Jolted by Affluence
The location for this year’s Ryder Cup epitomized the triumph of profit in Ireland. The organizers opted for the K Club, a mediocre golf course in comparison with such world-class links as Ballybunion, Lahinch, Portmarnock and half a dozen others. Certainly the infrastructure of the K Club is second to none, but the course itself is dull and disappointing when placed alongside the breathtaking links found elsewhere in the country. It just happens that the tycoon who owns the K Club sponsors the European Open. Money talks in international golf—and also in the new Ireland.
We Irish are still fascinated with faith, but our cultural imagination is being undermined by crass materialism. The Irish psyche is shrinking from vast spiritual dimensions to a narrowly materialistic focus. Something beautiful is dying, and it is painful to watch.
Since the 1990’s Ireland has undergone a whirlwind of change. In the 1980’s Ireland was a relatively poor country in European terms, but by the start of the new millennium it had become one of the most affluent. It is still full of patchwork-green fields, but now that Ireland has taken its place at the cutting edge of the digital revolution, the green vales are supplemented by the Silicon Valley of the computer industry. Work takes up more time and offers greater monetary rewards; families have become smaller. The church’s influence has weakened. In 1995 divorce was legalized. A massive influx of immigrants and asylum-seekers has sparked a lively discussion about Irish identity as the country has shifted from a largely monolithic culture to a multicultural one. But the most decisive changes in Ireland have resulted from the effects of the ceasefire and subsequent Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland. For years the complex political landscape of Northern Ireland was at the center of the Irish agenda. With the cessation of hostilities, however, the Irish economy has become the new show in town.
This new dominance of economics has blunted and dulled something within Irish identity. For centuries we Irish heroically resisted the best Britain could throw at us. At present we are being colonized by consumerism. The Irish imagination is becoming anesthetized to higher values as a result of a headlong rush into hedonism: we are shopping, spending, borrowing, eating, drinking and sleeping around as never before.
Erasing the Church From History
To justify this new frenzy, the Irish Catholic past is consistently being painted in depressingly dark colors or even painted out altogether. On the opening page of his bestselling memoir, Angela’s Ashes (1996), Frank McCourt wrote, “Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.” The internationally successful musical “Riverdance,” which has delighted audiences worldwide with its energy and spectacle, begins with the ancient Celtic world and culminates in a cosmopolitan and multicultural Ireland. But its grand sweep of Irish history neglects the seminal contribution of Christianity. The only reference to Christianity in the whole show is an insignificant image of a small church. “Riverdance” presents a picture of Ireland that neglects to acknowledge its Christian heritage.
The Irish Catholic Church certainly has lost enormous credibility in recent years, not least because of the clerical sexual abuse scandals. Scandal is one of the principal reasons the church is bereft of the prophetic strength to stem the hedonistic tide now engulfing Irish culture. Over the last decade, isolated voices expressing some measure of wisdom have spoken. Three exquisitely written books by the spiritual writer John O’Donohue, for instance, resonated with something deep in the Irish spirit—Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom (1997), Eternal Echoes: Exploring Our Yearning to Belong (2000), and Beauty: The Invisible Embrace (2004). O’Donohue combined elements from ancient Celtic spirituality, the folk wisdom of the common people, and the moving beauty of the Irish landscape to craft a reassuring and uplifting vision of life. Yet the elusiveness of even his lyrical and poetical style contained not only merit but a handicap. While it touched a spiritually hungry chord in the Irish heart, the author’s beautiful language disguised the banality of some of his insights. His dreamy prose promised to connect readers with a deeper level of their being, but gave them little more than a verbal massage at times. His soothing message did not nourish them in the long term.
Catholic teachers undoubtedly gave an excellent all-round education to Irish youth, but failed to form young people in the faith and never introduced them to a relationship with a personal God. Families, too, appear not to have transmitted the faith to their children. It is not surprising that young people have quietly abandoned a Catholicism about which they were taught little and of which they experienced even less in their daily lives. Theirs is a loss the church has passively accepted with hardly a whimper. The level of religious education these young people received before leaving the church was so inadequate that most of them would be hard-pressed to list even five of the Ten Commandments, which are fundamental to Judaism as well as Christianity. By contrast, the giant corporations have been so successful in communicating their message that these same young people endlessly discuss designer labels and know how to exploit every feature of their cell phones.
As for the opinion-makers among the Irish intelligentsia, who pride themselves on being ecumenical and multi-denominational, they have an abysmally low level of knowledge when it comes to religion of any kind. Ask them about the five pillars of Islam or the four noble truths of Buddhism and you draw a blank stare. Try to start a discussion with a journalist who covers religious affairs about the two main characters in the Bhagavad Gita, and you draw perplexed glances before being asked whether these are celebrity customers in some newly opened Indian restaurant in downtown Dublin. It is worse than talking with a sports journalist who has never heard of Babe Ruth or who has no clue how many players are on a soccer team.
In Ireland talking is often associated with social drinking, and alcohol is indelibly linked in the Irish mind with the welcoming, fun-loving and endearing qualities of the national temperament. We Irish presume a God-given right to periodic bouts of drunkenness. Despite having already established a world-renowned fondness for alcohol, the average Irish adult drank almost 50 percent more in 2002 than was the average 10 years earlier. The drinking habits of young people are now centered on getting intoxicated and binge drinking.
People frequently complain about the “McDonald-ization” of the world, meaning that junk food is being consumed everywhere, making more people obese and damaging health. But what Ireland is exporting is much more destructive. Through the Irish pubs springing up around the globe, Ireland exports binge drinking. Irish pubs present themselves as gregarious fun, as cultural institutions that spread a happy-go-lucky attitude. But pubs glamorize excessive alcoholic consumption by making it appear acceptable and normal. Under the guise of relaxed conviviality, these pubs spread the poison and slavery of alcoholism.
Moreover, in the last four years the use of cocaine, that quintessentially middle-class drug, has increased tenfold in Ireland. Rising levels of addiction have been mirrored in higher suicide rates and a substantial increase in crime.
Of course the news from Ireland is not all bad. There is still a deep spiritual hunger and openness in the Irish people, and epiphanies are unfolding before our eyes. I find tremendous hope for the Christian future of our country in the huge number of immigrants who have arrived on our shores in recent years. They are not as enslaved as we are to consumerism, and they are blessed with a much stronger sense of community—two key ingredients for an Irish future that is less pretentious, more authentic and receptive to a fundamentally Christian vision. Indeed the 160,000 Polish immigrants, who form the largest single group of migrant workers in Ireland, are astounding us with their faith commitment.
In a country seduced by the greed-fest of the Ryder Cup and the siren-call of consumerism, these “new Irish” may open our eyes so that we can rediscover our own soul.