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A Reading Life

The Celtic tiger and its carnage

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Katherine A. Powers
April 20, 2008

I have discovered a brand-new way of bringing my blood to a boil. I can do it in one second flat by simply clicking on http://www.greystonesharbour.ie:80/ and looking at the "artist's impression" of the harbor project in Greystones, County Wicklow, Ireland. This modest little haven (and scene of my youth) is set to be transformed into a place of stunning, supersized vulgarity enhanced by a 230-berth marina and 341 residential units. Massively out of scale and possessing the ambience of an airport, it is an affront to everything around it including the sea and the sky.

This enormity is part and parcel of the New Ireland, whose economy from 2000 has been fueled by the construction industry - though that economy appears to be going the way of our own. I have observed the blistering speed of change in Ireland of the last 30 years from this shore and have not been able to understand it or even take it in. Until now, that is, for I have just finished R. F. Foster's "Luck and the Irish: A Brief History of Change From 1970" (Oxford University, $29.95). The book originated in a series of lectures and is less a history than an incisive, often witty, report on the development of a poor, hidebound country into a razzle-dazzle consumer society whose "quality of life" in 2004, according to The Economist, was the highest in the world. As Foster points out, even more bewildering than the changes in Ireland is the speed of those changes - in the economy as well as in politics, religion, and the role of the Catholic Church in civil affairs, in art, the family, women's rights, notions of morality, and in the makeup of the population and the marketing of Ireland herself. All has been transformed beyond recognition (by me, at least) in a mere 30 years.

That speed, Foster says, was possible in part because Ireland's lack of development and industry allowed her to move unhindered by entrenched interests into the "microelectronic age." Or, as soon-to-be-former-taoiseach Bertie Ahern observed in his own inimitable way: "The grass roots, or the rank and file, are now made from fibre optics." Foreign capital and aid from the European Economic Community poured into the country, and American business practices cut out the deadwood - slicing through the social fabric as well.

Rapid change also owed something to an increase in population and even more to the centralized government's ability to implement new laws and arrangements with terrific dispatch. "We don't have a bureaucratic system like the French or the Germans," explained one senior civil servant quoted by Foster. "We're just opportunistic future-grabbers." And, finally, to summarize what I took from the book, the corrupt relationship between business - especially banking and real estate - and the dominant party, Fianna Fáil, allowed enormous, one might say brute, development schemes to go forward unhampered by effective resistance.

Foster's focus in this book is on the Republic and, perforce, its relation to Northern Ireland and the changing views of partition. His treatment of the violent years from 1969 to the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 is a miracle of concision and clarity. He traces the course of the conflict, showing the tragic combination of fortuitousness and opportunism that propelled it, and explains how the trajectory of bloodshed could have been altered at several points. One figure towers here and elsewhere: that of the diminutive Charles Haughey, "whose model of grandeur," Foster writes, "was an odd combination of Napoleonic enigma, Ascendancy hauteur, Gaelic chieftain and Tammany boss." His every appearance in these pages, unfortunate though it often was in reality, is worth the price of the book alone.

Foster notes the sad irony that while actual historical sites are being despoiled and destroyed in Ireland herself, Irish cultural products have never been more popular as exports. Not the least of these is the ersatz "Irish pub," crammed with gewgaws and jumble meant to summon up "nostalgia for something that never was." "Now," Foster comments wryly, these establishments "are starting to appear in Ireland as well." Far more significant and profitable - and, to me, deeply depressing - is the invention, marketing, and export of Irish "spirituality," that is, Celtic paganism lite, Celtic mysticism as self-help, and that dozy, dopey Celtic music that follows one everywhere.

I remember when people boasted that Ireland's number-one export was Catholic missionaries. What happened to all that and to the Catholic Church in Ireland? Its loss of power and, indeed, members is the most astonishing change of all. Foster concludes his excellent chapter on religion by saying, "It is hard not to think of that standard exam question for students of Irish history: 'Why did the Reformation not succeed in Ireland?' And the answer: 'It did, but it took four hundred and fifty years.' "

And now here's the Pope paying us a call, hoping perhaps to stem the tide of the reformation sweeping the Catholic Church in this country. His visit makes James M. O'Toole's "The Faithful: A History of Catholics in America" (Harvard University/Belknap, $27.95) especially timely. Once again, this is not so much a history as, in this case, a penetrating, deftly worked summary of organizational and liturgical developments, formal and informal, in the American Catholic Church with emphasis on the role and influence of the laity. O'Toole sees the evolution of the church in this country as falling into six, somewhat overlapping ages: the "Priestless Church" of the Colonial period, when the faith was kept alive by the laity with only rare appearances of priests to, as it were, service it; the church as it existed from the Revolution up to the Civil War, which showed a democratic orientation and lay involvement in the establishment of parishes - most worrisome to the church hierarchy; the immigrant church, which eased the transition of diverse peoples into the United States and strengthened the power of the clergy; the period of Catholic Action broadly conceived, which gave rise to a spectrum of lay organizations ranging from the pacifist, radical Catholic Worker Movement to what I'd call its opposite, the Knights of Columbus; the church as it entered and emerged from Vatican II; and, finally, our own tumultuous age.

Katherine A. Powers's column appears on alternate Sundays. Her essay "My Glove" appears in "Anatomy of Baseball," edited by Lee Gutkind and Andrew Blauner, to be published April 30. She can be reached at pow3@verizon.net.

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