Where the Celtic Tiger came from, and where it has gone
By George O’Brien
June 1, 2008
Luck and the Irish: A Brief History of Change 1970–2000, by R. F. Foster, Oxford University Press, 239 pp., $29.95
During the middle of the 1990s the Republic of Ireland went through a period of intensive economic growth, a phenomenon that came to be referred to as the Celtic Tiger. Fifteen years later, the Celtic Tiger is history. The chilling effects of the current global overdraft, decreasing tax revenues, and the recent resignation of Bertie Ahern, the prime minister who presided over the years of the Tiger’s maturity, all contribute to the air that an era has ended. But there is also a sense in which the Celtic Tiger always was history. Not only did the economic boom resemble earlier events in the Irish story by apparently being put in motion by ineluctable forces from outside the country. It also seemed as though these events were taking place somewhat remotely, as though in a slightly different realm to the here and now. Such a peculiar feeling was partly, no doubt, a function of the boom’s globalist character: the agencies of modernization are everywhere and nowhere.
Still, there was a widespread sense of amazement among Irish people at finding their destiny apparently aligning itself with the new world order envisaged in the aftermath of the Cold War, so that in short order the country was being looked on as the poster child of globalization. This development was less the product of good fortune than the hospitality at the time of Irish economic policy to multinational corporations, expressed in generous tax breaks and related accommodations. But reasonable talk of cause and effect was typically drowned out by a more self-regarding kind of discourse, according to which the country had long been a miracle (economic or otherwise) waiting to happen. Disadvantages long perceived to be inimical to the country taking its place in the modern world—lack of natural resources, peripheral location, home of poets and peasants instead of engineers and entrepeneurs—were promptly thought of as unexpected boons. Rather than being peripheral, now the island’s location made it an ideal salient and entrepôt for European markets. Natural resources were discovered in the “brain power” of the people. And instead of offering only the 19th hole and the tumbledown castle, it could also offer, in immediate proximity to those attractions, “green-field sites,” environmental sensitivity to which, all too often, involved only invoking the phrase most frequently on all lips in those times, “no problem.”
In addition, for those in the midst of this rapid change, there was a certain difficulty in seeing that it was indeed occurring to them and, thus, a difficulty in assuming the kind of social and political responsibility required to consolidate the unanticipated windfall that had come their way. Rather, it seemed that the great leap forward initiated an alternative history, articulated not merely at the level of those magnates, developers, criminals, and celebrities whose careers were chronicled and given the coloration of legend, as though they were of historical significance, but also at a more general, less sensational level, where who and what the Irish had become bore only an indistinct relation to where they had come from. “All changed, changed utterly”—Yeats’s line—became more useful than ever and was bandied about like nobody’s business. It was a terrible bounty that was born, though, and in the inevitable haste to grab it with both hands, what it all amounted to became increasingly difficult to say. Was it “sheer, dumb luck,” after all, as Fintan O’Toole, Ireland’s leading commentator, put it in a recent Irish Times column?
Invoking a line of Yeats is almost inevitable when discussing a work by Roy Foster, best known for his magnificent biography of the poet. By training and profession, however, Foster is a historian: Luck and the Irish was initially conceived as an addendum to his influential 1988 work, Modern Ireland: 1600–1972. Indeed, his often controversial reassessments of the Irish past have placed him in the front rank of those revisionist historians whose works have been very much part of the cultural and intellectual changes in Irish life during the period covered by Luck and the Irish. The book itself does not discuss those changes as such, although by putting himself in the camp of the Tiger’s boosters—as opposed to that of its begrudgers—Foster makes no bones about where he stands. But one might have wished a historiographer as self-aware as Foster would have used this occasion to help writing about Ireland get beyond the crude binaries of pro and con.
Luck and the Irish focuses on five institutional venues in which marked change may be observed: EU membership (with particular emphasis on its effects on rural Ireland), the fate of the Church, the character of Fianna Fáil as the ruling party during most of the years in question, the Northern conflict, and a roundup of cultural trends. Two striking points emerge, both of which appear to contradict the author’s “luck” hypothesis. One is that the road to economic success was paved long in advance by various governmental bureaucracies and perhaps most decisively by educational reforms dating from the 1960s. What has happened to the country was intended to happen. The second point is that—in the moral landscape that saw homosexual law reform, divorce, and a series of serious spats about abortion—change, when it was won, was won in hard-fought, narrow victories. By no means has everybody in the country modernized at the same time, and what modernizing has been accomplished has received varying degrees of acceptance.
