Return to Reviews menu
Review: From Pope to Pop Culture 

David Mac Williams - The Pope’s Children - Ireland’s New Elite, Gill and MacMillan, 
Dublin 2006. E12.99.

by D.R.O’Connor Lysaght

2 July 2007

This piece of popsociology has been a best seller during the last two years and may yet prove to have more influence than the latest Cecelia Ahern. The two largest claimants to the position of Ireland’s Socialist Party have sought to increase their credibility by challenging the author in public debates, though it is unclear whether they have succeeded in exposing him more than they exposed their milieu to his influence.

His argument is simple, indeed, simplistic. Ireland (for him, this means exclusively the twenty-six county state) is ‘a middle class nation’ (P.15). ‘The top three social classes as defined by the census’ (P.16) constitute between 47 and 65% of the population. By contrast, the poorest class has shrunk ‘by an enormous 29%’ (P.16). The Pope’s Children ‘are the first Irish generation for centuries who are able actually to live in the same country as their parents if they choose to’.(P.203).

All this has happened since the watershed of 1979, the year of the Pope’s visit. This preceded a decline in the birth rate. The year itself introduced an open economy (‘By attracting American foreign investment on the one hand and taking advantage of the European pool of savings on the other, we have profited in ways unimaginable only a few years ago.’(P.96)). It established, too, the common European Monetary System (EMS) allowing the Irish to borrow from Europe, resulting in a weakened interest in politics due to the public’s increasing recognition of its inability to control the economic basis of society within its state. In the decade from 1995 (he passes over the previous sixteen years), these factors have fuelled a consumer boom that makes the Irish the second most satisfied people in the world (P.24). Even as regards outstanding problems like ‘the cost of housing, the creaking infrastructure and the health service   the majority put this down to the country catching up and there is a sense that we will catch up’ (P.25). MacWilliams does not challenge this sense.

He does provide what he sees as more serious reasons for doubt about the future. The credit that finances the consumer boom is fuelled by a strong, mainly German financial reserve. It can be quenched either by a consumer boom in other EU countries or by a bank panic at the size of total Irish personal indebtedness (130% total personal income by 2006, P.12; projected to 200% by 2010, P.87.). The housing boom that is an essential part of this consumer boom has reached the bubble phase such as precedes distress and then panic. Finally, ‘we are cannibalising ourselves by educating and hosting the very foreign people who will take out jobs - and in the great blurring we don’t even notice’ (P.199). It seems clear how MacWilliams voted in the racist referendum of 2004.

Still, as member of a group that fear disaster, the ‘Economic Enquirers’, the author has the grace to admit that ‘although our logic appears to make sense, we have been wrong in our  predictions for several years.’ As for the other three equally suspicious groups he lists, he is even less positive. The ‘Rural Nostalgics... seem to yearn for the certainty of the old days when Ireland was poor’ (P.206). The ‘Confused Cosmopolitans’ (liberal social democratic) ‘are very intolerant of dissent to their creed.’ (P.214).  Worst of all, the ‘Carrot Juice Contrarians’ are personified by ‘Fair Trade Frank...a self-hating human.’(P.210). We might as well eat, drink, buy and be merry.

The largest part of the text is padding. For one who insists on the primacy of his discipline of economics, the author spends a surprising amount of space on cultural distinctions, describing stereotypical inhabitants of the twenty-six county state. Not only does he list the ‘Carrot Juice Contrarians’ and others, but he introduces the reader to ‘Yummy Mummy’ (He should have been able to find a more original name), as well as ‘RoboPaddy’, ‘White Van Democrat’, ‘DIY Declan’ and numerous others. All these take one side or another in the defining social war between the ‘Decklanders’, whose leisure hours and interests are centred on their material possessions and the equally philistine but more pretentious ‘HiCos’ or Hibernian Cosmopolitans, a clash increasingly more apparent than real as both are in thrall to the American-dominated economy. All this may entertain readers other than this reviewer; almost certainly it entertained the creator of these stereotypes more than anyone else.

Nonetheless, they are not just self-indulgence. These sketches serve the author’s purpose in distracting attention from his overall argument. Without them, more people would notice the major defects that weaken it. They can be grouped under five headings: historical, international, employment, ownership and education.

The historical one is easily stated. By starting his period in 1979, presumably to allow him his catchy title, he has to ignore much of what came before to fit a schema of before (traditionalist, protectionist, generally ‘Hibernian’, in his terms) and after (progressive, internationalist, ‘Cosmopolitan’). To read him it would not be imagined that the twenty-six county state was dismantling its protective tariffs for twenty years before John Paul hit Ireland nor that the nineteen-sixties saw many of the themes that he traces in the present decade, albeit less obviously. To take two examples there was the lowest unemployment since the twenties, perhaps ever, and the first growth of population since the famine including a sizeable return of former emigrants. Such parallels reinforce the fears of the Economic Enquirers and make the author’s desertion the less justified. A smaller point is his attempt to pigeonhole Eamon de Valera and Sean MacBride as respectively ‘Hibernian’ and ‘Cosmopolitan’, when each combined the characteristics of both, being Hibernian at home and Cosmopolitan abroad.

