Anyone who remembers the Dublin of the 1960s, when Ireland had barely emerged from its decades of self-inflicted penury, will look about him in the city of today and ask, “Crisis? What crisis?”
True, it is not difficult to find shiny new offices standing empty of tenants; cranes motionless by the skeletons of half-completed buildings; whole estates of new houses that have no buyers. Shops hope to attract customers by discounting goods; restaurants in which it was once difficult to find a table are closing. But still the city is far from those grim and grimy days, when nothing seemed to have been cleaned for decades, Georgian buildings had fallen into disrepair, and the food was monotonous, tasteless, and overcooked. The pubs were better in those days, or at least more entertaining, for smokers were still welcome and there were no flat-screen televisions relaying sporting non-events like political propaganda in a totalitarian state to dampen the conversation; but one sensed that pubs were lively because the rest of life was not.
Whatever else may happen to Ireland as a result of its present economic crisis, it will not return to what it was. No omelette was ever turned back into eggs just because the dish didn’t turn out the way the cook wanted. Ireland has changed from the intensely inward-looking place I knew into one of the most outward-looking countries in Europe. A foreigner was once a comparatively rare bird in Dublin; now you can hear every language under the sun in the streets, even after many immigrants have gone home and young Irishmen are once again thinking of emigration. The land of bacon and cabbage is no more. The archbishop of Dublin no longer makes politicians quake at the knees, and never will again. History does not repeat itself, at least not in such detail.
The transformation of Ireland came in two phases, the first healthy and sane, the second fevered and mad. It is the second phase, not surprisingly, that is at the root of the current crisis.
For about a decade, Ireland enjoyed spectacular but nevertheless sound and real growth. Its low corporate-tax rates attracted more American investment than any other country in Europe, and much other foreign investment as well. Its labor was competitively priced, and also well educated. Here it is worth mentioning the work of the much-reviled Christian Brothers and other religious orders, forever tainted by the child-abuse scandals that have virtually entombed the Irish Church.
Whatever else might be said about the Christian Brothers (and other orders), they insisted with something approaching fanaticism on getting the best academically out of their charges. They were often harshest precisely towards the best and the brightest, insisting that they learn as much as possible and not accepting any excuses for academic backsliding. Their motives were mixed. They understood, as their charges could not, that education was a ticket out of poverty; but they were also nationalists and religiously inspired, wanting to prove that the Catholic Irish, after generations of denigration and contempt, could be as good as, and better than, the Protestant English. So when, at long last, Ireland gave up its goal of autarky, it had a population and a diaspora well prepared to take advantage of the new conditions. The irony for the religious orders was that the new society for which they had prepared so much of the ground would comprehensively reject them, with all the intergenerational fury of a son towards a father.