The Magazine

Crock of Gold

How the Emerald Isle became the Celtic Tiger.

Jun 9, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 37 • By EDWARD SHORT
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Luck and the Irish

A Brief History of Change from 1970

by R.F. Foster

Oxford, 227 pp., $30

When the Irish abandoned their parliament in 1800 and accepted the Act of Union with Great Britain, in return for bribes that were extravagant even by the generous standards of Georgian venality (each parliamentarian received £7,000, or what today would be £364,197.63), a turning point was reached in Irish history that would profoundly affect the future course of the country.

The Act of Union paved the way for systemic English misrule, famine, Fenianism, the unbridgeable divide between North and South, and the cult of sectarian violence that has only recently begun to recede. In Luck and the Irish, Roy Foster looks at another Irish turning point: the economic boom of the last quarter century, which has brought changes to Ireland's religious, political, and cultural life comparable to those wrought by the Union.

Professor of history at Hertford College, Oxford, and the author of Modern Ireland 1600-1972, Paddy and Mr. Punch, and a magisterial two-volume biography of William Butler Yeats, Foster comes to his analysis with impressive credentials. Despite the fact that academic historians do not as a rule shine when tackling contemporary history--consider Linda Colley on Hillary Clinton or Niall Ferguson on what he insists on calling the American empire--Foster treats his vexed subject with judiciousness and panache. Readers interested in Ireland or economic, political, and social history will find Luck and the Irish an entertaining, provocative study.

An English equities trader christened the "Celtic Tiger" in 1994 to liken the surging Irish economy to the "East Asian Tigers"--South Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan--during their period of rapid growth in the 1980s. The extent of the Irish boom has been impressive. In the decade after 1995, Foster points out, Ireland's output increased by 350 percent, personal disposable income doubled, exports increased fivefold, trade surpluses mounted into the billions, employment skyrocketed, and the number of immigrants soared.

At the beginning of the 1990s there were fewer than 50 immigrants applying for asylum in Ireland; by 2001 the number had reached 11,000. By 2001, immigrants from Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, the Philippines, and Romania were pouring into the country and 36,000 work permits were issued. The boom they helped to sustain made many Irishmen rich as Croesus. Terence Brown vividly substantiates this in his recent survey, Ireland: A Social and Cultural History 1922-2001: In 1995 Irish consumers spent £23 billion on goods and services, in 1999, £34 billion, and in 2000, £40 billion.

What caused this unprecedented prosperity?

Foster identifies two schools of thought regarding the Tiger's birth: One of "Boosters" and the other of "Begrudgers." The Irish historian Declan Kiberd, an outspoken Booster, claims that the Celtic Tiger sprang to life when the Irish rediscovered the ideals of the Gaelic revival of the late 19th and 20th centuries, and effectively combined "the sense of local pride with the idea of self help." For the Begrudgers, the boom was largely the result of American firms--among them Hewlett-Packard, Dell, and Intel--going into Cathleen Ni Houlihan's backyard and exploiting her talented labor for the gain of American stockholders.

There is more blather than reliable analysis in these readings. Yes, Irish initiative and American firms contributed, but the factors that most drove the boom were low taxation, pro-business regulatory policies, and a young, tech-savvy workforce. For many -multinationals the decision to do business in Ireland was made easier still by generous incentives from the Industrial Development Authority. EU membership was also helpful, giving the country lucrative access to markets that it had previously researched only through the United Kingdom, and pumping huge subsidies and investment capital into the Irish economy.

In recent years, as economic growth has slowed, the Celtic Tiger has lost much of its ferocity. Rising wages and inflation, poor infrastructure and the addition of new members to the EU since 2004 have all contributed to a blunting of Ireland's competitive edge. In addition, low fertility rates, which had initially buoyed the economy, may soon sink it as the population (a third of which is now aged 25-44) begins to grey. But this is a still-unfolding story; what Foster concentrates on is how the boom has changed the character of Irish society.

One of his best chapters examines the changes that have recently occurred in Ireland's religious life. Foster attributes the decline of the Irish Catholic Church to three factors: first, Irish feminism, largely imported from America and promulgated by Mary Robinson, the onetime president of Ireland whose liberal stance on contraception, abortion, and divorce helped undermine the Church's teachings on these matters; second, the mishandling of the pedophile scandals within the Irish clergy, which inspired understandable contempt for a hierarchy more intent on protecting criminal priests than vulnerable children; and last, the new materialism now rampant in Ireland, which is rather similar to the old materialism described in Kate O'Brien's My Ireland (1962), from which Foster quotes:

Dublin has picked the simplest rule--and made it absolute. You can be anything you like within her Four Hundred--but you must be a successful person. That is all. Successful in the plainest and commonest sense--that you make, and spend, a very great deal of hard cash in pursuit of whatever you do, and that your name is very often in the papers. That is the simple regulation which keeps the ruling class down to a very manageable, neat proportion in Dublin; it might also seem to threaten that class with monotony, but in practice this is not so--since where every kind of creature is eligible, from duke to disc jockey, variety and comedy are non-stop, and easily observed in any decently expensive public place.

