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Leaving Ireland

by Jane Shortall

"Who’s for Cocaine with their Champagne?” A line from a Hollywood movie? No. A question at a smart dinner part in Dublin, Ireland where a certain section of the population; the new young, mega rich, have taken to the high life — big time. This little Emerald Isle, where some of the old people can recall their grandparents talking of the great famine of 1847, which saw millions die and hundreds of thousands take the ships to America and a new life, now boasts as much illegal drug activity per head of population as any giant city in the USA.

There used to be a sort of joke that Ireland was always about ten years behind the rest of the world, meaning that we had the swinging sixties in the seventies, and so on. That may have been true, but it was a gentle place to live, and safe if you weren’t in a religious institution. But quite a few of us had relations in America of course, and when TV first came to the island, a lot of the programmes we received were from the US, so we were, in a sense, always in touch with the bigger world.

By the year 2000, that unforgettable millennium year of partying, Ireland’s economy was at an all time high. It had grown at an unbelievable rate within a few short years. Called the ‘Celtic Tiger,‘ a phrase invented by a witty journalist, the phenomenal growth described an emerging Ireland, a little magical land about to take on the world. After years of some ups and truly appalling downs, peaks and troughs, we appeared to be on the crest of a terrific wave, and to begin with everyone loved it.

We had the most distinguished President ever in Mary Robinson. A brilliant and clever woman of true international stature, a former Senior Counsel, Senator and well known campaigner for women’s rights for years, she brought a new glow of humanity and a freshness of style to the role of President of Ireland. She built on the political and cultural links with other countries and cultures.

Mary Robinson was the first head of state to visit Rwanda in the aftermath of the 1994 genocide there. She was also the first head of state to visit Somalia following the crisis there in 1992, receiving the CARE Humanitarian Award in recognition of her efforts for that country. She later became the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. And yet, with all her greatness recognised elsewhere, she was a stone in the shoe of so many of our very crooked male politicians.

As news of the boom spread internationally, the rest of the world appeared to be watching us, fascinated. Coverage of the good life in Ireland in foreign newspapers was fantastic. In my case, my youngest brother lives in Japan, and to hear him describe with some excitement the reports of our changing little island was terrific. We would finally take our place among the leaders, right up there with the big money.

We were the makers of the best dairy products in the world; Kerrygold went international, our cheeses were winning gold medals abroad, the best smoked salmon came from Ireland, the best cream liqueurs, the best whiskey; Baileys and Jameson available from New York to New Delhi. At the peak of our success the world seemed to believe we did some things better than anybody else.

Our authors were winning awards everywhere and taking numbers one, two and three spots on the Irish and English bestseller lists. Maeve Binchy was, as usual, outselling everyone and having her books turned into films in Hollywood and chosen by Oprah for her book club.

The fabulous Riverdance magically tapped danced its way around the world. The biggest rock band in the world was now Irish as the concerts of Bono and the boys in the group U2 sold out all over the planet. Coach parties were taken up tiny quiet roads in the south county Dublin, so that the fans could take pictures of the big iron gates guarding the rock stars’ houses.

When Irish football fans traveled abroad to international soccer matches, they were welcomed, whereas riot police met the fans travelling from our neighbouring island wherever they arrived. This is because a small well-organised group brings disgrace on the entire English nation whenever they travel, with their peculiar facility for arriving in a beautiful continental city and breaking the place up within hours.

International singing stars flew into Dublin, Cork and Belfast regularly. Their concerts were sold out within hours, the tickets costing a fortune. From Tony Bennett to Andrea Bocelli, people flocked to them all. The ladies who lunch flew to New York to shop at the weekends. ‘I love to make those credit cards sizzle in Macy’s,‘ one shopper memorably announced.

Money was no problem. Huge international banks employed vast numbers of the extremely young and talented workforce and they were earning serious money. A financial services centre second to none sprung up right in the city centre. New buildings, vast things, some quite beautiful, white bricked shiny steel and chrome with millions of sparkling glass windows now rose up along the quay walls of the river Liffey. They housed the new rich, with some of the penthouses valued up to two million, cheek by jowl with world banks and ultra chic minimalist hotels. Nearly all the old apartment blocks had been demolished to make way for these financial wizards and their work and living places.

The young Irish people who had formed their own companies were, for the most part, unbelievably successful. Especially in the IT sector. Clones of Bill Gates were everywhere. Indeed it became absolutely commonplace to find that four people at a table of eight in a typical Dublin restaurant could well be worth a couple of million each. And not one of the party would necessarily be from a background known as 'old money.' There were a few casualties when the IT world took a tumble. People who had been worth 60 million on paper were suddenly worth only three. But even that added to the gaiety of the nation, as one after another the economists hopped up on every talk show to explain why their theories went wrong.

How wonderful the little island must have looked to people less well off in the outside world. It must have been as dazzling as the Emerald City looked to Dorothy and her friends in the Wizard of Oz. In the early years of the new millennium it must have seemed that there was nothing that a person living and working in this magical place couldn’t achieve. People of all nationalities flocked to the island bringing with them dreams of a fabulous lifestyle waiting for them in that tiny dot on the world map.

