Ireland Unleashed

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

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 The traditional whitewashed, thatched-roof cottages that once dotted the Irish countryside have largely been replaced by comfortable, standardized bungalows.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.”

Campbell also headed for New York City, where he landed a job at a bank. Returning to Ireland in the late 1990s, he became a TV correspondent. “The ’90s brought a great change in mentality among people my age,” he says. “When I came back, I found that, thanks to the boom, a lot of people suddenly believed they could be millionaires.”

The same attitude holds true in Cork (the name means marshy place), the republic’s second-largest city (pop. 179,970). “There’s definitely more of a can-do feeling here now,” Garvan Corkery tells me over a dish of Irish stew and a slice of Gubeen, the local soft cheese, at the English Market off Saint Patrick’s Street. Corkery, a 31-year-old attorney, practices corporate law. “In the business world, it’s because Wall Street has been demystified for us,” he says. “Now we know that things like corporate law, high finance and so on aren’t rocket science.” Furthermore, he adds, “We’ve put the old British problem so far behind us that it’s even OK to be an Anglophile. You can admit you listen to the BBC!”

Beginning in the late 1980s, an economic boom known as the Celtic Tiger and fueled mainly by foreign investment propelled the country from an agricultural to a high-tech economy, altogether bypassing any heavy industrialization stage. In what The Economist called “one of the most remarkable economic transformations of recent times,” the country catapulted from one of the poorest in the European Union, on a par with Greece and Portugal, to the sixth-highest, ahead of Germany.

“When I was living in Boston in the 1980s after graduating from college, there were 60,000 Irish-born emigrants there, most under 25,” says Kevin Whelan, a cultural historian who is director of the University of Notre Dame’s Keough Centre for Irish Studies in Dublin. “In fact, there were more young Galway people in Boston than in Galway. That’s how bad it was. You have to understand that to appreciate what happened in the 1990s.” “

The economic situation here was so dire [in the 1980s] that nearly all my college graduation class emigrated,” recalls Paul McBride, 35, who now runs a software-certification facility in the western town of Ballina (pop. 6,852), near KillalaBay. He studied computer science, but there were no jobs in Ireland so he went to Seattle and worked at Microsoft for four years. “I loved the American lifestyle, and I got to see what was possible, whereas Ireland was blocked,” he says, looking out over the steel-blue waters of Killala. “When I returned to Ireland in 1997, it had been transformed: lots of choice, lots of opportunities, people very hardworking but laid-back. The old repressive mind-set was gone.”

What had happened was the result of good economic policies, hard work and a bit of the luck of the Irish. After the country hit economic bottom in the 1950s, the government stopped banning foreign investment, cut corporate taxes, made grants to modernize industry and lowered tariffs. More significantly, Ireland joined the European Union (then known as the European Economic Community) in 1974 and began receiving billions of dollars in subsidies and development funds. “The most important impact has been access to the European market that [membership] provides, which in turn has been a major attraction for foreign investment,” says Tony Fahey, a professor at the Economic and Social Research Institute in Dublin. “The real driver of our prosperity is investment by American companies”—nearly 600 at last count, which have invested nearly $35 billion and hired more than 90,000 people—“that wanted to get into the European market,” particularly in outsourcing, customer service and technical support. High-tech firms such as Microsoft, IBM, Dell and Xerox have mounted a major push into European markets from Ireland. With electronics the biggest single foreign industry sector, Ireland has become the world’s second-largest exporter of computer software after the United States.

The breakthrough came in 1989, when Intel bypassed Scotland to locate its manufacturing center for European computer systems and semiconductors in Leixlip, west of Dublin. Today, its $3.5 billion plant employs 3,200 workers. Ireland’s latest big American catch? Google, which, in March 2003, announced that it had chosen Ireland over Switzerland for its European headquarters.

Of course, when the tech bubble burst in 2000, the Irish economy suffered along with the rest of the industrialized world’s. Thousands of workers lost jobs; economic growth slowed to a crawl. But with the economy now diversified beyond electronics to include pharmaceuticals, finance and services, recovery is well under way. “The extraordinary growth in the second half of the 1990s,” notes the Parisbased Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in its latest survey of Ireland, “has given way to a more normal, albeit still rapid pace of expansion.”

With its economy attracting both returning Irish (about 40 percent of the 40,000 new arrivals each year) and foreign workers, a complete reversal in the 150-year-old pattern of emigration has taken place. Nearly half the non-Irish come from outside the EU and the United States; more than 160 nationalities are living in Ireland, including thousands of asylum seekers from Africa and Eastern Europe.

