It’s a good thing Heinrich Böll isn’t around anymore to see the debacle. Had he known present-day Ireland, Böll would probably never have fallen in love with it – the way he once fell for that endearing island with its four million inhabitants, that idyll of poverty and of a more humane world. And it was that endearing Ireland, of all places, that drew turbo-capitalism to its shores – only to find itself in over its head. Böll would have been utterly at a loss.
“Europe’s social order was already taking other forms here,” he wrote in the 1950s on the ferry to Dublin. He was enthralled by the Irish passengers around him, and waxed hyperbolic: “Not only was poverty no longer a ‘disgrace’, it was neither an honour nor a disgrace: it was – as a factor of social self-awareness – as irrelevant as wealth; the creases had lost their cutting edge.”
A people as yet unspoiled by affluence
That passage was later included in his famous Irisches Tagebuch (Irish Diary), which describes a society that is virtuous and modest, frugal and somehow happy; a country which, in spite of famine and mass exodus and the severity of the Catholic Church, had preserved its humanity.
Back then in the mid-’50s, he thought of the Irish Diary as presenting an alternative to crude post-war Germany, to the economic miracle with its new tin gods: consumption, growth, capital. Böll, the good man from Cologne, and Ireland, the good island up north, were a good fit in those halcyon days. Böll’s island was poor then, but not broke. Now it’s the other way round.
An old German dream is going up in smoke as the Irish financial bubble bursts. No other nation was as smitten with the island as the Germans. In the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s Böll was followed to Ireland by a host of his compatriots who had pinned their dreams to the island – at least the ones who didn’t go for Goa or Ibiza. Ireland seemed purer and more forthright than their native land: Irish fields were still lush, with no conglomerates in sight, and the people as yet unspoiled by affluence. The place just couldn’t be better, the Germans thought, as they sang the praises of backwardness.
Middle Ages were firmly entrenched
They turned a deaf ear of denial when the Irish themselves bewailed their poverty. The dream of a different life had to be defended – even, if need be, against reality. To this day Germans remain the biggest contingent of faithful tourists to Ireland.
“Europe’s social order” has again taken on “other forms” in Ireland – albeit very different from those Böll once raved about. For weeks now the island has kept the continent on tenterhooks, shaking up the euro and, with it, the very foundations of the Community. How could Europe’s sleepiest country morph in no time into this gambling den, this paradise for property sharks, investment bankers and other assorted financial parasites?
Till the late ’80s, the Middle Ages were firmly entrenched in Ireland, their last foothold, far from the rest of the enlightened continent. For decades the Catholic church had held out in its Celtic fortress against the siege of modernity. But in the early ’90s, after the Iron Curtain collapsed and globalisation set in, even the church in Ireland had to acquiesce in the changing of the guard.
Modern Ireland had something of a brothel about it
Catholicism gave way to capitalism. In a topsy-turvy world, it provided a new lodestar to go by. And it wasn’t long before consumption, greed and the culture of efficiency had completed their crusade in Ireland. In the late 1980s, the government slashed corporate taxes to 10%, which worked like a magnet to draw entrepreneurs from all over the world.
Many foreign banks set up conduits in Ireland to offload the riskiest business from their home accounts. To cut those companies maximum slack, hardly anyone – and certainly not the state – came round to check in on the Dublin Docklands. And all of a sudden, chaste Ireland had something of a brothel about it: a place you go to do the dirty things you wouldn’t dare do at home.
Still, the new growth seemed a blessing for the country. The island was now positively humming, and on top it all, billions in subsidies from the EU nurtured the illusion that hard times were gone for good. And so the EU poor house turned into one of the priciest places in Europe basically overnight.
Celtic Tiger now like a scruffy kitty-cat
In spite of the steep prices, however, a recent survey by an “Anti-Obesity Taskforce” finds that 30% of Irish women and nearly half the men are overweight. In the 1980s, the Irish still ranked among the thinnest Europeans, now they’re a match for German girths. There was indeed something immoderate about their growth.
Like every place else in the world that strived to ward off natural developments, building dams against the advent of the modern age, modernity finally forced its way through the breach in Ireland, too, all the more tempestuously. The newly liberated are a lot like the nouveaux riches in that regard. No wonder Ireland gave itself up to capitalist excesses akin to those of the long-oppressed nations of Eastern Europe. Although some solid new companies formed up on the island, the political establishment bet far too much on the new financial industry: the purported secret to the country’s success, the business that had brought prosperity to the island for the first time in its history.
There lies the Celtic Tiger now like a scruffy kitty-cat, all trampled and trounced. The Germans should treat it kindly, then go and pay a visit to the poor little fellow again. “This Ireland does exist,” Heinrich Böll wrote in the foreword to his Irish Diary. “But the author hereby disclaims any and all liability for those who go and can’t find it.”
Translated from the German by Eric Rosencrantz
Europe can’t see beyond quick fix
“Debt crisis rives Europe,” headlinesTrouw: the EU 27 are straining to see eye-to-eye on a medium- and long-term answer to the debt crisis.Meeting on 6 and 7 December in Brussels, the economy chiefs were to look into ways to keep the crisis off the Iberian Peninsula. The daily explains that the deliberations got stymied particularly by the German and Dutch refusal to increase funding for the European Financial Stabilisation Mechanism (EFSM) in line with IMF (International Monetary Fund) demands. Moreover, they threw out the idea from Luxembourg and Italy of setting up a European debt agency to issue European sovereign bonds (eurobonds).