In the north west of Ireland, in County Leitrim, near the small town of Drumkeerin, there is a mountain called Corry Mountain. The land on the mountain is boggy, no more than an inch of soil over daub clay; it’s so perennially wet that locals claim to sell their land by the gallon. As is the custom in Ireland, the area is divided into townlands and, no more than one mile wide and three miles long, stretching down the lower slopes to beautiful Lough Allan, is Drumnafaughnan – a mix of forestry and scrub hill farming pasture, containing, I think, three families and their homes.
It was from here in the 1880s that my grandfather left to try his luck in Brooklyn, as a tram conductor, and then as a grocer in Edinburgh. And, if I’m honest, it is here that I feel more at home than anywhere else on earth. That is no weak praise as there are many places I love, but none more so than this selection of boggy fields. You could call it the pull of the earth, and you could suspect, or even fear, that this was going to be a sentimental and maudlin paean to the ould sod, by a second generation Irishman who should know better.
But you would be wrong, because this is written, not in melancholic nostalgia, but in cold blooded anger.
It’s not about some metaphysical attraction to wet earth, it’s about integrity, human beings, and every day life.
Today we learned of the cost of the fiscal insanity that gripped some parts of Ireland and Irish life over the past decade or so. The bail out of Anglo Irish – merely the biggest and most insane of the greed brigade – will cost Ireland £30 billion, £8000 per head, or the cost of running the Irish health service for two years. Fiscal confidence has long gone, there are 300,000 empty houses in a population of 3 million and more than 450,000 unemployed. The country, as Father Ted would have put it, is fecked.
Of course, we can blame the bankers and the financiers, the wide boys who rooked innocents out of their money, the experts who knew just how to milk EU subsidies and buy up Balkan flats on a seemingly never ending buy to let spree. And all of them have their share of the blame. But there is more to the story.
And what is Ireland’s story? What is the truth about the land of saints and sinners, the forty shades of green, the tears of Roisin Dubh?
Well, for those of us still mystifyingly proud to carry an Irish Passport, it’s not a happy tale.
Theoretically escaping, at least partially, from the restrictions of English control, the Free State, and the nascent Republic, had the chance to order its own affairs for the good of its people. Instead, it became a haven of bourgeois politicking, an epiphany of client politics, where small minded business scratched the back of a church that was granted horrifyingly unwarranted temporal power and made full use of it.
The few held the power and the riches, and looked on unconcerned while the many festered in an isolated and repressed country, where De Valera and his ilk preferred an impoverished fiefdom for their own vainglory to an outward looking, confident and expanding, young state.
There was a brief light, economic and social, following on from the changes made by Sean Lemass in the early 60s, the limited attempt to modernise Irish attitudes to business and progress, universal education promulgated by Donagh O’Malley, secularised health care attempted by Noel Brown. But all these attempts at progress were smothered by the church’s fear of reduced control and, ultimately, by the financial greed and total loss of integrity in public service that marked the Haughey years.
So, when, first, European subsidies, and then the so called boom – based in Ireland almost exclusively on property and construction – offered unheard of riches to the Irish population, it is maybe hardly surprising that those who had been barred from wealth for so long now wanted a piece of the action.
Noted Irish economist, David McWilliams, who was ridiculed by foolish politicos and financiers when he foretold the crash some years in advance of its arrival, called those who were blinded by the money – ‘the deck people’ – who had to have a big new four or five bedroom house in a fashionable suburb, complete with garden decking, professional entertainers at their children’s parties and a ‘European’ lifestyle, including the 4×4, the multiple holidays, the au pair and the modishly new career in property, publicity, IT or finance. Roddy Doyle created characters in is fictitious working class suburb of Barrytown who had portfolios of buy to let properties – in a Bulgaria that they could not even place on a map – because it was all the chat in the pub – replacing sport and the weather, and even, in fact, perhaps particularly, that great old Irish standby of political discussion.
