Monday, September 21, 2009

Why There's No Bad Guy in Ireland

See the family. See Tom. See Mom and Dad and sister Cindy. It's 1961 Seattle, and this photo is taken only a few miles from the Boeing Aircraft plant. Back in those days, and as a first grader in nearby St Philomena's School, we'd get lessons in hiding under desks as Russian missiles rained down. On the television, and every now and then, the broadcasters would test their Civil Defense System. I can still see the grainy black and white photo of the CD logo in the back of my mind, and the announcer saying, "This is only a test of the Emergency Broadcast System!"

Then, a wild whistle would emanate from the old speakers on our RCA set. Later on, and a bit older, I realized that it sounded distinctly like the whistle of a melting phone in the Cold War film "Fail Safe" - the sound that the phone made as it was melted in the heat of a thermo nuclear explosion. Ah the joys of childhood!

Growing up in Cold War America had its pluses of course. We could make fun of Kruzchav and the Russians and get away with it. Hollywood was constantly coming out with new films that scared us all silly (think of those great 'B' movies: "Invaders from Mars" and "The Day the Earth Stood Still".) Both films pitted good guys against bad - even Red against Blue (Invaders from Mars). But occasionally, one wondered who was the bad guy and who was the good (the Robot Gort in The Day the Earth Stood Still was no bad guy, let me tell you. He had a cool heat ray, didn't he?) And living in Seattle as we did, we occasionally got to see some of the very latest 1960s Western technology (think the Space Needle and the MonoRail - those beat the Rooskie stuff any day.)

In the United States in those days, we knew who the bad guys were, and we had Superman to help us out when those bad guys dared to show up.

In Ireland back then, they had no such bad guy to pick fun at. There were the English, of course. Seems to me that there had always been the English. Four hundred years of servitude makes one think that the Irish would have thrown them out sooner than they did, but that didn't happen until the 1920s. And even then, the Irish were divided in a bloody Civil War over the whole mess. For hundreds of years, the Irish were trapped in a country occupied by an oppressor who didn't do a whole lot for the society. The English banned Mass and the Irish language. They shipped hundreds off to penal servitude - or worse! - emigration to Australia. The English did their best to transform this little country and its people into a jewel in the British Crown. All that happened, of course, was a feeling of resentment that eventually gave vent to war.

And when the Irish at last threw off the yoke of the oppressor, the government did their level best to isolate the country from the rest of the world. Censorship limited imports. The Catholic Church limited free thinking. Films such as "The Man from Aran" portrayed the typical Irishman as a solitary man, alone against the elements, but winning none-the-less. The average Irishman, suffering the slings and arrows of a stagnant economy in those early days of the Republic, must have laughed at the idea of an Irish "Superman", knowing that they didn't have a hero to save them. Only Eamon De Valera, and all he was doing was refusing to mix with the rest of the world which caused only more hardship on an already marginalised economy and people.

Of course, Ireland and the Irish are no longer isolated. Even at the height of recession, this country has one of the highest per capita export industries in the world.

And yet, one thing the country still doesn't have: bad guys to poke fun at and a Superman to save the country. I guess Ireland would have had to go through a Cold War to experience those. Who knows? At the rate the country is going, we may experience a Cold War yet.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Remembering 9/11 - The Comfort of the Irish

I'm old enough that I remember when and where I was when John Kennedy was assassinated. I was sitting in my 2nd grade classroom at St Philomena's primary school in Des Moines, Washington. That's just south of SeaTac airport, for those of you with a geographic disposition. One of those tiny Tanoy speakers came on (every classroom had one) and the Reverend Mother told us what had happened. I was too young to understand, of course. But I do remember our teacher, Sister Raymond Francis, telling us to get down on our knees and say a prayer for the fallen president. I remember my knees hitting the hard linoleum floor, and for 60 seconds or so, thirty 2nd Graders said our Lord's Prayers and Hail Mary's, and when we were done we went back to work. We couldn't understand why the adults that cared for us were crying. Nor could I understand why, when I got home, my mother was wiping tears from her eyes. Now, of course, I understand.

Yesterday was the 8th Anniversary of the attack on the World Trade Center. Like my memory of Kennedy, I'll always remember where I was on that day. I was at work. My wife rang me, telling me that it had been reported that a light plane had hit one of the Towers. I turned on the set that we had at the office, and by God she was right: smoke was pouring out of the building. I should explain that I used to fly light planes, and couldn't understand how any pilot would be stupid enough to hit a New York skyscraper. I put it out of my mind, then climbed in the car to visit a client.

A couple of hours later, I was sitting in a board room discussing something that I now forget with clients who were also friends. The door flew open. A secretary announced that one of the towers had collapsed. "One of them?" I thought. We rushed to a television. CNN was broadcasting live. I got there just in time to see the second tower collapse. And like everyone else in the world I suddenly realized what was going on: my homeland was under attack. People were dead. Innocent people. And in that moment I broke down and started to cry uncontrollably. The client that I was visiting - Teresa Maguire, and I'll never forget what she did for me - took me in her arms and let me sob, then led me back to the board room for a moment of quiet.

In that moment, the professional nature of our relationship changed. We were simply human beings who didn't understand too much.

Over the course of the next few days, I received constant visits by Irish neighbors and friends. All of them wanted to commiserate. To sympathize. To extend their heartfelt feelings of loss and support to me. They did so because I was their friend. I think they also did so because I was American, and in comforting me, they also extended comfort to the land of my birth.

