The rise and fall of a great delu­sion

Brian Lucey, Ea­mon Ma­her and Eu­gene O’Brien de­liver a re­mark­able over­view of the ex­cite­ment and the ex­cess of the Celtic Tiger years

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - BOOK REVIEWS - Fin­tan O’Toole

The so-called Celtic Tiger was a dra­matic pe­riod in Ir­ish his­tory when a trou­bled and eco­nom­i­cally back­ward coun­try sud­denly seemed to have dis­cov­ered Aladdin’s lamp and all its wishes came true. It was lib­er­at­ing, ex­hil­a­rat­ing, self-delu­sional and ul­ti­mately dis­as­trous and we are still liv­ing with its dodgy le­gacy. It left us with a morn­ing-after hang­over of ¤206 bil­lion of pub­lic debt – or, if it sounds more cheer­ful, ¤42,500 for ev­ery per­son in the State. Its equal and op­po­site re­ac­tion – the years of aus­ter­ity in which we were sup­posed to purge our sins

Re­call­ing the Celtic Tiger Edited by Brian Lucey, Ea­mon Ma­her and Eu­gene O’Brien

Peter Lang, 368pp, £21 by self-flag­el­la­tion – dam­aged many lives. Yet it is also strangely veiled in am­ne­sia. It hov­ers over us like a haze of em­bar­rass­ment – that mad binge when we made a show of our­selves and that we pre­fer not to re­mem­ber in too much de­tail.

It is not too much of an ex­ag­ger­a­tion to say that the Celtic Tiger it­self was a prob­lem of epis­te­mol­ogy – it was about the ways in which a so­ci­ety could fail to know it­self. Even the name is prob­lem­atic. There was noth­ing Celtic about the long boom in the Ir­ish econ­omy that lasted from 1994 to 2007. And it was not a Tiger econ­omy. The term prop­erly refers to the south­east Asian model of rapid growth that cen­tred on state-led in­dus­tri­al­i­sa­tion. The State was cer­tainly a huge force in what hap­pened in

Ire­land (for both good and ill) but the boom was largely driven by for­eign di­rect in­vest­ment by US-based transna­tional cor­po­ra­tions.

More sig­nif­i­cantly, though, the Celtic Tiger was a phe­nom­e­non that rapidly mythol­o­gised it­self. It was a re­sult of a very spe­cific com­bi­na­tion of fac­tors, from the US tech boom to the long-term im­pact of fem­i­nism in al­low­ing women into the paid work­force (the Ir­ish work­force dou­bled in this pe­riod, while fe­male fer­til­ity halved), from in­ward mi­gra­tion to State in­vest­ment in ed­u­ca­tion, and from the EU sin­gle mar­ket to the sec­u­lar­i­sa­tion of a so­ci­ety in which the Catholic Church was los­ing its in­sti­tu­tional power. But all of this com­plex­ity was set aside. In­stead of Ire­land (in all its in­tri­cacy) we got “the Ir­ish model”, a grossly sim­plis­tic moral to be drawn from this thrilling story of a sud­den meta­mor­pho­sis from eco­nomic bas­ket case to star per­former of glob­al­i­sa­tion. The magic lamps, we told our­selves and the world, were those ob­jects of ne­olib­eral de­sire – tax cuts and “light touch” reg­u­la­tion.

There is still, there­fore, a great deal of work to be done in think­ing about and de­scrib­ing the rise and fall of this great delu­sion. The prob­lem is that a full his­tory of the episode would have to be writ­ten through so many dif­fer­ent lenses: eco­nom­ics, his­tory, pol­i­tics, re­li­gion, cul­ture, gen­der, so­cial class, me­dia and gov­er­nance.

Some­one will even­tu­ally do that, but un­til

they do we have this bril­liantly con­ceived kalei­do­scope of a book, which adopts the form of an A to Z (ac­tu­ally A to W) as a struc­ture in which aca­demic and other ex­perts (rang­ing from the ed­i­tors to Karl Deeter, Constantin Gur­dgiev, Eimear Nolan, Martina Fitzger­ald, Rob Kitchin, Me­gan Greene, Ruth Bar­ton and a dozen others) present su­perbly suc­cinct, ac­ces­si­ble and clearly-writ­ten mini-es­says.