Gordon O’Gekko had arrived in Dublin 4 and no one wanted to miss out. Large swathes of the population migrated to the Dublin connurbation, where houses eventually cost up to five or six times the average in the rest of the country. Those who had less inflated wages had to make use of the new infrastructure of roads and services to commute from far distant country towns that were, in a bewilderingly short space of time, surrounded by new huge housing estates that looked for all the world as if they had been helicoptered in from Hertfordshire or Surrey and dropped fully formed in the farmers’ fields.
And it became a frenzy. The more it was pointed out that similarly constructed booms in the past had ended in disaster, the more shrill became the politicians in their denial, the more cavalier they were in the leeway they gave to fly by night financial institutions, and the more desperate huge sections of the population became to grab hold of the tail light of the gravy train before it disappeared down the line. Outlandish numbers of immigrant construction workers were brought in to rush build thousands of houses, which were erected – not to satisfy any realistic demand, but in the hopes of making an even quicker, even bigger buck.
And, after years of being fed delayed gratification, the vast numbers who fell for the instant hit of consumerism, and the politicians who sought to recreate Ireland in the image and likeness of its west European neighbours, contributed to the disaster that is now threatening to overwhelm Irish political and economic life. Those who pursued the West Brit lifestyle, who looked down on the farmers and people in the far west as peasants and also-rans, who believed it was possible to have your cake and eat it – they brought the whole house crashing down – no pun intended, and now seek ways to mitigate their blame and loss.
Angered by today’s bailout, the quotes in the Irish media have been cutting:”As John B Keane wrote in The Field – No priest died in the Famine – the bondholders will make no loss”.And perhaps most acutely:The Celtic Tiger is dead and gone; we squandered our new found wealth like a witless lottery winner.”
But when I think of Ireland, I don’t think of leprechauns and Guinness, of shilleleaghs and jaunting cars, or of Riverdance and U2. Boutique hotels, stags in Temple Bar or Smurfit Golf Estates are not in my viewfinder.
When I think of Ireland, and the pain and suffering to come, I think of the Byrnes, the Davitts, the McHughs, the Gallaghers, the Wynne’s, the McNamas, the Cornyns, aye, and the McPartlands, of my part of North Leitrim.
I know them as people for whom community is in the blood, hospitality is instinctive, hard work is a way of life and integrity – to family and neighbours – is beyond all value. They are folk who, almost literally, scrape a living from unfeasible farms, who support each other in economic ventures, celebrate together, mourn together, and try to do the right thing. There is nothing remotely romantic or sentimental about their daily lives.They work long hours at day jobs and then go out into their boggy fields, for no other reason than to let their children have the choice of whether or not to follow them on to the land. They are ignored by central politicians, tied up in paper by the EU, and patronised by oh so sophisticated city dwellers. Their values are considered old fashioned and their concern to do the right thing is viewed as outmoded. Their county is called remote and their pastimes quaint; their business acumen is undervalued and their principles misunderstood. They benefited little from the boom; a local wag wrote: The Celtic Tiger paid a brief visit to Leitrim but was last seen speeding out of the county with its arse on fire.
It struggled before the boom, and, through no fault of its own, it will struggle in the aftermath, as it copes with unemployment, vacant holiday homes and reduced tourism. But the parish will still gather at the GAA pitch, they will still hold to the best values of their faith, despite their grievous hurt in recent years from that quarter, and they will still be rooted in their land, proud of their place and the way they live there.
Leitrim holds no towering monuments to business power, it is small and depeopled, and remote from the apparent cutting edge of modernity and success, but its people can look the world in the eye and know they have been themselves when others have been less grounded; they can rest assured that they have remained constant to their values; and, as they pay the price for those who were so foolishly sure that they had recreated Ireland in the image and likeness of mammon, they can gain pride from knowing the mess was none of their making.
Proud to be from Leitrim? You better believe it!
Angry for the price its people will pay for others’ greed? Oh yes!