Tuesday, March 07, 2006

"The Pope's Children," by David McWilliams

David McWilliamsOne of the many strange things about how much Ireland has changed in this, the Celtic Tiger Era, is how poorly we understand it. We look back on the Old Ireland of the Constitutional Crusades and the Abortion Referenda and the weeping emigrants on the boat back to England after Christmas at home, and we look now at the New Ireland of the snarling traffic, the trendy cafés, the gaping maw of the property market and we think: How in damnation did we get from that to this? And where will it all end up?

David McWilliams attempts to answer all that in his book, The Pope’s Children, which was a massive best-seller before Christmas and is still charging off the shelves. The first three-quarters or so of the book are a tour-de-force, but the conclusion is weak and one of the basic premises either worryingly insightful or else deeply, deeply flawed. Whatever, as a book it’s a must read for anyone that has an interest in who the Irish are now, and where they are going.

McWilliams made his name as an economist of course, and wrote his name in letters of fire across the consciousness of the current active generation (The Pope’s Children of the title, those that were born around the time of the papal visit in 1979) when he confidently opined some years ago that the house price boom was built on sand and a massive crash was in the post. That crash may still be in the post, but it hasn’t arrived yet, and the chance existed between when McWilliams said it first and now for some smart boys to have got in and out of the property game and made a tidy packet in between time. Therefore, McWilliams is hated on two sides; by those that took his advice, and are now even further away from owning their own homes than ever, and by those that did make the investment and spent many sleepless nights wondering if they would be condemned to Ballier or the ‘Noggin for the rest of their days, unable to unload the houses they bought on a flyer. And it’ll be a while yet before people forgive that level of a fright.

All of which is unfair on McWilliams, of course. He’s an economist, not a prophet or visionary of the future. But in this, his first book, McWilliams is economist second but sociologist first – for the first two hundred pages of his book McWilliams takes us through Ireland as she is and not as we would want her to be, and a deeply depressing trip it is too. The growing majority of the Irish are now what McWilliams terms “Decklanders,” meaning people that live in those awful suburbs which now surround Dublin, starting as far north as Drogheda and Dundalk, sweeping West to take in great swathes of Meath and Kildare, and lurching south taking lumps from Carlow, Kilkenny, Wicklow and Wexford. They are all Dublin now, more or less, and, if the Irish were amphibious, no doubt there would be floating houses in a commuter belt out in the Irish Sea. As McWilliams points out, one of the great Irish put-downs, “blow-in,” no longer applies. We are all blow-ins now, as even dyed in the navy-blue wool Dubs uproot and more to Ratoath and Kells.

McWilliams outlines, in ghastly detail with a particular flair for the grotesque, just what it’s like to live in this strange commuter-ville, to spend so much of your life in a car, breakfasting on Nutri-grain and jumbo breakfast rolls, and spending weekends tramping around Woodies and B&Q trying to find some geegaws that will make the price of your property appreciate. Appreciation is about the one thing we do appreciate; every other thing that we took as a core value in other years – home, faith, fatherland – are all more or less by the wayside.

What separates McWilliams’ polemic from the gassing that that goes on over the ciabatta and cappuccino in the coffee bars of Ranelagh, Sandymount, Donnybrook and Kiliney by the sea-shore is that McWilliams backs up his argument. When the chattering classes discuss how Ireland has changed they’re inclined to look at it at the level of the soul – an interesting stance in a supposedly post-religious society. They talk about the fall of Bishop Casey, the clerical child-abuse scandals, something that happened once on the Late Late Show or those twin shibboleths of our times, our wonderful standard of education and the warmth of the Irish welcome for the executives of the multinational conglomerate. McWilliams ignores all that, and takes Deep Throat’s advice to Woodward and Bernstein – he follows the money.

When McWilliams outlines Deckland in its full horror, he has statistic after statistic to back it up. There is a huge gulf between what the Irish think they want and the reality of our desires. For instance, health is one of the great bugaboos of Irish politics, and will certainly be an issue at the next election. However, the stats show that the Irish spend more annually on sweets than they do on health insurance, suggesting that if the Irish were true to themselves, politicians would be better off promising Curly Wurlies and Crunchies instead of cancer screening and clean hospitals. The figures never lie.

How ironic, then, that McWilliams should ignore the figures in the final quarter of the book, and choose to abandon all reason to paint a picture of some sort of 21st Century Celtic Shangri-La populated by Hiberno-übermensch that will save us from the ersatz soulless horror of Deckland. McWilliams identifies what he terms the HiCos, the Hibernian Cosmopolitans, as the antithesis of Deckland – Micko to Deckland’s Heffo, ying to Deckland’s yang. The HiCo is a beautiful synthesis of the traditional Irish aspirations like our own language and our identity and our claiming a place in the world with the fact that our returned immigrants can now lace these traditional values with the cosmopolitanism that they picked up in London, Manhattan and Sydney. He draws a blissful image of the typical HiCo dropping the young fella off at his local Gaelscoil, stopping off for a free-trade coffee, making a few deals with a laptop hooked up a mobile phone, cooking the dinner with entirely organic vegetables and then settling down en famille to watch Laochra Gael on TG4, which this week features Bobby Doyle of Tipperary, the Holycross Hercules.

Up to a point, Lord Copper. McWilliams fails to explain just how these HiCos exist so separately from the heaving, sweaty mass, stuck on the M50, eating Tayto and listening to the Last Word. The only possible explanation is that HiCos have so much wedge that they have risen above the herd, just as the super-wealthy always do. But wealth is not the same as value – the wealthy are currently doing the Gaelscoil thing and the free-trade thing and the organic market thing and the supporting the GAA thing because these have become the fashionable things to do. Once the wind changes, so will the wealthy as they chase the latest thing. Evelyn Waugh makes all this quite clear in those marvellous novels he wrote between the wars – look out for them. Decline and Fall, and Vile Bodies. The names and locations change, but the fundamental human emotions and weaknesses does not.

The HiCo does not eat organic vegetables for his dinner while the Decklander cooks waffles and Donegal Catch because the two are operating from different value systems – if a Decklander has to get up at half-five, drop the kids into the crèche, drive in to work, work a full day, go back out to the suburb, pick the kids up again, get home and then start cooking the dinner at eight in the evening, he or she will do what’s quickest, and will not have time to stop off at the Farmers’ Market in Dún Laoghaire to buy potatoes that were fertilised by actual shite. Equally, if someone has a king-Hell mortgage to pay off, they’re not going to spend a tenner on a small little bageen of spuds at the Farmers’ Market when they could by a hundredweight in Dunnes’ for twenty-five yo-yos. Money talks, bullshit walks. That’s the lesson of life. Decklanders do not live in those beautiful HiCo aportments in Portobello, D8, that McWilliams describes so lovingly in his final chapters because they don’t want to – it’s because they can’t afford to, and no other reason.

So close but no cigar then to David McWilliams, but then trying to identify what’s happened to Ireland in the first place and then posit circumstances where it all has a happy ending isn’t the easiest conjuring trick in the book. Shame on him for never venturing outside The Pale as well, except for one story about property-aware scallywags in Cork city. For An Spailpín, that was the most worrying thing about the book – not that McWilliams did not leave The Pale, but that he saw no need to, that the entire country is being constantly drawn in to the capital.

A discussion for another day, perhaps. In the meantime, the only thing to say about The Pope’s Children is that it must be read. Flawed it may be, but the discussion on who we are is one we put off too much, and McWilliams’ book is an ideal place to start.

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