I am at Bantry in Ireland to speak at a clergy conference. So far it is everything you’d expect of Irish culture: great hospitality, generosity of spirit, humour and storytelling. The weather is beautiful and the view from the hotel out to the bay is lovely. It is totally relaxing – the clergy don’t arrive until 2pm today!
I have only ever been to Ireland once and that was to preach at Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin several years ago. Since then the economic bubble has burst and Ireland’s economy has – like the invading French navy in Bantry Bay several hundred years ago – hit the rocks. The train has come off the rails, the trees have lost their leaves, the Celtic Tiger has been tranquilised.
All I really know is what I have seen on British TV – and I know that this doesn’t always reflect the full reality. (For thirty years we thought that life in Northern Ireland consisted of shootings, bombings, deprivation and bigotry – forgetting that the media are interested in the abnormal, not the normal.) But, it is evident here from the built environment that the rumours of stagnation are not being exaggerated.
My hosts here explained to me over breakfast this morning the reality: housing estates half-built and now left empty; housing developments abandoned without proper roads or utilities; landscape scarred with the icons of greed and what Shakespeare calls (of Macbeth) ‘vaulting ambition which o’erleaps itself’.
While the Celtic Tiger was roaring, no one wanted to hear warnings of hubris. While the banks were lending and developers were building, no one welcomed reminders of reality or suggestions of caution. While the money flowed, those who didn’t join in the party were regarded as the spoilsports who ‘just didn’t get it’. Yet, when the Tiger lay wounded for all to see, the same people asked indignantly why no one had warned them what might happen.
For the record, many clergy and bishops (among other realists) had been warning for years that the economic boom encouraged greed, nurtured false confidence in fragile economic/financial systems and fostered fantasies of sufficiency. And all this was rooted in a false assumption that ‘things can only get better’. It seems that every generation thinks it is the ultimate – that when things are good they will remain good. Human beings are terrible at provisionality, temporal perspective and learning from life (let alone from history).
Those who warned were being prophetic. Not in the sense of predicting the future or doing spooky stuff. But, in the sense of introducing into the fantasy world a perspective of reality that reminds us of how the world actually is, how time works, that human systems are subject to forces beyond human control – even though such a suggestion is shockingly old-fashioned and feeble to some ears.
No, what the economic collapse and the subsequent shrieks of let’s-blame-someone-else horror (‘why did nobody warn us?’) demonstrate is simply that prophets are not heard while things are good. Then they are damned for not having got their message across to the deaf when things go awry. Read Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, Micah and all the rest. Nothing is new – we have been here before, but we never learn.
So, why do I say the Tiger is tranquilised, rather than dead? Because history also teaches us that out of the current situation there will emerge people with entrepreneurial vision who will build new structures on the rubble of the old. After the pain will come renewed gain.
But, the challenge will be to keep hubris at bay, to keep the tiger harnessed, to keep the tranquilisers to hand as a reminder of what can happen when we forget our limitations and our mortality.