Let’s Do the Time Warp

Clair Wills

  • Luck and the Irish: A Brief History of Change c.1970-2000 by R.F. Foster
    Penguin, 228 pp, £8.99, July 2008, ISBN 978 0 14 101765 5

Ireland today is the place you are most likely to be happy. Your desire for a robust and rising standard of living, political freedom, strong bonds with your extended family, a marriage that survives, even a decent climate – all these wishes are most likely to be granted in the Irish Republic. At least this was the case in 2005, when Ireland came top – the UK was 29th – in an Economist survey of ‘quality of life’ in more than a hundred countries. The key to Irish happiness in this account lies in the way the country has managed the transition to a late capitalist economy without – yet – dissolving the traditional bonds of society. Or rather the ‘traditional’ has been pared down to just the right, reassuring dose of community life. Marriage, stripped of its sacramental quality and more recently robbed of many of its tax advantages, has become increasingly irrelevant: in 2002 one sixth of Irish couples with a child under five were unmarried, though a good proportion could still count on a family member to help out with childcare. For all the soulless appearance of the new towns mushrooming outside Dublin, and the endless traffic jams, the Irish still spend less time commuting and more of their social life with their families than people who live in countries with longer histories of industrialisation. (Those of us for whom Sunday lunch with the in-laws is the stuff of horror fiction must assume for the moment that this is a good thing.)

On the other hand, if you hanker after the kind of contentment that results from a slow-moving, patriarchal and religious way of life you will be largely disappointed. As the collective Irish mind concentrates on getting and spending, social life has become almost crusadingly secular. The break-up of the institutional power of the Catholic Church, the advent of mass media, the transformation in attitudes towards and opportunities for women are all consequences (and in some cases also causes) of Ireland’s status as one of the most globalised economies in the modern world. On a number of counts – levels of foreign trade and investment, use of the latest technology, and travel and communication outside Ireland – the country’s economy is now among the most open there is. The familiar portrait of Ireland as a land of emigration has been reversed. In the last ten years, and particularly since the expansion of the EU, the number of refugees, asylum seekers and economic migrants has risen steadily: roughly 10 per cent of the current population was born elsewhere. Ireland can now lay claim to ethnic diversity, along with some less attractive features of rampant capitalism, including a widening gap between rich and poor. And the rhetoric has changed too. For much of Ireland’s post-independence history politicians could appeal, for good and ill, to a common vision of the country’s destiny: Catholic, rural, non-materialistic (hence de Valera’s insistence that the Irish enjoyed not a lower but a ‘less costly’ standard of living) and soon-to-be-united. Now, as in most countries, politicians are elected on the basis of whether they can manage the economy. Ireland today – at least according to Irish development agencies – is like everywhere else in Europe and North America, only better.

In 1980 the news magazine Magill published a report on Irish poverty which stated that just under a million people (out of a population of 3.2 million) were living below the poverty line. Unemployment and emigration soared in the mid-1980s, and the economic crisis went hand in hand with a conservative backlash against social liberalisation. In 1983 the target was abortion; in 1986 divorce. Until 1985 the right to contraception (won in 1979) was limited to married couples. Northern politics suffered from the continuing fall-out of the hunger-strikes and Unionist resistance to the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement. By the mid-1990s the picture couldn’t have looked more different. Ireland’s embrace of the globalised corporate order had brought annual GNP growth rates that touched double figures; in 1992 the gruesome X case, in which a 14-year-old who had been raped was prevented from going to England to terminate her pregnancy, precipitated a change in the law on freedom to travel and access to information about abortion; in 1995 divorce was legalised; in 1998 came the Good Friday Agreement and what looks like peace in Northern Ireland. Though each of these reversals is of a different order, it’s hard to deny that economic prosperity has gone hand in hand with sexual tolerance and political progress.

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