Postcard from Ireland


The Celtic Tiger is all the buzz these days. Newspapers and politicians gush about
it; economists and serious magazines debate its pros and cons. (Just
last week Newsweek was reflecting on its dark underbelly.)

None of this is surprising: Ireland’s rise from near-Third World status to one of
the richest countries in Europe and one of its fastest growing
economies all in the space of 20 years has been a remarkable feat.

A country that once watched in despair as its best and brightest
decamped to England, America and Australia is now welcoming the
prodigals (and their children and grandchildren) back. East European
workers are flooding in, looking for (and finding) work and better
lives and wages than they can get at home. East European governments
are besotted with Ireland’s achievements, and the country has been
inundated with delegations keen to discover how it was done.

New  Irish family home

The short answer is that the Tiger is the product of a combination of
investment-friendly policies (including the lowest business taxes in
Europe), billions in European Union development funding, and repeated
three-year tripartite agreements between governments, employers and
trade unions on national development priorities.

On a recent visit to the west of Ireland I found the Tiger’s footprints everywhere.
Renowned for its physical beauty, the west of the country has a
reputation for having been isolated from the tides of history, its
staggeringly beautiful landscape and its, well, quaint, social life
preserved from the mists of time.

This is only partly true. Isolation has been important. In a charming, if slightly overegged book called How the Irish Saved Civilisation,
Thomas Cahill argued that the monks and scribes of the land preserved
the remnants of civilisation from the fall of the Roman Empire till
medieval Christendom was ready to receive it back again. In this case,
isolation was important. But at other points in its history, the west
of Ireland has been a major crossroads of the world. The dense networks
of prehistoric fortresses are one indication of this, as are the Norman

In its time, the west was the centre of a thriving trade with Spain, and a centre
for lace-making worldwide. The emigrant ships heading to America often
left from here (and many tourists are tracing these roots). These days,
agriculture and tourism are leading industries, and the west is more
than pulling its weight.

The new wealth of Ireland is very visible here. Family houses way too big for
one family and looking for all the world like regency manor houses to
this untrained eye are springing up everywhere. More recently, the
traditional old stone houses (long left to fall into ruin or serve as
barns and garages) have become more fashionable, and building
contractors are flat out meeting the demand for renovations and
restorations. On the outskirts of towns and even quite small villages,
new housing estates are being built to meet the needs of the region’s
new labour force.

The infrastructure is struggling to cope. Startlingly, for a country as
gloriously green as Ireland, water is a problem, and local communities
have been organising to push water boards to expand supplies. Equally,
the charming country roads (ideal for tootling through the countryside
or for a leisurely trip to the airport) need to be supplemented by
something more efficient for moving goods and people through the newly
emerging regional hub cities. There is much road-building going on.

New forms of communications and tourism mean that the west is now very much part of
the wider world. There are ATMs all over and it only occurred to me
very late in the piece that I had enjoyed unfettered mobile phone
connections even in very distant parts of the island. There are
paintball parlours and the young have skateboards, wear hoodies and
expose their midriffs — hardy folk those Irish girls! And the big scandal while we were there
concerned the breathtaking costs run up by consultants who had spent
three years on a computerised wages system for the hospitals that has
never worked (as the million euro salary cheque for one lucky worker

But relics of an older world persist. One perfectly nice old woman quite casually
referred to ‘pagans over there’, by which she seemed to mean Buddhists
in Vietnam. A groups of locals, discussing changes in the education
system, bemoaned the decline in the numbers of men and women with
vocations that called them to the church and, therefore, to unpaid
teaching. The hospitals, on the other hand, while funded by the State,
remain in church hands and are free to impose their Protestant or
Catholic value-systems on patients and staff (on issues such as
abortion and stem-cell research).

On a happier note, local pubs seem to be flourishing, even in the tourist towns,
hidden away in the oddest spots. And while there is Guinness and
Murphy’s there’ll always be an Ireland.

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