An Ireland of Open Spaces, Closed Horizons


August 15, 1991|By RICHARD REEVES

Glandore, Ireland -- "Brigadoon,'' said one of the Americans my wife and I met during the two weeks we rented a house overlooking the little harbor here. It is so pretty, so slow and so foreign that perhaps it did fade back in to the mists, like the mythical village in Scotland in the old Lerner and Loewe musical, when we left to return to what we are so sure is the real world.

Mythical or real, Ireland, isolated from New York and California by time zones, is certainly a time zone of its own. Or, you could say, many Irish prefer the past or its pace. The country may not be in decline, but many of its people seem to prefer stasis. The little island nation that provided so many of America's best people is, ironically, now almost exactly the opposite of the United States in many ways and attitudes.

Americans worship ''growth'' and we trust free-market capitalism provide it. The Irish, though, suffered so much over the centuries from brutally applied capitalism that they tried to create a kind of free-enterprise socialism -- a form of capitalism with a human face.

They failed: An underdeveloped nation cannot afford an overdeveloped welfare state. The unemployment rate in the city of Cork right now is 37 percent. In the city of Galway, which looks prosperous with European tourists, it is 32 percent. In Charlestown, in County Mayo, where 60 years ago my wife's parents left for America, it is more than 60 percent.

''What did Paddy do in Ireland?'' I once asked my mother-in-law, Bridget Ruddy Vesey, about a friend from her village, Bangor Eris.

''Do?'' she said. ''He didn't do anything. There was nothing to do. That's why we all came to America.''

''Tell Bridy there's nothing left here,'' said a long-ago friend of hers, Lally Cuffe, who lives just a couple of hundred yards from the ruined stone cottage where Bridget Ruddy, now of New York City, was born and grew up. ''There isn't a potato in the ground in Bangor Eris.''

Most of the people are gone, too. The views are beautiful, emerald and empty, where once there were farms and schools, where men worked and children laughed. The population of Ireland, including the north, still part of Great Britain, is less than half what it was in 1841. It might have been 9 million then; it's about 4 million now. ''We're still exporting the only thing we've got, our people,'' said my wife's cousin, Martin Mulhearn in Charlestown. ''We breed and educate for other countries.''

The Great Hunger began four years after the 1841 census. In 1845, famine was caused by a potato blight, which began in North America a couple of years before. More than 1 million of the Irish starved to death in the next two years. Another million or more went to the United States.

The English, who ruled Ireland as a colony, debated relief measures. There were good intentions in London, but at the end of the day, Her Majesty's government decided famine relief would be interference with the free-market system -- and capitalism was served.

The debate was a fraud. What the British believed in was property rights, not free enterprise or the free market. Agricultural imports were prevented by high tariffs, the so-called Corn Laws designed to keep out American agricultural products and maximize the profits of landlords in England and Ireland. If Irish peasants died or fled, so be it -- the land could be used for sheep, which were more profitable than potatoes in the thin topsoil of Ireland.

The people who survived in Ireland fought England and each other, finally winning independence after World War I. There was a good deal of growth and prosperity here in the late 1970s and early 1980s when Ireland became part of the European Community and profited for a while as the poor, low-wage cousin collecting subsidies to bring wages closer to those in France or Germany.

But as Irish wages and benefits went up, and the government in Dublin imposed expensive things such as safety regulations, work and industries moved to Portugal, to Spain, to Asia -- the workings of a free worldwide market.

So now, once again, the young people of Ireland are leaving. As they go, Ireland really does become more and more like Brigadoon.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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