Lucre, Lolly and the Irish

Nothing like the new year to make you feel a bit skint. Good timing then for an article on the new rich of Ireland of which, it suggests, there are many. I just wish it had focused more on the middle class. [You can comment on the piece here on the Prospect Blog – First Drafts]

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In a population of just 4m, there are, according to Bank of Ireland, more than 30,000 euro millionaires—up from a few hundred 20 years ago—and at least 300 people worth over €30m

Well I know there’s plenty of money here. The shops are expensive. Economic growth has been strong, consistently, for over a decade.

At one point it was said that every fifth job created in the EU was in Ireland. Average annual growth of 7.2 per cent over the past ten years has encouraged Irish expatriates to return home, and more recently Poles and other immigrants have maintained the growth rate of the labour force. All this has helped to give Ireland the second highest per capita income in Europe (behind Norway), well ahead of Britain and the US.

All of this, is, of course, something of a turn around. And rapid one at that. Ireland has risen from, I think, second poorest country in Europe to richest (or second richest to Luxembourg). Much of this is tied up in property with which the Irish seem to have a preternatural attraction (and talent for making money). Farmers have got rich as the motorways of Ireland are built and they are well compensated. Anyone with a decent patch of land near a even a small town is sitting on, or already cashed in on, a fortune. I like this anecdote from the article which captures well the rags to riches in a generation story:

“In 2004, Derek Quinlan, a former Irish tax inspector, paid £750m for the Savoy Group of hotels in London. Like other big foreign deals, this was reported in the Irish media as a matter of national pride. Indeed, Quinlan recalls that an Irish employee at the Connaught Hotel, part of the Savoy Group, ran the Irish tricolour up the hotel’s flagpole when the story broke. “It was put up without my knowledge,” he said. “But I cried. My poor father, who was in the Irish army, would have loved to have seen this.”

The article is a little short on the ‘middling sort’ of Ireland – the large numbers of middle class who have got rich quick. But they do get a mention and property is rightly accorded pole position in this account of their rise to wealth:

“…ordinary people are benefiting, at least from the property boom: the proportion of national wealth tied up in residential property is 74 per cent against the European average of 57 per cent. This is reflected in the rate of Irish homeownership at 77 per cent, compared with 71 per cent in the UK, 56 per cent in France and just 43 per cent in Germany. Housing demand is also running at much faster pace, with 88,000 new homes built in 2006, compared with 155,000 in England and Wales, an area with 13 times as many people.”

All of which makes me keen to get stuck into Luck and the Irish – Roy Foster’s new history of Ireland from 1970-2000 in which he “describes how the new wealth has transformed Ireland’s image of itself. “Ireland is like the French third republic…You have this buccaneering corruption. You have an instability of politics. You have loads of money washing around and you have a great moment of cultural fluorescence… It is an interesting combination, and in ways, given Ireland’s past history, rather a liberating one.”

Whilst there is much in the article, and the commentary of modern Ireland that, living here, I recognise there is much that I do not. Yes it is rich country but I can’t work out where the wealth really is and where it has come from. It is something of an engima – and once you get beyond the ‘Blarneyland’ stuff of Guinness and all that, the picture starts to get much more unclear.

As ever, the more you discover about a culture the more complicated and uncertain it all starts to look.