23 July 2009

Slouching Tiger

Dublin July, 2009

What a fascinating time to be in Ireland.

Few people realize that in the last fifteen years, the country has experienced cataclysmic changes. Having visited every two years or so since the turn of the millennium, I've been uniquely poised to observe those changes. Sometimes, outsiders see these things more clearly than locals.

This trip, I'm tuning in to the swan song of the Celtic Tiger, whose death knell, I'm told, has officially been ringing since 2007. It's got me thinking: as the Irish economy tanks, what's the public sentiment towards the country's enormous recent immigrant population?

I've got my ear cocked for any audible notes of xenophobia.

Here's a brief primer on Ireland these past few years: In the mid-nineties the country offered huge tax incentives to companies like Intel, Dell and Microsoft. Those companies brought with them plentiful jobs and high wages - to a population that not long before fled the country in search of any decent work prospects. Unemployment was so high at one point that according to UN standards, martial law should have been in effect.

But with the new tech jobs came a tsunami of wealth. Building projects abounded. My first trip here, I could scarcely count all the cranes angling across the Dublin skyline. Property values skyrocketed. Conversations revolved around the unbelievable prices houses were fetching - sometimes up 200% in just a handful of years.

Following in the wake of the tech wealth came massive immigration, to an historically homogenous nation. Ireland did not exactly abound in diversity. To illustrate, take my husband. The first black person he ever saw in person was Phil Lynott, lead singer of Thin Lizzy. Heads turned everywhere the star went, as much for his race as for his celebrity. Different-looking people, let alone foreigners, you could count on two hands. But as Ireland became known as a financial success story, people from Poland, China, the Philippines, Nigeria began arriving in droves. By my second trip here, in 2002, you had to make an effort to find an Irish drinks server or cashier. It seemed as if the Irish were no longer willing to take service jobs.

So what were all the Irish doing? According to my observations circa 2005, they were shopping. Nearly every person on the street made like a pack mule, loading themself down with precious cargo from the shopping centers and high street. From what I could tell, an enormous vacuum opened up in the country as the influence of the Catholic Church waned, thanks to unsettling public recognition of widespread sexual abuse by priests. The void had to be filled by something, and rampant consumerism seemed to fit the bill. With shopping becoming the national past time, what a great time that was to scour the local charity (i.e. thrift) shops. I couldn't afford what the locals were splurging on, the dollar getting reamed by the Euro, but I could afford the cast-offs.

Then in the last few years, our correspondents abroad started sending hard-to-believe reports that the robust Irish economy had begun to seriously falter. Before we arrived, someone told me that 150 people had recently lined up to apply for a once-lowly cashier's job at a convenience store. Apparently nearly ten percent of the population has been laid off of late. And so this time around, as I packed my suitcases for Ireland, I wondered: would there be palpable resentment towards foreigners now competing for scarce jobs? It seemed like a perfect storm.

I've got two more weeks here to read the headlines, snoop around and engage friends and strangers alike in conversation. And I wonder: will my American viewpoint on racism distort my observations here? Will Irish natives even be able to recognize racism on their home turf?


  1. Wow what a great blog! Im dying to hear the final thought on the matter now you are back on neutral sod..... dont leave us hangin!

  2. Thanks Jon! I'm working on getting viewpoints from some of the recent non-Irish arrivals. Stay tuned...