March 19, 2021
It was nothing short of a national tragedy here in Ireland earlier this week… again.
On March 17, 2020, the Emerald Isle locked down for the first time. Today, like much of the rest of Europe, Ireland now is on a Level 5 lockdown – the most severe – as it has been for nearly three months, while the country struggles with a third wave of the coronavirus.
Traveling outside of a 5-kilometer (3.1 mile) radius, except for “essential reasons,” is prohibited. Aside from members of a household that are in your “support bubble,” home visitors are as well.
But worst of all (and to some, this was the true tragedy), the pubs are closed… even on St. Patrick’s Day, the favorite holiday of irresponsible drinkers everywhere, including in my local village.
This being Ireland – home to the world’s sixth most-thirsty beer drinkers (more on that below) – some people were determined to celebrate the anniversary of the death of Ireland’s patron saint (who was for centuries associated with the color blue, not green) no matter what.
As our local online paper The Journal reported on Tuesday…
Gardaí [the police]… have seized bar equipment and arrested one man after the search of a suspected shebeen in Monkstown… gardaí received reports of a number of people gathering at a private premises in the south Dublin suburb… On the premises, gardaí found and seized a number of beer taps, kegs, gas cylinders and other bar equipment… This latest operation is one of a number of raids of suspected shebeens conducted by gardaí under Operation Navigation.
A shebeen (pronounced shuh-bean) is what happens when Tommy from down the street launches a side hustle involving a keg and a couple of chairs, and has the lads come over for a few pints. But since the state can’t get its cut of the revenue – and because gatherings of more than you and your shadow are forbidden – shebeens get the kibosh.
Until not long ago, resourceful publicans – the keepers of non-illicit drinking establishments – found a way around COVID-19 lockdowns via the takeaway pint. That’s when you buy a pint at a pub, poured into a plastic cup by a bartender… and then drink it elsewhere – usually, just outside the pub.
If you happen to be in the general vicinity of a few dozen other takeaway pint drinkers, well, it’s not your fault, and it’s not like you’re breaking the rules on social gatherings… (just like it’s not smoking if you don’t inhale).
Unfortunately, the spoilsport taoiseach – pronounced tee-shock, which is what the Irish call their prime minister – didn’t see it that way. He announced in January – the same week that CNN reported that Ireland had the world’s highest COVID-19 infection rate – that people should “forget about takeaway pints.” (It’s not often that the leaders of countries endorse drinking at home – but these are unusual times.)
“He could have been a bit nicer about it, because we are all struggling at the moment, to try to survive this thing,” one publican quoted by the Irish Times remarked.
As of 2019, there were around 7,000 pubs in Ireland – and about as many Irish-themed pubs elsewhere in the world, most of which are about as Irish as Lucky Charms breakfast cereal.
But repeated lockdowns are decimating the ranks of Ireland’s pubs. “Ireland’s iconic watering holes face a deeply uncertain future,” warned CNN earlier this week.
The taoiseach notwithstanding, takeaway pints are still thriving, at least in some parts of south Dublin where I currently reside. Our wonderful across-the-street neighbors – who have lived on the property for three generations – brought over a St. Patrick’s Day cheer of two takeaway pints of Guinness, as shown in the photo below (that’s my pint glass in the middle).
The average Irish person drinks 208 pints of beer a year… less than world leader Czech Republic (304 pints), but more than laggard Americans (No. 21 in global beer consumption, at a measly 154 pints).
While pubs are suffering, the Irish economy is on fire – at least that’s what the statistics would have you believe. It grew by 3.4% last year, driven by growth in exports. But Bloomberg explained, “Local economists tend not to focus on GDP as a measure of Ireland’s economy, given the presence of so many large U.S. companies who use the country as a gateway to the European market.”
Being a conduit of goods to the European Union, it turns out, doesn’t help normal people suffering in a pandemic-induced economic depression. Stripping out economic activities that are irrelevant to Irish people, the Irish economy shrank by around 5.5%.
But contrary to the enduring perception (180 years of stories about the potato famine will do that), Ireland isn’t poor. In fact – at least if we use GDP/capita, despite its drawbacks, as a measure – Ireland is the EU’s second-richest country, trailing only Luxembourg… and ahead even of Switzerland. Thanks in part to decades of investment by the European Union, which Ireland joined in 1973 – back when it was called the European Economic Community – Ireland’s infrastructure is a lot better than that of much of the United States.
Ireland’s true wealth, though, is in its soft power…
Soft power is how a country’s ideals and values are conveyed, transmitted, and spread… how a nation’s government, companies, and people treat their friends and enemies… and how it does business around the world.
