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Do the Irish love their misery? The Los Angeles Times thinks so!

14 October 2012

As someone who arrived in Dublin 3 weeks ago I have been fascinated over the last year to try and get to grips with the country’s history: ancient and modern. This week I came across an intriguing article in the LA Times, which says that although the Irish love misery like no-one else, optimism is in the air again.

DUBLIN, Ireland — There are no people on Earth as romantic as the French. No one is punctual like the Swiss. The Germans have defined a sense of order. The Italians know how to eat. And no one, I mean no one, does misery like the Irish.

Ireland’s well-chronicled story of rags to riches to rags again is a cautionary tale of the early 21st century. A country reared on hardship, famine and oppression has, after a brief turn in the economic sun, been cast back into the misty gloom of struggle.

The columnist Andrew McCarthy gives us some autobiography of when he arrived in a poor and gloomy Ireland in the 80s, though when travelling and enjoying Ireland was very cheap. He then returned over a decade later when the Celtic Tiger was in full swing and although there was economic boom, Ireland was losing one of its richest traits. McCarthy writes…

When I finally returned, the economic upturn known as the Celtic Tiger had begun its voracious assault on the land — a change that seemed at first as miraculous as it did unlikely.

Within a few years at the turn of this century, Ireland began to transform from a charming bog to the poster child of European Union dreams. Farmers put down their beloved Guinness and picked up Pinot Grigio. Dublin morphed from a dank backwater into a sophisticated metropolis. Helicopters were chartered to fly across the country for a lunch of fresh Galway oysters at Moran’s, and then back to the posh suburb of Dalkey in time for dinner. Property prices soared, and credit was easy. The going was good.

I too succumbed to the fever that was gripping the land and bought a home. Yet from my outsider’s perspective, something in the auld sod was being lost along the way to prosperity. The pubs banned smoking, but the warm welcome also seemed to go up in smoke. The playful twinkle in the eye and the friendly slag were replaced by an aloof disinterest. The good-natured blarney had become boasting bluster.

Neither people nor countries get rich quick gracefully, I concluded. I was glad the Irish were finally having their moment in the sun, but for me, the place had begun to lose its magic.

And then the global recession hit…

And it all went to hell. Seemingly overnight, housing prices plummeted (and are down 55% from their height in 2007). Unemployment recently hit 14.9%. Many of the Eastern European laborers who had flooded the land have gone home.

The Irish have been left alone to nurse a vicious hangover.

Yet in the midst of all this hardship something strange has begun to happen: The restaurants appear packed again, pubs are overflowing onto the street, there’s laughter around town. Could the Irish really be rising up and dusting themselves off?

McCarthy heads off to some local pubs to find out the answers and hear that despite the financial struggle something is being reborn. Dubliner Jim Lyng puts it like this:

“We completely lost the run of ourselves during the boom,” he tells me. Then, sounding like the psychologist he is, Lyng continues: “No one trusted it could last, and in a certain way it was a relief when it finally burst. And what’s happening now, with the struggle again, in a certain way we love it — I’m not talking about the people who paid too much for a home and can’t afford their mortgage — but there’s something in who we are as a people; we’re comfortable with struggle.”We’ve come home to ourselves.”

Another local Dub puts it like this:

“There’s a sense now that we’re all in this together…There’s a palpable sense of community now.”

There’s also a sensation around town that people are doing more than just making the best of a bad situation. The city center seems alive in a way that feels almost counterintuitive. New businesses are opening; an entrepreneurial spirit appears to be taking hold.

McCarthy talks to a local restaurateur and salon owner who are doing very well in the downturn. He then heads off to Mayo to see if the rest of the country shares the same optimism.

Just outside the postcard village of Cong in County Mayo — is at one of the favorite playgrounds of the Celtic Tigers. Inside the wrought-iron gates I glide past the golf course and sweep over the gentle rise until the view of Ashford Castle stops me in my tracks. Dating to 1228, later owned by the Guinness family, the soaring gray stone turrets and formal gardens, home to Ireland’s oldest falconry, Ashford became a symbol of Ireland’s excessive success. And to look at the manicured lawns and full parking lot, the genteel life at Ashford continues.

“At the high-end level, there is huge demand,” general manager Niall Rochford says. “If I had more suites, I’d be filling them every night.” Yet the once-bustling heliport sits empty. “We used to need air traffic control out there; choppers were circling and hovering. But I can’t remember the last time an Irishman got out of a helicopter. We’ve all come back to a level of reality.”

Rochford shrugs and then leans toward me. “We lost some of the caring that the Irish are famous for,” he says. “It’s back to basics, and that’s a good thing.”

He discovers that whilst there is some optimism, the west of Ireland is still feeling the recession pretty hard. He then heads back once more to Dublin and to local man Jim Lyng who rather pertinently says:

“What you have to understand is that for the Irish our joy is not something that’s subsequent to misery, the way it might be in other nationalities who go through great hardship or tragedy. Our misery and relationship to suffering is so ingrained, so long-standing, so imbued in who we are that it coexists with everything else. Consequently, we can laugh at anything, including ourselves.”

“There is certainly no promise that things are going to turn around, but on a good day, when the sun is shining and a fair wind blows, I would take a chance and go out on a limb to suggest that there is the potential for hope.”

For a people who love their misery as much as the Irish, it sounds almost like a guarantee.

What do people think? Do the Irish love their misery?

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