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Melting into Eire

To the Irish, few things are more essential than the land. While perusing an oral history collection from the 1930s at University College, Dublin a few years ago, I was struck by how the most unremarkable field, some uninhabited spot tucked between two rural villages, would be described in deliciously precise detail and given its own evocative name. Recall how Seamus Heaney, in his poem “Digging,” depicted his literary efforts as akin to the spade work that occupied the lives of his father and his grandfather, who “could cut more turf in a day/ Than any other man on Toner’s bog.” Instead of the farm implement that was his patrimony, Heaney would rest a “squat pen” between his finger and thumb: “I’ll dig with it.” There was nothing diminishing in tilling the ancient muck. It was the highest of callings.

The land has also been Ireland’s great sorrow. It was too close to an aggressive foreign neighbor whose quest for world dominance was bound to begin (and end) there. It was too small to be peaceably shared by numerous Catholic peasant-tenants who wanted larger plots and fewer Protestant gentry-landlords who, benefiting from their ancestors’ campaigns of confiscation and dispossession, luxuriated in grandiose manor houses on expansive demesnes. Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the British government was always convening a “land” commission, debating a “land” act, trying to halt a “land” war. Finally it was too rural and inhospitable to commerce—too bereft of the jobs that could be had in the more advanced economies of America, Great Britain, and Australia—to support the hundreds of thousands who continued to emigrate even after independence ended the land disputes, at least in the larger part of the island now known as the Republic of Ireland.

Then came the Celtic Tiger—a phrase coined by a Morgan Stanley analyst in 1994 to describe the leaping growth of the economy—and the end of Irish history seemed to be nigh. The Catholic Church was loosening its grip on the country’s public life, although it should be remembered that a referendum legalizing divorce passed by a mere 9,114 votes out of more than 1.6 million cast … in 1995. The forces of peace were achieving more unambiguous victories. In 1998, 94.4 percent of Irish voters (and 71 percent of Northern Irish voters) approved the Good Friday agreement that did much to end the decades-long dirty war in Northern Ireland. And the exiled sons and daughters of Erin were coming home. With more jobs now available for the taking—many provided by government-nurtured foreign investment and aided by Ireland’s financially advantageous membership in a benign European “union”—the returnees joined a flow of economic and political refugees from Eastern Europe and Africa. In fact, so many non-Irish were arriving that the country did what is almost—but not quite—unthinkable in the United States: it reversed the constitutional guarantee of birthright citizenship. Yes, Ireland was becoming mean.

By the dawn of the new century, with the economy churning along at a healthy pace that exceeded even Great Britain, the Irish turned to their hallowed land, upon which they would build. The flush Dublin banks were itching to lend to developers with plans for “suburban housing developments with cookie-cutter designs and cul-de-sacs that appeared to have been lifted from a 1970s Spielberg film,” writes David J. Lynch in his well-reported and timely book. The Irish political leadership, which enjoyed a backslapping relationship with the small community of bankers and builders, helped the process along by writing new sections of the tax code that seemed to include nothing but tax breaks and incentives. The ruling Fianna Fáil party—once led by the austere Eamon De Valera, who said in 1943 that the “Ireland which we have dreamed of would be the home … of a people who were satisfied with frugal comfort”—was now carving out exemptions for multi-story parking garages and sports-injury clinics.

The priestly caste in Ireland had truly disappeared. Regulatory oversight—prudence, for the sake of argument—was practically nonexistent. “Sitting on the sidelines, cribbing and moaning is a lost opportunity,” said Bertie Ahern, a Fianna Fáil successor to De Valera as taoiseach (pronounced tea-shock and meaning prime minister), of the boom’s few critics, in February 2007. “I don’t know how people who engage in that don’t commit suicide.” Fittingly, he resigned the following year in the midst of a corruption scandal.

