Thursday, 23 February 2012

International Interest and Investment: The Rise of the Celtic Dragon?

Casting the eye back over the economic affairs of the past four years it is not difficult to deduce that Ireland was in a state of financial, and at times political, ruin. Hidden loans, resignations and the so-called ‘Golden Circle’ became Dublin’s public face, and the country plunged into the crisis of depression. A whacking great bailout followed and the once mighty Tiger was left in the shadows to lick its wounds.

But as with a forest regenerated by the results of a fire, Ireland has begun to attract interest again and there is considerable economic gain to be made by any nation who deploys an economic partnership with the country. Ripe for the picking, Ireland is a blank emerald canvas complete with a willing workforce and a modern infrastructure. The land is fertile again.

Who to plant it? Certainly not Europe, with its unsteady financial relations with Ireland still very much a problem, or a United Kingdom struggling to keep itself together economically as well as geo-politically. No, the new suitor must be from further afield, somewhere not fuddled by years of nitty-gritty, and outside Western Europe, things are certainly rosier. Bill Clinton for one is leading the charge in the States, encouraging widespread investment in the Republic, pointing to Google and Paypal as pioneering examples. Clinton’s calling has certainly been gathering momentum and tangible progress has been made, with US companies being behind almost 40 per cent of offices bought or leased in Dublin last year. But America has been hit hard by the recession and needs to baton down the hatches during the expected uncertainty of an election year, especially one in which the incumbent has recently unveiled plans to introduce measures to tax American companies operating overseas.

Instead the spark comes in the form the world’s most populous nation: China. Beijing too has suffered from the global downturn, with America’s problems damaging trade between the two nations as Washington began its retreat. Only in the latter half of 2011 did China engage with the idea of an internal recession, but immediately sought positive solutions. And like a great deal of Chinese problem solving, the blossoming relationship with Ireland is one that is to be viewed in the long term.

China is again booming at the forefront of the global economy, with Beijing predicting imports to exceed $8 trillion by 2015. And Ireland has not been slow to react, with existing bi-lateral trade between the two countries recently having increased to $8.6 billion.

And when Chinese vice-president Xi Jinping visited the country earlier in the week, the relationship between Ireland and China was broadcast on a global scale.

350 delegates gathered at an Ireland-China forum in Dublin on Monday, where Mr Jinping not only reiterated that the two nations would continue to work closely to strengthen investment ties, but that Chinese investment would become beneficial to Europe as a whole.

East-West tensions and suspicions go back far, but the nature of the current recession allows for an easing of past uncertainties, with even the United States admitting that Beijing and Washington must work together to reinvigorate global economics.

Progress can be made in such an environment, and not only economically. Trade will indeed help to ease the pressures born from unemployment, in turn injecting much-needed stimulus into Ireland’s bourgeoning infrastructure of new motorways and airport redevelopment, but also allows the Republic to escape the age-old roll and tumble contest with the United Kingdom. By escaping from this stagnant state of conceived dependency on one hand and financial intimidation on the other, Dublin can make a bold statement of its existence as an international power in its own right.

But what about Ireland as an island? How can Northern Ireland benefit from the promise shown in the south? This is a tricky issue, for Westminster can connect with Dublin’s Chinese romance, and indeed the flattering – but no less inviting – attention from America, through the mutual medium of the Six Counties. But London must realise that this Ireland is confident, with Taoiseach Enda Kenny already planning great strides to the East for a visit to Beijing in March. When this is considered alongside the current preoccupation of Scottish independence and the potential loss in capita faced in 2014, Anglo-Irish relationships may just find themselves at an interesting and highly potent crossroads.

The pressure is squarely on Dublin to do this properly. It must keep an eye on its banks, ensure sound economic checks are in place and be firm, but flexible, in its demeanour. On the one hand, Ireland must seize this chance to reinvent itself. On the other, it must keep its head together and its eyes firmly focused on its goals. Most importantly, it must learn from all the implications, both positive and negative, stemming from the rise and the fall of the Celtic Tiger, before it fuels the fires of the rapidly growing and potentially powerful Celtic Dragon.

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Friday, 10 February 2012

Six Nations, Five Games, Four Provinces, Three Pointers, Two Anthems and One Island: Rugby Season in Ireland

"All visitors enjoy a taste of Ireland", or so the promotion man at Lansdowne Road told me. But lying face down, battered and bruised, at the business end of a muddy field in south Dublin isn’t quite what tourists to the Emerald Isle are expecting from this vague idiom.

Unless, of course, they are here to play rugby union.

