Monday, May 26, 2014

Unemployment Drops to 12 Percent. But Backlash Against Government in Local Elections Exposes Resentment

Newsflash, Eyeries, County Cork. It's official, folks. Today Ireland's Central Statistics Office announced that the unemployment rate has fallen to 12 percent. That's the best showing in years. What this means, of course, is that more than 100,000 people are at work today than had been at the bottom of the Great Recession. More jobs are driving increased consumer spending and government tax takes. More jobs are helping people - both locals and immigrants - to crawl out of their desperate financial straights and get on with living. More jobs are giving people hope.

Right? Well maybe not. Not if you take the results of this past weekend's local elections into account. Last Friday, the Irish people voted on a county by county basis to choose over 900 local representatives as well as 11 MEPs, Ireland's European Union legislators. The results were shocking, at least to the sitting government.

Candidates from parties that currently form the existing coalition government - Fine Gael and Labour - were given a roasting at the local polls. For the first time in Ireland's history, Sinn Fein - Ireland's left-leaning political party- gained almost 20 percent of the popular vote. Political Independents have also done exceedingly well.

The local elections, occurring almost mid-term in the life of the present Government, gave Irish people the opportunity to grade the Government on its performance to date. That grade? An F. For Failure.

We're Mad as Hell and We Won't Take it Anymore

Why has Ireland's current government been giving such a poor mark? This government has, after all, managed to turn the country around. The economy is also in the middle of a U-Turn that can only be welcomed by everyone - both employed and unemployed.  Ireland is officially out of bankruptcy and we've managed to get rid of the European Troika who made our lives a misery for the past six years.  And while Ireland Inc continues to increase its indebtedness, the rate of that increase is falling drastically. Soon, it is hoped, Ireland will begin the grueling task of chipping away at the Mount Everest of debt that we've incurred since 2008.

But the turn-around has come at a price. The people of Ireland have paid for it - every bloody red cent - and will continue to pay for generations to come. We pay in record tax increases that the Government has inflicted on its population. We pay for it in significant salary cuts experienced by anyone who happens to be an employee of the Government. If you're a cop, a fireman, a teacher, a civil servant, a doctor, or a nurse, you've seen your income drop by almost 20 percent one way or another.

We pay for it if we are fortunate to have a private pension fund. The government takes a slice of any cash that we've saved - both principle and interest - and will do so for years to come. We pay whenever we buy something because the standard rate of VAT (Value Added Tax) which had been 21 percent before the recession now stands at 23 percent. We pay in new property taxes and new water charges and a new Universal Social Charge which adds a couple of percentage points to the already outlandish tax on salaries.

The Irish also pay with a significant drop in social services. If you're poor, don't automatically expect to receive a medical card. Or housing. Or enough social assistance to keep you from starving. Recently, I heard of a young woman - a friend of my daughter's - a single Mum, broke, down on her luck. For a long time she suffered in silence. Then, at her wit's end and not knowing what else to do, she approached her friends for help. It turns out that this young woman was going to bed hungry every night. That shouldn't happen. Not in 21st Century Ireland.

If you're an American reading this, you might not appreciate the horror that Ireland is experiencing. But America is not a social welfare state. Ireland is, and we pay mightily for the privilege. Middle income people pay over 52% of their income in taxes. But we expect a few things in return.

Young single mothers not going to bed hungry, for example.

Yet it's happening in Ireland. Despite what we pay and will continue to pay for years and years to come.

Ireland's unemployment rate is way, way down.  A wonderful thing. But Ireland's ability to protect those least able to help themselves is being compromised. Which is why the Irish gave the sitting Government a kick in the Goolies this past election.

We're angry, dammit. And unless the existing Government sorts things out, we'll find someone else who will.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

'The Donald' Invests in Ireland. Huzzah!

The Donald stepped off the plane at Shannon Airport yesterday to tell the international investment community about his latest, always triumphant, purchase: this time a world-class golf course.

It is reported that Trump purchased Doonbeg Golf Club, an 18-hole links including a five-star hotel, spa, and 400 acres of prime land located in County Clare, for a song and mere pocket change at €15 million. This is a fraction of its value at the top of the Celtic Tiger, but the Club suffered the usual indignities of Irish recession and had recently been put into receivership. Undoubtedly, more than a few Irish people who had bet on the Club's success when it was established in 2002 are shaking their heads at billionaire Trump's usual timing.

While your intrepid reporter was not present at Trump's triumphant announcement it can only be assumed that the coming of The Donald to Ireland signifies a turn-around in Irish economic fortunes. Or maybe not. What was notable was that the Government found the mogul's presence so critical that Minister for Finance Michael Noonan took time off to meet Trump at the airport. We're not sure who was running Ireland's economy during Noonan's absence for this state occasion but it was decidedly not Noonan.

Trump said that hundreds of jobs will be created through his Irish investment. As reported in The Irish Times, Trump states, "This is one of those that is going to be truly iconic (writer's note: Or did he mean 'ironic'?). This is going to be one that Ireland is going to be extremely proud of."

