In 1973, when Liadain O’Donovan first showed me around the “west country” of Ireland, we joked that you’d find more black-cassocked priests on the roads than utility poles. There were fewer cars on the back lanes than horse-drawn carts. Thatched cottages seemed still to be the standard. And the region’s greatest export was its children. As late as the 1980s as many as two-thirds of Irish high school graduates emigrated to survive.
Today, Ireland ranks as one of the ten richest countries in the world in per capita terms. Its economic growth rate is about 6 percent, unemployment is below 5 percent, its trade surplus is the highest in Europe. At the same time, the scandals of the 1990s, which revealed rampant child abuse by Catholic priests who until very recently ran nearly all the schools, have brought shame and massive disaffection from the Church. In the wake has come a radical transformation in everything having to do with daily life in Ireland.
To travel these days through the west country, in Galway and Clare counties, is to see a mad dash of unregulated new construction – from gaudy block and brick two-stories to hives of holiday cottages lined out along the seaside slopes. The churches have not disappeared, but no longer is it conceivable that the priest could, with a single nod, block the sale of a field or a house to a prospective buyer deemed morally suspect.
What diet fed the unrestrained growth of this so-called Celtic Tiger?
By most analysis, it was the convergence of three forces: the collapse of Church control over nearly every element of public and private life; a near 100-percent literacy rate, which was possibly the church schools’ greatest contribution; and the arrival of a high-tech information industry in the early 1990s, which turned Ireland into the primary manufacturing and sales center for American personal computer production in Europe.
Low manufacturing taxes and interest rates, combined with high language skills, lured American companies and stimulated enormous growth in service sector spending.
Results? Dublin now claims the most expensive real estate in Europe, where a simple two-story, four-room frame and stucco house can go for $1 million. Houses in Kinvara go for half a million (Phil Moylan, the owner of Winckle’s pub there, recently rejected an offer of 1.2 million euros). Locals and tourists alike now eat out and demand better food—a pleasant change from the boiled potatoes and roasted lamb gristle of 30 years ago. But prosperity has not come without its price. Ireland now suffers the highest alcoholism rate in western Europe. The newspapers are full of stories about drunken brawls and highway deaths. And little towns like Kinvara query themselves endlessly about the fate of the famous land of artists and poets.
– Frank Browning