Price of Affluence

A blessed nation

The Pope's Children is David McWilliams inspired title for his account of the generation in waiting to take over the reins of government, business and the professions. Conceived during the visit of Pope John Paul II to Ireland, it is the most exotic generation since the flight of the Wild Geese.

Included are Kells Angels, the first long distance commuters, alternatively known as Dulchies, Dubliners living in previously culchie areas, Destiny's Children, their wealthy ambition driven offsprings, JAPs – Jarred Annabels Princesses and RoboPaddies, intent on buying up all the available property in Europe.

McWilliams dissects and examine their entrails in the manner of an anthropologist describing the mating rituals of an African tribe. He writes better than economists are normally allowed and has a talent for soundbytes that makes a tabloid sub-editor seem as restrained as an Irish Times leader writer and therein lies a problem.

We are swept so fast on a current of often hilarious vignettes that we lose sight of whether he has a real contribution to make. Is McWilliams a Nancy Mitford, guiding us through the trivia of what's U and non-U in 21st century Ireland, or a latter-day Alexis de Tocqueville, providing a serious critique of our brave new world.

The first part of the book argues that the prosperity of the last decade has made us all more middle class; the Wonderbra effect, pushing us upwards and closer together.

Contrary to the views of the official commentariat; middle aged curmudgeons pining for the 1960's who will use any old excuse to criticise the new Ireland, we have reduced not increased inequality and our prosperity is fuelled by our addiction to property, facilitated by our ability to borrow from the EU and not just Ireland.

This is a fairly breathtaking analysis and it seems to ignore what was the key factor driving our economy, so many overseas companies investing here. Not convinced that inequality has been reduced, anecdotal evidence would suggest the opposite.

A government report states that the number of people below 60 per cent of the median income increased by almost half between 1994 and 2003, from 16 per cent to 23 per cent. We can become more middle class and still have a more unequal society.

McWilliams has great fun with our property obsession, which he diagnoses as an addiction… “we are the world of Irish property porn-the real hard-core only appears on Thursday and embarrassed subscribers can have it discreetly delivered to the door for a small fee – this is top shelf material – it is The Irish Times property section”.

He quotes from a thesis on booms and their aftermaths involving a seven-stage cycle and claims we are nearing the end and in deep trouble. He makes a surprising link between Ireland in the early 21st century and Dubrovnik in the early 17th century, saying Ireland is really a city state attempting to straddle two horses, Europe and the US and that if these two horses began to move in opposite directions we could be in trouble. It is an angle well worth pursuing but he leaves it hanging in mid-air.

Part two of the book presents a more unified argument and may be of interest to those in marketing communications. It deals with the titanic struggle for the soul of the nation between the Decklanders and the HiCos. The former are the quintessential beneficiaries of the boom, Charlie McCreevy's angels, quite content to wallow in the material goods that economic prosperity has delivered.

HiCos believe that in the mad rush to enjoy the fruits of globalisation we have lost our sense of identity and any vestige of the transcendent or the spiritual. Where the Decklanders couldn't give a fiddlers, the HiCos are racked with doubts.

They compensate by searching for the most obscure, authentic Gaelic names for their children, sometimes getting the gender mixed up in the process, sending them to the bourgeoning gaelscoileanna and eschewing 'bling' for Avoca Handweavers.

McWilliams is at his best in his analysis of the Irish caste system. It has always been one of our most outrageous self-delusions that, unlike the UK, there are no class distinctions in Ireland. There are, they're just more subtle, so subtle that the parvenus of D4 still haven't grasped the distain they evoke among the real elite of D6.

The 'yummy mummies' of Ranelagh and their pretend affection for using the cupla focal is all too painfully accurate. The book doesn't provide any breakdown on the two groups, but it seems the Decklanders form a big majority.

Assuming we remain economically well-off, a forecast most commentators seem to be agreed on, it's a safe bet that HiCos will expand and Decklanders contract. This would have huge implications for all consumer markets.

Not alone are purchasing patterns quite different for each group but they are likely to respond to different messages. Interest in the two groups should widen and as the next election nears, political strategists may also become interested.

If Decklanders represent classic FF heartland the election will be a battle for the expanding HiCos vote. FG and the Greens are 'suspect' on the language question, the PDs are too wedded to materialism, Labour are too frightened, which leaves… Tiocfaid Ar La. Remember where you read it first.

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