While The Donald's timely investment will undoubtedly save the jobs of the previously doomed golf club, we worry that Trump - having savored a first taste of Irish bonhomie - will want much, much more for his largess and our government will quickly cave in. Reported to be worth over US$3.5 billion, Trump could:

  • Buy up approximately 1/10th of all Bank Debt
  • Open a new Irish Bank
  • Purchase Aer Lingus and have plenty of change to spare
  • Create a new Trump Palace in Limerick which Noonan, who also represents the area in government, would undoubtedly appreciate
  • Buy Irish citizenship and avail of the €40,000 tax free artists exemption when publishing his next book
  • Run for Taoiseach rather than President of the United States
Whatever way Trump plays it, he's going to have Ireland eating out of his hand and the government is going to love it. Which is going to trouble many Irish people because the majority now hate our government. Always rising taxes, ever-decreasing disposable incomes, and an unemployment rate in the double-digits can do that to people. And with some exceptions, the Irish don't particularly take sides with the rich. So if (when) Trump screws up, the backlash is going to be great fun to watch.

But for the present, Trump is going to love Ireland just like the Irish government loves him. Until he offends someone, of course, like he usually does. Or until he realizes that the Irish can be a begrudging lot and that anytime soon some of the population may well start calling him "thick as a plank" and "the carpet wearing godshite" and "the freeloading fecker from hell."  Then they'll begin peaceful demonstrations on and around his new investment, perhaps blocking access for the rich and famous who will inevitably want to visit The Donald's latest investment punt.

So welcome to Ireland, Mr Trump. And a Cead Mile Failte to you. But one piece of advice: don't piss off the natives or they'll sell that pretty little rug you wear on top of your head quicker than they'd offer you a pint. And not even you, as clever as you are, could stop 'em, so quick are the Irish to get their own back.

A Survivor's Guide to Living in Ireland 2014 Kindle Edition Available Now
Want to learn more about living in Ireland? Are you thinking of traveling to Ireland or moving to Ireland? If so, you might consider the purchase of the 2014 Kindle ebook edition of A Survivor's Guide to Living in Ireland. Now 80,000+ words long, and having sold over 10,000 copies in its various editions, it could make the perfect gift for those interested in this wonderful country. Simply click on any of the links above to purchase this new Kindle version. You can also download various free aps to read this Kindle version on any PC or Mac. 

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Healing in Beara

It takes a bit of effort to get to the Beara Peninsula. Which is why not everyone who visits Ireland travels this far. Which is also why those that do either stumble across this breathtaking corner of Ireland by accident or come to this hidden gem of the world for very specific reasons. Take a look at a map and you'll see why the journey isn't exactly a simple one.

Coming from Dublin? Then it's a five hour journey by car: three hours on the new M8 Motorway to Cork City, then take the N22 to the N71 turn-off, travel overland to Kilkeal; then down to the picturesque village of Glengarriff where Maureen O'Hara lived until recently (her departure is a story in itself and filled with local intrigue and gossip), then along the coast road into the interior of Beara to Castletownbere and finally to Eyeries Village (a lovely spot that I now call home). Traveling from Limerick and Shannon Airport isn't quite as bad but it's still a bit of a stretch for most people. As I've written elsewhere: unlike the Dingle Peninsula, the Ring of Kerry, or other spots, Beara Peninsula isn't exactly on the tourist trail.

Why, then, do people come? Let me answer it this way: a few years ago, when I moved here, an Irish fellow banged on the front door. He had cycled from Cork City down to Eyeries and was desperate to find a place to pitch his tent. In that we didn't have such facilities in the village at the time, he asked me if I'd mind if he camped in my back garden. I had no problem with the idea and let him at it. Long and short of it is I now allow anybody who comes along with the appropriate gear to camp in the back yard. I've had folks from all over the world visit me: couples from Oakland California, a family of four from the Isle of Man, oldsters and youngsters from England, Scotland, Wales, France, Germany, Holland, and all places in between, and even a group of Scouts from Switzerland. It was hard work for them to get from where they had come from to the isolated microcosm called Eyeries, but come they did.

Most come here to walk or bike along the scenic coastline. Some come to find ancestors. A few are interested in local history and archaeology. But others come for something else. They come to Beara because of the energy of healing to be found here.

Finding a Space for Healing
I'm not getting any younger and I've finally learned that human beings are a fragile lot. Into every life a little rain will fall - sometimes in torrents. We can be challenged by many complaints, sometimes of our own making and sometimes not. We suffer: from physical and emotional illness; from life's hardships including the death of loved ones, divorce  and disaster. No matter how old we are, or how apparently strong and resilient, we can become scared silly by things that go bump in the night. And sometimes, we cannot cope. But if we're lucky, if the stars are aligned just right and if that Big Fella is looking in the right direction and notices our plight, we might be sent to Beara to find our way and gain a little sanity. At least that's what has happened to a number of people that I've met, me included.

