first published in The New York Times (Intelligence Column), December 2010
It may take the 21st Century Irish some time to get up out of their armchairs, but when they do, they have a strong sense of purpose and drama.
Despite one of the coldest November days on record in the Republic of Ireland, a massive crowd of demonstrators marched on November 27 across the River Liffey toward the city’s General Post Office building, carrying protest banners and demanding the ousting of the government.
The symbolism of their destination was unmistakable. The building was where, in 1916, revolutionaries who were fighting to free Ireland from colonial rule read the original Irish Proclamation of Independence. This time, the nation was protesting an international economic bailout, seen by many of its people to be a modern blow to its sovereignty.
An Irish friend who is now working in Ethiopia for an aid organisation said that she understood how intently the world was watching the Irish crisis when a farmer in Somaliland casually asked her: “How’s your bailout going?”
The international news media, which has been seen on every corner of Dublin over the last few weeks, saw a different side of the Irish that Saturday – the fighting side. The roaring passion, size and diversity of the crowd (officially estimated to be 50,000 people, but thought by the news media to number up to 1,000) had not been seen on Dublin streets since the human rights marches of the early 1970s.
It took a lot to get the Irish en masse into the streets. We laughed at the first of the economic jokes (“What is the difference between Ireland and Iceland? One consonant and six months.”) We watched as the Greeks burned cars and destroyed shops on the streets of Athens. We never really thought it could happen to us.
The depth of the current economic trauma is one that the ordinary Irish man or woman has found hard to accept, let alone fully comprehend.
During the “Celtic Tiger” years, when everything turned to gold, and its citizens entered into a sexy spendfest of glamour and luxury, the country could do no wrong. Today, the dizzy ramparts of success have crumbled, generating a spectacular fall from grace.
It is perhaps the scale of the descent – and the undeniable element of greed – that overwhelmed the country’s banks, businesses, developers and citizens during the boom, which, until now, has had the Irish living in a partial state of denial.
Small but significant voices of protest were heard regularly. In October 2008, senior citizens – some with walkers and wheelchairs – massed outside the government buildings to protest cuts in their medical benefits.
In September this year, the population made a popular hero of one Joe McNamara, a bankrupt builder who rammed his cement truck into the gates of the same government buildings to protest his plight. He was seen as the voice of the “working man” against the powers that be.
Once the true extent of the crisis had sunk in, with its public spending cutbacks and its black hole of job losses and negative equity, the Irish people felt swamped by despair and confusion.
In the last couple of weeks, this metamorphosed into emotions running somewhere between terror and fury.
Anger goes beyond what the people perceive as a shameful request for a bailout. The inevitability of the draconian austerity measures needed to repay loans is seen as a betrayal by the Irish government to salvage the banks’ bondholders and the well-heeled developers, at the Irish people’s expense.
The last twist of the knife came at the end of November, when officials from the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund arrived in Dublin, and, as one radio commentator put it, they were “not here to do their Christmas shopping … “
While not many people in Ireland are laughing these days, they have at least attempted to make a move towards change. Traversing the freezing white ground of Dublin’s streets in protest, it was as if the collective Irish psyche had found its voice, and had begun to make it heard.
It remains to be seen, however, how much louder they will have to shout to make their government – or the broader eurozone – hear that the people are tired of those who led them into this quagmire and are demanding a fairer deal from their Christmas guests.
Helena Mulkerns is a writer and freelance journalist living in Ireland.