For those of us contributing to social commentary at present there is a constant tension between the incessant streams of bad news it seems we are all confronted with daily and a desire to avoid portraying contemporary Ireland as in the midst of ineluctable apocalypse.  We know there is a sun somewhere behind all those clouds but sometimes it’s just so hard to see.  If we are to take Brian Cowen’s point of view, all the naysayers pointing out the nation’s ills are not acting in the interests of the country or any sort of economic recovery.  This perspective is far from constructive in that it tries to hide Ireland’s problems behind what amounts to a net-curtain of artifice.  Hard times, in a variety of manifestations and degrees of severity, are simply a reality for the majority of the population at the moment.

An article in today’s Guardian paints this picture of this latent despair rather aptly.  Without being overly sensationalist it offers a series of snapshots of some of the ways people’s economic and emotional wellbeing has been challenged by the recession.  More than exhibiting trenchant anger, these vignettes suggest a deeper sense of melancholy disillusionment at the way the country has turned out, and the injustice of the Government’s handling of the situation.

As much of the discussion on this blog has suggested, the crash has literally trapped many people in negative equity, on ghost estates, in places where the lives they constructed have crumbled or stand on the precipice of doing so.  They have been stuck in place, imprisoned by the banks in an economic quicksand.

The crash has affected more people than those in heavy mortgage debt, however. There is a whole generation of young people who are emerging into maturity in a country that seems to have sold their future out from under them.  One of those interviewed for the Guardian piece expressed quite succinctly what I think is a common feeling of hopelessness.  Explaining why he was considering emigration he suggested

“I know we are the country’s future but at the same time why should we stay and pay for someone else’s mess?”

This sense of loss has been keenly felt by young people.  For those swaths of society exiting school and college it seems like they have been denied a chance at building a life for themselves in their own country.  In contrast to those who have been almost forcibly stuck to place, many others are being denied their homeplace.  Ireland has been here before during the 1980s, when emigration was almost a necessity, especially for high-skilled labour.  This situation is creeping back into the everyday language of the youth.  A couple of years ago in Ireland emigration was a choice that an individual made.  Now there is a sense that it will again become a choice that is made for us.  Nor is this sense of disillusion confined to the indigenous Irish.  The same fears are undoubtedly felt by many others who have come to Ireland and set up lives for themselves.  Many people I talk to now have emigration in their mind as a definite possibility.

Ireland’s longstanding history of emigration was reversed during the boom.  For the young people currently in the labour market it finally felt like a life of your choosing could be made in Ireland, that you wouldn’t have to start anew, that you wouldn’t have to leave behind friends and family to do it.  Now these ghosts that we thought were gone have returned, spectres of an all too recent past come to haunt the freshly killed dreams of the youth.  We hear all the time about the necessity to build a knowledge economy, yet Ireland is complacently slipping into brain drain mode once again.  We can debate the economic sense of the decisions currently being made about who is saved from the Celtic Tiger wreck and who is not.  What is clear I think is that the outcomes of these decisions are going to be more than financial; they will be emotional and psychological and open up wounds that may never fully heal.

As for seeing the sun through the clouds of despair, it is not just a case of looking on the financial bright side.  Of course there is still much joy and love in people’s lives; the despair is not all encompassing by any means.  But to stare down the country as it stands, I think, necessitates that we feel this disillusionment.  As Bonnie Prince Billy once sang , “I wake up and I’m fine, with my dreaming still on my mind, but it don’t take long you see, for the demons to come and visit me”.

Cian O’ Callaghan

(with Rob Kitchin)