John Banville: A humbled Ireland is learning resilience – and the value of honesty

With the money gone, the wildest legends are readily believed. There is said to be a backlog at the abattoirs, as families abandon expensive pets
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The Independent Online

This year there were no fireworks. During all of the past decade, for weeks before and after Hallowe'en, the night skies over Ireland were filled with the crack and crash of bursting rockets and fountains of multicoloured flame.

Since fireworks are illegal in the South they had to be bought in the North and smuggled across the border – which is ironic, considering the tons of explosives the IRA smuggled in the opposite direction during the Thirty Years' War it waged on Ulster Protestants and the British army garrison in the North from the 1960s to the 1990s.

Throughout the 2000s there was a lot of cross-border shopping, most of it one way, since often in those years the euro was strong and sterling weak. Newly rich middle-class couples from the Republic, riding the broad back of the Celtic Tiger, would travel north on Saturday mornings, take a leisurely lunch at one of Belfast's fine new restaurants, spend the afternoon in supermarkets and outlet stores, and return at evening happy as Visigoths with their booty – alcohol, cigarettes, electrical goods, designer-label clothes and, as the autumn set in, boxes and boxes of fireworks. Those were the sparkling years.

Now, with the Tiger dead and buried and the country mired in ever-increasing debt, a silence is falling over the land. This year, All Souls' Night passed off in a deathly hush, save for a few damp squibs. How should we celebrate, with nothing to be seen in the skies save, in the murky distance but approaching ever nearer, the Four Horsemen of our particular Apocalypse: the IMF, the European Central Bank, Brussels and the Iron Chancellor Angela Merkel? The shopping trips of yesteryear are gone with the snows; indeed, many of the Mercs and SUVs that carried the merry marauders northwards have been sold off at a loss, or repossessed. And the horsemen are here.

With the money gone, the wildest urban legends are readily believed. There is said to be a two-month backlog at the abattoirs, as families abandon the expensive pets, including thoroughbred racehorses, that they bought in the fat years and now can no longer afford to feed. One hears stories of the return of bartering: a yacht swapped for a mobile phone, a Harley-Davidson exchanged for a bicycle. There are moments of giddiness and breathless panic when it feels as it must have felt in the last days of the Weimar Republic.

At first, when the poor beast began to sicken, we Tiger-cubs set up a great roaring and ranting. Who is to blame for our sudden travails, we demanded – somebody must be to blame. The bankers? Them, certainly. The politicians? Well, the politicians are always to blame, so nothing new there. The "markets", those shadowy entities that seem to operate by whim? Ourselves, perhaps? Now, there was a sobering possibility.

Media pundits in those early days used to urge us to think of the country as being at war and to fire ourselves up with the same plucky spirit that saved civilisation from the Nazi threat. But how is it possible to be at war when the enemy cannot be identified, and when those who raided our coffers and beggared us are by now beggars themselves? One Irish building firm, owned by a decent and unassuming man, is said to have debts of ¤1.5bn. Imagine that poor fellow's nights.

It is the figures, mainly, that cow us into silence. The banking debt of this nation, which has a population approximating that of greater Birmingham, fluctuates in the region of ¤100bn, according to whose estimate seems soundest on the day. That is a hundred thousand million. When we were at school it amused our science teachers to dazzle us with astronomical statistics – so many myriads of light years, so many zillions of galaxies – but the numbers that we are being forced to count on our too-few fingers now are not to do with the fanciful dimensions of outer space. They represent precisely the breadth and depth of the financial hole into which we have been pitched headlong.

In the months following September 2008, when the government, after a night-long crisis meeting, was forced to give a guarantee of some ¤400bn – money we had no hope of ever having – to save the Irish banks from collapse, we used to say that it would fall to our children to pay for our financial folly. Now it seems that it will be our children and our children's children and our children's children's children, unto the nth generation, who will bear the burden of our debts.

In the general election promised, or threatened, for the end of January the Fianna Fail and Green Party coalition that presided over this catastrophe will almost certainly be swept from power. The leading figures of that government are well meaning for the most part, and have worked hard according to their own lights; it is only that those lights burn dimly, and shed an increasingly pallid glow. The financial meltdown was not by any means all their fault. True, Fianna Fail was traditionally the party of property speculators and big builders. In the Celtic Tiger years it put itself in thrall also to a new, swashbuckling breed of bankers, such as the ones in Anglo Irish Bank who poured billions into the property bubble that swelled to gigantic proportions and popped in the autumn of 2008, leaving the country awash with debt.

To maintain cohesion, a nation must tell itself its own story over and over. Fianna Fail has been the majority party in Ireland since the foundation of the state in the 1920s, and the story of Ireland that it spun was of a proud and independent people with influence in the world wholly disproportionate to their number. The arrival of the IMF has been a great blow to that self-image. Some scrap of pride might have been salvaged had our leaders found a mode of address by which to rally the country and prepare us for the struggle ahead. In the hour when we needed a leader with the rhetorical powers of a Churchill or a Franklin Roosevelt, we got Brian Cowen, who in his public utterances sounds, as the political journalist Fintan O'Toole has pointed out, like a speak-your-weight machine. In fact, we have lost the plot.

There used to be a nice acronym that neatly expressed how for centuries the Irish people conceived of themselves: Mope, that is, Most Oppressed People Ever. For a decade or so, when the Tiger was at its fiercest, we threw off the mantle of oppression, as once we had thrown off what used to be called the yoke of British power over us. A week or so ago, the British Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, announced in Brussels that his government stood ready to help Ireland in its hour of need. Oh, bitter day.

All the same, life goes on, somehow. We are learning a new resilience. Humbled as we are, we might even begin to recognise the need for social responsibility, a quality in which we have been lamentably lacking up to now. Who knows, we may at last recognise the irreplaceable value of public and private honesty. But let us not light the firecrackers just yet.

A version of this article appeared in the New York Times

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