How the world sees Ireland

 

As St Patrick’s Day nears, our foreign correspondents report on what people in other parts of the world really think of the Irish right now

BRAZIL - TOM HENNIGAN

ON THE DAY OF shame, when the IMF landed in Dublin, Ireland led the evening news on Brazil’s most watched television network.

A crew, dispatched from London, sought to explain to viewers the fall from grace of a country whose economic miracle had previously been much admired in South America.

Brazilian immigrants interviewed in Gort said the work had dried up and many were planning to return home. The general impression was of an economy in ruins.

As the only Irish acquaintance of many Brazilians I quickly became used to expressions of concern for my family. Were they safe?

On returning from a trip home for Christmas one Brazilian friend seemed surprised to hear that it was snow and not economics that threatened to upset festivities. She seemed to expect that, given what she had seen and read in the news, Christmas in Ireland would have been cancelled.

Another friend who writes a popular financial blog recently enlightened me on why Ireland was now up a creek without a paddle: because “you don’t produce anything”. I got sceptical looks while explaining that even after the implosion of the construction and financial sectors there were other still relatively healthy parts of the economy that we were relying on to turn things around. She made me feel like I was covering up for a huge Ponzi scheme.

The coverage of the crash means Ireland’s reputation in Brazil is somewhere between battered and shredded. Damage done, the country has slipped back down the news agenda. Now its crisis is usually only mentioned in a Europe-wide context. The general election barely registered.

But it is worth pointing out that such perceptions are typically only among the better off.

For millions of poorer Brazilians the problems of relatively well-off Europeans are remote. Edmilson, one of the doormen in my building, said he had heard there was a crisis in Europe but paid it no attention: “I have enough struggles in my own day-to-day life to bother with those of other people far away.”

UK - MARK HENNESSY

OVER A YEAR ago, opinion in London towards Ireland lacked sympathy, showing echoes of the neighbour who nurses a silent pleasure as its sees an upstart next-door run into difficulties after splurging on new cars and credit cards. But the sense of schadenfreude mellowed as the crisis across the Irish Sea worsened.

By November, it had transformed; almost as if the British had not been displeased to see extravagance punished, but was now concerned that the penalties facing Ireland, including the threat of default on its debts and economic annihilation, had gone beyond the scale of the original offence.

In the House of Commons in November, during the height of the IMF bailout talks, it was difficult to walk more than 10 yards down a corridor without someone hurrying over to offer words of apparently genuine comfort: “Are you guys going to be alright?” one MP with no track record of interest in Irish affairs asked me late one night.

Self interest played its part, too, if not at the level of the street then certainly among those knowledgeable enough to know that British banks could be thrown back into chaos if the Irish banks and State defaulted on monies that had been lent by the British institutions in the hope of big profits during the height of the building boom.

Before being elected, the Conservatives had repeatedly declared that Ireland is the UK’s most important export market – surpassing India, China, Brazil and Russia combined, though back then they used the image to point to the UK’s failure in export markets, rather than as an appreciation of Ireland’s importance.

But the image bedded into the political system and played a useful role in garnering support from MPs when it was drawn upon again by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, to justify his decision to offer over £7 billion in a variety of loans to Ireland.

Throughout the crisis, the decision of the Irish public not to launch French or Greek-style riots has been taken, in the British media and among the public at large, as an illustration of an extraordinary, if somewhat baffling, degree of pragmatism, but also, perhaps, as evidence of a degree of Celtic fatalism that nothing would change, even if the Irish did.

GERMANY - DEREK SCALLY

WHEN 25,000 people brought central Munich to a standstill for last Sunday’s St Patrick’s Day parade, it seemed like old times. Europe’s largest celebration of all things Irish included a Johnny Logan set and a spontaneous céilí – and no talk whatsoever of bail-outs or corporate tax.

It was heart-warming proof that Germans’ love of the “Green Isle” is unshakeable, their ignorance of recent events blissfully complete.

“All along the parade route we had people cheering us, waving Ireland flags, it was quite a spectacle,” said Dan Mulhall, Irish ambassador to Germany. “I don’t know if any other country would get permission to close off the city centre, let alone get so many people out.”

