For an American tourist weaned on Gaelic kitsch and screenings of “The Quiet Man,” the landscape of contemporary Ireland comes as something of a shock. Drive from Dublin to the western coast and back, as I did two months ago, and you’ll still find all the thatched-roof farmhouses, winding stone walls and placid sheep that the postcards would lead you to expect. But round every green hill, there’s a swath of miniature McMansions. Past every tumble-down castle, a cascade of condominiums. In sleepy fishing villages that date to the days of Grace O’Malley, Ireland’s Pirate Queen (she was the Sarah Palin of the 16th century), half the houses look the part — but the rest could have been thrown up by the Toll brothers.
It’s as if there were only two eras in Irish history: the Middle Ages and the housing bubble.
This actually isn’t a bad way of thinking about Ireland’s 20th century. The island spent decade after decade isolated, premodern and rural — and then in just a few short years, boom, modernity! The Irish sometimes say that their 1960s didn’t happen until the 1990s, when secularization and the sexual revolution finally began in earnest in what had been one of the most conservative and Catholic countries in the world. But Ireland caught up fast: the kind of social and economic change that took 50 years or more in many places was compressed into a single revolutionary burst.
There was a time, not so very long ago, when everyone wanted to take credit for this transformation. Free-market conservatives hailed Ireland’s rapid growth as an example of the miracles that free trade, tax cuts and deregulation can accomplish. (In 1990, Ireland ranked near the bottom of European Union nations in G.D.P. per capita. In 2005, it ranked second.)
Progressives and secularists suggested that Ireland was thriving because it had finally escaped the Catholic Church’s repressive grip, which kept horizons narrow and families large, and limited female economic opportunity. (An academic paper on this theme, “Contraception and the Celtic Tiger,” earned the Malcolm Gladwell treatment in the pages of The New Yorker.) The European elite regarded Ireland as a case study in the benefits of E.U. integration, since the more tightly the Irish bound themselves to Continental institutions, the faster their gross domestic product rose.
Nobody tells those kinds of stories anymore. The Celtic housing bubble was more inflated than America’s (a lot of those McMansions are half-finished and abandoned), the Celtic banking industry was more reckless in its bets, and Ireland’s debts, private and public, make our budget woes look manageable by comparison. The Irish economy is on everybody’s mind again these days, but that’s because the government has just been forced to apply for a bailout from the E.U., lest Ireland become the green thread that unravels the European quilt.
If the bailout does its work and the Irish situation stabilizes, the world’s attention will move on to the next E.U. country on the brink, whether it’s Portugal, Spain or Greece (again). But when the story of the Great Recession is remembered, Ireland will offer the most potent cautionary tale. Nowhere did the imaginations of utopians run so rampant, and nowhere did they receive a more stinging rebuke.
To the utopians of capitalism, the Irish experience should be a reminder that the biggest booms can produce the biggest busts, and that debt and ruin always shadow prosperity and growth. To the utopians of secularism, the Irish experience should be a reminder that the waning of a powerful religious tradition can breed decadence as well as liberation. (“Ireland found riches a good substitute for its traditional culture,” Christopher Caldwell noted, but now “we may be about to discover what happens when a traditionally poor country returns to poverty without its culture.”)
But it’s the utopians of European integration who should learn the hardest lessons from the Irish story. The continent-wide ripples from Ireland’s banking crisis have vindicated the Euroskeptics who argued that the E.U. was expanded too hastily, and that a single currency couldn’t accommodate such a wide diversity of nations. And the Irish government’s hat-in-hand pilgrimages to Brussels have vindicated every nationalist who feared that economic union would eventually mean political subjugation. The yoke of the European Union is lighter than the yoke of the British Empire, but Ireland has returned to a kind of vassal status all the same.
As for the Irish themselves, their idyllic initiation into global capitalism is over, and now they probably understand the nature of modernity a little better. At times, it can seem to deliver everything you ever wanted, and wealth beyond your dreams. But you always have to pay for it.
Ross Douthat, New York Times
Full article: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/22/opinion/22douthat.html