The great ad­van­tage of this form is that it mir­rors the crazily jum­bled-up feel­ing of the pe­riod it­self, in which un­likely jux­ta­po­si­tions were of the essence. (Car­men Kuh­ling and Kieran Keo­hane cap­tured this in their fine 2004 book Col­li­sion Cul­ture.) The en­cy­clo­pe­dic struc­ture, like the Celtic Tiger it­self, gives the il­lu­sion of con­trol while be­ing al­most sur­re­ally eclec­tic. The al­pha­bet runs amok by plac­ing Kitchin on ghost es­tates next to John Mulc­ahy on gas­tro-tourism and Ea­mon Ma­her on golf clubs; tak­ing us on a ver­tig­i­nous slalom from con­tracts for dif­fer­ence to craft beer to credit de­fault swaps; putting wine cul­ture be­side women and the church; and crash­ing Gur­dgiev on the An­glo Ir­ish tapes into Ah­ern, Ber­tie epit­o­mised by Sean Bar­rett.

There are some won­der­ful vi­gnettes along the way, a par­tic­u­lar high­light be­ing John McDon­agh’s splen­didly sar­donic es­say on the “ubiq­ui­tous elec­tric gate, com­plete with neon-blue in­ter­com and key­pad, that be­came the ul­ti­mate sym­bol of the prop­erty-ad­dicted Celtic Tiger ar­riv­istes. Like a con­tem­po­rary ver­sion of the Star Trek swoosh­ing doors, the elec­tric gate em­bod­ied the pre­ten­tious­ness of re­quired pri­vacy as well as tech­no­log­i­cal savvy, be­queath­ing the owner with an aura of so­cial im­por­tance and mon­e­tary wealth.”

There are oc­ca­sional lapses of editorial judg­ment, par­tic­u­larly where the cho­sen au­thor is too close to of­fi­cial­dom – who­ever thought that the Min­is­ter for Fi­nance, Paschal Dono­hoe, was best placed to write the en­try on pub­lic fi­nances showed, shall we say, a cer­tain naivety. Does he men­tion that ¤206 bil­lion debt hang­over? No. He


It in­sists on treat­ing the Celtic Tiger, not as a mere episode in the his­tory of the econ­omy, but as a phe­nom­e­non that en­com­passes fic­tion, cin­ema, po­etry, plays, cof­fee shops, the ar­rival of mo­bile phones, River­dance, ad­ver­tis­ing, buy-to­lets, bond­hold­ers, po­lit­i­cal cul­ture and Ross O’Car­roll-Kelly

de­liv­ers an ardfheis speech: we must “learn from the past, build on the suc­cess of re­cent years” and (he does not quite say) vote Fine Gael. It seems strange, too, that al­though the cen­tral­ity of in­ward mi­gra­tion is ac­knowl­edged in the ed­i­tors’ in­tro­duc­tion, there is no spe­cific en­try for the sub­ject.

Yet this re­mains a ter­rific piece of publishing, and in its own way a fine re­buke to the stu­pid­ity of the “Ir­ish model” that did so much to sus­tain the delu­sions of the pe­riod. It in­sists on treat­ing the Celtic Tiger, not as a mere episode in the his­tory of the econ­omy, but as a phe­nom­e­non that en­com­passes fic­tion, cin­ema, po­etry, plays, cof­fee shops, the ar­rival of mo­bile phones, River­dance, ad­ver­tis­ing, buy-to-lets, bond­hold­ers, po­lit­i­cal cul­ture and Ross O’Car­roll-Kelly. It is a model of how to bring dif­fer­ent per­spec­tives and aca­demic dis­ci­plines to­gether to serve the non-aca­demic pub­lic.

It is read­able and en­ter­tain­ing and (im­por­tantly in th­ese days when aca­demic books are priced so ex­or­bi­tantly that very few civil­ians can buy them) af­ford­able. With its con­stantly shift­ing an­gles of vi­sion, its rig­or­ous ex­clu­sion of jar­gon and its pre­mium on clar­ity, it is full of in­for­ma­tion, in­sight, wit and judg­ment and amounts to the best over­view of the ex­cite­ment and the mad­ness we are likely to get for quite some time. And it just might help us not to do it all over again.


The Celtic Tiger speaks durn­ing the Feile Failte pageant in Tem­ple Bar, Dublin in 1997.

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