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When Irish Eyes Stop Smiling

When the rescue package of Ireland-or was it of the British and German banks?-was announced, the headline in one of Ireland's main newspapers was "Declaration of Dependence." As the centenary of the Easter Uprising is fast approaching, this headline is not without some ironic resonance. Angela Merkel has in effect become the new ruler of Ireland, a kind of 21st-century Henry II, using clout of the financial rather than the medieval kind.

I phoned a friend in Dublin in the way that one phones a friend in a city of 11 million people when there has been a serious accident in which 17 people have been injured, to find out whether he was all right. "Everything's fine," he said. "Just give us time, and we'll get out of this mess. About two millennia."

It's hard to imagine Irish wit cutting much ice with Frau Angela. Assuming a zero rate of interest and no population growth, every man, woman, child and baby in Ireland would have to pay back $250 a year for 2,000 years to clear the debt (the precise figure, by my calculation, is 1,936 years, based on one estimate of Ireland's total external debt, but what is 64 years among friends, or creditors?).

Considering the scale of the debacle, public expressions of anger in Ireland have been muted. Anger bubbles underneath, however, like lava. In a recent poll, about 47% of the Irish public said that they would rather have an International Monetary Fund government than one headed by their own politicians-a figure rising to a majority among 35-to-45-year-olds, which is to say, those who will probably suffer most from the crisis.

But apart from the odd insult thrown at the political class-particularly at members of Fianna Fail, the overwhelmingly dominant political party that is a textbook illustration of the eternal verities of Orwell's "Animal Farm," whose revolutionary porkers became establishment men-the reaction has been remarkable, and impressive, for its moderation.

The moderation is for two reasons, perhaps. The first is that so many people-that is to say, the best-educated, not the inhabitants of the no-hope, heroin-inundated housing projects of North Dublin and elsewhere-fully participated in the party while it lasted and enjoyed it thoroughly.

You can hardly blame them. In a matter of a few years their country went from being one in which the immemorial summit of ambition was emigration or a field with two cows, to being the richest in Europe, far outstripping the old enemy and disdainful occupier, Britain, a magnet for investment and immigration. Irish society was transformed. The century-old Guinness-colored grime disappeared from Dublin, and the bright lights shone. The diaspora returned, and people from all over the world flocked to the country for a better life. For the first time in Irish history, a woman on a bus was overheard to say, "Chinese, Russians, Nigerians: They all look the same to me." (The story must be apocryphal, but it captures something of the spirit of the times.)

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