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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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: