in front of her cottage in Kinvara.
Thirty-one years ago, when Liadain O'Donovan first showed me around
the "west country" of Ireland, we joked that you'd find more black-cassocked priests on the roads than utility poles. There were fewer
cars on the back lanes than horse-drawn carts. Thatched cottages
seemed still to be the standard. And the region's greatest
export was its children. As late as the 1980s as many as two-thirds
of Irish high school graduates emigrated to survive.
Today, Ireland ranks as one of the ten richest countries in the
world in per capita terms. Its economic growth rate is about 6 percent, unemployment
is below 5 percent, its trade surplus is the highest in Europe.
At the same time, the scandals of the 1990s, which revealed rampant
child abuse by Catholic priests who until very recently ran nearly
all the schools, have brought shame and massive disaffection from
the Church. In the wake has come a radical transformation in everything
having to do with daily life in Ireland.
Kinvara is located
in the lush "west country" of Ireland
To travel these days through the west country, in Galway and Clare
counties, is to see a mad dash of unregulated new construction—from
gaudy block and brick two-stories to hives of holiday cottages lined
out along the seaside slopes. The churches have not disappeared,
but no longer is it conceivable that the priest could, with a single
nod, block the sale of a field or a house to a prospective buyer
deemed morally suspect.
What diet fed the unrestrained growth of this so-called Celtic
By most analysis, it was the convergence of three forces:
the collapse of Church control over nearly every element of public and
private life; a near 100-percent literacy rate, which was possibly
the church schools' greatest contribution; and the arrival of a high-tech
information industry in the early 1990s, which turned Ireland into
the primary manufacturing and sales center for American personal computer production
Revelers dance to
live music at a local pub.
Low manufacturing taxes and interest rates, combined with high
language skills, lured American companies and stimulated enormous
growth in service sector spending.
Results? Dublin now claims the most expensive real estate
in Europe, where a simple two-story, four-room frame and stucco
house can go for $1 million. Houses in Kinvara go for half a million
(Phil Moylan, the owner of Winckle's pub there, recently rejected
an offer of 1.2 million euros). Locals and
tourists alike now eat out and demand better food—a pleasant change
from the boiled potatoes and roasted lamb gristle of 30 years ago.
But prosperity has not come without its price. Ireland now suffers the highest alcoholism
rate in western Europe. The newspapers are full of stories about
drunken brawls and highway deaths. And little
towns like Kinvara query themselves endlessly about the fate of
the famous land of artists and poets.