The hamlet of Roscommon (pop. 1,432), near the Strokestown Famine Museum, now numbers among its inhabitants Poles, Lithuanians, Estonians, Russians and Filipinos, who work everywhere from mushroom farms to hotels. The village’s largest foreign ethnic group, Brazilians, work in nearby slaughterhouses and dance the samba at local nightclubs. Farther west, in Ballyhaunis, a new mosque accommodates a growing Muslim population of Syrians and Pakistanis, many of whom work in meat and machinery plants.

Inevitably, social tensions are rising. “Being a multiethnic society is completely new to us,” says Garvan Corkery. “We’ve always been a homogeneous, all-white country and prided ourselves on not being racist. Of course, that was easy when there were no other races here.” Astudent newspaper at University College Dublin recently asked students, provocatively, which ethnic minority they hated most. In January 2003, an Irish newspaper reporter, Alanna Gallagher, donned a burqa to pose as a Muslim. “Quite simply,” she wrote, “I have never experienced such hatred in Irish eyes before . . . . Racism has become the nation’s final frontier.”

W. B. Yeats’ lines, written in 1913, take on new meaning: “Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone, / It’s with O’Leary in the grave.” In its place are rapidly escalating housing prices, sprawling supermarkets, an increase in greenhouse gas emissions, rising alcoholism, drug use and crime. At the same time, the Catholic Church, so integral here that the phrase “Irish Catholic” was redundant, is in retreat. Divorce was legalized in strictly limited circumstances in 1995, and abortion, though virtually impossible to obtain, is also legal. A number of child abuse scandals involving priests in Ireland has further eroded the moral authority of the church.

“Secular materialism has changed ideas here on what constitutes a successful or fulfilled life,” says Father Kevin Doran, director of vocations for the archdiocese of Dublin. “The Irish no longer identify automatically with the church.” Sunday Mass attendance, close to 100 percent a century ago, now hovers around 60 percent nationwide, far lower in Dublin. Six of Ireland’s national seminaries for aspiring priests have closed; only two remain.

Traditional Irish culture is changing along with other aspects of Irish life. The government offers occasional gestures to the old ways—such as rejecting postal codes in favor of county names for mail addresses. But conservationists are dismayed by an erosion of the nation’s archaeological heritage, and a report commissioned by the Irish Heritage Council, an organization dedicated to preserving Ireland’s cultural legacy, states that Ireland’s archaeological sites are in danger of being destroyed at the rate of 10 percent per decade. “Due to rampant housing development, many thatched-roof houses are unfortunately disappearing,” says Eithne Verling of the Irish Heritage Council. “Amajor highway now goes through the area of the 4,000-year-old ceremonial site at the Royal Hill of Tara, a place of huge archaeological importance.” That storied landscape now lies at the center of an even more acrimonious dispute: Ireland’s National Roads Authority has proposed that a four-lane motorway be built just east of the hill—a project vehemently opposed by archaeologists and preservationists. A number of sites have vanished—medieval ring forts, Bronze Age cooking sites, burial grounds, and holy wells dating back to a.d. 500. “We’ve got prosperity, but we’ve lost a lot. We’re paying a price,” says Terry Barry of the Medieval History Department at Trinity College Dublin, who has opposed construction of a highway over the ruins of 13th-century CarrickminesCastle.

And out in Galway, Anne OMáille is convinced that traditional Irish crafts such as Aran knitting are doomed. Her shop, OMáille’s, established by her husband’s uncle in 1938, specializes in wearable art created by some of Ireland’s most skilled knitters. None of them is under 30; most are over 50; some are in their 80s. “Girls today aren’t learning how to knit,” OMáille laments. “Schools no longer teach it, and they’re not learning it at home as I did. The situation changed dramatically after Ireland joined the European Union. Also, women used to stay home and knitted in the evening to pass the time and make a little extra money, they didn’t have careers and go out to pubs at night like now. The knowledge of how to do intricate knitting is being lost; a whole sector of Irish popular culture is going by the day.”

Is Irish popular culture, indeed, the Irish soul, really in trouble? “The challenge for us is how to maintain a state of Irishness while being deeply embedded in globalization,” muses historian Kevin Whelan from his office in Newman House on Saint Stephen’s Green. “In fact, it’s very Irish to ask about the state of our soul. The day we don’t ask that anymore, you’ll know we have lost it.”

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