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In Ireland, the Celtic Salmon Stirs

first published in The New York Times (Intelligence Column), April 2012.

 

Despite encouraging signs of a slow but steady return to a healthier economy, the recession still haunts Ireland.  It slouches with Yeatsian dread around our ghost estates like a nasty emission left by the so-called Celtic Tiger.  The boomtime branding – borrowed from an Asian buzzword – was never an accurate or lasting symbol for Ireland.
 
A more appropriate one might be the Salmon of Knowledge, or an breadán feasa.  In the ancient Celtic sagas, Fionn MacCumhaill became a great warrior by acquiring the pure knowledge of the salmon, which gave him the skill and wisdom to defeat his enemies. 
 
Today, Ireland faces the challenge of emerging from its slump in a fickle global economy that is more competitive than ever.  How can a salmon compete with a tiger?

Young, entrepreneurial Irish are picking up fast on the potential of new online opportunities.  The cost-effective tools offered by cloud computing, marketing fuelled by social media and accurate analytics can all help small business grow. 
 
With this in mind, Innovate Wexford and FUSE, two local organisations in a relatively small business community, set up ‘Techovate’, a conference that took place last month at the Wexford Opera House, in the southeast of Ireland.
 
To add star power, Techovate brought in senior executives from the Irish diaspora who now work at Microsoft, Google, IBM, Facebook, Cisco and LinkedIn to advise local entrepreneurs.
 
“The Techovate Conference is not so much about the technology itself,” said Brendan Ennis, its main organiser, “but how small and medium-sized businesses in Ireland use that technology to drive business growth and to expand the outlook abroad.”
 
Mr. Ennis pointed out that they have little choice in the matter.  “Let’s face it,” he added.  “If they don’t – they’re going to be left behind.”
 
One goal is to transcend the heady buzz of the conference chambers and reach Ireland’s more traditional mom-and-pop concerns, which are often surprised to find themselves in a world transformed by technology.
 
Wallaces’ general store in Wexford has been in business for more than 70 years, located on a rural river bend at a junction between three major towns.  Its family-run drapery, food and hardware departments have thus far thrived on local shoppers, and a traditional marketing policy heavy on regional radio and print media. 
 
“These days, your competitor is no longer the shop in the next town,” notes Chrissie Wallace, a family member running the store, “but the Website two continents over.” The family invested in a consultant to develop a comprehensive online strategy for the store, which will include a more social-media-focused website, cross-platform campaigns, a community focus section and Facebook and Twitter presences.
 
Lorna Sixsmith has embraced the new media with IrishFarmerette.com, her popular blog that brings the business of Irish agriculture to life online. 
 
“All business people should be blogging, no matter what their industry.  We should be showcasing to potential buyers abroad the fact that our animals are mostly grass-fed, that they are outside for much of the year,” Ms Sixsmith said.
 
“It would do so much for the sale of Irish food abroad if readers could identify with the real story behind the food they are buying and see the pictures,” she added.
 
Seán Kiely, a farmer, uses social media to combat the isolation of his work.  “I’ve rigged up my iPhone to my tractor, in order to stay in touch on Facebook or Twitter through the day,” he said.  Elsewhere on the farm, cloud technology helps him keep track of animal births, deaths and movements, and a small virtual weather station provides crucial facts about the soil and the weather so that he knows when to fertilise or plant.
 
The lessons that Irish companies, shopkeepers and farmers are learning about navigating and taking advantage of the world of technology can be applied by their struggling counterparts in Greece and Spain, Portugal and Italy, and beyond.
 
If the boom’s fallout has left countries across Europe flailing in murky economic turbulence, Ireland’s ancient salmon of knowledge may provide inspiration yet.  A symbol of wisdom, skill and determination, the salmon rarely fails in its journey upstream. 

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A different Side of the Irish

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.