Days earlier, he entertained a sold-out Berlin theatre with a reading of Irish literature, accompanied by the talented Irish harpist Bríd Ní Chatháin. Starting with Pangur Ban and Swift, the Ambassador brought the house down two hours later with a rousing rendition of On Raglan Road. The warm glow towards Ireland in the auditorium could have powered a Dublin housing estate for several days.

From the Berlin reading to the Munich parade, it’s clear that, for the average German, the ongoing tensions between Berlin and Dublin might as well be happening on the dark side of the moon. Germans continue to enjoy their Irish beer, their Irish butter and the top-rated soap opera Our Farm in Ireland.

“Finance? Ireland needs romance,” headlined the influential Frankfurter Allgemeine daily atop last week’s report on the Abbey’s resurrection of Arrah-na-Pogue.

Though the paper notes the play’s unloved tax collector is a German in the Abbey production, it doesn’t mention any of the German critical coverage in the recent Irish media. “When the song turns to Ireland as the most despairing country that was ever seen, the self-pity has another meaning,” noted the paper empathetically.

This week, national radio station Deutschlandradio Kultur is running a series of programmes devoted to Irish music, culminating in a live concert in conjunction with RTÉ from the Irish embassy in Berlin.

It’s a huge deal in Germany – the equivalent of week-long exposure on BBC Radio 3 or 4 – and will cement further the positive vibe towards Ireland in Germany.

The battle of public perception towards Ireland in Germany is going our way – but is ours to ruin.

USA - LARA MARLOWE

ELECTIONS? WHAT elections? “That news hasn’t got to us yet,” says an acquaintance , a former mayor of Phoenix, Arizona. Our mutual friend, an estate agent who finds homes for hot-shots in Washington, hadn’t heard of the change of government in Dublin either. Little wonder the New York Times thought Enda Kenny was a woman.

St Patrick’s Day will be celebrated with the usual parades and Masses. But the truth is that the US is absorbed with its own ruined economy, two wars, polarised politics and upcoming presidential race. What little interest there is in foreign news has focused on Egypt and Libya.

America’s benign indifference towards – and ignorance of – Ireland is perhaps best symbolised by the fact that for the first time in 64 years, there will be no Kennedy to meet with the new Taoiseach in the US Capitol. The Irish Embassy is counting on Enda Kenny to “raise Ireland’s profile” and convey the message that “Ireland is open for business”.

The Arizonan knew about the Celtic Tiger. “The European economic miracle – that was the way it was marketed to us,” he sighs. The desert state even imported an Irish expert to help it replicate the miracle, with public-private partnerships, an emphasis on high-tech.

He’d heard about the crash too but assumed it had more or less the same causes as the US recession. Most of the Americans I meet have some Irish ancestry, and a well of good will towards Ireland. They express sadness and sympathy, especially over the resumption of mass emigration. News photographs have left the deepest impressions, of abandoned horses roaming the Dunsink tip outside Dublin, of ghost estates with broken windows.

Republicans and the conservative Wall Street Journal were cheerleaders for the fiscal austerity and cutbacks enacted by Fianna Fáil. If Ireland can do it, we can too, they said. For US liberals, Ireland was a cautionary tale, proof of the destructive power of unregulated capitalism.

US journalists who reported from Ireland this winter marvelled at the apparent passiveness of Irish taxpayers. They looked for Greek-style anger, but didn’t find it.

CHINA - CLIFFORD COONAN

CONSIDERING THAT THE population of Ireland is around one fifth of Beijing’s population of 20 million (indeed, there are more people in the Chaoyang district of the city where I live than there are on the whole island) Ireland’s profile is very high in China.

Ask Beijing passers-by the first three things they think of when they hear of Ireland and you get some remarkable answers, a cross between the well-informed and the slightly bizarre.

Li Hao, 32, says: “U2, the uilleann pipes and the Irish army,” while Mr Chen, 33, also chooses the uilleann pipes (I have no idea where this comes from), cycling races and the economic crisis. For Zhang Hongli, 32, Ireland is “windmills, coffee and Riverdance”. Su Rui, 28, also goes for the uilleann pipes but mentions cold weather and the Troubles.

