Ireland is having a brutal recession. But why are Dublin's middle classes punishing themselves, not their government?by Mary Fitzgerald / June 4, 2009 / Leave a comment
Driving into Dublin from the west you pass countless new housing estates, some half-built and abandoned, others fully finished. At night just a few small lights peek out of these vast building complexes. In the city centre you recognise new office blocks by their “to let” signs, particularly around the redeveloped docks, while at 6pm riverside bars and restaurants seem empty in the evening sunshine. On George’s Street, Dublin’s equivalent of Tottenham Court Road, a boarded-up shop sign reads: “Going to hell.” A note in the window says it will be redeveloped by “Gluttony Ltd.”
Ireland might not be the next Iceland, but its economic news is grim. Unemployment has hit 11 per cent and is projected to climb much further. A friend observes that it’s beginning to look “quite 1930s.” April saw the first bread lines for 20 years.
There had been signs that Ireland’s extraordinary growth, which started in the early 1990s, was unsustainable—and warning voices too. For the most part they were dismissed as unpatriotic. The historian Roy Foster said the Celtic tiger divided the Irish between “boosters and begrudgers.” On balance, he wrote in 2007, it was hard not to be a booster. But today the begrudgers are back. Dublin-based property lawyers unconvincingly recall previously unmentioned worries about the “irrational exuberance” they detected in the market a few years ago. Phone-in radio programmes echo with criticism of questionable building contracts or bonuses paid to bank chairmen.
The Irish seem angry with their politicians, and they have good reason to be. Despite the wealth generated by the tiger, the country’s infrastructure creaks and its cities remain marked by visible poverty. But even more than they blame their government, Dublin’s middle classes seem to be blaming themselves. In a country where, until recently, the church held sway over most people’s minds, there is the unmistakable feeling of collective guilt for overindulgence; of having let all the money made during the good times go to their heads. Eamon de Valera once claimed that the Irish were a “people who, satisfied with frugal comfort, devoted their leisure to things of the spirit.” This was a myth even in 1943 when he said it: Joyce may have vividly captured the staid, parochial character of early 20th century society in Dubliners, but since then the city and its people have changed beyond recognition. Yet now that the country feels it is…