A few weeks ago, I attended an undergraduate graduation ceremony in Dublin. As the youngest of 5 siblings, I’ve been to my fair share of graduations, and I know what they’re usually like.
Somebody – sometimes someone famous – gets on a podium, lauds all of the youngsters for their efforts, and encourages them to “go forth” and triumph, as they have officially become equipped to “take on the world.” If there are other speakers, they pretty much all say the same thing: the world is your oyster, now get out your carving knives.
But at this year’s graduation in Dublin, the atmosphere was much different than anything I had seen before. Everything felt overwhelmingly dreary. Even the air felt heavy, and gravid with bad news, like the air in a funeral parlor during a wake.
The students filed in, adorned in black robes and multi-colored hoods, and very little time passed before they were given their degrees. Then it was time for the speeches.
One faculty member actually uttered the words, “I feel ashamed” handing out the degrees, because of the poor economic climate in which he was asking his former students to start their lives. He knew they’d be going from living at home with their parents and working long but rewarding hours towards earning their degrees, to living at home with their parents and spending Thursday afternoons collecting social welfare checks with their former classmates.
It’s a harsh truth, but nobody is hiring in Ireland these days, period.
Or, at least, very few people are hiring. And that’s a daunting environment for anyone to start a career in, nevermind hope to make a life for oneself.
One of my favorite graduation speeches wasn’t one I witnessed in person at all.
It was by JK Rowling, author of the world-renowned Harry Potter series, at Harvard’s 2008 Commencement ceremony. “On this wonderful day when we are gathered together to celebrate your academic success,” she started, “I have decided to talk to you about the benefits of failure.”
She discussed how it took complete and utter failure – seven years after her graduation, she was an unemployed single mother “as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless” - to find the strength to succeed.
In her time of dire need, she said, she learned to focus all of her energies on using her talent for writing to bring her out of poverty. So she knuckled down, and, while rocking her daughter to sleep in a baby carriage in British cafes, she wrote what was to become the world-famous Harry Potter series.
She attributed her successes to her major failure. “[R]ock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life,” she said, “because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential”.
Rowling’s story exemplifies the best possible outcome of total and utter financial ruin. Surely, a hopeful example for Ireland, which has undoubtedly hit its own rock bottom this week, as it accepted EU funds to help bring about its economic recovery.
Perhaps, with the bailout money from the EU, Ireland can work towards slowly but surely becoming a leaner, meaner, better version of itself, and let the Irish people’s talents, intelligence and hard work be that which brings the nation back to its full potential.
But that’s not necessarily the point.
It’s all well and good to talk about the way that entrepreneurs can flourish during an economic downturn such as this, or how this failure will teach Ireland how to keep from making the same mistakes; how it will make her stronger.
But somewhere, at some time, somebody has to be held accountable for how Ireland got here in the first place.
At the Dublin graduation, one speaker gave a speech that I cannot remember except for one line; it moved me so much that I spent the rest of the day mentally repeating it, to make sure that I had committed it to memory.
She was talking about the Irish financial regulators, bankers, developers and politicians, when she lamented that “the institutions that we thought were loyal, honest and trustworthy turned out to be fragile, and often corrupt.”
That’s when it hit me: the amount of anger and frustration that we see from protesters on the street and commentators on the television has nothing to do with people being reluctant to cut down on expenditures(they have no choice but to do so), or about people being too lazy to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps(they spend every day hunting for jobs that simply don’t exist).
This is about being betrayed. An entire nation has crumbled to its knees, and had to have its big brother, the EU, come along and rescue it, simply because the people in power didn’t do what they said they’d do. They didn’t protect their own people.