Friday, May 1, 2009


This piece first appeared in The Boston Irish Reporter, Volume 20, Number 5 (May 2009), p. 18.

The economic news out of Ireland may be even more grim than elsewhere in the world. The government itself may be in danger of international bankruptcy. On a much smaller but no less urgent scale, after a giddy decade-and-a-half of riding high on the back of the so-called Celtic Tiger, literally countless individuals who have enjoyed prosperity beyond all imagining may be peering over the precipice of financial ruin. The higher the perch the harder the fall.

More an observer than a prophet, Irish economist David McWilliams began to chronicle both the lustrous coat of the Celtic Tiger and its dark underbelly in his book The Pope’s Children: Ireland’s New Elite, published in 2005. Both entertaining and enlightening, its mostly sardonic tone echoing the work of American political and cultural commentator David Brooks (especially his book Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There), McWilliams’ book dates the turning point in Ireland’s “fortunes”—not so immediately economic as social and cultural—to the visit to the country by Pope John Paul II in 1979. Or perhaps that was the tipping point—the high-water mark of the country’s maintaining at least a nodding recognition of its traditional rural and Catholic self-identity (and accompanying “values”) before the emergence of several dominant new breeds of Irish men and women from the post-Papal floodplain of affluence generated by Ireland’s membership in the European Union.

McWilliams labels one of these emergent breeds “HiCos” (or Hibernian Cosmopolitans): the urban and urbane hybrid survivors of the war between diehard “Hibernians” on the far right wing and free-living “Cosmopolitans” on the far left who fought their battles over abortion, divorce, and immigration during the 1980s and ’90s. In 2005, McWilliams could optimistically posit these suave HiCos—with one foot rooted in the “traditional” camp and the other foot firmly placed “forward”—as the hope for the country’s future, the antidote to the bleak and cynical view of contemporary Ireland projected by the popular mass media, whom he labels the “Commentariat.” McWilliams’ optimism may be considerably diminished now, in light of Ireland’s particularly dire straits relative to the worldwide economic crisis: the future for the HiCos may be as uncertain as the future of the entire country.

Even more dire, however, may be the plight of another of McWilliams’ new breeds, the Decklanders—his name for Ireland’s rapidly increasing suburban population that during the glory years of the Celtic Tiger spread further and further out from Dublin and other city centers into housing estates with newly-constructed homes complete with every modern amenity . . . including American-style back decks. Focusing particularly on a subset that he labels “The Kells Angels,” McWilliams sketches their world thus: “they live in the outer suburbs, clustered around former market towns. For example Kells, Drogheda, Tullamore, Kildare, Naas or Gorey on the east coast, places like Watergrass Hill, Midleton, Carrigaline and Ballincollig around Cork, and towns such as Loughrea, Claregalway, Tuam and Barna in Galway. These are Ireland’s new suburbs and they will be the most vibrant part of the country by 2020, but today they are dormitories which empty out in the morning and fill up again in the evening. The great Irish suburban movie—Irish Beauty—when it is eventually made, will be based here starring an ageing Colin Farrell as a lecherous bank official going through a mid-life crisis.”

Well-educated and gainfully employed in cities as much as a ninety-minute bumper-to-bumper drive away from where they yawn and stretch at dawn and bed down at night, these Kells Angels—their long morning and afternoon commutes distancing them both literally and figuratively from the HiCos heart of Irish matters—may ultimately suffer the hardest fall as a result of Ireland’s drastic economic downturn. And then what?

Who knows? But McWilliams’ book seems to have proven inadvertently prophetic in observing the predicament of this substantial segment of the Irish populace living not only “beyond the Pale” but also beyond their financial means, racking up massive personal debt while relentlessly pursuing the never-ending materialistic dreams of the “Expectocracy”—a society in which everyone is middle-class and wanting to “trade up”: “I want the biggest fridge, the best holiday, the newest car, the loudest sound system, the healthiest food, the best yoga posture . . .”

In this respect, the “Kells” that McWilliams projects in The Pope’s Children could hardly be farther from the territory that poet Peter Fallon inscribed in “The Lost Field” more than a quarter-century ago . . . almost a decade before the Celtic Tiger came roaring into being. Read literally, Fallon’s poem is about a common-enough phenomenon in the through-other world of rural Irish property boundaries and deeds—a purchase-and-sale agreement for a parcel of land that may or may not exist: “Somewhere near Kells in County Meath / a field is lost, neglected, let by common law.” Bought from the hard-drinking and hard-nosed Horse Tobin, this unaccounted-for piece of outlying real estate has potentially costly ramifications for Fallon’s small-farming relatives who paid for it in good faith. For Fallon himself, committed to taking over the family farm in the townland of Loughcrew after returning home to Oldcastle from studying at Trinity College Dublin (“I think it exquisite,” he wrote in the title poem of his 1983 volume Winter Work, “to stand in the yard, my feet on the ground, / in cowshit and horseshit and sheepshit”), that missing plot of land is as much emblematic as actual: “My part in this is reverence.”

Originally included in Winter Work and reprinted in News of the World (Fallon’s selected poems published in both American and Irish editions, in 1993 and 1998 respectively), “The Lost Field” clearly expresses a valuing of property of a much different order than McWilliams’ “Kells Angels” would seem capable of by the turn of the new century. For Fallon, ownership is not mere material acquisitiveness but a sacred trust involving a relationship between person and place that has little connection to financial investment or commercial worth:

Thinks of all that lasts. Think of land.
The things you could do with a field.
Plough, pasture, or re-claim. The stones
you’d pick, the house you’d build.

Don’t mind the kind of land,
a mess of nettles even,
for only good land will grow nettles.
I knew a man shy from a farm
who couldn’t find a weed
to tie the pony to.

Looking to settle down not to trade up, seeking permanence not instant gratification, Peter Fallon plainly subscribes to certain “values” that, according to David McWilliams’ view of Ireland as the indiscriminately omnivorous Celtic Tiger, would soon become as lost to the Irish “Expectocratic” sensibility as that rumored “lost field” itself. “Imagine the world / the place your own windfall could fall,” Fallon writes, transforming the literal plot of land into an abstraction, an idea . . . or an ideal of unassuming and therefore, perhaps, more contented and more fulfilling living. Committing himself to the small world of Kells and environs, Fallon concludes his poem: “I’m out to find that field, to make it mine.” Is it too late for any of McWilliams’ Kells Angels to stake a similar modest claim?

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