Who sank the Celtic Tiger? Fintan O'Toole gives us his take in 'Ship of Fools'


It can happen, wrote the Irish playwright Brian Friel, that a culture can become imprisoned in a contour that no longer matches the landscape of fact.

Friel was talking about the Irish language, but his metaphor applies to the Irish political system, too.

What we have in Ireland, argues famed Irish writer Fintan O’Toole, is a 19th century Tammy Hall style of politics ill-equipped for the 21st century. It is, he suggests, time for an upgrade.

O’Toole, who’s latest book Ship of Fools tells the story of the rise and fall of the Celtic Tiger, grew up in Dublin in Crumlin, in a working class housing estate where his father was a bus conductor and his mother worked as a cleaner at The Irish Press. Like many other men of his age and background the Christian Brothers taught him, and his memories are typical of the experience.

“It was pretty brutal. It’s become a cliché I suppose, but the Irish educational system in general was pretty violent,” O’Toole tells the Irish Voice.

“I don’t want to generalize about it. There were some absolutely lovely people, but the atmosphere was pretty brutal and corporal punishment was standard. Kids had the s*** kicked out of them for no good reason, not that there is any good reason to do that.

“There was at least one prominent sexual abuser on the staff. It was all part of that culture that we’re acknowledging and beginning to face up to. It wasn’t pleasant, but it wasn’t unusually unpleasant compared to most working class schools growing up at that time.”

These days O’Toole, a columnist with The Irish Times, is often referred to as the head boy of Irish journalism. Few other critics have written about contemporary Irish culture, politics and society with his level of engagement and insight. That’s why his latest book can be found among the top five bestsellers in Ireland.

“It struck me that on the surface there are very narrow economic factors that led to the creation of the Celtic Tiger and to the unraveling of it. But those narrow terms don’t explain as much as we often think they do,” he says.

“We also have to look at the broader society and culture in a larger sense. The assumptions people make, the way they think and the way they act. It’s very underestimated, the extent to which the Celtic Tiger was also made possible by cultural circumstances.”

Economists don’t like to talk about feminism as an economic force, but changes in Irish society gave women more mobility to enter the workforce. The typical Irish family size has dropped from five or six or seven kids down to one and two.

The rise in access to education also had an enormous impact, opening up Irish society and making it more attractive for inward investment.

“The strange thing was the way in which you had all this remarkable change -- Ireland became the most globalized economy -- attracting high tech industry and the leading multinationals in the world,” O’Toole says.

“You’d all that stuff happening, but underneath that you had all of the underlying Irish cultural responses remaining almost unchanged. The failure to change our basic cultural assumptions had really serious economic effects over time.”

The political culture of Ireland, O’Toole argues, is still the political culture of 19th century Irish America.

“It’s the machine, it’s Tammany Hall politics, it’s a brilliant Irish invention, but we’re stuck with it still and its out of date. We never got our Kennedys or Obamas. We’re still stuck with Boss Tweed,” O’Toole argues.

Another factor that retarded Ireland’s economic stability and growth was what O’Toole calls the 19th century obsession with property.

“If you think of Ireland as not just part of the economy but really on the leading edge, when it starts getting wealth how does it value that wealth? Well, it was not in terms of investing in new products, new inventions, infrastructure, and all that stuff. Instead it was in property, land,” he says.

“We developed a psychotic property boom. One of the reasons why house prices became so inflated in Ireland was the cost of the actual land itself that houses were built on.

“They were a vastly disproportionate part of what people were paying – up to 50% of the cost of the houses were in the land. A relatively small number of people were able to control the development land and were able to use that control to pump up the price to incredible levels.”

Part of the reason why negative equity on so many people’s houses is so dramatic is because they paid huge amounts to land owners. “It’s almost as if we were in the 19 century, it’s as though we were stuck in a feudal situation where land was what gave you wealth and control over society. It’s rooted in fairly obvious things. We have a history of deep insecurity about land, which is one of the reasons why Irish people in Europe disproportionately as soon as they get a job want to buy a house. We don’t rent. In Ireland buying a house is seen as an absolute necessity. We need the security of owning the thing.”