Erin Go Bust

By John Banville, the author of the novels Eclipse, The Untouchable, The Sea and The Book of Evidence (THE NEW YORK TIMES, 16/10/08):

In the ravening years of the Celtic Tiger we had a dinner-party competition to define the figure most representative of the suddenly prosperous Ireland we so bafflingly found ourselves in. Someone came up with “a non-tax-paying businessman’s trophy wife.” This seemed right, and as time went on we added more and more details; at last count we had arrived at “a non-tax-paying businessman’s trophy wife driving her 14-year-old daughter to her drug rehabilitation session in an S.U.V. at 60 miles an hour down a bus lane while speaking on her cellphone, smoking a cigarette and making a rude gesture at a passing cyclist.” Over the past couple of weeks, however, the game has lost its savor. As one dinner guest murmured, “That poor little girl.”

The old saw “safe as houses” no longer cuts. And money in the bank is no longer “money in the bank.” We did not think the system could fail, but late last month government officials, in a dawn announcement, told us they had been compelled to give a 400-billion-euro guarantee to the banks, which were running out of money. It has been estimated that if the banks have to call in that guarantee, it will bankrupt the country for the next 37 years. And it will get worse.

In Ireland we live in a 30-year time warp. What for most of the rest of the Western world was “the ’60s” did not arrive for us until the 1990s. Indeed, the start of our Age of Aquarius can be dated to that week in the spring of 1992 when the news broke in Ireland that a prominent and popular churchman, Bishop Eamonn Casey, had carried on a long affair with an Irish-American woman, and that he had a 17-year-old son by her. It was the first of a series of religio-sexual scandals to be exposed here, each one worse than its predecessor.

The bishop had been a pillar both of church and state — he was a ubiquitous presence during Pope John Paul’s visit to Ireland in 1979, but he had also done much to highlight the plight of the urban homeless — and his downfall should have been a disorienting shock to a country that was proud of being 95 percent Catholic. However, all we knew was that the church’s centuries-long stranglehold upon our necks had suddenly been loosened. Freed, we did what all free men like best to do: we started making money, and spending it. The ’90s and the first half of the noughties were our coming-of-age party. Oh, how we roistered.

And now, as Nancy Pelosi observed, the party is over. That “poor little girl” will be far more emblematic of the coming years than her appalling mother was of the past decade and a half.

These are strange days in Ireland, though for once no stranger, it seems, than they are anywhere else in the world. Those of us old enough to have lived through it are reminded of the Cuban missile crisis: that nightmarish sense of being suspended somehow in midair, looking down upon ourselves and our poor, fragile world in wonderment and slow terror. Can this really be happening? Can all that wealth really have vanished so quickly, so comprehensively?

And yet there is, too, a curious trace of wistfulness in the air. We seem to be asking if it was really so bad in those days before Bishop Casey liberated us. Were we, if not happier, then at least more content, when we were poor? Did we not behave more courteously toward each other — did we not more readily forgive each other and ourselves for our failings? Shall we not perhaps regain something of the “real” Ireland when the suddenly toothless tiger is dead and buried? As our mothers used to say to us children when we had lost something, “You weren’t meant to have it.” Grim comfort.

One feels most sympathy for the young, who have known only tigerish days. How will they cope with what now seems certain to come? Again the dole queues, the mass emigration, the grind and grayness of life lived from hand to mouth. Poor little girls, poor little boys.