Mr Jiao, 42, appears a little out of touch, saying: “Football, football, football.” Bian Xiaosong, 31, mentions Ireland’s beautiful coastline and checked shirts. And uilleann pipes again.

Zhang Yuehan, 27, says: “I know of Ireland’s ‘holy marriage’, where when a couple get married they can’t get divorced, they have to keep their promise for 100 years. Is that true? I love it, it’s so romantic.”

Li Linzi, 25, goes for beautiful dresses, U2 and grasslands, while Li Ping, 55, says Ireland is a small country, in Europe, in some way related to England.

Zhang Yuzhuo, 60, says: “Ireland used to belong to England, now it’s a peaceful country, currently undergoing a crisis.”

In the media, there are plenty of Irish stories, and it’s not all doom, gloom or paddywhackery. Admittedly Sohu.com, one of the most popular websites in China, does look at the European Central Bank and how it takes a dim view of Irish exuberance in the property market.

But the Xinhua news agency, which recently opened a bureau in Dublin, has news of Enda Kenny’s appointment.

The economics section of the Tencent website has a report about how the EU will carefully consider the terms of the bailout. On 533.com, there is a report about how Irish universities are illustrating the advantages of studying in Ireland at the Education Exhibition. Rayli.com gives “nine reasons to travel to perfect Ireland”.

FRANCE - RUADHÁN Mac CORMAIC

“THE SCENERY, the open spaces, the sea, the cold climate. The people have a reputation for being friendly. Everyone knows about St Patrick. And the beer.”

Raphaëlle Collomb, a young florist on rue de Bretagne in Paris, has never been to Ireland and doesn’t know any Irish people, but the images she summons capture some of the most entrenched, positive and timeless French ideas about the country.

Michel Jouffre, a 60-something from Lyon, says he knows the Irish above all through their history. “They’re an independent, free people – not revolutionaries, but people attached to their independence. For me, they’re a proud people,” he says. Jouffre visited Ireland about 15 years ago and had his hopes fulfilled. “Even before going, I’d heard of the landscape, the dunes, the stone walls, the valleys, the rain, the little roads, the steep coasts.”

Ireland normally doesn’t bleep all that loudly on France’s radar, but over the past year the press has shown a keen interest in la crise irlandaise. Pictures of ghost estates, dole queues, grey skies and forlorn-looking horses have been hard to miss. The French public has been fed semi-regular updates on Irish politics (invariably “complex“), the bubble (“burst”), the mood (“as dark as Guinness“) as well as resonant stories of emigration and hardship.

Occasionally, in French commentary, it hasn’t been hard to detect a sense of quiet vindication over the fate of the once-swaggering, over-confident country. Many in the French establishment doubted the wisdom of Ireland’s economic model over many years. As Mediapart, a popular website run by a former editor of Le Monde, put it, many in France feel great sympathy for Ireland but others have reacted with knowing smiles.

Lauriane Guionnière, a student from Tours in central France, admits that her stock of Irish imagery is full of stereotypes: “Shamrocks, the fields, the greenness, a certain idea of liberty, the whiskey, the fresh air.” But, as it happens, she watched a film about the global crisis last night and learned a lot about Ireland’s “catastrophic” situation for the first time.

She mentions the cost of the banks and the destruction of environmental patrimony. “A country that was free, independent, that was held up for a certain quality of life – now apparently it’s all turning to dust. What I saw was scary,” she says.

Has the crisis changed her view of Ireland? “No . . . the crisis is the fault of government and lobbies – big people who have money. The people of Ireland are only paying the consequences. That’s what’s deplorable.”

Guionnière’s grasp of Ireland’s mess is more developed than most. Many, like Alice Levis, a shoe-shop assistant, hadn’t heard that the country was in trouble. She’s sorry to hear it, because it’s a place she’d like to visit one day. “There are problems between Catholics and Protestants,” she says. “That’s the first thing that comes to mind. And beer.”