Our Epic Journey to Affluence

By Declan Kiberd, Contributor
December/ January 2007

Future historians will not ask why Ireland boomed in the Ahern decade but rather why the coming of the Celtic Tiger took so long

One hundred years ago, this country produced not just a great cultural renaissance but also one of the first successful anti-imperial movements of the 20th century, both designed to foster creativity and self-reliance in our people. But why did it take a century for economics to catch up with culture and politics?

The energy expended in dislodging the British is one answer: an exhausted people were unable to reconfigure the society they inherited. Worse still, the Civil War created a profound conservatism and distrust of ideas. Many of its losers decamped to a real republic, the United States, where some made fortunes in business (and some in bootlegging). Ever since 1789, the republican idea had been linked to meritocracy and entrepreneurship, and the fragile infant state could ill afford the loss of such talents.

The middle class which emerged in its early decades knew how to consume but not how to create. It had missed out on the heroic phase of the European bourgeoisie in the 19th century, when industries were founded and factories built. In Edna O’Brien’s great novel The Country Girls (1960), children pester a local grocer for cardboard boxes to play with, but there is seldom any question of their buying anything. For Ireland was a land of “consumerism without goods.”

Education reflected the prevailing caution. Even in the 1960s, the brighter secondary schoolchildren were set to study Latin, while the less gifted did something called commerce. Then we were herded, with no sense of irony, into debates at which we agonized over the failure of the Irish economy to lift off after independence. One of the answers was staring each student in the face: our own educational system.

As an arts student at TCD in the early 1970s, I found that industry was still frowned upon. The new campus at UCD was called the Belfield Polytechnic by scoffers. What would have been a term of praise in Germany or the U.S. was still a word of abuse in swinging Dublin. The socialism of flower children joined the snobbism of the old aristocracy to create an aversion to most people engaged in “trade.”

Signs on. Many gifted graduates in the early decades of this state enrolled as priests or nuns, often going on to administer vast hospitals or large academies, not just in Ireland, but in Africa, Asia and Latin America as well. Other people of talent joined the Civil Service, bringing lustre to their nation. If more of these had entered the “purple of commerce,” affluence might have come sooner.

It came, eventually, as a result of Donogh O’Malley’s scheme for free secondary education in 1967. Not only did that measure increase the number of less-well-off children in colleges, but their presence gave schooling a more practical tilt, as engineering, business methods and building construction became elements of the curriculum.

More than 20 years later, the benefits accrued, as the economy turned around. (By a similar process, more than two decades after the Butler Education Acts of the 1940s, Northern Ireland produced the generation of John Hume, Bernadette Devlin and Seamus Heaney).

One of the worst impediments to economic development was under-capitalization. Even those who had good ideas were usually turned away by the bank managers – Bob Geldof, for instance, tried to launch a Buy and Sell-style magazine in the 1970s, but couldn’t raise the small sum needed. If American cousins seemed to do better than their stay-at-home relations, that was because they could lay hands on cash and put it to work.

Although EU money assisted lift-off, it was the policy of low interest rates and ready availability of cash for borrowers which really changed things. The emerging global economy put a premium not on heavy industry but on communicational skills and on service companies, factors that suited the character of Irish people. With international travel cheaper and information highways instantaneous, Ireland ceased to be a peripheral island off the edge of Europe and became something more like a hub between the U.S. and the EU.

As jobs increased, dependency levels dropped, and young people began to pour in rather than out.

That affluence is deep-rooted and likely to last – yet, every day, some reporter proclaims a financial downturn or a property wobble, on the old Irish adage of “It’s a fine day – but it’ll never last.” A more truly radical approach would be not to talk down the prosperity but rather to explore ways of sharing it all more equally, with due regard for both the environment and our cultural traditions. That challenge may provide a central theme of the forthcoming election.

Declan Kiberd is a professor, literary theorist, author and journalist, who lives and teaches in Dublin. The above piece was published in The Irish Times on October 24, 2006.

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