Rugby days in Dublin are special. They are lively events; spirited spectacles of camaraderie, exchanges of wit, and good natured misbehaviour. The city is adorned in green and white, with random splashes of colour of whoever the day’s opposition might be. The bars are full, the music is loud and upbeat, and if you look carefully, you might catch some poor bugger falling into the Liffey.

And if you so happen to be one of the select few who hold a ticket, there is nothing more thrilling and self-satisfying than leaving the bar at 12.45 to make the pilgrimage to the hallowed ground, leaving two thirds of your heretofore new best friends wallowing in emerald green envy.

The approach to Lansdowne Road is along the eponymous narrow boulevard of the same name, a straight strip of tree-lined tarmac with a dog leg bend in the middle. Grinning faces, half-cut and rosy from all the Guinness, leisurely crowd and jostle along the road; getting increasingly excited and boisterous as the stands rise into view.

100 yards from the ground is the territory of ticket touts, burger vans and sellers of match day tack, and this just serves to add to the infantile excitement. Fully grown men in wax jackets, hunter wellies and green shirts abandon wholesale their daytime guise of city executive and become giddy children clamouring for scarves and programmes.

Ireland v. Scotland 2007 photo by Conor Lawless, unaffiliated.

Once inside, greeted and seated, fans from both sides of the argument have the chance to debate their respective chances in close proximity, exchanging long-drawn drawls concerning provincial and club scores, player myths and secret tactics known only to the yarn-spinner in question.

"Aye, while your number 10 might kicked four conversions against the All Blacks, Ronan O’Gara hit six against the Bokkas AND scored a try, and I’m saying this as an Ulsterman."

And that’s the beauty of Irish rugby; it is genuinely Irish. Fans from all four provinces unite under a single, island-wide banner to celebrate something all-defining but positively non-political. There remains the issue of anthems, when players of Northern Irish heritage awkwardly remain silent during the Soldier Song, but are invited to dismiss the divisive legacy of history by singing the all-inclusive Ireland’s Call; some might point to this as a negative, but its quite the opposite. Ireland’s Call disengages from the problems of secular division, reminding us all that there is more to being human than the intangible implications of geo-political borders and debatable tribal loyalties. 

Rising from this is Irish rugby. One identity, one fan base and one voice, but drawn from the mixed heritage of four provinces. There is surely something good to be taken from this.

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Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Shared Origins

