Beautiful but broke
DUBLIN — Ireland’s capital long ago earned the nickname, ‘Dirty Dublin,’ but its dirtiness this August seems metaphorical rather than actual. I took a cycle around the city today, pedalling from Rathmines to the Docklands to Rialto. The clear skies and a temperature of 17C (63F) passed for a heatwave, and I found the city quiet, green, and almost regal. I’ve lived out of Ireland for ten years and, though I have many Oprah-style issues with my hometown, I enjoy rediscovering it with each return journey. It’s small and you can visit most of it on a bike in an afternoon. You can see why it appeals to tourists.
But hardship isn’t far beneath the surface. Yesterday my mom and I got a taxi to a local restaurant, which we wouldn’t normally do, except that she’d twisted her ankle. A huge cab brought us there, so big we had to speak up to be heard, and you could tell it had been bought in the expectation of transporting far larger groups than our mother-daughter party. The driver said business was tough, recounting how in the two hours up to that point, he’d earned just €5. A different taxi took us home and that driver was more vocal. He said he struggled to bring in €500 a week, and added, rather ominously, that since Christmas, ten Irish taxi drivers had committed suicide.
Yet I can recall queuing for two hours on a Saturday night on Dame Street to get a taxi home, when I was a teenager. Then, there weren’t enough taxis: often my friends and I would share a cab with strangers, and sometimes we’d choose to walk rather than wait, arriving at our houses teetering in our heels at dawn. At that time a taxi license cost £85,000. In 2000 the market was deregulated, and licenses became cheaper, which meant that those who’d purchased the expensive ones now competed with drivers who’d paid much less. Soon, too many taxis were roaming the Dublin streets. The taxi-drivers’ hardship arises not just from the country’s financial woes, but also from government policy.
To accompany my rediscovery of Dublin this time round, I’m reading the greatly informative, edifying and aptly named, ‘Ship of Fools’ by Fintan O’Toole, subtitled, ‘how stupidity and corruption sank the Celtic Tiger’. It’s utterly brilliant. O’Toole identifies, confirms and elucidates many of the things I’ve felt about Ireland (gleaned mainly from overheard parental mutterings), and which, as I grew up, led me to feel powerless.
O’Toole’s observations on our leaders’ lack of eloquence cause me to rethink the criticisms of Brian Cowen I made in an earlier post. I was surprised at his incoherence, which seemed so disappointing coming from a leader, but now I wonder if it was planned. If so it would fall in with tradition, for O’Toole remarks that in order to bewilder listeners, Cowen’s immediate predecessor Bertie Ahern ‘underplayed his own keen intelligence, sometimes deliberately resorting to gibberish, not caring if if make him look obtuse or inarticulate.’
O’Toole makes some sharp points about the Irish: ‘The Irish electorate showed an extraordinary degree of tolerance towards politicians who were known to have engaged in dodgy dealings … [T]he truth was that many voters didn’t greatly care.’
Or again, ‘The real wonder was not that fraudsters got elected but that more politicians did not claim to be crooks in order to get elected. There had been a time in ireland when it was a political asset to have served time behind bars for Sinn Fein. In the Celtic Tiger era, it was an asset to have been behind bars for Me Fein [Irish for ‘Myself’].’
The government that demolished the Celtic Tiger is still in place, along with many of its corrupt systems and
structures. Ireland’s future, I’m afraid, seems grim.
If that doesn’t cheer you up, I plan a post on Leitrim during this holiday. It’s my mother’s home county, an isolated and gorgeously scenic region that experienced a large amount of development in the past decade. Its fields (some of them) were replaced by housing estates, which in turn were a source of tax breaks for builders. At least 30% of houses there now sit vacant.