- After the Ball: Ireland After the Boom
Fintan O'Toole, best known as a columnist with the Irish Times, examines the underbelly of the Celtic Tiger phenomenon in his latest book, After the Ball. O'Toole begins by exploring the factors that laid the groundwork for Ireland's initial economic boom. He then outlines the unanticipated social problems that have either remained the same or worsened since the 1990s. In witty, accessible prose, After the Ball engages with the paradoxes bound up in the new Ireland also discussed in other recent critical treatments of the Celtic Tiger such as Peader Kirby's Celtic Tiger in Distress (2002) and Reinventing Ireland (2002), edited by Kirby, Luke Gibbons, and Michael Cronin. O'Toole's six essays in this volume shatter any preconceived notions about what the Celtic Tiger means for contemporary Irish society. They are compellingly written and well-supported and his message is clear: economic excess has not proved to be a catalyst for social progress.
O'Toole argues that a number of liberal elements that had been in place for several years—such as the government's interventionist policies, its willingness to embrace membership in the European Union, and the influence of global feminism—together helped form the set of circumstances that allowed the Celtic Tiger to emerge. In this manner, O'Toole posits that the boom did not simply grow out of right-wing economic policies or the state's willingness to embrace foreign investment. Nonetheless, Ireland is now considered "the great test case for the successes and failures of the free market ideology that is driving global development." O'Toole contends that the disproportionate winners in this scenario are shareholders in multinational corporations and outside investors, rather than average Irish citizens who have yet to benefit fully from the significant economic transformations associated with the Celtic Tiger. [End Page 155]
With this established, O'Toole continues by exposing "the coexistence of manic affluence and mean despair in boom-time Ireland." He considers a number of harsh social realities that seem to challenge Ireland's recent successes, among them the inconvenient facts that poverty levels actually increased in Ireland during the boom years; that the gap between rich and poor widened during the same period; that on average, fifty-four percent of the state's adults function below the minimum level of literacy; and that in 1997, Irish life expectancy (sixty-five years) was the lowest of all EU countries.
Additionally, despite Ireland's newfound wealth, basic social services remain woefully underfunded. Thousands of patients in the state-funded public health system continue to sit on hospital waiting lists—sometimes for months at a time—in order to receive the most basic surgeries, care, and therapies. O'Toole finds that education is similarly neglected; he cites an Irish Times survey that details schools operating with outdoor toilets, leaking roofs, and minimal instruction space. Minorities, including women, immigrants, asylum seekers, travelers, and members of the gay and lesbian community, continue to face "systemic discrimination." Paradoxically, as Ireland made great strides economically, many of its people, particularly those on the margins of society, suffered to a similar or greater extent than they did before the boom. For O'Toole then, "success in the globalised marketplace is not at all incompatible with social squalor." Ironically, the state offers extraordinary tax reductions or exemptions to foreign investors and to the wealthy, and until very recently, penalties for tax evasion were rarely put into effect. O'Toole argues that not only did the rich get richer during this time, but even in highly publicized tax evasion cases, nobody in the government seemed eager to enforce the law. After the Ball thoroughly highlights the disquieting reality that economic excess does not automatically create social progress.
Still, O'Toole seems a bit uncertain as to how Ireland can work to level this inequality, and his final chapters offer no concrete alternatives to the current system. His conclusion calls for a return to the liberal values that...