a majority of them as a “working poor”. Despite the “boom times”, more than 60 per cent of Irish workers say that they are “no better off than they were five years ago”.
One young trade union activist says, “We’re the Celtic Tiger. But what do the workers get? Nothing”. Put that alongside a growing number of long-term unemployed and the widening gap in income distribution and for many the smile begins to fade on the face of the “tiger”. Last year corporate profits rose by 20 per cent but consumer spending increased by only 4 per cent.
Foreign companies are encouraged to invest with a corporate tax rate set at just 10 per cent until 2010. But they can repatriate their profits and move off shore to greener pastures at any time. Recently more than 5000 Irish workers were “dumped” by these companies who were lured by cheaper labour in Asia.
That the Asian “tiger” and the Celtic “tiger” are of similar pedigree is evidenced by the crony capitalism that is rife in the Irish Republic. A chain of tribunals and inquiries has been held in recent years, the most famous of which netted former Prime Minister, Charlie Haughey. A tribunal found he had received 1.3 m pounds (Aus$2.6m) in gifts from a prominent businessman during his time as head of government. Political figures in all parties have been investigated and many people are disillusioned with politics. Some go so far as to say, “So what? Sure aren’t they all at it,” when another notary is caught with their fingers in the till.
But those who play the Tweedledum / Tweedledee games of the two major conservative parties survive and are well placed to take advantage of EU subsidies and can then claim credit for a boom they didn’t wholly create. In recent years the European Union has poured over $50 billion into the Irish economy. Last year $5.5 billion of EU capital was fed to the Celtic Tiger.
At a time when Ireland needs a lead in combating social disruption and lawlessness the influence of the Catholic Church has waned dramatically. Not because of raunchy bishops or immoral priests, but because God is being replaced by mammon. Materialism is triumphant, ethics and spiritual values abandoned. And the “have- nots” grow more visible on the streets each night.
In O’Connell Street a statue of the great social reformer, Jim Larkin, stands with arms lifted and appears to offer up a prayer for the common good. But Ireland is “on the move”; “Ireland is connected” is the catchcry now. In Connemara potatoes from Israel are on sale everywhere. I remark that while oranges would be acceptable I question the ability to be self sufficient if we no longer grow the staple food of generations. I remind family and friends that the Celtic tiger is of the same pedigree as the Asian tiger. But they ride the tiger’s back and laugh with exhilaration.
It is the best of times. It is the worst of times. Where to Ireland? “It is a state of mind as much as an actual country,” as Edna O’Brien has written. It is not necessary to live there. For some, not to live there, is a ‘far far better thing’ to do.
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