A vision of Ireland at the crossroads?

I have now lived outside Ireland for the best part of two years. However, I am a frequent visitor and I keep up with things as best I can; and as I do so I am becoming increasingly intrigued by the direction of the national conversation. There appears to be a near consensus, in some circles at least, that the ‘Celtic Tiger’ years were all one big mistake and that the country should never have left the spirit of a previous era; though I am not always sure which previous era might be held up as a model.

Among those leading the discussion is Ireland’s President, Michael D. Higgins. The President has been forthright in rejecting the assumptions of the Celtic Tiger era, and in particular in rejecting the primacy of markets in economic affairs. His analysis has been interesting. In his lecture at the London School of Economics in February this year the President suggested that Ireland’s recent economic boom was a failure because ‘leaders and people had all but lost connection with the cultural and political elements of national revival’. What they pursued was the intellectual brainchild, he felt, of writers such as Friedrich von Hayek who promoted a ‘single hegemonic version of the connection between markets, economic policy, and life itself.’ This led to ‘extreme individualism’ supported by ‘unregulated markets’. A little later, in April of this year, the President spoke about ‘the folly of overweening material ambition’.

Pursuing this particular reference, I was a little struck that nobody appeared to have picked up the similarity of tone to that of a previous Irish President. In 1943 Eamon de Valera (admittedly when he was Taoiseach and therefore before he became President), made a speech mainly remembered for a reference he did not actually make (his alleged but never expressed yearning for ‘comely maidens dancing at the crossroads’). However he did say:

‘The Ireland which we would desire of would be the home of a people who valued material wealth only as the basis of a right living, of a people who were satisfied with frugal comfort and devoted their leisure to the things of the soul.’

At a recent gathering of psychologists Ireland’s current dissatisfaction with itself was attributed by one speaker to a ‘narcissistic system’ based on its colonial past, and which caused people to have a negative view of themselves and of the nation. What she was referring to was the country’s sense of flawed nationhood as it accepted responsibility for what went wrong in the national finances, including the problems caused by reckless banking behaviour. The implication was that this acceptance of responsibility, by political leaders at least, was part of a distorted self-analysis and an obsessive desire to please others (the ‘others’ here being the IMF and the European Union).

What picture of an ideal Ireland can we discern from all this? An insecure country that wants to reject its recent past? A country that is keen to renounce material possessions and return to a rural frugality? A country that thinks that what happened to the Irish economy was part of some aberration in the national destiny?

No country and no society can turn the clock back. For those who may remember, say, the 1950s and 1960s, and for those who have just read about those decades, there should be some hesitation before concluding that those were better days. Does Ireland want women back into the home, could it accept now the lack of social and physical mobility, or large-scale emigration? Not to mention child abuse.

Nobody can doubt that the recent past was not all that it should have been. But the way forward is forward. The last two decades brought Ireland a much greater liberal acceptance of human rights, greater access to scientific and technological progress, much better national infrastructure, a better awareness of the potential for global communication and interaction. There was much more good than there was bad. Those who believe that Ireland needs to reject all of its recent history should, really, think again.

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13 Comments on “A vision of Ireland at the crossroads?”

  1. Vince Says:

    What is coming out also, is a racism or at least the perception of racism. The church and FF held or at least channeled it in the past, but since both are very much reduced this specter is becoming evident.

  2. Anna Notaro Says:

    I’m no Irish literature specialist, but when it comes to the picture of an ideal Ireland as hinted at by the current President – and by the previous one mentioned in the post – one has to remember that it emerged during the Irish literary revival, in the works of W. B. Yeats, Thomas MacDonagh and Douglas Hyde, Theirs was an idea of Ireland as the perfect antithesis to rationalism, capitalism and the British Empire. Today, by replacing capitalism with late capitalism and the British Empire with the more up to date European Community and postcolonial ideology, it has become the predominant narrative in the works of Declan Kiberd or Seamus Deane. Sometimes I really wish European nations could forgo their overbearing past and really look ‘Forward!’, as in President Obama’s campaign slogan.

  3. Eduard Du Courseau Says:

    There is no doubt that exposure to and participation in globalization transformed the image of Ireland and opened up minds: some tangible and enduring benefits are the peace process, multiculturalism, gay rights and reaforrestation.
    But did we as a nation have much choice? In one way not really as we were part of a wider movement but in another way yes. The nation got ahead by lowering our corporation tax and personal taxes while luring multinational companies to the IFSC, enjoying EU largesse and borrowing significant amounts of cash from German savers. Bertie may have been on a higher salary than President Obama and as hubris turned to ate, politicians were touring the world and giving lectures on The Irish success story. This was supposed to make us all feel good and pleased to be Irish.
    And yet for many of us who lived in Ireland during these golden years, the reailty was extortionate childcare costs, alienation, traffic congestion and a more conspicuous social divide. Yes, I made a living and bought a pokey flat in D2 but I felt left behind in the boom- too many conversations about house prices and salary comparisons, too many unnecessary invitations to borrow more money. Values shifted from solidarity to materialism as the number of people who told me how they wouldn’t be able to live on my piddling teacher’s salary grew daily. But now- in the nemesis stage- we know that it was all a bubble and that the emperors were stark naked, it’s time to reappraise where we want to be. The countryside is littered with half built houses, town centers are drab and empty and pubs are closing. The feeling is more how can we learn from our mistakes, not let’s turn the clock back. But first we have to feel good again about ourselves and in times of crisis it’s helpful to look back so we can take from the past the fire, not the ashes.