Some of the newcomers were absolutely wonderful and we adored going into their exciting and exotic smelling shops. But not all our new residents were friendly types, opening business and contributing new colour. Some of the people who came to stay did so with more sinister motives. Some rather menacing Eastern Europeans were found to be running Mafia-type operations in the larger Irish cities. They did not bring their wonderful culture to share with us. They brought a squalid prostitution, sometimes posing as lap dancing, on a level we hadn’t seen before, and they also brought the drugs to keep the girls doped up to the eyeballs. And, to the outrage of our home grown underworld, they even brought some more drugs, hoping to sell them on the streets, as if we hadn’t enough in Dublin already.

This was a part of our life that had not been publicised by the media abroad. Dublin was, and had been for a long time, simply awash with the stuff. Parts of the city had been decimated by the deaths of young people from drugs. Mothers were regularly interviewed, and sobbed as they talked to our most popular radio talk show hosts, desperately trying to make sense of one, or sometimes, incredible as it sounds, two of their children having died from drug abuse. Babies were being born already drug addicts in some of the major Dublin hospitals all through the nineteen nineties. Born to extremely young girls, some as young as fourteen, all addicted to heroin. Irish drug dealers seriously resented any outsiders trying to muscle in on the action as they had provided the heroin on the streets for years. Yes, in Ireland we certainly had more than enough home grown gangsters. And did they live in style.

Fantastic properties worth millions, both in the cities and the countryside were now found to have been bought with money made in the world of narcotics. One of these murderers ordered the killing of one of our top brave women journalists, who was shot dead as she sat in her car at traffic lights. Very often the wife of one of these men under investigation would be photographed on the front page of the tabloids proclaiming she knew nothing of her husband’s business affairs and that he was a really good family man. At times, the errant husband might be found living in the south of Spain with someone the same age as his daughter.

The last few years we have had tribunal after tribunal exposing male politicians who had been lining their pockets with ‘brown bag’ money - a thank you to a crooked politician who had masterminded the rezoning of land. Resulting in fortunes being made for the landowners and builders, and communities left to fend for themselves on the outskirts of the bigger cities. Hundred of thousands of houses were built, but without shopping or recreation facilities for the inhabitants.

It now became a matter of public record that these people, elected to run the country, had been buying even bigger estates than the IT millionaires and drug dealers. And keeping their money in secret Cayman Island bank accounts, while the rest of us struggled along paying the outrageous charges of the main banks; charges we could do nothing about. These institutions were making millions in profits each year, their directors, some of the very people with the Cayman Island bank accounts, were being paid staggering salaries for their services. At this time, the gap between rich and poor in Ireland had become simply awesome.

These tribunals, which are still running, were getting down to the nitty gritty and exposing to us exactly how some in government had for years supplemented their incomes in order to lead such amazingly expensive lifestyles, despite earning only modest government salaries. And these were a number of the men who had made such offensive remarks about Mary Robinson becoming president — one of their number — himself now under scrutiny for allegedly pocketing vast amounts of ‘brown bag’ money, memorably saying she seemed to have ‘a new found interest in her family’ now that she was President — a reference to the years she had worked so successfully in the legal world. For some of these men the old saying ‘keep them barefoot and pregnant’ still applies.

Life for most of us had become just a series of journeys from home to work and back again. Three hours travelling was about the average time people spent in cars or on public transport. The mantra of the employers had become ‘we can always squeeze a bit more of out them.‘ And that was certainly true. For extra money, they could indeed always squeeze more out of us. The price of absolutely everything we needed to live had rocketed up and out of all proportion and so extra income was always welcome. It says something that one of my brothers finds Dublin more expensive than Tokyo where he lives, and my partner’s son who lives in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates is always horrified at restaurant and bar prices when he visits Ireland.

The ‘Celtic Tiger’ began to demand more food, as it were. And the biggest economic boom ever on the little island simply wore us out. For those of us women who had worked all through the various ‘down’ years as well as this boom time, we looked at ourselves, becoming wretched in some cases, and silently screamed ‘it’s all been just too much!’ Whether married, divorced, living the single life, with or without children, it had all taken its toll. Indeed, a popular and very successful businesswoman, who broke the glass ceiling to become vice-president of one of our international companies, made the very sentence ‘It’s not easy being a Woman’ the theme of her humorous, sharp, tongue in cheek speech at her fiftieth birthday celebration, attended by most of her male colleagues.

Whilst not for one moment dismissing the rest of the world and its problems, in the now sprawling capital city of Dublin, home to almost one and a half million people, it seemed as if everyone who had worked for thirty years or more, whatever their circumstances, was utterly exhausted. Friends gave up meeting mid week. Even phoning became a no-no after nine o’clock. No one now had time or energy to care too much about anyone else. It was everyone for themselves. This was a new and a very nasty feeling. And time to go time for me.

I miss nothing and I know I made the very best decision. It’s not for everyone, of course. The area of France where I live now would perhaps have been too quiet for me twenty or thirty years ago, but it’s perfect now. And Paris, still the most civilised city in the world, is just a train journey away.

Who could ask for more?



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