On this ridiculously green portion of an island known formally as the Republic of Ireland, less than a tenth the size of our own province, the economic struggles are as plentiful as pubs. Throughout it’s tangled history with its larger and more powerful neighbour to the east, just across the Irish Sea, and to the north with its blood cousins, it has suffered every indignity imaginable, and it appears that Brexit might just serve up another.
Immigration and emigration have long been an issue. From 1700 to 1841 it enjoyed a relatively population growth, peaking at nearly 8.2 million. And then the potato famine hit. Think about this fact: it is estimated that there are 55 million people in the world whose ancestry traces to Ireland, but there are only 4.2 million here today, about half of what there was when the famine hit.
We often think of what is known here as the Great Hunger as the result of the disastrous potato blight encouraged by wet weather, but it was more complicated. At least a third of the population was reliant on potatoes, but they were particularly susceptible because so many of the farmers were essentially sharecroppers, totally dependent on absentee (mostly British) landlords. But the Roman Catholic church was a major landowner, too. On one tour I took, our group was told that it was likely that there were sufficient potatoes store-housed to get the population at least partially through the resulting famine, but the landlords and the church weren’t about to give them up to people who couldn’t afford to pay.
In the end, more than a million, or nearly 15 per cent, died, and an equal number emigrated, fleeing the country often with little more than the clothes on their backs. It’s a tragic story.
Of course the most recently boom and bust was the dramatic growth that started in the mid-1990s, fueled by the dot.com run that saw tremendous foreign investment in a well-educated and receptive Ireland. By 2008, though, the dot.com crash had taken its toll, and the country was back in recession.
In my travels in Ireland in September, what I found, time and time again, were people who were cautiously optimistic, as they pretty much have to be to have survived over the centuries. “An Irishman is never going to tell you everything is good,” one person told me. “There will always be a “but” added on when he is doing well.”
While the country is doing quite well again now, with an emphasis on the knowledge economy with a huge tourism economy as well, but it has the distinct feeling of a fragile one. Taxes are high and affect pretty much every walk of life. One of my hosts spoke about an annual “car tax” that he had to pay that day, and about the costs of insurance for young drivers. To insure his 17-year-old son for driving his dad’s vehicle, the cost is about 1,800 Euros annually. It would be triple that if the son could purchase his own vehicle.
“And then there are all the other fees, like the TV license fee and so on,” he said. “This is a very expensive place to live. There are lots of fees, but they are really just taxes.”
That reality hit when I read an article about tourism, and its importance to the local economy. Nearly half of tourist spending goes into government coffers by way of taxes and fees, so it’s easy to see why the country has put such an effort into that particular industry. The simple rebranding of the roads that run around the entire coast (Northern Ireland included) as the Wild Atlantic Way has had a dramatic effect. More than a million people annually make their way around one portion, the Ring of Kerry, alone.
And, if that sounds like a lot, consider that The Guinness Storehouse, one site where one of the world’s most recognizable beer brands is made, attracts about a million visitors a year itself, vying with the Dublin Zoo for the country’s largest single tourist attraction.
Whiskey (the “e” distinguishes itself from scotch whisky) is going through its own renaissance, and “drinks tourism” now accounts for nearly a fifth of the country’s tourist industry. Whether or not you are fond of alcoholic beverages, there is no denying the economic force as value-added agricultural products.
The optimism that I encountered on my trip was almost always tempered with the unknown factor that Brexit will become. The Republic of Ireland will remain in the European Union, but Great Britain will become a physical barrier to its connection with the rest of Europe. And no one, the EU included, wants to see a physical wall erected between this republic and Northern Ireland, which remains part of the United Kingdom.
This incredibly beautiful country, with its warm and welcoming people, one would think, deserves better than the uncertainty that Brexit is visiting upon it. But certainly is as Irish as the potato, Guinness and whiskey.