There's nothing like the worst economic crisis in living memory to shake up the political waters. Fianna Fáil, a center-right party that was in power for most of the last two decades, was crushed in the 2010 elections due to its part in inflating Ireland's property bubble and spectacularly mishandling the economy. They have been replaced by a coalition made up of center-right Fine Gael and the center-left Labour Party. With a huge majority this coalition has begun to see its popularity plummet as it implements the tough austerity measures agreed to in the bailout deal with the IMF and the European Union. That deal means, in effect, that the Irish government has lost sovereignty over the country's finances, a humbling situation for any country, especially one relatively recently freed from the shackles of imperialism. There is much talk of a "new politics," with transparency and honesty now the favorite buzzwords, but it remains to be seen whether the men in power (and in Ireland they are still mostly men) have learned anything. At any bar, talk of politics will lead directly to the ailing economy or the Irish health service and its poor state—everybody will tell you a story of taking their kid to the local emergency room and waiting five hours for someone to look at a broken finger. One recent government minister described the health portfolio as "Angola," a concise definition that spoke volumes. Ireland's a great country with wonderful people, goes the common view—just don't get sick (unless you have good travel insurance).
What is there to say? If Ireland's economy were a patient, then it would be on life support, crippled by an illness brought on by years of excess and self-delusion. Strangely, Ireland's exports are climbing at record rates, with food processing and IT two growth areas, but the domestic market has completely collapsed. Nobody is buying, selling, or building houses, and ghost estates around the country testify to the surplus of properties built (usually in the wrong place) during the madness of the last years of the Tiger. The locals are saving like frightened squirrels, meaning that there's precious little money to ignite consumer sales. So travelers are valued more than ever, adding greatly to your haggling power.
As the church confessional is no longer the purge-zone of choice for the majority of Irish people, radio and TV talk shows have stepped in to fill the void. Every topic under the sun is squeezed and caressed over the airwaves on a daily basis—lesbian nuns, love on the Web, cheap retirement in Bulgaria, mother-and-daughter double-date rules, not to mention one beer-tasting show where brands from around the world are digested in an ever-downward spiral of drunken hilarity. Not quite Howard Stern, you understand, but eons beyond Vatican II. Newspapers include the major three dailies: the Irish Times, the Irish Independent, and the Irish Examiner. A host of U.K. tabloids have also entered the market in recent years, with the Mail, the Sun, and the Mirror being the leading lights. So-called freesheets—morning commuter giveaway papers containing a condensed version of the day's news plus heaps of advertising—are similarly flexing their literary muscles.
For all of their dangerous propensity to rack up the biggest credit card debt in Europe on BMWs, boob jobs, and second homes on Capri, most Irish were, at heart, as confused by life in Celtic Tiger Ireland as the tourists might have been. It all came to us too fast and too flashy, how could we say no? The Irish, when they have a job, still work some of the longest hours, on average, in Europe, but despite their breezy, world-weary air, they remain largely as enthusiastic and comic about life as they ever were. One caller to a radio show summed up his ideal life: "a two-car garage, sex with my wife twice a week, a 12 handicap, and kids who won't call me a loser to my face." The average Joe is in there somewhere.
Priests and bishops (and even the Pope) continue to hit the headlines through sex scandals and revelations of criminal pedophilia cover-ups that have rocked Ireland for more than a decade. The church has fallen a long way in the estimation of most of the population, and suddenly the media is not afraid to ask some searing questions about the church's past and future. Older people are struggling to come to terms with this national loss of trust in their hallowed institution, while increasing numbers of younger folks are turning their backs on regular Mass-going.
Irish-born men entering the priesthood is down to a handful each year and African priests are often shipped in to fill the breach. A majority of the population will still go to church for births, marriages, and funerals but there is a noted decrease in involvement of priests in the social fabric of Irish life. The Catholic Church in Ireland, it seems, will have to quickly redefine and rebrand itself if it is not to go the way of the Church of England in the United Kingdom and become a minority sideshow.
In these dark times the enduring love affair between the Irish and their sports has taken on an added importance. Major victories for golfers like Darren Clarke and Rory McIlroy lift the nation's spirits for a day or two. Football and hurling are still enshrined as the national pastimes—but only just ahead of rugby, soccer, and horse racing.
For a small nation, Ireland has consistently punched above its weight in the global arena, as exemplified by the recent qualification for Euro 2012 by the much-maligned soccer team. Every second pub has a satellite dish pulling down anything from badminton in Bhutan to sumo wrestling in Tokyo. It's no surprise that images of winning football teams reside in pride of place on many pub walls.
Neither the World Wide Web, cellular texting, nor Internet gaming will dent the nation's fondness for the written word. Although there have been few to match the talent of Shaw, Wilde, and Joyce, the huge-selling works of Joe O'Connor, Roddy Doyle, Colum McCann, and Colm Tóbín underline the country as one of the biggest book-buying populations in Europe.
In the movies, time and tide have taken us a long way from John Wayne in The Quiet Man to the modern romance of Once and writer-directors like Neil Jordan, Jim Sheridan, and Noel Pearson and their warts-and-all visions of modern Ireland.
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