No marching in Ireland on this St. Patrick's Day

March 16, 2001|By Tom Mudd

DUBLIN -- Enjoy your St. Patrick's Day parade this year. We won't be having one.

In Dublin, Cork and Limerick tomorrow, the only marching we'll be doing is across mats drenched with disinfectant. They're everywhere.

The hope is that the mats will help halt the spread of foot-and-mouth disease, which is raging in Britain.

There, the countryside is all but sealed off to visitors as officials fight vainly to prevent the highly infectious disease from claiming all of Britain's cows, sheep and pigs. Across that "green and pleasant land," to use William Blake's phrase, thick clouds of greasy smoke rise steadily into the air as the carcasses of at-risk animals are burned en masse. There's even talk of calling in army sharpshooters to relieve the strain on the slaughterers.

In Ireland, though, there has not yet been a case of foot-and-mouth. But agriculture accounts for roughly 5 percent of Ireland's gross domestic product, so an outbreak would be nothing short of disastrous.

The country is nearly in panic. Evidence is in the disinfectant mats and in the parade cancellations, but also on the airwaves. Three recent editions of a popular radio call-in show have featured nothing but discussion of the disease. Two of the Irish national team's matches in the Six Nations rugby tournament have also been put off, a cruel blow in a year when the lads in green seemed to have more than a fighting chance of going all the way.

And then there's the effect on tourism. Officials have restricted access to some of the country's most attractive assets to try to prevent tourists from spreading foot-and-mouth spores in the countryside.

The head of Bord Failte, Ireland's national tourism authority, has estimated the disease could cost his industry the equivalent of $600 million. And that's if the outbreak begins to wane later this month. "Regrettably," said Bord Failte's John Dully, "if the crisis continues through April and May, the losses could be even more serious."

An Irish government official did not hesitate to blame Britain. He pointed across the Irish Sea and called Ireland's closest trading partner "the leper of Europe" for its mishandling of the crisis.

That sort of anger toward the British seems widespread. I even heard it from my father-in-law the other day, and he's an Anglican whose mother often boasted that she had worked for the lord mayor of Liverpool.

Popular Irish-American mythology would have it that the people here live with a blinding hatred of the British. According to that view, the Irish have never forgiven Britain for four centuries of often-violent repression, capped by the last three decades of bloodshed in Northern Ireland.

That Irish-American belief may help raise money for the Irish Republican Army, but it's rubbish. Most people in the Irish Republic have a more affectionate view of the English. Or they did.

That seems to be changing. More and more, I hear the sentiment that the British just don't care how devastating the latest of their disease exports is to Ireland.

And it's a view that has echoes throughout Europe, particularly now that the foot-and-mouth outbreak has spread to France. First, the British were spreading mad cow disease to the rest of Europe. And now this. A British columnist wrote that other Europeans have come to view Britain as the "problem child" of the European Union.

She might have been chatting with Ignacio Rodriguez, a Loyola High School classmate of mine who now lives in Spain. Over dinner last week, he shook his head as talk turned to Britain's recent outbreaks of animal diseases. "It seems to me that there must be something terribly wrong with that country," he said.

But Ignacio has never had to walk across a mat drenched with disinfectant or explain to a 4-year-old why we won't be attending the St. Patrick's Day parade this year.

Tom Mudd, a Towson native, lives in a suburb of Dublin, where he is European bureau chief of IndustryWeek magazine.

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