No one can afford to underestimate Ireland any longer, the World Cup commentators agreed: their 3-0 win over Saudi Arabia ensured that the Irish qualified for the second stage of the competition. You could say the same off the pitch: on 10 June, Ryanair proclaimed record pre-tax profits of £111m for the year ending March. While other airline companies were busy blaming foot-and-mouth restrictions and 11 September for their wretched predicament, Michael O'Leary, chief executive of Ryanair, simply cut his fares and watched his fortunes soar.
Indeed, for many it is O'Leary, 41 and famous for his laid-back management style (and attire: invariably jeans and rugby shirt), who best embodies Ireland's newly found affluence and entrepreneurial spirit. Together with the media magnate Tony O'Reilly, whose newspaper empire includes the Irish and London Independent titles, O'Leary shows an Ireland that has transformed itself from impoverished victim to land of wealth and modernity - the Celtic tiger.
And the tiger is roaring: in 1996, the Republic of Ireland's per capita gross domestic product outstripped the United Kingdom's; in 2000, the average annual GDP growth in Ireland was 11.5 per cent. Unemployment is at a historic low of 3.7 per cent. Such statistics make a joke out of all those old Irish jokes. Ireland today equals success. On this side of the Irish Sea, we have become so enamoured of the emerald isle that, according to an ICM Research poll of March 2001, one in four Britons claims to have Irish roots. The actual number, an academic at the University of Nottingham pointed out, is one in ten.
One of the greatest beneficiaries of this new-found national well-being is Bertie Ahern, who became prime minister five years ago and was re-elected last month with a resounding popular vote. Three ongoing inquiries, the Flood, Moriarty and DIRT tribunals, have exposed how government and big business conspired to orchestrate enormous tax fraud. Yet, despite this leitmotif of official corruption, Ahern and his Fianna Fail party continue to do well at the polls. As Tony Blair's own triumph showed last year, voters can happily live with sleaze so long as the economy remains in good shape. Like Blair, Ahern emerged unscathed because he successfully distanced himself from his mischievous underlings. The "Teflon Taoiseach"also enjoys great personal popularity: Bertie (it's always just "Bertie") is seen as a man of the people, a simple, self-effacing soul who enjoys a pint and watching a game of soccer. The Phoenix, the Irish equivalent of Private Eye, runs a cod-diary of Bertie, portraying him as a kind of simple, good-hearted Northside taxi driver. That he has a mistress merely compounds his Homer Simpson-esque appeal. The one time I met him, the only thing he wanted to discuss was Manchester United. Bertie is no dimwit, though: Charles Haughey described him as the "most cunning of them all".
Although Fianna Fail's tax-slashing policies ensured its triumph, both Sinn Fein and the Greens fared well on a platform advocating heavier taxation and more public funding for housing, transport and the environment. These parties addressed the concerns of working-class urban communities for which the Celtic tiger is a distinctly elusive beast.
Sinn Fein also tapped into a growing Eurosceptic sentiment that made itself evident with the rejection of the Nice Treaty 12 months ago. Sinn Fein campaigned more vigorously than others to secure that result. Much discontentment with the treaty arises from the perception that it jeopardises Ireland's cherished neutral status, by involving Irish troops in the European Union's rapid reaction force.
Sinn Fein also addressed another matter that dominates much political discourse. With Ireland becoming a net importer of people, racism has become a big issue. Fifteen years ago, the only black faces one would see in Ireland were a few students at Trinity College. In 1992, 80 people applied for asylum in Ireland; today, asylum figures are running at 8,000 - per month. The resentment at the browning of Ireland has manifested itself in increasing numbers of racist attacks, and the formation of the Immigration Control Platform by a school teacher, Aine NI Chonaill; earlier this year, she warned of a "white flight" from Cork's Northside. A poll conducted by the Dublin Sunday Independent in 1999 revealed that 78 per cent of the Irish public want quotas on immigration. The irony is that a people famed as a nation of emigrants now won't tolerate immigrants.