Soft power is “cool kid” charisma… It’s what attracts people and makes them want to work with you and be on your team. Soft power is the flip side of what the bully uses to get his way – fighter jets, steel-toed boots on the ground, and bullets.
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The most enduring empires over time have cultivated and maintained their position with a deft combination of both soft and hard power. The British Empire was on top of the world for so long because it was the home of industrialization, the world’s largest navy, and the currency that everyone wanted in their pocket… And at the same time, it also had the royal family, Shakespeare, the English language, and a unique brand of corporate imperialism.
Ireland – the size of Indiana, with as many people as Alabama, and a military that would be outnumbered by the student population of a mid-sized American university – has as much hard power as it has desert terrain.
It does, though, have the soft power of countries many times its size – starting with landmark cultural icons ranging from James Joyce and Oscar Wilde, to U2 and Conor McGregor, to Colin Farrell and Pierce Brosnan, to Guinness and Jameson.
Ireland’s greatest soft power resource, though, is the 100-million strong Irish diaspora across the globe. Nearly 10% of the U.S. population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, self-identifies as having Irish heritage (including 20% of Bostonians and 14% of the people in Philadelphia).
Six of the past 12 inhabitants of the White House (including President Joe Biden) – and 22 of America’s 46 presidents – have Irish roots… even if they’re pretty far back.
As The Conversation explained,
If measured by when their last ancestor left Ireland, Joe Biden is no more Irish than Barack Obama. Indeed, the Irish ancestors of [President John F.] Kennedy, Obama and Biden all left Ireland within a decade of each other, during or just after the Irish Potato Famine (1845 to 1852).
(Just to clarify… Irish roots don’t make you Irish. The habit of some Americans of saying that they’re from the country where Great Grandpop or Great Great Grammy was born – “I’m Italian, my people came over in 1905,” or “I’m Irish, from the potato famine” – is a source of occasional befuddlement for people who are actually, you know, Italian or Irish.
If you’re American… born there, lived there, from there… and of Irish ancestry – and much of what you know of the homeland is from Riverdance and wearing green on March 17 – stand proud: You’re American… of Irish descent. But strictly speaking, you’re not Irish.)
Still, much of the soft power of Ireland stems from the links (however tenuous) of its diaspora. And unlike some other ancestral groups – 17% of Americans self-report German roots, but you don’t hear much about German Day parades, or a global holiday named after the patron saint of German – Irish-hyphenates are noisy about their origins.
That’s why Ireland’s prime minister has a standing date to meet with the U.S. president every day in mid-March. For a country with as many people as Costa Rica or Slovakia to regularly command the attention of the most powerful nation on Earth, it’s a reflection of what the Economist in 2019 called “Ireland’s soft-power triumph” – which in part is a “testament to the continued enthusiasm of 32 million Irish Americans for their roots, and to their equally remarkable dominance of American politics.”
And Ireland’s reach extends beyond the U.S. – and into the EU and elsewhere. “On a per-head basis, Ireland has a good claim to the world’s most diplomatically powerful country,” the Economist said last year.
That’s all good… but in Ireland today, all the diplomatic power in the world won’t get you a pint at the local pub, or the craic (pronounced crack, meaning general fun and conversation and merriment) that goes along with it.
But it could be worse: Pubs could be closed every year on St. Patrick’s Day, pandemic or not.
Up until the 1970s, pubs weren’t allowed to open on St. Patrick’s Day as a mark of respect (sometimes lost in pinching people who aren’t wearing green, and all the leprechaun costumes, is the fact that St. Patrick made his name by bringing Christianity to Ireland). As Irish Central explains, “It was feared that leaving the pubs open would be too tempting for some during Lent and would lead to a disrespectful amount of drunkenness on this most solemn day.”
Today, you can achieve a disrespectful amount of drunkenness only in the quiet solitude of your own home – or at your local shebeen. Until it’s closed down.
Many of you wrote in about Kim’s daily from last week: Value Is in the Eye of the Digital Beholder…
Many years ago (definitely pre-blockchain) the Government radio did an interview with a dealer in the world of (definitely non-digital) collectibles. Ten years ago, he said collectibles (photos, posters, etc.) of the silent-movie-era cowboy hero Tom Mix were going for then-incredible sums of money. But today, he continued, they’re virtually worthless “because everybody that cared about them is dead.” And that won’t change in the digital Brave New World! – Wynn S.
Kim Iskyan Response: Hi Wynn, thanks for your e-mail. You make a great point… There has to be a market for an asset in order for it to have (monetary) value. And if the people who would create that market aren’t around anymore, well, that’s bad news for anyone looking to exchange the asset for cash. In this sense, it’s more likely that there will be a market for NFTs for a lot longer than (say) Tom Mix collectibles.
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Executive Editor, American Consequences
With Editorial Staff
March 19, 2021