The people, newly wealthy, were eager to buy into a sure thing. Not only were they provided with generous monetary and statutory incentives to own, they enjoyed the cushion of a Scandinavia-like social welfare system and, sometimes, a government job itself. From 1998 to 2002, Ahern added 50,000 well-paying public sector jobs to the ledgers. Yet a report commissioned by the Irish finance ministry conceded “deeper roots” to the property boom—that is, “the strong and pervasive preference in Irish society for property as an asset.” Nothing stabbed at the heart of the rapacious landlord of Irish historical memory—who famously demanded rent even in the midst of famine—quite like your very own McMansion. “Down through the years, there would be a sense that money spent on rent is wasted money. This goes right up to the present day,” the historian Diarmaid Ferriter told Lynch. “There’s an important cultural angle to this. A detestation for landlords is drilled into us from a very young age.”

The bubble grew and grew—50,000 homes were built in 2002, 62,000 in 2003, 72,000 in 2004. Between 2002 and 2007, Irish banks almost tripled their lending, an amount “equal to two-thirds of GNP,” according to economist Morgan Kelly. “Home ownership soared toward 80 percent of the population, well above the roughly 65 percent at the height of the boom then unfolding in the United States,” Lynch writes. The signs of a society on a reckless course were unmistakable. In 2005, an Ahern crony named Sean Dunne paid $471 million—$67 million per acre—for a Dublin parcel upon which he would build “a $1.2 billion complex of buildings, including a thirty-seven-story tower styled to resemble a massive diamond,” writes Lynch. (Opposition from local residents killed the plan.) In tiny Newtowngore, a forty-resident, fifteen-dwelling hamlet in County Leitrim, developers swooped into town on helicopters and funded the construction (by Eastern European laborers) of thirty-eight new homes. Most were unoccupied and in ramshackle condition when Lynch visited. Some of them were “pastel-hued.” Terrible beauty, indeed.

Beginning in February 2007, property prices began to tumble and the air started to come out of the bubble. There was a lot of air, too. In the decade preceding 2006, real house prices had increased by 172 percent—“the sharpest increase in any advanced economy in modern times,” Lynch remarks. When the global recession hit in September 2008, the situation grew worse. By early 2010, the government (led by Brian Cowen, once the finance minister under Ahern) had committed billions in taxpayer funds to shoring up the devastated banks. But with valuable funding lost from things like the transactional charges associated with the buying and selling of houses, it was unable to handle the cost. Tax revenue had fallen by 20 percent between 2007 and 2009. A series of austerity budgets and tax increases didn’t help.

On November 21, 2010, a sovereign Irish nation—whose founding document declares “the right of the people of Ireland … to the unfettered control of Irish destinies”—was left with no choice but accept a $100 billion bailout plan from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund (with its famous “conditionalities”). On the popular Liveline program on Irish radio, a relative of Conn Colbert, one of the revolutionaries executed in 1916 after the Easter Rising, told host Joe Duffy, “It’s not what the 1916 people fought for. They didn’t fight for other people to have to come in and bail us out.”

David J. Lynch’s book, published before the EU/IMF intervention, is a sturdy and unsentimental tale of how Ireland reached its current predicament, written by an American journalist who specializes in the global economy. It follows several Irish citizens as they experience the tumultuous changes of the past quarter century, and includes interviews with a self-justifying Bertie Ahern and an equally in-denial Sean FitzPatrick, who, as head of the go-getting Anglo-Irish Bank, was one of the Tiger’s architects.

Lynch describes how the Celtic Tiger boom accompanied a general liberalization of society that finally brought Ireland into modern times. He even argues that Ireland was able to “punch above its weight in cultural terms” because of its “robust new confidence,” mentioning Heaney, the film director Jim Sheridan, Roddy Doyle, and U2. But Old Ireland was always able to punch way above its weight in artistic achievement. The cultural export of the Tiger era that truly represented its glitzy heart was the Vegas-style perversion of Irish traditional dance called Riverdance. I see by its Web site that the show has booked multi-night engagements over the next several months before audiences from Singapore to Mobile, from Perth to Vancouver. Somebody will be making money during these days of renewed Irish austerity.

Peter Duffy is an author and journalist in New York.