Ireland has always had a special relationship with the United States. For hundreds of years, my homeland has extended comfort to the Irish. Thousands of Irish took the words carved on the Statue of Liberty to heart: they immigrated to the States: the tired, the restless, the poor, looking for the Light of freedom that was shining so brightly on that open door.

On September 11 2001 the Irish returned the favor, at least to this one Yank so far from home. They extended to me hearts of comfort and kindness; warmth and helpfulness. They let my wet tears of sorrow flow onto their comforting and broad shoulders.

I'll always remember where I was on September 11th. I was in Ireland. With a people who's hearts have an infinite capacity to comfort.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The End of Free Higher Education in Ireland?

Meet my son Jonathan. Taken only yesterday, Jonathan is pictured having just received his BA in Irish and media studies (don't ask me where his penchant for Irish came from - certainly not from me or his mother!)

A quick parental Brag List (I just finished putting my 3 kids through college - 9 consecutive years in all - so figure I'm entitled): Jonathan worked his arse off. He ended up at the top of his class at NUIM (National University of Ireland, Maynooth), and by doing so, also won the John Hume Scholarship - which gives him a free ride for four years toward his PhD in Irish Studies. I am justly proud of the hard work of my son. And also so very pleased with the quality of the education that he received.

Now all of that is wonderful. But what's more wonderful is this: during his undergraduate years, Jonathan (as well as his sisters) benefitted from an outstanding, and almost 'free', university education. Of course, I footed the bill for each of them. The cost? Approximately $12,000 per annum. That's right, twelve grand. And that includes everything: tuition, room and board, books, even the occasional pint.

Comparing Costs of an Irish Education with the US
I compare this cost to that of a fellow that I met in Boston a couple of months ago. About my age and with a son in one of the SUNY schools, this poor fellow and I were sitting in his office, comparing notes. It had been an age since I'd received firm figures regarding the cost of university in the States. So naturally, our talk turned to just that topic:

Me: "Ah, it's so nice to think that I'm almost done putting the kids through college. I think I'll buy a yacht!"

Him: "Don't rub it in. I still have 3 more years to go."

Me (now deadly curious): "Ah, Larry, would you mind if I ask?.... What does it cost to send your kid to SUNY?"

His eyes darkened. His brow furrowed. His face grew pasty white.

Him: "Funny you should ask. I just got the bill for the next Semester." He reached behind him and extracted a fairly standard looking statement. Written in nice lettering, it stated, DUE NOW. My eyes quickly scanned a detailed, line-itemed list of fees: tuition, room and board, frizbee ("We'll see about that!" he told me). And finally, I made it to the bottom line:


Me (choking): "This is for a semester?"

Him: "Ayyyy!!!!"

A year of college at what truly is a great university costs poor Larry about fifty thousand bucks. On the other hand, a year at NUIM - which is a great university, let me tell you - is less than a third of that.

Larry glanced at me. "What does it cost to send your son to college?" he asked. I told him. The poor man had to run to the Men's Room, he was so struck with jealousy.

However, Larry and other jealous parents can take heart! Because, and due to the collapse of the Irish economy, it looks like Irish education will be almost as expensive as in the States!

Coming Soon! Increased Costs for Irish Education
The quality of Irish education, and its relative cheapness, has long contributed to the growth of Ireland's economy. Back in the early 80s, when Ireland was mired in an economic morass, even the IDA - the Irish Development Authority, those charged with bringing investment to Ireland - used the quality of Ireland's bright young kids as a sort of Corporate Mission statement. That is to say, Come to Ireland, and you're going to be able to tap into some of the brightest, and most highly educated young people in the world.

And that statement was - and still is - true. Ireland's system of higher education is second to none. For years, the government has seen fit to invest heavily in this area. And by so doing, they have also invested in the futures of its young people and therefore in Ireland, itself.

What's more, higher education - as illustrated above - was (and still is, for now anyway) affordable. If you wanted to go to college, and if you could make the grade, then you could afford it.

While I am NOT a socialist by any stretch of the imagination (okay, time that I admitted it: I'm a registered Republican. Mind you, I voted Obama), I have seen the benefits of almost free higher education at close hand. And the benefits are enormous. Higher learning has provided younger people with skills and knowledge that they might not have been able to afford elsewhere. And that investment paid off handsomely during the Celtic Tiger years.

But now? Now that the economy has tanked, the government is thinking of pulling the plug on free higher education. This year's budget (scheduled to be announced in December, or so I remember) will institute a real schedule of tuition charges. Invariably, many will no longer be able to attend college. And that will rob Ireland of a generation or so of talent and skills.

"But," you might ask, "So what? I had to pay tuition. Why not these kids?" I had to pay tuition too, back in the States. The difference was - and still is - that a wide range of loans and grants are available to US college-bound kids. That's not the case over here. Federal loans are non-existent. Grants are as scarce as pond lillies in the Sahara (my son won one of the only Grants available in the country, God bless him). Private loans from banks are expensive.

Which means, of course, that when this new tuition comes in, kids here considering college will be faced with the same sort of decisions that many US kids face: either forget about going to college at all, or know that you're going to have a six figure loan balance upon graduation.

Maybe that's okay. I don't know. But I do know this: free (or almost free) higher education was one of the significant benefits that attracted me to Ireland in the first place. If that disappears, it will make Ireland just that much less attractive. To me, and a whole lot of other people.

And that, unfortunately, is a great shame.

For more stories on living in Ireland, why not buy Tom Richards' book A Survivor's Guide to Living in Ireland? Just click on that link!