Whether a majority in the Irish Republic will remain at odds with Catholicism remains to be seen. As unbridled materialism continues to coarsen Irish society, some may begin to question the benefits of secularism. Some may even see a certain prescience in the hierarchy's 1979 pastoral letter, Human Life is Sacred, in which the faithful were enjoined to repudiate the idolatry of self, in which "money, alcohol, drugs and sex are .  .  . given a place and status .  .  . not too different from the place occupied by the gods of money, wine and sex in pagan times."

What is surprising is that, as the appeal of the Church of Rome has dwindled, the Church of Ireland, long considered moribund, has rebounded. The doctrinal elasticity of the Anglo-Irish faith perfectly suits the new liberal Irish middle classes. Daniel O'Connell, the architect of Catholic Emancipation, passed by Robert Peel's government in 1829, must be turning in his grave.

Foster is least persuasive about the boom's influence on cultural life. It is true that, in the past, Ireland has produced an inordinate amount of first-rate literary talent. In the 20th century alone, one can cite Elizabeth Bowen, Flann O'Brien, Molly Keane, and Lord Dunsany, among many others. But for Foster to tout the work of such mediocrities as Colm Toibin and John Banville as proof of the boom's cultural dividends shows a lamentable lapse of taste. His gushing over the likes of Bono, Shane MacGowan, Bob Geldof, and the producers of Riverdance is similarly telling: These are exemplars of cultural decadence, not vitality. Foster is on surer ground when he sticks to politics.

In those realms of dross, he can be wonderfully entertaining. Here he paints a portrait of the ineffable Charles Haughey (1925-2006), the Fianna Fail politico, who served three times as Taoiseach (prime minister) from 1979 to 1992. "His model of grandeur," Foster writes,

was an odd combination of Napoleonic enigma, Ascendancy hauteur, Gaelic chieftain and Tammany boss. Like his rival Garrett FitzGerald, Haughey had a certain cult of France; but, while FitzGerald's tastes had been formed by youthful holidays with French families and a keen appetite for philosophical discussions with Catholic intellectuals, Haughey's Francophilia involved lavish visits to Paris, hand-stitched shirts from the legendary Charvet atelier, a cellar of chateau-bottled claret and a running bill at Dublin's plutocratic French restaurant Le Coq Hardi.

He was also an embezzler, extortionist, and brazen tax evader, who held extravagant court over the seamier side of the boom. As Foster notes, Haughey entirely took to heart "the exhortation given by Guizot to the subjects of Louis-Philippe: 'Enrichissez-vous!'"

Who gained most from the boom? Members of the Dunne family, owners of the supermarket chain, who "might have stepped straight from Balzac," as Foster nicely describes them, were some of its most corrupt beneficiaries. By the 1990s they sold 48 percent of the food sold in Ireland. They were also grateful patrons of Charles Haughey. In gratitude to his looking away from their fiscal irregularities, they paid him £1.3 million. On the morning of February 19, 1992, however, the free ride ended when Ben Dunne went berserk in a hotel in Orlando, Florida:

After an incident involving a bag of cocaine, call girls and a violent psychotic episode on a seventeenth-floor balcony, he was carried from the hotel hog-tied to a pole. (This is the point where the story of modern Ireland demands its Zola rather than its Balzac.)

(Bono was in the same hotel on that same morning, a coincidence which Foster notes with the avid interest of a teenybopper.)

In his conclusion, Foster recalls the character of James Tyrone from Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night, played so memorably by Ralph Richardson in the Sidney Lumet film. Tyrone, based on O'Neill's father, wasted his theatrical talents playing the Count of Monte Cristo night after night until he could play nothing else.

"O'Neill intended this syndrome to be emblematic of the Irish in general," Foster writes. "One of the profound changes of attitude experienced by the Irish in the late twentieth century was the realization that they could play more roles, and that history did not dictate a determinist and stereotypical fate." But is this true? Surely, over the centuries, the Irish have played an immense variety of roles: Think of Burke, Wellington, Parnell, Constance Gore-Booth, Lady Wilde ("Speranza"), William Russell, Shaw, and Yeats--to name only a few of Ireland's more mold-breaking sons and daughters.

These were not people who felt constrained by any "stereotypical fate." No, the Irish have always been a resourceful people. They did not need the Celtic Tiger to bring out their native inventiveness. A more interesting question is how the Irish will respond to the social chaos and overdevelopment that the boom has brought. Can those genies ever be returned to their bottles? And what of the Irish themselves? Will they become walking, talking parodies of Irishness, like those imitation Irish pubs that one sees throughout Europe? Or will they gradually lose their distinctness altogether as they succumb more and more to the one-size-fits-all popular culture that has leveled and degraded so many Western societies?

"The options of Irishness at the end of the twentieth century reflect a great dislocation," Foster notes. "Looking at the new motorway encircling Dublin, the cultural commentator Anne Marie Hourihane caustically pronounced: 'History is finished here. Now we are going to live like everybody else.'" This might be the Celtic Tiger's most lasting legacy.

Edward Short is a writer in New York.