A Traveller’s Tale by Frank O’Shea
Of course, six years is bound to make a difference. Back in 2011, Ireland was owned by the banks which had to be rescued by the government which in turn was in the process of being rescued by Europe. There were whole housing estates half finished with grass growing under the windows; shops were shuttered, pubs were almost silent, people were wondering if things would ever get back to how they were.
Well, the story is that they have gone back to how they were, except that the country seems to have a better appreciation of what is meant by paying your way. It is as if people have come to understand how they were hornswoggled by clever conpersons who talked money in millions and told them that debt was cool. Recovery was not without pain, but the returns for 2017 showed GDP growth of 7.8 per cent, highest in the EU and the kind of figure that puts the country in the same bracket as China.
Today’s Ireland seems to be unhampered by old political loyalties or church allegiances. Pubs seem to be less prominent than they used to be, and are replaced by expensive restaurants and coffee shops; there is a transport system that is as modern and in the cities, as busy as Melbourne. Morality is based less on the Ten Commandments than on the requirement not to be caught unless you have a good lawyer. A simple example: in the cities, you don’t leave things on the back seat of your locked car – especially you don’t leave anything covered by an item of clothing because that is a giveaway that you are hiding something valuable.
Those ghost estates of five years ago are now occupied, in many cases by ‘council’ tenants, people who pay a reduced rent and will in time be encouraged to buy their houses. Around the small town where this oldie spent most of his time there seem to be whole villages of those houses, quiet and well ordered, some occupied by folk from Eastern Europe originally. There is no homelessness in this locality, though the media seem to be extravagantly concerned about it as a major issue in the cities.
Ireland has a number of schemes that greatly assist older people, especially those on their own. One is called Taobh Linn (Near Us) which provides small settlements of 20 to 50 clustered houses in close proximity to shops and services; inhabitants have subsidised meals and regular medical help and are a normal part of the wider community. This form of sheltered housing is available to all older people, although not surprisingly there is a waiting list. It should be mentioned also that all citizens over the age of 66 have free public transport either locally or to any place in the country, a contrast with the confusion of travel schemes available in Australia.
The old people pay back this largesse from the grave because Ireland imposes an inheritance tax on deceased estates. This used to be less than 10 per cent but is now calculated at one-third of the value of the inheritance, with no exemption for principal residence. Try introducing such a scheme in Australia! And talking about tax, the top income tax bracket is 52 per cent, a figure that is easily reached at the top end by a couple such as a teacher and a nurse even if they have a mortgage and a young family.
So, Ireland is doing well. And no doubt that has come from full employment, from well-run industries and careful government control. A casual visitor to the country might however notice that one sector seems to be going through a boom. I refer to litigation. Read any of the main dailies and you will find multiple accounts of payouts to people who have suffered physical or emotional injury. This has been a goldmine for many: solicitors and barristers obviously, but also creative writers – victim impact statements can be put in so many ways – accountants, psychiatrists, psychologists, journalists, shock jocks. There is a whole sub-industry of rear-end motor collisions, another of misinterpretation of laboratory tests. Hard cases, no doubt, and all worthy, but of little comfort to the poor visitor who left his ipad in the back seat of his hired car.
I finish with one small item that shows another type of progress. A teenager in her final year of secondary school told me of her ‘convent’ school in a town in Tipperary. It is an ordinary, non fee-paying school, run by the government, with nuns no longer on the teaching staff. In 2017, about 130 girls sat their Leaving Cert (Year 12 equivalent). Of those, every girl went on to some form of further education or training – university, TAFE equivalent, FAS course – all leading to some formal qualification. There is no reason to imagine that boys’ schools are any different. Readers of this publication will readily appreciate how different this is from even ten years ago.