The Magazine

Waiting for Dough

The luck of the Irish runs out.

May 11, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 32 • By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
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More than any other country over the past two decades--more even than China--Ireland has given up its traditional culture for the global economy. In a quarter century, it went from being a little, poverty-stricken, priest-ridden agricultural backwater to a swingin', low-tax, wide-open, unregulated global-economy entrepôt. Last year, on paper, it was the seventh-richest country, per capita, in the world, ahead of the United States and trailing only a few oil exporters and tax havens. In the decade up to 2007, Ireland's GDP increased 350 percent. House prices quintupled.

At the same time, Ireland abandoned the "backward" parts of its culture. Partly through a string of sex scandals in the 1990s, but largely through its hostility to consumerism, the Catholic Church was discredited, and the culture built on it faded. (One small illustration: There are placards on public garbage cans all over Dublin bearing the catchy but not very Christian sentiment "Litter is disgusting--so are those responsible.") Ireland is not prudish anymore, either. A couple decades ago, 1 in 60 Irish babies were born out of wedlock; today 1 in 3 are. The country has some of the most liberal gay-rights and environmental laws in Europe. Nor is Ireland provincial. Its economy draws immigrants. There is a whole wall of books at the Waterstone's on Dawson Street in Dublin marked "Polskie Ksiazki." Dublin has numerous mosques. Tiny Waterford (pop. 45,775) has an African Women's Forum, not to mention two "adult stores" (in case you're ever in Waterford and need to buy an adult).

This is all very exciting for the Irish, but there is nothing particularly Irish about it. Irish identity has often been--explicitly and officially--a matter of protecting citizens from both the temptations of modernity and the vicissitudes of prosperity. In 1927 a Manchester Guardian journalist asked Eamon de Valera, the father of the modern Irish state, whether he understood that closing Ireland off from trade, the better to protect its culture, would mean a lower standard of living. De Valera replied,

You say "lower" when you ought to say a less costly standard of living. I think it quite possible that a less costly standard of living is desirable and that it would prove, in fact, to be a higher standard of living. I am not satisfied that the standard of living and the mode of living in Western Europe is a right or proper one.

De Valera's Irish Republic was organized around the idea that money doesn't matter that much. This may have been a noble aspiration, it may have been sanctimony and foolishness, but there was at the very least something bold and, as Yeats would say, indomitable about it. Next to De Valera's uncompromising Christian renunciation, those two something-for-nothing ideologies, modern capitalism and modern socialism, are practically indistinguishable. Over the last 20 years, Ireland found riches a good substitute for its traditional culture. But now the country has been harder hit by the financial downturn than any country in Western Europe. We may be about to discover what happens when a traditionally poor country returns to poverty without its culture.

TIGER IN THE TANK

Until around the time the dot-com bubble burst, the Irish described their economy as the Celtic Tiger, after the high-tech and pharmaceutical companies that opened European offices there in the 1980s and 1990s. One senses De Valera wouldn't have liked these places. Much of the world's Viagra is made by Pfizer in the western village of Ringaskiddy. Botox comes from the elegant town of Westport, and one of the largest silicone-breast-implant factories in the world was until recently located in Arklow. Reductil, the slimming drug sold on the Internet, comes from Sligo. Google's European offices are in Dublin. Intel and Dell are still Ireland's two largest high-tech employers. But neither of those employs more than 5,000 people, and Dell laid off over 2,000 of them this winter.