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Off Key

An opera festival and the decline of Ireland.

When Dr. Tom Walsh decided to start an opera festival in Wexford in 1951, the idea seemed not so much whimsical as absurd. Here was a small town on the far southeast coast of Ireland, not particularly accessible even from Dublin. The Irish had always put their genius into words, not music, and the country had little musical tradition to speak of.

But Dr. Tom made it happen. Wexford born and bred, a family doctor and then hospital anesthetist, he was a courteous and charming man, an unostentatiously devout Catholic, and the opera nut to end them all. He would later devote his passion to writing a two-volume work called The Monte Carlo Opera—which is, even by operaphiliac standards, delightfully esoteric—but first he wanted to hear opera in his home town.

While I can’t claim to have been present on the first night in 1951, I was there for Haydn’s L’infedeltà delusa and Verdi’s Luisa Miller in 1969, and formed an addiction. I have returned every year since, which has meant more than 100 operas—some marvelous performances as well as a few stinkers. But it has also meant something else: a highly revealing view of Ireland, through one small town and its people. No country I know has changed so dramatically in that time, one way and then another, for better and for worse.

A sad old story of hunger and oppression seemed to have a happy ending as the twenty-first century began and Ireland emerged into the bright sunshine of modern capitalist prosperity. That included Wexford. As demand for tickets outstripped supply, the festival became a victim of its own success. Eventually, the decision was made to rebuild the opera house. An emotional last party was held there in December 2005, before the bulldozers moved in and a really fine new theater was built. It opened on schedule-in October 2008, just at the moment the Irish economy imploded.

TIME WAS WHEN ships sailed from Wexford for Buenos Aires; but the town I found in 1969 was something of a backwater. As for the country as a whole, it had barely been touched by the startling economic and social transformation of Western Europe since 1945, or even by the twentieth century.

In the long decades he was prime minister, Éamon de Valera wanted the country to be poor but honest, frugal, and pious. He certainly left it poor, with the lowest growth rate in Europe, and pious to the point of theocracy. Four decades ago, the two great churches dominating Wexford were packed for Sunday Mass, and the Catholic bishops were treated with astonishing deference.

If the festival at Wexford was incongruous, it was also appealing. One specialty was finding forgotten operas. Some pieces were forgotten with good reason, but there were also unsavored delights from Donizetti and Tchaikovsky. Then there were singers discovered before they became famous, and too expensive: The Russian baritone Sergei Leiferkus made his Western operatic debut at Wexford in Massenet’s Griséldis in 1982, before he went on to a stellar international career.

By then, Ireland had entered a new age. The decisive moment was joining the European Economic Community in 1973. Pump-primed by endless money from Brussels, the economy grew apace. You could see this in the streets of Wexford, where shops were now full of glossy new goodies, and people buying them. You could see it across the countryside, where new houses were sprinkled promiscuously.

And you could see it at the opera. There was once a faded, shabby-genteel quality to the audience. They seemed to be called Colonel This and Monsignor That, the remnants of the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy or cultivated priests, along with cosmopolitan aesthetes and the odd unlikely Italian aristocrat. Over time, the stalls began to fill with men who looked as if they had made a great deal of money very fast, and their glamorously dressed ladies: Someone unkindly said that Versace had replaced the Virgin as the object of Irish devotion.

For much of the past decade, the pace of change was extraordinary. One-third of all houses in Ireland today were built within the last ten years. The story of how this happened has been told by Fintan O’Toole in his brilliant and horrifying Ship of Fools: How Stupidity and Corruption Sank the Celtic Tiger, and by Simon Carswell in Anglo Republic. For years, Ireland was held up by those who like that sort of thing (see The Economist) as a poster for the deregulated, low-tax free market, while Bertie Ahern, the former prime minister, boasted that “the boom is getting boomier.”

But his boom was fraudulent, a huge speculative bubble inflated by easy credit, reckless house-building, and rocketing property prices. It had to burst, as it did three years ago. In a country of 4.7 million, there are, according to one estimate, about 300,000 houses now standing empty and imminently derelict.

The culprit wasn’t so much the government: Compared with Athens, public finance in Dublin was more or less honest. The problem was the banks, which had run wild, lending anything to anyone. In 1987, Anglo Irish Bank was worth €2 million; 20 years later it had a loan book of €69 billion. Private deals were fueled by lavish entertainment. My favorite single statistic from anywhere these last mad years is that from 2006 to 2009, Anglo Irish Bank spent €200,000 on golf balls. That’s corporate hospitality for you (though it doesn’t say much about the standard of play among the bank’s clients). When the crazy bubble burst, the government impetuously guaranteed the banks, passing their losses over to the Irish taxpayer.

BECAUSE HE DIED in 1988, Tom Walsh was spared the sight of what would happen to his country, and his church. Now the Irish, and Wexford, are dealing with these woes as best they can. By coincidence, Wexford has produced a number of outstanding writers: John Banville, Billy Roche, Eoin Colfer—and Colm Tóibín, to whom I said at this year’s first-night party that things couldn’t be so bad if the bar of the theater was full of people in evening dress paying €95 for a bottle of champagne. This was a little illusory, he suggested. “You can’t get a job in Ireland now and you can’t get a loan. But if you have a job and you don’t need a loan, then you’re fine, though your children have emigrated to Australia.”

Then I found myself talking to Enda Kenny, the Taoiseach or prime minister. He and his Fine Gael party came to power earlier this year in an election that almost obliterated Fianna Fáil, the party of de Valera, Haughey, and Ahern. Since then, Kenny has pulled no punches denouncing both financial corruption and the awful scandal in the Catholic Church, the abuse of children and the long refusal of bishops and the Vatican to acknowledge it. He said gravely that he sees a job ahead for himself: “to give the country back to the people.” It seems like a good idea.

But the last word goes to the Wexford festival, which has given me so much pleasure for so long. Its chairman, Peter Scallan, has met with government officials not only to discuss inevitably precarious finances but, he explains, to set a task for the festival: “to help restore the reputation of Ireland.” That doesn’t sound like a bad idea, either.  

Geoffrey Wheatcroft’s books include The Strange Death of Tory England and Yo, Blair!. This article appeared in the December 1, 2011, issue of the magazine.