Books – Ulster – Postscript

The Last House of Ulster
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The Facts Behind the Fiction

The New Ireland

When Roddy Doyle first packaged his early novels into a single volume called The Barrytown Trilogy in 1992, critics lauded the work for both its comedic brilliance and its window onto 1980s urban Ireland. Read together, The Commitments, The Snapper and The Van offered proof that, as one academic put it, Third World conditions could exist in a First World country. At the time, the explanation by one character as to why some Dublin kids had every right to sing soul and blues music—because, he said (using raw language), the Irish were the poor black folk of Europe—rang politically incorrect but true.

Little more than a decade later, the Ireland of those funny and profane novels feels nearly as remote as the country of James Joyce’s Ulysses of a century ago. The Barrytown Trilogy was published on the eve of colossal social changes and an unprecedented economic revival, a phenomenon now known as the "Celtic Tiger" economy.

Ireland, everyone agrees, has been transformed. Once one of the poorest member states in the European Union, it now ranks among the wealthiest. Its unemployment rates at one stage approached 20 per cent; today barely 4 per cent of the Republic’s citizens are out of work. More striking still, a nation that for generations bled its young through emigration is currently welcoming back not only those exiles, but Americans and Canadians of Irish descent in search of better opportunities than they can find at home.

Ireland’s success as a manufacturer of computer software has been a major factor in this turnaround. So have membership in the EU and heavy government subsidies of industry. There has been a cultural sea change, too; a youthful, well-educated population came of age at exactly the right moment, and the decline of the Catholic Church, due in no small part to various sex scandals, has ushered in reforms on issues as fundamental as divorce and contraception.

The Economist recently conducted a survey to find the best place to live in the world. Researchers considered income, but also climate and freedom, political stability and security. "Ireland wins," the magazine reported in its 2004 end-of-year issue, "because it successfully combines the most desirable elements of the new, such as low unemployment and political liberties, with the preservation of certain cosy elements of the old, such as stable family and community life."

Gone is the priest-ridden country of sentimental poverty and instinctive social conservatism. In its place is a nation described by the historian Diarmuid Ferriter as "pragmatic, dismissive, and ideologically indifferent." As far back as 1996 the Labour politician Ruairi Quinn was talking proudly about the emergence of a "post-Catholic pluralist republic."

Citing a report in a Dublin newspaper, the country’s ombudsman, Emily O’Reilly, mused aloud in autumn 2004 that she resided in an Ireland where a retailer could compile a list of five hundred customers willing to pay 5,000 euros ($8,600 CAD) for a designer handbag. "Here lies Mrs X," she chided, imagining the headstone of a society lady, "fifth in line for a Birkin bag, and raging she wasn’t first."

O’Reilly’s criticism of the "new vulgarity" is a sign of the times in her abruptly affluent country. Yet the vulgarity she decries may also be a mark of what prosperity can purchase for a society. Amid economic instability, bloody politics makes a bloody mess of nations in ways that go beyond the literal effects of bombs and assassinations. Social issues are put on the shelf until more pressing and volatile matters can be resolved. In the interim, stances and positions harden until a country winds up perceived as little more than the sum of its troubles.

The Republic struggled throughout the 1970s and 1980s to envision itself apart from the civil war being waged across the flimsy border with Northern Ireland. To an extent, material poverty fed the impulse to strengthen the links, or at least to nurture the hoary vision of Ireland as a boggy totality. Poverty has always been a lifeline to extremist views and, in dire circumstances, extremist behaviour.

There does seem to be a promising correspondence between the entrenching of broad-based prosperity and the weakening of support for those elements committed to perpetually destabilizing a society, for one cause or another. In Dublin, may those 5,000-euro handbags keep selling.

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