How, you might ask, does the Beara Peninsula heal? I would argue in many ways, and with many often unapparent tools. It works like this: healing, I think, comes in part from a sense of inner-peace - a sense of calm that allows us crazy humans to take stock, find a bit of safety, and get on with the healing process. The Beara offers that in spades. For instance: a few years ago I met a woman from the States who had gone through a disastrous, rancorous divorce. She was in absolute bits: her sense of self-worth was zero, just like her bank account. Her self-belief and self-respect had been stripped from her. The word 'hope' had been driven from her vocabulary and disaster defined her sense of tomorrow. For two weeks she stopped in Beara and did nothing else but to give herself permission to rest and emotionally heal. She took long walks along the coast in wind, rain, and sun. She borrowed a fishing rod and fished for mackerel and pollack off the nearby rocks - something she had never done before. She swam in the cold waters of Coulagh Bay and had a couple of pints with the locals. And she went home knowing that she could cope with what would come.

Or take the couple from England. They had been through it all: a parent had died; they had been hit by the recession and had lost their home. One of them had contracted a chronic illness. In short, life looked dismal indeed. While visiting, they heard of a woman named Mary Maddison, a wonderful human being who has many gifts. While here, they visited Mary a few times. I know that Mary read their stones (which is not as weird as it may sound), allowed them to talk of their grief, sorrow, and worry, and gave them a healing session. Frankly, I'm a bit uncertain about the credibility of such healers. Many - not including Mary I hasten to add - are rip-off artists. They leverage people's frantic hopes with a snake charmer's promise and large fees to match. But Mary, who believes that her gifts were freely given and should be passed on just as freely, charges not one red cent. I'm not certain if the couple's wishes came true, but I do know that when they left Beara they left much happier and more content than when they first came.

Or take Charlie and his wife Joanne. They are from the Boston area and having heard about Beara had always wanted to visit. Joanne, a visual artist and poet, had first come on her own for a stint at Anam Cara, the local writer's retreat center. She then convinced Charlie to come along and they began to rent a local house for two, three, and four months at a stint. I met them when I first moved down here and had the pleasure of spending Thanksgiving with them. They fell in love with the area and came back frequently. And Charlie decided to die here. It was unexpected, of course. They had come over with the intention of staying a few months. Charlie was working on a book; Joanne was painting. Scheduled to return to Boston he began to feel unwell. The flight was canceled and the local doctor called. Charlie, then in his early eighties, passed away with Joanne and close friends that he had made during his visits here at his side. As Joanne says, Charlie chose to die in Beara because he felt so peaceful that it was easier for him to let go.

Dying isn't healing, of course. But Charlie found a depth of tranquility in Beara that Joanne believes he could find no where else. And that peace allowed him to slip from his mortal coil without pain or suffering. When I pass the house I always say hello to Charlie, firmly believing that he looks down on me as I trudge up the main road to the pub.

Healing in Beara offers people other tools that may be more appropriate to their needs or beliefs. I've seen visitors talk to the local Catholic Priest in hushed confidence, or attending Mass for the first time, finding a faith here that helps them to walk forward through the difficulties of life. I've seen others visit the Buddhist Retreat (Dzoghzen Beara) to find peace and compassion in meditation. Still others, mostly women, locate renewed strength and peace of mind by visiting the Hag of Beara, a weirdly-shaped rock that looks down on the Bay not far from Eyeries. It is said that the rock is the frozen persona of St Brigid, or more likely, the Celtic Goddess also called Brigid who is the embodiment of the feminine, and a source of strength and renewal.

Whatever people find or use, I watch them walk out of my sight renewed and refreshed. There is, it seems, a magic to be found in Beara. At night, when I'm on my own and standing on the deck that overlooks the Bay, I can sometimes feel it too. It is in the gentleness of the salt-smelling breeze that tickles my scalp, or in the call of the seagulls coming home from a day's fishing. It is in the voice of the tides that sweep over the rocks nearby and in the fingers of the sun's rays as they sink salmon colored over the Western horizon. The magic of healing is in the sing-song of the West Cork accents that greet me as a friend and neighbor, and in the scallops that have been given to me as a gift by a local trawler captain who I now call 'friend' and which I eat for dinner.

As a friend of mine said, a woman from America who stayed here for weeks and who struggled with cancer, and who came here to find peace and acceptance: "I can't touch it or explain it. But there's a healing to be found here in Beara that goes beyond reason."

I'll finish on that.

A Survivor's Guide to Living in Ireland 2014 Kindle Edition Available Now
Want to learn more about living in Ireland? Are you thinking of traveling to Ireland or moving to Ireland? If so, you might consider the purchase of the 2014 Kindle ebook edition of A Survivor's Guide to Living in Ireland. Now 80,000+ words long, and having sold over 10,000 copies in its various editions, it could make the perfect gift for those interested in this wonderful country. Simply click on any of the links above to purchase this new Kindle version. You can also download various free aps to read this Kindle version on any PC or Mac.