The village of Sallins in County Kildare, Ireland, lies on a stretch of road with two stone bridges — one over a railroad built in the 1840s, the other over a canal a quarter-millennium old. The bridges, canal, and railroad are sturdy and remain in use, but now they sit in the shadow of a modern office complex, a stillborn child of the recent economic boom. It opened just in time for the crash and instantly became a graffiti-covered derelict.
Ireland seems to specialize in this smashing together of the ancient and the modern. Just a brief drive from my house in Sallins, a new Starbucks overlooks medieval ruins, and a thatch-roofed pub has a satellite dish. But many of the new features are destined for a short shelf life. The country has seen the same troubles as my native United States — layoffs, bailouts, bubbles, and cutbacks — and the vacant office buildings reinforce the picture of desperation. Talk to the people, though, and a more complex picture comes into view.
The Irish have a lot in common with Americans, and not just because our globalized culture has everybody listening to Beyoncé and talking about the series finale of Lost. To a Missouri boy like me, many things seem familiar: faces and last names, crops and churches, country music stations and county fairs. This is where much of rural America comes from, the original of the species. In other ways, of course, Ireland is a European nation, with nationalized health care, coalition governments, no death penalty, and no guns.
And when it comes to attitudes toward economic hard times, the Irish could not be less American, owing to the country's unusual modern history. Ireland’s stark landscape of windswept plains and ancient monoliths draws legions of tourists, inspires New Age records, fantasy literature, and inspirational calendars. But we see those ruins out of context. When built, they were surrounded by towns, farms, and a cold rainforest like Oregon’s today. In medieval times, Ireland was a civilized and densely populated country compared to most of Europe. Even after the land was conquered and the forests felled, as many as 8 million people lived here — almost twice as many as today. Over the last 200 years, the populations of most countries increased dramatically — Britain’s by seven-fold, America's by a factor of 50. Ireland’s was cut by almost half.
The most important reason was the Famine, of course, and you can still hear the capital F in today’s Ireland. But that epochal crash was just the worst chapter of a history that emptied the land and made Ireland the world’s most famous exporter of sad songs and refugees. Perhaps no other people but the Jews have been so defined by tragedy and exodus.
In the U.S. and around the world, the descendants of the Irish multiplied until they vastly outnumbered the population of Ireland itself, and many retained an (often sentimentalized) love for their ancestral homeland. It’s the reason so many cities celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, why Ireland became such a popular tourist destination as the Land that Time Forgot. Even when Ireland’s cultural exports expanded beyond the Quiet Man stereotypes to U2 and The Commitments, the country retained its image of charming poverty.
Poverty looks better in memoirs or through the tour bus window. When my wife moved to County Clare in the 1970s, indoor plumbing and electricity were new and still not universal. Potatoes and cabbage really were the staple foods, and pubs and gambling houses were more common than libraries or grocery stores.
Perhaps surprisingly, then, most older people I talk to remember those days fondly. They recall a life that few modern people have experienced, spending the days working in the company of family and friends. They speak with pride of being able to provide their own food and fuel. They say that neighbors helped each other through the lean times, weaving a dense web of indebtedness. They too might be sentimentalizing a life most of us would find harsh, but they also tend to agree that in its prosperity, Ireland has lost something precious.
During the 20th century, the modern world slowly crept in, until most Irish had cars and televisions, and cracks began to appear in the old culture. Contraception was legalized in 1978, homosexuality in 1988, divorce in 1995. Then in the 1990s, a number of computer companies settled in Ireland, and the unthinkable happened.
In just a few years, Ireland went from being one of the poorest of Western nations to one of the richest, with double-digit annual growth some years. For the first time in centuries, poor immigrants flooded into Ireland, mostly Slavs who filled the service sector. Land prices in our area doubled, doubled again, and doubled yet again. Villages swelled with housing developments — the population of Sallins quadrupled in a decade. Traffic jams filled the newly built highways, traditional pubs remodelled as trendy nightspots. It was as if the whole country had won the lottery.
The shake-up gave a boost to other changes that were already in the works. It dealt a final blow to the Troubles with Northern Ireland, effectively ending a thousand years of conflict. It did the same for the Catholic Church’s once-uncontested power. By European standards, Ireland remains devout: abortion remains illegal, state schools are Catholic, and the national television stations take breaks for vespers. When my bus passes a church, half the passengers still make the sign of the cross. But most remember the Church’s sometimes abusive history, and few today rue the breaking of its political power.
But even the newfound excess was frugal by American standards. The Irish use less energy per capita than most Western European nations, and half of the energy per capita as the average American. Personal savings remain much higher in Ireland than in the U.S. Personal debt has increased, but only because so many acquired new mortgages in the last decade.
More significantly, few people here saw the boom as normal or permanent. No leaders announced grandiose plans for a 21st-century Irish Age, or invested their new wealth in forming a global empire. As religious as Ireland has been, no one decided that Ireland was now the chosen nation of God. In short, the Irish did not react as many of my own countrymen did to the rising economic fortunes of the U.S.
Most Americans don’t imagine themselves to have lived through a boom of their own, but they have — just one that has lasted a human lifetime, so few people now remember frugality. The current crisis has left many Americans feeling helpless and outraged: this isn’t supposed to happen to us. The Irish make no assumptions, and now that lean times have returned, any older Irish person remembers how to live through them.
Living on an island makes Ireland more vulnerable to a depression, fuel shortage, or food crisis, and yet the Irish seem more prepared to endure it. Agrarian self-sufficiency ran too deep, too recently to be fully abandoned. Many people here grow gardens, and until recently it was common for schools and hospitals to have a garden outside to feed the students and patients. Cities and towns are compact to the point of claustrophobia, so arable land is never far away. Public transportation is widespread and carries no stigma of poverty. Perhaps most importantly, everyone seems willing to help even distant relatives — and if they live on the island, they are never far away.
Finally, much of the old infrastructure is still functional, or could be put back into service again soon, and could last for centuries after the boom’s plastic and plywood have collapsed. The railroads still run through Sallins, and could be electrified or horse-drawn if needed. The old canal barges may be lying on the banks with trees growing through them, but new ones could be made. The 250-year-old bridges are used every day with little sign of wear. They were built before the throwaway world was even imagined.
No one in Ireland would find a post-crash world pleasant or easy, but their culture might allow them to cope better than most. Traditional Ireland, the culture that older people remember and that still exists all around, was a post-crash world, its institutions and customs shaped by the Famine experience. The boom swept away the uglier aspects of the old order — the institutional abuse, the Troubles — but did not fully replace the qualities that older people here miss.
Many Irish see austerity not as the end of the world but as the hangover after the party, after which life will go back to normal. They have been here before. This is where they lived.
Brian Kaller is a former newspaper editor who now lives in rural Ireland. He has written for the American Conservative, the Dallas Morning News, Front Porch Republic and other publications. He is chair of a County Kildare ecological group, writes a weekly column for his local newspaper, and blogs at www.restoringmayberry.blogspot.com.
This article is reprinted with permission from Big Questions Online, a publication of the Templeton Foundation, which appears at www.bigquestionsonline.com .