  4. OMF Says:

    The Celtic Tiger was a brief period from ~1990 to 1999 when Ireland had a genuine economic boom. The period from 1999 to 2012 was and continues to be a massive state-wide ponzi scheme.

    I don’t want to return to the past. And I don’t want to be stuck in the present. I want to move on to a brighter future.

    And that future begins by getting all the people who wrecked Ireland over the last 20 years, taking them out to a back alley, and ritually sacrificing them in three different ways to the old pagan gods. Hows that for revisiting history?

    • Actually, it would be more accurate to say that the Celtic Tiger lasted until 2004. It was only from then that construction and domestic consumption outstripped exports.

      But even then, Ireland remained phenomenally successful in attracting inward investment, and critically became increasingly a magnet for high value R&D. It was never as one-dimensional story as you suggest.

      • James Fryar Says:

        I agree. We were successful in some regards. But then why does my friend not have broadband access? Why does he live in an estate so far from train stations that he has to drive along the increasingly congested roads? Why did we plan a children’s hospital for years, only to suddenly find out it was too high? Why did we build an M50, close parts of it, and have to expand the lanes? Why did we plan a metro, do nothing about it, and then suddenly pull the project? Why did we build a national aquatic centre and watch no one use it? Why did we have primary schools with leaky roofs and no heating when third-level colleges were attempting to get 50 metre pools? What the Celtic Tiger taught us was that our political classes had no foresight, no ability to plan beyond their term in office, and that old-fashioned gumption was exactly that – old fashioned. We had our cake, didn’t eat it, and then watched it slowly being picked away by the crows. And that, for me, is the painful part. I wasn’t in a position to build up a debt, or buy a house (let alone a second one) or even a car while I lived off toasted ham and cheese sandwiches and Guinness on my postgrad stipend. I feel no responsibility for the crash, no intention of renouncing material possessions, no longing for rural frugality. What I want is answers. Answers to why our political parties failed to see that if you put your economic eggs in one basket (property development) they’ll crack at some stage, and why in our hi-tech economy, people still have dodgy internet connections through a creaking mobile 3G network.

  5. Al Says:

    Hi, I was avoiding commenting, but twas still in my mind, so I will comment although everyone has moved on.

    There is a danger in getting distracted about future or past visions when it may be more important to recognise the “less than optimal” performance nationaly both in terms of perpetuity and in terms of our recent massive failing.
    We have a difficulty pursuing our national interest or understanding the responsibilities arsing from this obligation, but we are much more comfortable doning the jersey of our particular parish and battling for a slice of the national pie, rather than seeking union to grow said pie.
    This factor also has filtered into determining responsibility for the recent national disaster where everyone has their scapegoat.

    Lets put the vision thing on hold for the moment
    Twas left in the mind too long to be anything other than a rant!

  6. Anna Notaro Says:

    What a coincidence to write about ‘Ireland (and its ethical values) at a crossroad’, only a few days before a woman dies having been denied a medical termination and allegedly told: “This is a Catholic country” !
    I really, really hope that, as it has been the case in other contexts, an individual tragedy like this one provokes a national debate that changes matters.

    • Vince Says:

      Sorry Anne, the info so far is unclear.

      • Anna Notaro Says:

        you mean the circumstances of this particular case are unclear? What is clear enough is that a European court ruling in 2010 declared the absolute ban on abortion to be a breach of women’s human rights.http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-11342247
        In this context, only last September a medical symposium in Dublin heard evidence that “abortion is not medically necessary to save the life of a mother.”
        To paraphrase from one of the comments above, it seems to me that if Ireland sticks to some of such past *values* it will only end up with a bunch of ashes.

        • Vince Says:

          Yes, this case is unclear.

          And there is no absolute ban in place here. What we don’t have is clear direction from the legislature. Something I think cannot ever occur since it cannot impinge on the Rights of the Citizen. The only way this ‘can’ happen is on a case by case like this one. None would have carried this before the courts and if they did the SC ruling would instantly come into play.
          For all the ill informed hoo-haa written about Irish attitude to abortion no one has realised that Roe in the States hasn’t been challenged nor will it be.
          Our Supreme Court made a ruling on Citizen Rights back in the 90s, that no one has thought about it since is no ones fault but the idiots on high horses.

          • Vince Says:

            Oh, just so I’m clear. It would be my inclination to charge all involved with this woman’s medical care if not with murder then with negligent homicide.

  7. Brian Cronin Says:

    As you say, there can no turning back the clock. There was and never will be “an ideal Ireland”. I don’t think collective self-esteem is the problem, rather a deep and growing cynicism about what politics and politicians can do in this country. People may feel that the political system has failed to deliver, despite an election nothing much has changed. The technocrats are in charge. Emigration of many of the college graduates (while beneficial for them on a personal level, one hopes) adds to the cynicism about what the state can achieve. Nobody, I think, takes much notice of what our (ceremonial) President says. If he continues like this, it could be a long 6 years.
    Like the blog.

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