I returned home to Dublin this week. Given the reporting of the international media in the past few weeks, I came home expecting a whole nation in mourning for that revered beast, the Celtic Tiger. What I found was business as usual: a staunchly proud country, and a government in disgrace.
A poll by Red C in the Irish Sun today put the approval rating of the Taoiseach, Brian Cowen, at a dismal 8 per cent. No news there. Irish people have always had a healthy distrust – or rather, disgust – for the people we elect to office. It also reported an increase in support for Sinn Fein at 16 per cent, 3 points ahead of ruling Fianna Fáil’s 13.
The BBC has reported the poll too, saying that “an opinion poll in the Republic of Ireland placed Sinn Fein ahead of government leading party Fianna Fáil”. Naturally this tabloid sensationalism ignores any clear insight into the findings of the poll, which put Fine Gael at the top on 32 per cent and Labour on 24, with Labour’s Eamonn Gilmore the most popular choice for Taoiseach.
The Celtic Tiger has been ritually slaughtered by its incompetent guardians, and its dead carcass has been paraded through the international media in a rush to publicise the horror. If international reports were to be believed, life in Ireland is over, it would seem. Images of down-and-outs, poverty and homelessness have once more become synonymous with Irishness.
As Shane Hegarty put it in the Irish Times, for the international media: “Ireland was poor, then rich, then poor again. Here’s a shot of a beggar.” Where in these reports is the resilience, determination and overweening pride; the dogged refusal to be defeated that has always characterised Irishness?
The hedonistic and unfettered capitalism that Ireland embraced during the past ten years has to be chastened. Yet what is the purpose of this media onslaught but to belittle the capability of the country and destroy any vestiges of investor confidence? Are the international media trying to destroy Ireland or to punish it for the crimes that capitalist countries all over the world committed over the past ten years: unrestrained greed, lack of regulation and corrupt politics?
Indeed, life in austerity Ireland will be difficult. As in austerity Britain, jobs will be lost, benefits will be cut and people will suffer.
What the media have not reported is what I see on the streets of Dublin. That is probably because most of them have never been here. Contrary to the images we’ve seen, Ireland is still functioning. Businesses are closing, but they are opening, too. Streetscapes are changing; pubs are bustling; restaurants are busy, getting ready for the Christmas rush. People are working harder and saving more. Yesterday, in the depths of the snowstorm that has gripped the British Isles, one of the biggest supermarket retailers in the country called its workers to arms over the airwaves of the national broadcaster, RTE: “By hell or by high water, get to work today.” Ireland will deal well with austerity.
Though it seems as if the Celtic Tiger was little more than a roaring blip, its legacy can’t be underestimated. This has always been a nation of emigrants, but the boom years inculcated a sense of return, making emigration a transitory rather than permanent trend. Ireland will crawl out of this recession and those who left will return again, bringing skills, experience and business with them.
Anger with the way the bailout has been represented comes naturally to those of us who grew up during the boom, when Ireland was the darling of the Euro project. For an older generation, it comes with benign acceptance. “Sure, they all still think we’ve got pigs in the kitchen,” I overheard this week – and then, quietly: “Well, we do, but they’ve two legs now.”