The international weakness is even more obvious. It is apparent in MacWilliams’ avoidance of the I-word, in favour of the more archaic term ‘Cosmopolitan’ with its overtones of multi-tribal empires dominated temporarily by one or other ethnic group. More specifically, his world is essentially that of the north Atlantic with Ireland in the middle. Africa and India each get three mentions in the index. He does not mention the implosion of the Soviet Union, although it is in his chosen timescale and started a domino process that helped demoralise and disillusion his Confused Cosmopolitans. This may be held to reflect the immediate concerns of the Irish, though, on this evidence, they tend to be more conscious of the semi-colonies than is MacWilliams. However, the role of the semi-colonies and of the north Atlantic states’ extraction of value from them does play a role in maintaining the current prosperity and makes the Irish junior partners in their exploitation.

For MacWilliams imperialism will always be part of the human condition, all a small nation can do is choose under which hegemony it would exist, and ‘Pax Americana has been very positive for small states such as Ireland.’ (P.95). His acceptance of Ireland’s role in this reveals a further weakness in his analysis. He tells the reader: ‘Ireland’s productivity growth in the period 1995-2005 has been nearly twice that of our nearest competitor, Finland, and nearly four times that of the EU fifteen.’ He does not say what the work is that the Irish do. There are some case studies, notably ‘Bouncy Castle Brendan’ (not one of the stereotypes; he does exist, though his real name is Will), but they do not play a central role in working the economy. This contrasts with the immense amount of space given to consumption in which he makes it clear that much of the work is done by immigrant labour. The nearest that he allows the reader to the Irish working day is in his statement that ‘Decklanders make Ireland the most profitable place for US multinationals in the world. Their sweat pays the bonus and Augusta green fees of the corporate dullards who thrive in many American corporations.’(PP1S6-157) From this book, it remains a mystery what exactly they produce, beside profits, of course.

From this it is no surprise that the question of ownership is scarcely mentioned, save for Robo Paddy’s investment in property abroad. The dependence of the Irish economy on foreign investment is recognised but accepted as as fact of life like the weather. Insofar as there is a threat it is held to come from the foreigners whom the Irish are over-educating. That investment may still go abroad, as it is doing whether the Irish educate or do not educate the lower paid workers abroad, is not considered.

In any case,, MacWilliams is not really interested in education, save in the private (and, in particular, the Irish language) sector. Two tier public services do not bother one who sees the lower tier services as being for a minority. That the number of primary school pupils per teacher is amongst the highest in the EU (and probably higher still in the public sector alone) does not concern him. At the same time, while booming the increase in numbers getting third level education, he ignores the notorious fact that the quality of that education is being reduced to enable the universities to churn out more adept employees, a short term and ultimately self-defeating phenomenon. He does not see anything contradictory between the twenty-six county nation’s proud claim ‘to read more newspapers than any other’ (P.9) and the fact that the most circulated of these newspapers is the Daily Star (P.157).

In summary, MacWilliams ignores factors that are likely to ensure that his feared property and consumer recession is likely to begin a far more serious slump he suggests. As a result, his positive solutions to the problem (cut individual spending and restrict the entry of foreign students) are, as is to be expected, totally inadequate.

Let it be admitted that the work contained at least two passages that brought a smile to this reviewer’s face. It is difficult to dislike altogether a book which contains this passage (P.134);- ‘Would Napoleon have driven a SUV? Hard to know, and obviously not all SUV drivers are short, but you do get the impression that anyone driving around in such a contraption is possessed of some sort of size complex. My main worry is for the thousands of children who suffer needless vertigo each morning as a result of being suspended at Ferris-wheel height, trussed up in their padded car seats, looking down over the suburbs. It will be hard for them not to have an inferiority complex in later life once they realise they are normal sized. I doubt very much if any will be able to drive an ordinary car when they are eventually thrown the keys on their seventeenth birthday.’

It is pleasant to be told, too, (P.149) that the author of Bungalow Bliss ‘lives in a beautiful 17th-century lodge beside the heritage centre’ at Kells. Alas these two nuggets are the only results of extensive panhandling over a claim of some 273 pages of printed matter. Whether they are worth the twelve Euros, ninety-nine cents that the reader is asked to pay for it is one matter on which this reviewer is prepared to defer to the author. It is for the buyer to decide. Buyer beware.


Return to top of page