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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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.