Central to the story of a changing Ireland are the problems encountered by the Catholic Church and Fianna Fáil. In both cases something resembling a free market not only operated but was protected in its operation. In these public spheres, a crisis of leadership became evident. Abusive priests were not prevented from persisting in their practices, calling into question the implicit social contract between shepherd and flock as well as such fundamental aspects of the faith as charity, mercy, truth, and sin. But entitling his chapter on religious issues “How the Catholics Became Protestants” is simply an indication of Foster’s succumbing to a provocative line instead of producing an argument that any such migration, much less conversion, has come about. It would be unwise to assume we’ve heard the last of Irish Catholicism. And just what Protestantism means—unless it’s the Church of Ireland or an influence, as is claimed, on the anthems of U2—is not clear on either a conceptual or a confessional front.
In politics, financial irregularity became a way of life, particularly for Bertie Ahern’s predecessor, the late Charles J. Haughey. The various entities with which he was connected—his party, his banks, and his donors (obviously)—remained to a man mute about it for as long as they possibly could, and in the case of Haughey himself, for even longer. Foster clearly relishes the roasting to which he subjects the former prime minister, even to the extent of regaling the reader with tabloid-tinted details. As luck would have it, however, there is no effective engagement with the implications of the ideological bankruptcy that Haughey’s inimitable combination of lordliness and opportunism sought to disguise. The various Haughey governments are prototypes of how the opportunity to fashion a more equitable, more administratively reliable, and more structurally sound society, underwritten by economic success, was botched.
Foster also discredits Haughey’s record on Northern Ireland, which is not difficult. He underlines instead the significance of signals initially emitted by Haughey’s predecessor in office, Jack Lynch, and he gives special prominence to the work in this area of Garret FitzGerald, leader of Fine Gael and sometime premier during the ’80s. Focusing on these politicians—not entirely to the exclusion of the various Northern leaders, even if Ian Paisley is almost ignored—allows glimpses of Foster’s own familiar colors. What Lynch and, especially, FitzGerald were correct to seek, it appears, was acceptance in London of a Dublin dimension to Northern matters and, as a result, collaboration with the former enemy on means to promote the security of both countries and to advance the cause of administrative formality as a solution to murderous community divisions. The upshot has been to reinforce the border as a reality of Irish political life and to produce what seems to be as much an administrative stalemate as a political solution in a Northern community that is more explicitly than ever divided into opposing political camps.
It is not difficult to conclude from the survey of trends and developments contained in Luck and the Irish that the Celtic Tiger is a convenient image, or brand, to attach to (and perhaps also to distract from) important changes in all phases of Irish life. Even if the recent story of Ireland may be told simply as an enactment of the Clintonian mantra “It’s the economy, stupid,” such a focus will have the arguably unintended consequence of bringing into focus the new Ireland’s class structure. Also, in discussing the withering away of rural Ireland, and its traditional images and associations, Foster makes many telling observations regarding planning policy and the atavistic allure of property ownership and development that did so much to drive the domestic, as distinct from the global, sphere of the Irish economy. The concept of development has not had quite the renovative effects one might expect.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the unforeseen, yet surely predictable, woes of urban Ireland. No answer has been forthcoming, from Foster or anybody else, to the question of why a city the size of Dublin seems, proportionately, to have the same problems as a city as big as New York. Reasons why there has been such a marked rise in drug taking across all classes, in suicide rates among those in their teens and 20s, in murder—not all gangland—in traffic fatalities are not easy to come by. Can it be that these phenomena, too, are to be understood as matters of “luck,” inscrutable in their genesis, random in their operation? Yet, recent Irish films and fiction feature characters from the housing estates of Dublin or Cork or Limerick, showing them to be a peculiar species of fauna, invariably studded and stoned, strangers to be observed, rather than recognizable fellow members of the entity known as “the Irish people,” in whose name the republic was originally proclaimed. But then, in the actual urban world in which such characters’ prototypes live, drugs and guns and gangs appear to be the order of the day. One wonders what sort of an expression such conditions are of the inclination, in Foster’s words, of “the pragmatic new Ireland . . . to live aggressively in the present.”
The pragmatism that Foster tacitly applauds and endorses is the one he finds in the outlook of Fine Gael—Ireland’s main opposition party—under Garrett FitzGerald’s leadership (FitzGerald, by training an economist, is not assessed on his handling of the economy). Not only is FitzGerald, when briefly prime minister in the 1980s, credited with cultural sophistication and political maturity, but also (although Foster does no more than imply this) with a praiseworthy recognition that the way forward had to be conceived of in postnationalist terms. Such terms, for Foster, find their natural expression in a closer association with England. Yet in a period that has seen Ireland’s indispensable relationship with Europe flourish, and when the idea has emerged of an Atlantic world where Ireland possesses a distinctive place, alignment with England has obviously changed, too, resembling these days more option than destiny. Foster’s various hints, in tone and in perspective, throughout Luck and the Irish, that Ireland is still best served by exercising the option, and that Irishness remains unreconstructed, illiberal, and undisciplined, its administrative style and political culture characteristic of a banana republic—a green banana, at that—need further debate. Changing the assumptions underlying such a standpoint, however, will obviously take more than luck.
George O’Brien is professor emeritus of English at Georgetown University.
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