07 January 2008

Friday morning at nine o'clock she is far away

Traveling to Wroclaw is like a trip back in time to Ireland of the late 80's. I remember my first trip to London in 1989 by bus from Dublin. The more geographically astute amongst you might realize that there is in fact a sea between England and Ireland, but as these were the days before RyanAir most people could not afford to fly to London (and by 'most people', I mean me), and so an amazing 18 hour journey by bus and ferry was the order of the day. The bus was a sad sight to behold as it was full of folks emigrating to London in search of work in bars and on the building sites. Bus Aras was host to tearful departures as families were torn asunder by the ravages of poverty (remember, I love melodrama, not just in eschatol-icious 70's cinema). For many on the bus it was not only their first time out of Ireland, it was also their first time out of their village.

Even when I was in college in '91 the expectation was that most of our class would emigrate, or be unemployed. The more cynical amongst you might point out that as I did Theology, that's not really a surprising estimate of our general career prospects regardless of the era. For the sake of argument I ask you to hold back your cynicism, and assume that the same dismal forecast held true for other disciplines as well.

Flying from Wroclaw you witness the same heartache on the faces of your fellow passengers and the families they leave behind as on that bus to London. On the return trip the half-empty plane erupts into a tumultuous round of applause as passengers unused to flying visibly relax, and temporary migrants are overcome by their return home.

Of course once the applause subsides all order breaks down, with everyone out of their seats 30 seconds after the wheels hit the ground and a full 10 minutes before we come to a complete halt. Then once we finally stop the mad scramble off the plane, women and children trampled underfoot by bigger women and children, everyone rushing to end up on the exact same bus that doesn't leave for the terminal until the last person is off the plane. I must learn the Polish word for 'futility', given the rich communist history here I'm sure they have at least three.

The serious side to this is the role Ireland plays in the hearts and minds of Eastern Europe. In 1989, after the fall of communism and as I was boarding that bus for London, the Polish government introduced a series of radical economic programs designed to kick-start a free-market economy. Price-controls and other government safety nets were eliminated in what Naomi Klein refers to as 'Shock therapy', and predictably enough unemployment soared and a whole generation fell through the cracks. While overall GDP may have subsequently risen, as in Ireland the wealth was not evenly spread. Those at the top increased their wealth exponentially, while a greater number of people fell below the poverty line than had ever existed under communism. However the myth of the Celtic Tiger is stronger than the reality, for in the recent Polish election a political party asked why couldn't Poland have it's own Celtic Tiger. Ireland's growth is an aspiration for many states in the East, happy to sacrifice the already marginalized elements of the poor in their society for the prospect of a richer 1% at the top.

It would be nice to think that those returning on this morning's CentralWings flight from Dublin, applauding as the plane touched down with delight at being on home soil once more, bring back the truth from Ireland, avoid the social injustice that has occurred in our society and dispel the myth of the Tiger once and for all.

Unlikely, but nice.

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