Prosperity shock

Maura Stephens
9 March 2006

The very first joke I can recall was a piece of fun played on visitors to the country pub owned by an old relation of mine in County Kilkenny, Ireland. A guest would come in for a few pints of beer and then ask to use the toilet. One of my cousins or an uncle would point to a door at the back of the pub. Behind that door was nothing but a step down into a cow pasture. The locals always had a laugh with the visitors over that.

In the early 1960s a pasture was still the limit of the plumbing facilities in a good many places in Ireland, and it would be another fifteen years or so before that particular pub had an indoor toilet. Those were bleak days for the Irish; my branch of the family had fled to the United States to seek a better future and we came home often to see family and quietly share largesse. Visitors were always welcome, especially if they were from the United States.

My, how things have changed. We're now the poor Yankees coming back to visit our rich Irish relations. I've just been home for a visit for only the second time since 1998; at that time things had already improved markedly. Homes – indeed entire villages – that had not seen a coat of paint in centuries were spiffed up, flowers freshly planted in tidy gardens, roofs repaired, pavements smoothed, trash removed. It was heartening to see the country prosperous for the first time in living memory. Generations who had left as young adults for the United States, England, Canada, or Australia were returning home to a country with jobs aplenty, a country that was even seeking to become the electronics and telecommunications capital of Europe (Ireland had joined the European Union, then the European Economic Community, in 1973).

I was happy that my relatives were finally able to take holidays and travel, upgrade their homes, buy new cars, own nice things, but I could see trouble brewing: along with prosperity, especially sudden prosperity, inevitably come ills – selfishness, greed, crime, corruption, inequality, injustice. I was worried that Ireland would go the way of the United States, becoming a bland, consumption-driven, "me-first" society in which the greater good comes a poor second to an acquisition-based sense of self-worth.

In Ireland in 1998 I could already see the signs. That year I took my husband there for the first time. I was excited to introduce him to my family and show him some of my favourite places. We arrived at Shannon airport and immediately headed west to view one of the world's most geologically spectacular sights, the Cliffs of Moher, overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. The vista was burned into my memory: out of a craggy, wild sea sheer, vertical cliffs shoot up some 213 metres. But as we approached, instead of being greeted by the spectacular scene I remembered so well, we saw "estates", as the Irish call housing developments, full of oversized mansions on tiny plots with views of the cliffs. They drew attention away from the natural beauty and reminded me of so many places in the United States that had been ruined by man – pretty much the entire state of Florida, much of the California coast, the beautiful lakes of New York State's Adirondack mountains to name a few.

That rude awakening was just the beginning. Now, eight years later, I am back again with my husband. This time we've driven to County Galway, a land wild, rocky, desolate, isolated, once populated primarily by Irish speakers and sheep – and utterly beautiful. The last time I was here was more than twenty years ago, when times were hard and homes – many still heated with hand-cut peat "turf" – were widely scattered along the rocky coast, where the soil was poor but the sea rich in fish.

Now this same coast is peppered with new bungalows and mansions, with many a view blocked off by an oversized homestead. Everywhere you look roads are being repaired or widened and new building is under way. These government projects and the private home-building are keeping many a labourer occupied full-time. This is fortunate, because there are plenty of unskilled workers, as well as masons, carpenters, plumbers and electricians, among the Irish middle and older generations.

Most of the younger people tell us they are working in or studying finance, computers, engineering, marketing, sales, or medicine and health care. The myriad shops, restaurants, and pubs are staffed mainly by east-central Europeans – Poles, mostly – because younger Irish people no longer want to work in retail or tourism. The few young Irish we meet in the shops are often surly, a big change from the time when the Irish were known for their friendliness towards foreigners. Then, they greeted Americans especially warmly ("Where do you live? New York? I have a cousin in Minneapolis, he went out there twelve years ago; would you know him?"). Now they don't care where we're from or whether we are happy with their goods and services; they act as if they don't need our business – and indeed, they do not need it. We are not as welcome as we were, and it has nothing to do with the behaviour of the United States in the world arena. Not directly, anyway; it certainly has a lot to do with US corporations' behaviour.

It is a small island and garbage control is a big challenge. Smart laws, implemented since Ireland's enthusiastic entrance into the EU, require people to pay for trash removal, forbid individuals from burning trash anywhere, and impose €3,000 fees for littering. Still, in some areas trash is more visible now than I ever remember. The people who dump it illegally to avoid paying the fees have got so clever, we are told, that they dump only waste that can't be traced back to them by the trash police.

Everywhere we go we look at the real estate listings and are shocked at the prices. Modest older homes in Dublin sell for €300,000 and upward; new homes that we would describe as "cookie cutter" places – all identical – can easily cost twice that. Three-bedroom, two-bathroom homes in the western counties of Galway and Mayo are priced equally high. We learn that the average salary for a young Irishwoman or man a few years out of university is in the range of €35,000 to €60,000, yet banks are financing 100% or more of the cost of these homes for young singles and couples; the mortgages are often forty years! With interest rates even at a historically low 5%, a purchaser can expect to pay €694,362.90 for a €300,000 home over the duration of the mortgage.

I am saddened to watch as, much like their US counterparts in the 1980s and again in the 1990s before the dot.com crash, young Irish families are becoming enslaved to the corporate international banks. These crippling debts ensure that two-income families are the norm, so that when children arrive they must be sent off to daycare. (Today there is unlikely to be a grandparent living with the family or near by, another big change from the old days.) And as the children grow the consumer pressures mount: exclusive boarding schools, expensive holidays, bigger cars, trendy clothes.

Among the many attributes of Ireland that I adore and have always been grateful for is the quiet, but now it can be hard to find a place to read or write or converse. In shops and restaurants, even in the petrol filling stations and car parks, we hear piped music. Who likes it or wants it, I wonder? (Interestingly, the tune we've heard most often in Ireland, at least a half dozen times this week, is Bob Dylan's Like a Rolling Stone.)

I have no doubt the Irish will come up with good ways of addressing most of the ills they recognise, including the rise in crime and drug use. It's the hidden ills, or the disguised ills, that I fear will give them the biggest problems. Despite their disinclination to welcome US tourists the way they once did, the Irish still look to the United States with admiration, and the US, as we know, vigorously exports its mass-market, consumerist, acquisition-based pseudo-culture. But if the Irish succumb to it, I warn them, they risk making themselves the butt of an unforgivably dirty joke.

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