Papal tiger

How times and fortunes change? The piece below was written in 2006, as the celtic tiger heaved just before the crash. Was Ireland's celtic tiger just a mirage grounded in "fiscal dumping", as French pundit, Bernard Guetta suggested on French radio this November (see this piece)? I doubt it. Before looking at what went wrong and how it might be fixed, let's start with the mirage.

2006 was yet another gravity-defying year of growth in Ireland. Indeed, it has become something of a broken record to remark on how well the country is doing and how much it has transformed. Not long ago, high public debt, joblessness, emigration, conservatism and corrupt politics were Ireland’s load. No longer. Fast growth and high incomes have taken over. World leaders in electronics, pharmaceutics and finance are investing there. Young people are building cutting-edge careers, while educated immigrants arrive in from around the world, including France. Property prices have skyrocketed: Dublin’s Grafton Street was the fifth most expensive rental values in the world in 2006 (the Champs-Elysée was second)!

So how has this transformation taken place? Of the many attempts to answer this question, one of the most entertaining comes from David McWilliams, economist and broadcaster, in his cheekily entitled best-seller, The Pope’s Children.

The title defines the new generation of people born around the time of Pope John-Paul II’s visit to Ireland in 1979. The book sets off at a fast pace, coining clever terms along the way: the “full-on” nation, the “commentariat” of the establishment whose dark “endism” has been overtaken by the optimism of the want-it-now new middle class. This is the “expectocracy”, which lives by the “attainometre” and whose internal rivalries and hard work drive the Irish boom from its epicentre in the Babybelt surrounding Dublin. We are introduced to a globetrotting investor called RoboPaddy, a plugged-in wealthy builder known as Breadroll Man, articulate Polish professionals and more. There are some less effective images too, such as Deckland: a suburban hotchpotch of barbecues and satellite dishes with unclear frontiers; the Ameropeans: which is a blend of two continental influences; and the HiCo: a confusion of Cosmopolitan and Hibernian, the latter term which McWilliams has dubiously redefined to describe a passé traditionalist. (“CeltoPolitan” might have been a more accurate fusion of old and new.)

McWilliams uses several arguments to explain new Ireland, but one stands out: easier credit. The finance for this credit comes partly from high German savings and partly because Ireland’s high home ownership and house prices have enabled vast numbers of people to borrow and spend. Access to credit has liberated ordinary folk from the grip of the present to create exciting new futures. This argument, while persuasive, betrays McWilliams’s own past as a banker. The author acknowledges the dangers of private debt, but resists letting economics spoil the story. In the end, The Pope’s Children becomes a sociological dissection of a hungry customer base that creditors and marketers will devour.

In his “full-on” story, McWilliams roller-coasters from original and insightful propositions to sneering jibes, tall assertions and amusing, if somewhat cliché, caricatures. He paints a fast, merciless, picture of Ireland at an important juncture in its long history. Though ably written, some earnest repetition occasionally leads to overkill that a shorter book would have avoided.

The book’s title bother me, too. Though eye-catching for driving sales, as a writing device it forces the author to constantly fit his characters into a particular generation, even if many of them could be far older. Also, by condemning the backward past, he ignores the role previous generations have played in laying the ground for today’s transformation, by investing in education for instance. Nor is Ireland’s large middle-class as new to the scene as McWilliams claims. Add in the emergence of global influences, mobile hi-tech industries, fewer opportunities abroad and European funding, and The Pope’s Children theory starts to creak. To some extent, the new generation has inherited a land whose time was coming. They are Globalisation’s Children.

Another problem is that the title may be misleading. A few days ago I was perched over an Alpine slope, contemplating the pack ice ahead, when a lady skied up alongside and said “Dia dhuit”: good day. She’d heard my Irish accent as I was screaming at my kids skittering down the mountain. We had both been out of Ireland some 20-25 years, she in Yorkshire, and I in Paris and London. How the old country has changed, we agreed. “Have you read The Pope’s Children?” I suddenly asked. She had not heard of it. I suggested that the book captures the new Ireland in a way no number of weekend returns ever could. She looked perplex, said she went home often enough anyway, wished me well and sped away. Perhaps she was put off, thinking I was recruiting for the young evangelists.

Still, the book’s faults are outgunned by its strengths. Why else would I refer to it suddenly in a brief encounter with a fellow ex-pat in the Alps? For this alone the book deserves credit. Meanwhile, I cannot resist wondering where McWilliams himself would fit within his characterisation. A hybrid HiDeCoInspectocratCommentRarian perhaps?


Post-crash afterword:The photo above is of the Samuel Beckett Bridge, opened in December 2009 as a monument to the Celtic boom. Samuel Beckett was of course not a total optimist, coining the phrase, if at first you don't succeed, try again, fail better. Photo courtesy of this site.

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