One weekend last fall, while I was living in Cork, some friends and I wanted to see a movie. What we wanted to see was not playing at the cinema on our quay (essentially the Irish version of a city block, and confusingly pronounced "key"), so we took a cab to a cinema slightly further away. Our cab driver, friendly in the way that many Irish are: openly, without reservation, and with much enthusiasm and affection, was curious as to why four American girls wanted to take a cab to the cinema off all places on their holiday to Ireland. We explained that we were students at UCC (University College Cork) for the autumn term, and that we were looking for a relaxing night a little bit removed from our usual surroundings. Even more excited about us after finding this out, he proceeded to regale us with tales of “the old days in Ireland,” by which he meant the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. During this time in Ireland, the economy was booming at an unbelievably quick rate, and the time became known as the “Celtic Tiger.” The “Celtic Tiger” refers to the time period, but also to the surge of new-found prosperity, turned into a physical being, and a fierce, uncontrollable, unpredictable one at that. As we drove, he pointed out housing developments, beginning with completed and occupied houses, and slowly diminishing into unoccupied but ready-for-use units, then three walls and a partial roof, then just a foundation, then an empty lot. As quickly as the Celtic Tiger had raced into the lives of the Irish people, it raced out, leaving many with much debt and few job prospects. At UCC’s most recent graduation, over half of the students were not in attendance, because they had already moved out of Ireland and to other countries to look for work.
Suddenly I was very aware of my position as an American, and as a young student with bright post-grad prospects, and I was hyper-aware of the fact that I was fortunate enough to have the means to spend a semester abroad, struggle though it was to save up those funds. Many people had the perception that we were those stereotypical rich Americans, spending our way through Europe without a care in the world. In reality, we were Americans of average backgrounds, frugally (though deliciously) exploring (eating) our way through the cities we visited. Even this, however, is something that most students in Ireland will never dream of. Never before studying abroad have I been so aware of my privilege on such a constant basis. And yet the privilege I felt living in Cork can be considered middle class, at best, in America.
As our cab driver, Patrick (or Paddy for short – no joke), told us of the quick rise and quicker fall of the Celtic Tiger, and how as the country began to descend into its current economic situation, he told us of those who tried to take advantage of people who had bought into the Celtic Tiger by loaning them money at ridiculously high rates, and other schemes. Ika, in “The Tower of Babel,” is convinced by the deliberately named Sharky to buy into the Development Project. What begins as a means for Ika to improve his situation becomes what puts him deep into debt and a miserable existence for a considerable period of time. Though many see progress as inevitable and desirable, the Celtic Tiger and Ika’s story question whether Development should be forced upon people who are content living a less Developed lifestyle, and who should be given the authority to require such Development. Ireland is a quirky place where many developments have been attempted, but exist now in a very Irish way. Our flat, for example, had wireless internet (that only worked when you were sitting at the dining room table or on the floor in the hallway under the wireless connection box), a television (with four channels, five some days), and our own laundry machine (that we still swear is actually a time machine as the sound of the spin cycle is akin to a spaceship launching). Can anyone, especially an outsider, legislate progress for a society, or for an individual? Should it be up to the individuals in each society to dictate the progress for themselves? Can we ever take progress too far? Would we even know if we had?