In an edited extract from his new book, 'The Good Room', David McWilliams says that we are in the middle of an extraordinary baby boom -- despite the recession and emigration. But, he asks, what hope are we offering these children?
Published 28/10/2012 | 06:00
Father Gene O'Donnell, a Castlegregory man with a parish in America, had come home for the final of the All-Ireland junior club championship of 2010. On the eve of the showdown with Kiltimagh of Mayo, he took confession. You might as well start the day clean, even if you didn't finish it that way. And on the morning of the game, Father Gene said Mass for the Kerry team in the same function room in which they had watched match videos all the previous day.
During the Creed, Manager Ger O'Call-aghan thought to himself: What do we actually believe? We believe in ourselves, in our parish. We believe in our place. We believe in home. We believe in each other. This was their chance. By night, they'd be winners or losers. No matter what the outcome, they were doing it for their place, the place that had made them.
At half-time the Mayo men were ahead by two points. With two minutes to go there were still two points in it, and Castle' needed something special. Long free into the box, deft flick, back of the net. Noses in front. Kiltimagh free, last kick of the game, floated high and over. Scores level: 20 minutes of extra time.
All the sweat and pain in those 112 training sessions counted now. Ger knew his boys were harder. They were fitter. They could do it. He looked into their eyes for weakness; there was none. Ger told them to go and do it for the parish. When the ref blew, the scoreboard told it all: Castlegregory 1--14, Kiltimagh 0--15.
For the people of Castlegregory, nothing -- not even the most thrilling victories of the great Kerry teams over the years -- could compare to the feeling of winning an All-Ireland club final.
The local guards escorted them home, sirens going, lights flashing. Five kilometres out from the village, the team were met by the sight of a huge bonfire blazing on the high ground, before the road veered leftwards down to the sea.
The place was a mass of green and gold. A tourist might have thought they had brought people in from all over Kerry.
But they hadn't. These were their people. Castle' men and women from all over the world changed their annual holidays to be home to celebrate something you can't buy: the local, the rural -- home itself.
The village was heaving that night. Ferriter's stayed open until the morning, as did Leonard's and Murray's. They were winners. Castlegregory, a tiny place in West Kerry wedged between the mountains and the Atlantic, were All-Ireland champions for the first time.
When it all settled down, Ger O'Callaghan (manager, father, electrician, and now local hero) knew he could build on the victory. Most of the team were young. He could mould them, and they could keep on winning.
TWO YEARS LATER
The fire is blazing at the back of Ferriter's. The place smells welcomingly of turf. But there's hardly anyone to welcome. Ger O'Callaghan is sitting at the back, waiting to watch the rugby -- Ireland against Wales. The bar is empty except for one farmer up at the counter. The village is silent.
The brilliant 2010 team never progressed. Not because they weren't good enough, but because they disappeared. Eight of the 15 players who started the 2010 All-Ireland final left the country over the next two years.
Of the 21 lads in the panel who were on the pitch in Croke Park that day, 12 are gone. Five are in Australia. Three are in London. The others are scattered all over the place.
The tale of what happened to the 2010 All-Ireland junior champions is the story of a generation of Irish people. They were born during the last great Irish recession of the mid-1980s. They watched Italia '90 as toddlers and just remember Ray Houghton's chip over the Italian keeper at Giants Stadium in '94. They were in primary school when the IRA ceasefire was announced. By the time they were doing the Leaving Cert, the banking bonanza was already in full swing.
They left school amid the credit binge of the mid-Noughties, when Ireland was hyping itself up to anyone who cared to listen, driven by the "when I have it I spend it" creed of the finance minister, Charlie McCreevy.
They were Generation Hype; they are now Generation Skype.
They were young enough not to have settled down yet old enough to leave, and they did so in huge numbers. When Brian O'Driscoll, after Ireland's victory over Australia at the 2011 Rugby World Cup in Auckland, laughed that "You'd swear we were in Dublin with that crowd", these were the people he was referring to. Most of the tens of thousands in green who were packed into Eden Park had not travelled across the world for the match; they were living in New Zealand or Australia. Two of the Castlegregory lads were in the stands that day.
Last year alone, 40,000 young Irish people left the country. Another 30,000 foreign residents, mainly East Europeans -- the ones who were going to do great things for our gene pool -- headed out as well. More than 300,000 people have left Ireland since 2006.
Anyone who has seen sunburned lads in Waterford jerseys and tight little GAA knicks offending the fashion sensibilities of bronzed and plucked Adonises on Bondi Beach will know the score. As has always been the case, when the going gets tough, the Irish get going.
The last generation to flee the country kept in touch by "reversing the charges" from AT&T phone booths all over America; these new exiles log on, Skype home and chat away. But the point is they have gone. They are not here, and the place is different without them. In some places, like Castlegregory, it feels empty.
THE BIRTHDAY LOTTERY
One curious thing about Ireland is that the year you were born really matters to your prospects, arguably more than in any other European country. This is because the economy has been so badly mismanaged for so long, looted by one generation at the expense of the next.
Consider those born in the huge baby boom of the late 1970s, the Pope's Children.
They were blindsided by the credit binge, mistaking a large overdraft for real prosperity. Many are now the wrong side of 30 -- too old and with too many responsibilities just to head away, but far too young to throw in the towel.
They're trapped by the huge mortgages they're struggling to repay, and/or by the negative equity that makes it impossible for them to sell their property. Many have children and subscribe to the enduring Irish notion that, if at all possible, their children should be brought up here, at home.
There are hundreds of thousands of them. They were born in the wrong time. They were teens in the 1990s, bought homes in the 2000s and now find themselves in a debtors' prison.
Their Ireland is suburban, and it is also ridiculously fertile. In the past five years, an average of 73,000 babies have been born each year -- the biggest baby boom since the foundation of the State, even bigger than the one that produced the Pope's Children.
If you've been knocked off a footpath by an outsized buggy or amazed by the increase in class sizes in primary schools, it's because Ireland is reacting to one of the deepest economic depressions in the history of any country in Europe by having lots and lots of babies. Many of these newborns are the Pope's Children's children.
Ireland is yet again the great outlier in European demographics. If there is one overriding reason why we -- the adults of Ireland -- need to get our economy going, it is for these children. They are a sign that we have not lost hope; in fact, they are the most concrete sign yet that those who have stayed here believe in the future of Ireland. The Pope's Children are now raising Hope's Children.
But if that hope is dashed by bad decision-making in the next few crucial years, it could quickly turn to rage. Very soon these children will be passing through school and into the workforce. With youth unemployment now at 30pc, what hope are we offering them with the present policies?
The Good Room is published by Penguin Ireland on October 29 -- price €16.99