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Ireland Unleashed

A booming economy has fueled prosperity, transforming a society long burdened by oppression and poverty

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Here in County Roscommon, the damp, boggy heart of Ireland, the evidence of poverty, destitution and despair is all around me. I see a family garbed in rags gathering for a meager meal of boiled cabbage, their staple potatoes blighted and rotting in the ground. They are the lucky ones, the fortunate few who still have a roof over their heads. Throughout the county, bailiffs wielding five-foot iron crowbars raze the dwellings of tenants, as women and children, their clothes in tatters, plead not to be evicted. At night, the newly homeless will crouch in scalpeens—holes improvised in hedges. Those with strength enough carry stones for constructing roads, working barefoot for pennies a day. Many opt for escape from starvation—and burial in mass graves—by boarding ships sailing for America, Canada and Australia. Nearly half of them will die, stacked between decks in foul, diseaseridden bunks.

Revisiting Ireland’s great famine, in which nearly a million people died of hunger and sickness in the 1840s— and as many emigrated—is a wrenching experience even now. It is a relief to emerge from the FamineMuseum in Strokestown into sunlight. The museum, which opened in 1994, represents the first attempt on a national level to commemorate the famine. The subject remains so painful that it was not even taught in Irish schools until recently. “It took us a long time to get around to it, because many Irish felt some guilt about surviving when so many family members were lost,” says John O’Driscoll, the museum’s director. “Now we’re finally coming to terms with it. Ireland’s new prosperity gives us the confidence to face this at last.”

Prosperity has indeed taken hold in the land of saints and scholars. Change is visible everywhere, including the teeming N4 highway from Strokestown to Dublin. Irish roads today—unlike the rutted, hedgerow-bordered boreens (lanes) I drove on many years ago—are filled with late-model BMWs and Mercedes-Benzes powering past. The traditional whitewashed, thatched-roof cottages that once dotted the Irish countryside have largely been replaced by comfortable, standardized bungalows. As the Brooklyn-born writer turned Irish citizen J.P. Donleavy puts it, Ireland today is “a nation now going madly modern out of its mind . . . . In spite of all its old ways, believe it or not, Ireland is becoming by leaps and bounds a most glamorous country.”

As if to make a point about Ireland’s youthful energy and changing face—about 45 percent of the country’s burgeoning population is under 25—Saint Patrick’s Day is now known in Dublin as the Saint Patrick’s Festival. In 2003, the city’s traditional March 17 parade was headed by Grand Marshall Samantha Mumba, a 19-year-old pop-music star whose mother is Irish and father Zambian. “In diaspora countries like the United States, Saint Patrick’s Day means mostly looking back to an Irish past; it’s an assertion of identity,” says the festival’s organizer, Maria Moynihan. “But here it’s a time for looking at who we are today, and where we’re going.”

Indeed, Ireland’s traditional international emblem, the shamrock, is giving way to another symbol, the Irish pub, a phenomenon from Tokyo to Tallinn. As for “tooraloora” lullabies, they are relegated to the attic of memories; U2, one of the most successful rock bands in the world, pounds out today’s Irish music. Ireland’s film industry is turning out internationally renowned movies, including Inside I’m Dancing, which explores the relationship between two disabled friends, and David Gleeson’s coming-of-age story, Cowboys and Angels. In 2003, Miramax Films released the critically acclaimed The Magdalene Sisters, which excoriates the country’s abusive workhouses for women, an institution that endured from the 19th century to 1996. As for traditional Celtic step dancing, it has mutated into Riverdance, the rousing Irish roadshow seen by more than 60 million people worldwide.

Ireland has even taken its place among the world’s richest countries. The interminable grim conflict in Northern Ireland, a regrettable relic of Europe’s age-old religious wars, grinds on, although recent negotiations offer hope, at least, of a lasting peace. But in the 26 counties of the Irish Republic, more attention is devoted to economic indicators, such as the Irish gross domestic product per head of population (a more refined figure than simpleGDP), which surpassed Great Britain’s a few years ago. As have prices. Everything from a pint of Guinness ($5 in Dublin) to a pound of potatoes—in the new Ireland, largely an imported commodity—costs more here than in England or on the Continent. New wealth has also led to an exponential increase in cars on the roads and one of the most lethal accident rates in Europe. Meanwhile, the average speed in the capital’s most congested streets—five miles an hour—is no improvement over the horse-drawn era.

Dublin house prices have soared. In the city’s docklands, a fashionable neighborhood along DublinBay, a corner penthouse in an apartment development recently went for $1.4 million. And in CountyMayo, a farmer recently achieved notoriety for his 26 bank accounts and assets of $4 million, thanks to farming profits, canny investing and a wee bit o’ tax evasion. “Many of us may be glad to see the back of holy Ireland, martyred Ireland and peasant Ireland,” writes Fintan O’Toole, a Dublin columnist. “Most of us may have wanted nothing so much as to be normal, prosperous Europeans.”

Indeed, Ireland’s high-rolling citizens seem bent on making up for lost time. At all hours, crowds throng Dublin’s Grafton Street, a chic shopping district. Their high spirits are reflected in the new Dublin Spire, the 396-foot-tall, $4.6 million tower that rises on O’Connell Street. The monument stands opposite the General Post Office, site of the fateful 1916 Easter uprising that marked the start of Ireland’s drive to independence from Britain. The steel tower, known irreverently as the Spike, is twice as tall as the capital’s highest building, Liberty Hall, and has neither political nor religious significance. “It stands for us, now,” columnist Bruce Arnold wrote in the Irish Independent. “The idea of the city and the country wanting to celebrate themselves with a spire that had nothing to do with religion would have seemed offensive not all that long ago. It seems entirely irrelevant now.”

Even Galway, on the far edge of the Gaeltacht, Ireland’s main Gaelic-speaking region and gateway to the wild mountains and deeply notched coastline of Connemara, pulsates with a sense of possibility. The city of 57,241 might still attract thousands of faithful each February to the weeklong Solemn Novena for Our Lady of Perpetual Help. But its 14,500 students, enrolled at the National University of Ireland, set the tone. On a recent Saturday morning, Alan Campbell and Francis O’Flaherty gathered in the airy atrium of a new hotel, downing caffe lattes and entering weekend activities—golf and paintball—into their cellphones.

The friends, both 29, take world travel and unlimited opportunity for granted. After graduating from college seven years ago, O’Flaherty worked in a series of banks and consulting firms in New York City, Sydney and London. Now he’s with a venture capital company in Abbeyknockmoy, 25 miles from Galway. “It’s way out in the country, but distance doesn’t count anymore,” he says. “With e-mail, the Internet and easy air travel, we can handle everything from cable TV investments in Eastern Europe, North Africa and Egypt to telecom deals in London.”

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