There’s no point being Irish, the Irish-American politician Daniel Patrick Moynihan said at the time of the assassination of JFK, “if you don’t know the world is going to break your heart eventually”.
He was attempting to put into words what is seen as our national lugubriousness, the morose state identified by Yeats as an abiding sense of tragedy that sustains us through temporary periods of joy.
And yet, it is perhaps the most quintessentially Irish paradox of all that as a society we consistently rank among the world’s happiest and most optimistic in surveys, not just when times are good but even when they’re not.
This phenomenon was most striking at the time of the global banking collapse and the recession that followed, when, against all the odds, survey after survey saw us insisting that we were perfectly fine, if not positively delighted with life.
Tune into any edition of RTÉ's Morning Ireland between 2010 and 2012, as the country plunged deeper and deeper into economic misery, and you would have been forgiven for wondering how we were going to summon the fortitude to get through another day. Yet it was during those years that the World Happiness Report ranked Ireland as the 18th happiest place anywhere, with people's contentedness score down a mere 0.068 points on the Celtic Tiger years.
It’s almost as though we come into the world with low expectations of it, and then take a perverse pleasure in being proven right. What other explanation could there be for our relentlessly positive outlook now, as the second anniversary of a global pandemic approaches?
If you were to define what it is to be Irish, you could say it means being perennially optimistic while perpetually braced for catastrophe. According to the latest Ipsos Global Trends survey, Ireland ranks fourth lowest of 34 countries in terms of negativity about 2021, and fourth highest in terms of optimism about the year just begun.
Anecdotally at least, we seem to spend more time talking about the pandemic than most of our European neighbours, but according to the survey – which was conducted before the current wave – many of us think we will personally emerge largely unscathed. Eighty eight per cent of us are convinced that 2022 will be better than 2021, even though about half don’t believe that last year was as bad as it was cracked up to be, at least for themselves or their families.
Most people (55 per cent) predict that Ireland will be a more tolerant place this year. Contrast this with Britain (21 per cent) or France (10 per cent)
Among those most upbeat about the future were women and the under-35s – one of the survey’s more surprising findings when you reflect on how tough the pandemic has been for young people. The young suffered disproportionately higher rates of joblessness and are represented in large numbers in the sectors worst hit economically. However, they are the most optimistic of all demographics surveyed: 92 per cent of under 35s expect things to improve this year.
It’s almost as though the worse things are, the more resolutely we cling to the belief that there must be better days ahead.
Other studies have shown that women shouldered the lion’s share of the domestic burden during the pandemic and make up the bulk of those in the caring professions, which may be why they were more likely to categorise 2021 as a bad year than men, while convincing themselves that 2022 can only mean their lot improves.
As a nation we take pride in our reputation for compassion and inclusiveness, and revel in the warm afterglow from the marriage equality and Repeal referendums. Unsurprisingly, most people (55 per cent) predict that Ireland will be a more tolerant place this year. Contrast this with Britain (21 per cent), the Netherlands (17 per cent) or France (10 per cent) and it reinforces the idea we are living in an Ireland that is utterly unrecognisable from the repressive state that banned contraception and homosexuality and locked pregnant women away.
Whether all those warm feelings actually translate into the reality of a better life in Ireland for minority communities is less certain, given our capacity for clinging to the best interpretation of ourselves.
There are a few non-Covid related clouds on the horizon. We have higher expectations than all but four other countries of worsening weather events, with three-quarters of Irish people predicting more of them this year, even though other European countries have born the brunt of more direct impacts of climate change.
A previous Ipsos Global Trends survey found that 84 per cent of Irish people agreed with the statement: “We are heading for environmental disaster unless we change our habits quickly.” Of course, while we’re rightly terrified by climate change, major weather events tend to invoke a national hysteria bordering on delight. From our vantage point two years into a global pandemic, there may even be a little nostalgia for a time when the possibility we could run out of sliced pan during Storm Emma was the height of our worries.
This is the essence of the Irish paradox: our capacity to remain defiantly happy in the face of the most abject misery
Our feelings about the global economy are similarly ambiguous. Most Irish people think prices will increase faster than incomes in 2022. This extends to housing – only 12 per cent of people believe this year will bring lower property prices. Two fifths are braced for a major stock market crash, including more than half the country’s young people.
So, are we battening down the hatches in the face of all this gloom? Not at all. Two-thirds are optimistic that the global economy will be stronger this year.
On the world stage, an impressively buoyant one in five people expect Britain to change its mind and rejoin the EU in 2022. But there’s not much else inspiring such wild surges of confidence – in fact, a significant minority expect all the things we used to worry about to come back with a bang this year.
One in three believe nuclear weapons will be deployed in a conflict somewhere in the world. Half of us think hackers from a foreign government will cause a global IT shutdown. Slightly more than that anticipate major electricity blackouts. And 13 per cent think an asteroid will hit Earth – one of the lowest rates of any country, but in Irish terms, roughly the same proportion as those who anticipate a fall in property prices.
To summarise: we are entering 2022 with the expectation of more extreme weather events, increased electricity blackouts, rising prices, more unaffordable housing, further unwelcome incursions into our lives by tech companies, a possible stock market crash and maybe nuclear war. But we’re not pulling the duvets over our heads and ringing in sick for the year – in fact, 88 per cent of us are confident that better days lie ahead.
What does that say about us? Are we incredibly resilient? Utterly deluded? Or just better than the average European at burying our heads in the sand? The truth is a bit of all of the above. We are a nation of closet optimists, loudly predicting the worst while covertly preparing for the best, so that if the world breaks our hearts, we at least have the satisfaction of saying we knew it all along.
This is the essence of the Irish paradox: our capacity to remain defiantly happy in the face of the most abject misery. We live in the moment, because we know better than anyone that it’s hard to predict what fresh hell next week might bring.