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 once again “face down in the dirt,” as one newspaper columnist put it, Dev’s antique vision of how the Irish should be—a people content to live modestly—seems to have psychological currency once more.
In April, finance minister Brian Lenihan framed his emergency budget which included severe cutbacks in spending as “a call to patriotic action.” He was tapping into an old notion, inherited from de Valera, of austerity as a true Irish virtue, while the recently acquired taste among the affluent for holiday homes, lavish first communions and stretch limos for their teenagers’ debutant balls was, he seemed to be implying, decidedly “un-Irish.”
Of course many people, especially younger ones, don’t accept this view at all. “We’re not a nation of poteen-swilling poets who had no business trying to make money,” as one friend put it. (Dubliners, as they will be quick tell you, least of all so.) Yet the fact there has been—compared to the scale of the crisis—relatively little protest on the streets of Dublin about Lenihan’s punitive cutback plans suggests that many people do think that they “deserve” what’s happened to them—often rather more than they admit. Far from vilifying former taoiseach Bertie Ahern (who stepped down in May 2008) for leading them into this mess, Dubliners are now tipping him to become their first mayor in 2011. Public sector workers may have gone on strike over pension cuts, but, unlike in previous eras of strife, one can’t detect the whiff of cordite in the city just yet.
Ireland’s long boom brought a resurgence in national confidence, banishing the ghosts of war, poverty and resentment towards their former colonial master. As John Murray Brown wrote in his cover story “The Lucre of the Irish” (Prospect, January 2008), those who got rich on the Celtic tiger used their money to make an unequivocal statement: “Ireland is back.” This equation of economic success with patriotic pride means that the sudden downfall is now being felt, keenly, in terms of collective shame and chastisement. But today’s crisis may prompt important changes: the Irish are now unlikely to spurn Europe, in the shape of the Lisbon treaty, for a second time. And though the prospect of a smug Mayor Ahern is faintly nauseating, there are signs that the boom years have imbued the country with a more durable confidence and maturity that will serve it well in the long run. As one lifelong Dubliner put it: “We can’t cloister ourselves away in the church or blame our problems on the British this time: this is our own mess—and we will have to fix it.”