From the air, on the descent into Dublin Airport, the Irish landscape shows off a multitude of its numerically suspect yet popularly promoted 40 shades of green. A long sweep of fields suggests ancestral permanence before any urban outskirts come into view.
But once you’re on the ground, along city streets or out in the villages, talk among the Irish today tends to revolve around new realities of unsettling change. The country’s roller-coaster ride over the past two decades has produced, if not 40 competing emotions, at least a baker’s dozen of separate responses.
Back in the 1990s — thanks to foreign investment (much of it American), a low corporate tax rate, a more educated workforce and other factors — unprecedented economic prosperity invigorated Ireland. What was labeled the Celtic Tiger took off more like a rocket than a jungle cat, creating nearly 10 percent annual growth between 1995 and 2000 before cruising along at an average expansion of more than 5 percent over the next seven years.
In a little over a decade, the island — smaller than Indiana geographically — made a dramatic about-face, showing the world envious vitality. As Michael Lewis cracks in his recent book, Boomerang, the Irish had “gone from being abnormally poor to being abnormally rich without pausing to experience normality.”
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At the same time the economy was flexing dormant muscles, efforts to end the decades-long Troubles sought to stem the largely sectarian violence between republicans and loyalists in the six counties of Northern Ireland. The Good Friday Agreement, signed in 1998, pushed the peace process along — so, in effect, a more harmonious climate surrounded the emerging economic prosperity.
Then, with the Troubles and their 3,500 deaths a tragic memory, the fabled Tiger lost its teeth as well as its vigor. In a ferocious turn, Ireland’s economy began a steep, swift decline. The global downturn of 2008 and the collapse of Lehman Brothers played a part, but the Irish point to the unholy trinity of real estate developers, bankers and politicians as expletive-worthy culprits for their current financial and social malaise.
Some numbers help tell the story. The government had a budget surplus as recently as 2007, but then it had to seek the equivalent of about $115 billion from the European Union and other sources in 2010 to stay afloat. House prices — Ireland has the highest rate of home ownership in the world at 87 percent — plummeted 50 to 60 percent during the past few years. Unemployment (at about 4 percent in 2006) spiked to 14.9 percent in mid-2012, the highest level since 1994, just before the boom began. One economist estimated that Irish financial institutions lost about $150 billion in property transactions alone.
Consequences of the exploding real estate bubble, which resulted in a massive bailout from the government’s treasury to Irish banks, are readily apparent, and a new term often pops up in conversations. “Ghost estates” are unfinished housing and office developments that in most cases have been abandoned for lack of construction money and potential buyers. More than 2,000 such estates now spoil city scenery and haunt the landscape.
With unemployment high, many Irish have been forced to look for work beyond their shores. Emigration, so dramatically begun during the famine years of the mid-19th century, has returned in what’s become a lamentable and recurring national pattern. Historical records show more than 900,000 emigrants leaving Ireland between 1851 and 1855, with more than 740,000 arriving in the United States. Last year upwards of 42,000 Irish departed, and this time Australia was the most popular destination.
Some of the saddest stories come from people who emigrated before the Celtic Tiger years but then moved back to enjoy the promise of expanding opportunities. “We made a terrible mistake,” wrote one returnee in a newspaper column. “We came back. Because we wanted to, we believed that the country had changed. We believed in the miracle.”
Despite current economic woes and the loss of faith in established institutions, including a Catholic Church bedeviled by revelations of child abuse, several signs point to a less stormy time ahead for the Irish. A popular new president, Michael D. Higgins, commands respect and conveys optimism wherever he goes. The belt-tightening austerity is improving balance sheets in government and business, with investor confidence brightening. Last summer Ireland even raised money again on the international bond market. Tourism, a critical industry in the economic equation, is on the upswing.
How long it might take Ireland to reach 40 or so shades of equilibrium is anyone’s guess. But it’s worth remembering that in Ireland a history of calamity and periodic setbacks goes hand-in-hand with the deeply rooted traits of resilience and recovery.
W.B. Yeats, Ireland’s first of four Nobel Prize winners in literature, encouraged fellow citizens of an earlier age in a poem that echoes with contemporary pertinence:
Cast your mind on other days
That we in coming days may be
Still the indomitable Irishry.
Bob Schmuhl is Walter H. Annenberg-Edmund P. Joyce Professor of American Studies and Journalism at Notre Dame. In 2009 he was a research fellow at University College Dublin, and he taught at Notre Dame’s Dublin Center in the summer of 2011. He is writing a book about America’s role in Ireland’s struggle for independence.