Blanketing opinions that I'll probably regret soon.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Celtic Tiger

Welcome to capitalism, my friends.

From the New York Times:

Between sips of caffe latte and laments about the staggering cost of property here, the Irish are beginning to ask themselves a 21st-century question: Who do we want to be, as a country, now that we have all this money?

"We are certainly in new territory," said Joseph O'Connor, a best-selling Irish novelist who recently wrote "Star of the Sea." "We haven't been here before."

It was not so long ago that Ireland was a threadbare nation, barely relevant in European affairs. Finding a job meant hopping an airplane out of the country.

But Ireland's jump into the European Union changed all that. In a little more than a decade, the so-called Celtic Tiger was transformed from one of the poorest countries in Western Europe to one of the richest in the world.

But that new status is bringing with it an identity crisis, one that is forcing the country to grapple with the flip side of wealth and the obligations that money imposes. But some are beginning to point out that national wealth alone does not bring happiness. It can, in fact, bring new problems.

Irish newspapers have been filled with accounts of the pitfalls of growth: suicide is at record levels, divorce is increasingly common, property prices are soaring, traffic is horrendous, personal debt is spiraling up, faceless commuter suburbs are sprouting and teenagers are taking too many drugs.

A survey released last week by a market research group showed that most people did not feel their lifestyle had improved in recent years, primarily because the cost of living had exploded. Another study pointed out that stress levels everywhere in Ireland are ballooning.

Emily O'Reilly, the government's ombudsman and information commissioner, fanned the debate over Ireland's new identity in a November speech.

"Many of us recoil at the vulgar fest that is much of modern Ireland," Ms. O'Reilly began, before going on to cite its plunge into materialism, foul language, random violence, moral poverty and the culture of immediate gratification.

"Divorce was meant to be for the deeply unhappy, not the mildly bored," she said. "Sunday shopping was supposed to be a convenience for the harassed worker, not a new religion.

"Released from the handcuff of mass religious obedience, we are Dionysian in our revelry, in our testing of what we call freedom," she continued. "Hence the staggering drink consumption, the childlike showing off of helicopters and four-wheel drives and private cinemas, the fetishizing of handbags and high heels."

"We have enough money now for the first time to tackle poverty, inequality and a poor infrastructure," Rev. Sean J. Healy, director of the justice commission of the Conference of Religious of Ireland noted.

Eradicating poverty, everyone agrees, is a worthwhile goal. But Ireland was so poor for so long, and its poverty was so ingrained in its identity, that some wonder whether Irish culture and character will be steamrolled by the rollicking economy.

Mr. O'Connor, the writer, said a degree of reflection and self-criticism was welcome, but not if it spoiled the party altogether. The arts community, for example, is flourishing; there are more writers, painters, poets and musicians than ever before. Comedians and comedy abound, he notes, more so than in the past.

"Yes, people are commuting long distances now," he said. "But not nearly so long as the commute to, say, Australia, which is where many people had to go to find jobs a generation ago."

If anything, all the hyperventilating about Dublin's dazzling transformation seems to have confounded people, who are asking, basically, is this as good as it gets? "If Ireland is the best place to live," Mr. O'Connor said, good-naturedly, "God help us."
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