Yet while a proportion of the population appears openly racist, another is at great pains to demonstrate its ultra-liberal credentials. Like most western countries, Ireland has legislation banning discrimination in the workplace, but the country has gone one further, introducing the Equal Status Act 2000, which prohibits all providers of goods and services to the public from discriminating on the grounds of gender, age, marital and family status, religion, race, sexual orientation, disability or membership of the traveller community.
A more acute example of Ireland's politically correct culture emerged in October 2000, when Mary Ellen Synon, a columnist for the Sunday Independent, declared the Paralympics - the Olympics for paraplegics - "grotesque" for implying equivalence between what the "cripples do and what the truly fastest, strongest, highest do. There isn't." Her remarks sent the nation into hysterics. The newspaper received a deluge of letters from readers bewailing how "hurt" and "deeply upset" they were at these "deeply offensive" words. Synon was denounced in the Irish Senate as "truly offensive"; the Eastern Regional Health Authority threatened to withdraw its considerable advertising from the newspaper. She and the paper eventually parted company.
The row showed that although Ireland, following numerous paedophile scandals, has become noticeably anti-clerical, the Irish are still eager to portray themselves as a sympathetic, charitable people who side with the downtrodden. Campaigners such as Mary Robinson, Bob Geldof and Bono very much reinforce this perception on the world stage. Indeed, the U2 lead singer has in recent years become a one-man ambassador for peace and justice throughout the world, launching Data (Debt, Aid, Trade for Africa), a non-profit debt-relief organisation, in March. Two of his most memorable gestures include a rousing appearance at New York's post-11 September benefit concert, and his raising aloft the hands of David Trimble and John Hume at Belfast's Waterfront Hall four years ago, after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement.
Bono's progress is a natural development for a man whose band's music resonates with the very Celtic themes of love, peace, spirituality, hope and redemption. It's an attractive mentality that has consolidated an affectionate hold on the world. From Irish theme pubs and Ballykissangel to the success of Riverdance and the sweet, soulful sounds of the Corrs, Irishness appears to be something people want to relate to. Ireland, to foreign eyes, is a land populated by life-affirming, happy-go-lucky folk.
As the globe has embraced the Irish, how much has Ireland embraced the outside world? Modernity has come at a price. The rise in heroin use in Dublin in the past two decades has been well documented, but now greater numbers in prosperous Ireland are turning to cocaine. In 1987, the GardaI seized 11kg of smuggled cocaine; in 1998, the figure had risen to 300. The GardaI have reported huge increases in violent crime, and closing time on Saturday night in the centre of Dublin, Galway, Cork and Limerick can be an ugly sight. According to a government report of August 2000, one-quarter of the population are functional alcoholics. This trend has been linked to the Celtic tiger, with much Bacchanalian indulgence for the winners, while the losers drown their sorrows. The stigma for some losers has proved too much: between 1990 and 2000, suicides among 15- to 24-year-old men increased by 73 per cent.
While some celebrate liberalism and prosperity and go on gay pride marches, many miss the Ireland of old, a country that was authoritarian, insular and poor, yet safer, cleaner, less materialistic, more egalitarian - and more Irish.
Roy Keane's altercation with the Irish national football team manager, Mick McCarthy, reveals how the battle between Irelands, old and new, is yet to be settled. Keane stormed off because he felt that his team-mates were only going to the World Cup for a traditional jolly knees-up. His sights were set on Ireland going all the way. His departure divided Ireland into two camps, between the new, professional and highly ambitious Irish, who see no Pearsean triumph in failure, and the traditionalist Ireland that thinks: "It'll do."
And of the old oppressor? It is now Britain, or more particularly England, that agonises about its identity. Those old jibes about Irish trains running days late ring hollow in the era of Railtrack. Now it is British navvies who cross the Irish Sea to find work and Dublin millionaires who invest in run-down Liverpool, while many of Dublin's bars and hotels have banned those drunken, brawling stag parties for Englishmen.
As yet, there are no signs up saying "No Blacks, No English, No Dogs". But if ever there is an outbreak of rabies in Bertie's Ireland, don't be surprised if they start popping up.