By Matthew Hennessey
The Tiger had its hunters almost from the start.
Recall Don Creedon’s play, “Celtic Tiger Me Arse,” staged in New York and elsewhere over a decade ago. It took a decidedly dim view of the Tiger’s impact on Irish life and culture even as the great beast was only just learning to roar.
Damien Dempsey’s 2003 song, “Celtic Tiger,” began: So greedy, greedy, greedy, greedy, greedy. Tell us how you really feel, Damo.
And now, here’s John Banville, the Wexford-born novelist and screenwriter, declaring in the New York Times that the Celtic Tiger is “dead and buried.”
Maybe the term “Celtic Tiger” was too clever by half. For just as there were never any snakes in Ireland for St. Patrick to drive out, there were also never any tigers to roar, apart from those in the Dublin Zoo.
It was coined by an investment banker in the early 1990s with the express purpose of evoking the phenomenal economic successes of the so-called East Asian Tigers: Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan. It may have sold a few bonds, but as a descriptor, the shorthand fell short.
The Asian Tigers achieved their remarkable rates of growth by tapping into an over-abundance of cheap labor to make stuff. Remember when every crummy electronic toy had “Made in Taiwan” on its underside? These were industrial economies, manufacturing cheap consumer goods and selling them at competitive prices in world markets. And they boomed.
Ireland, by contrast, achieved its impressive (and impressively lengthy) economic miracle using an altogether different formula. The first variable in that formula was a corporate tax policy that enticed multinationals like Citco, Dell, Microsoft, and Pfizer to locate significant operations in the Emerald Isle and employ its highly educated, English-speaking workers. The second was its membership in the European Union, which afforded Ireland all the benefits that go with being a grown-up country and not an impoverished backwater.
In short, Ireland became a made member of the international service economy, which is a much more lucrative line of work than selling Bart Simpson t-shirts and clock radios. As should be plain to all by now, however, it is more volatile as well.
But it wasn’t the growth—which is by its nature prone to fits and starts—that was the problem. Economic growth is a good thing, always and everywhere, especially in Ireland, where the only things growing in the 70s and 80s (apart from lapels and mustaches) were the numbers of those leaving and those on dole.
No, the real problem, like so many things in life, was in not knowing how much was too much. After all, it’s never the first drink that does you in, it’s the last.
So let us not forget the facts. The Celtic Tiger lifted Ireland out of the cycle of poverty and emigration that had bedeviled it since independence, and contributed greatly to ending the collective melancholy of a nation of begrudgers.
Ireland’s boom was good. It was great, in fact. It opened the economy. The national population increased for the first time since famine days, as emigrants returned and opportunistic immigrants arrived.
Can you imagine? Do you remember? People actually went to Ireland looking for work. This changed the country utterly. For the very first time, black, brown, and a whole rainbow of colors bloomed among the forty shades of green.
RIP Celtic Tiger. Let us not speak ill of the dead.