At least two centuries before the great boulders of Stonehenge were placed on a windswept Salisbury Plain, and over 500 years before the Great Pyramid of Giza rose from the deserts of Egypt, Neolithic architects in the Boyne Valley (Brú na Bóinne) were laying the foundations of one of the most studied structures of the ancient world.
An imposing earthen mound in County Meath (an Mhí), its original name has been lost to the jealous mists of history. But the legacy of middle age Cistercian farming practices provided the tag that it has today, Newgrange.
In its most elementary guise, Newgrange can be regarded as a passage tomb and an impressive illustration of Neolithic structural design. But on a more refined level, Newgrange is revealed as a highly-charged site of much debated pre-Christian spirituality, a sunlight trap on Winter Solstice, and as an exhibit of some of the finest examples of ancient Irish art; including intricate stone carvings of spirals known as the triskele or triskelion.
Given the connection between Newgrange and the Solstice, it is mused that the meaning of the triskelion is solar. But the artwork has assumed more widely celebrated connotations over the centuries, and is not only regarded as one of the most famous examples of ancient Irish art, but an iconic symbol of the Ireland the island.
It is important to remember that this comes from a culture that not only pre-dates Christianity in Ireland, but also the arrival of the Celts around 400 BC.
The pre-Christian triskelion, however, is not alone. From the fifth century BC until 100 AD, the La Tène culture of art swept post-Iron Age Europe, incorporating and developing much of the artistic nuances seen at places such Newgrange. The most famous examples of spiral-influenced La Tène art can be found at the Turoe Stone in County Galway (Contae na Gaillimhe) and the Castlestrange stone in County Roscommon (Contae Ros Comáin).
By now Ireland was a highly-active ‘Celtic’ nation defined by its pagan religion and symbolic interrelation of society, ritual and art. And it was during this time of great cultural exchange that some of the most influential elements of shared Irish, Scottish and Welsh culture still evident today would emerge.
According to the legends of Irish mythology, a woman named Brigid, daughter of Dagda and a member of the pre-Celtic Tuatha Dé Danann, emerged to become the goddess of inspiration and poetry, hearth, healing and midwifery. Such was her importance that when Christianity eventually did come to Ireland c. 5th century AD, she was incorporated wholesale along with the majority of her prior aspects in the persona of St Brigit of Kildare; one of Celtic Christianity’s most celebrated saints even outside Ireland.
But it was in the north of the island that a Celtic, pre-Christian symbol emerged that would go on to have an even greater impact on the joint history of Ireland than that of Brigid. According to myth, the  Red Hand of Ulster - tragically reviled by some - was originally the symbolic celebration of an early king of the province winning the rights to the crown from a rival. Not only had it nothing to do with Protestant ascendancy, but it was later used as a marker by the O’Neill (Uí Néill) clan who resisted Tudor and Elizabethan designs on Ireland. 
But the Red Hand is not  alone as a symbol of pre-Christian Ireland that has been erroneously co-opted to assume prescribed sectarian connotations. The Celtic harp (Clàrsach/Cláirseach/clàrsach Ghàidhealach) has long been associated with Irish nationalism but in reality it is not unique to that view nor even to Ireland being a prominent element in Welsh, Breton, and Scottish cultures also and is in fact another element of shared origins and cultural exchange. Even the most iconic of ‘Irish harps’, the National symbol of Ireland, the Trinity college Harp (Brian Boru’s Harp), is thought to have been hand-crafted in, or near, Argyll in western Scotland c. 14th or 15th century and bears the coat of arms of the O'Neills, whose stronghold during that period was in Ulster.
Likewise, the Celtic knot, to use a very loose, but suitably descriptive term, is often assumed to be a show of modern Irish nationalism, but has no true connection. Knots originated around 450 AD, and became central to pre-Christian Celtic design in Britain as well as across Europe. In Scotland, the artistic traditions of the Picts built upon the La Tène cultures to create sharp, angular knot patterns, while the Irish crafted smoother, more circular designs. But this is by no means a hard and fast rule, for as La Tène and later artworks spread, local artists borrowed and traded from other British tribes to create a fluid interchange of culture that created not only distinctly Irish styles, but was also part of a wider inclusive artistic heritage.
With the onset of Christianity, Irish artists manipulated existing artistic styles to incorporate the newly-arrived Christian symbolism. So far did the Irish interpret and mould Christian practices that by the early Dark Ages, Rome was forced to send papal delegates to Ireland to correct what had become an almost unrecognisable form of ‘Celtic Christianity’.
Into this environment of incorporation, trade and tribal interaction stepped a man that has gone on to embody the island of Ireland. Born a Roman in the area of modern Carlisle, Saint Patrick is now celebrated the world over as the most Irish of Irish. But with Saint Patrick begins a troubling legacy of religious intolerance, arguably born from a disregard for long established Druidic practice.
But Patrick is by no means the origin of the sectarian troubles of today. On the contrary, Patrick allows for Irish people the world over to find common ground behind symbols such as the triskelion, Ulster’s Red Hand, the knots and the harp, for these are all shared markers of Irishness, whether of four province descent, Scots or otherwise. This phenomenon can be identified in the modern celebration of St Patrick ’s Day. Seen less often as a Christian Saint’s feast day and increasingly as a secular holiday, March 17 brings people together the world over simply to celebrate being Irish or of Irish descent.
In this light, it is fair to propose that the problems of the modern day are disconnected from the most recognisable symbols of Irish culture. Most of the symbols in question pre-date the sectarianism that originated with the divide and conquer policies of post-Norman rule, and has only in relatively recent history been ascribed to such symbols.  
But there is a wind of change. The recent attendance of Peter Robinson at a GAA match with current colleague and former foe, Martin McGuiness (Máirtín Mag Aonghusa), and the latter's visit to Windsor Park for the first time since 1964, demonstrates how the divisive tools of history can be overcome with an advanced understanding of place, past and modern context. As Mr Robinson reflected, 'I have consistently been saying that we have to get away from the 'them and us' politics. We have to be able to show respect for each other's traditions so it's good to be here.'
Our aim is not to dissuade people from using these symbols, nor to challenge the authenticity or integrity of the symbols themselves, but rather to demonstrate through an examination of their origins that the idea they are the sole preserve of any one ‘type’ of Irish, is in a word, erroneous. Just as Stormont First Minister Peter Robinson was able to enjoy and show his support for Irish sport in the form of Gaelic football (Peil Ghaelach), so should all of these symbols and more be enjoyed and celebrated by all Irishmen. They are 'Irish' symbols, incorporating elements borrowed from other cultures, and belong equally to all the inhabitants of this island as a celebration of the shared origins of its people.
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