THE Polish edition of the respected Newsweek magazine has painted a bizarre portrait of Ireland as a poverty stricken country where "20,000 horses" are starving by the sides of motorways.
Ireland's international reputation is now so battered that relatives of eastern Europeans living here are anxiously contacting them to "see if they are all right''.
The article, titled 'Hang-over Ireland', and written by journalist Marek Rybarczyk, claims that one of the most striking aspects "in today's Irish landscape'' consists of "stray horses roaming the suburbs and the motorways constructed in the Seventies for billions of EU refunds. In total they amount to 20,000!"
The author adds that "in the period of prosperity the proud animal was the symbol of high status'' but that "today, too expensive to maintain, they die of hunger".
The apocalyptic tone continues as the author notes that "they cannot be even used for consumption as they lack the electronic chips required of Brussels".
The article also says that social aid centres such as the Capuchins of Bow St in Dublin were receiving flocks of "more and more broke people -- most often the middle class representatives'' such as estate agents and "desirable professionals'' who have exchanged "fashionable restaurants with starters for €30 for free canteens''.
And it also strongly implies that last year's farcical distribution of 53 tonnes of free cheddar cheese from the EU was used as a measure to ward off mass starvation.
Lucinda Creighton, the junior minister for Foreign Affairs, criticised the "irresponsible press coverage".
"It is difficult to treat with any real seriousness these sort of reports from a magazine which previously rated Brian Cowen as being one of the top 10 world leaders.''
But she also admitted that "our relationship with Europe is seriously damaged'' and noted that these images of Ireland are "yet another legacy issue we must deal with''.
Meanwhile, within Poland a major national debate has begun over the Irish economy. Speaking to the Sunday Independent, one Polish emigrant said: "There is a huge appetite in Poland and Eastern Europe for knowledge about the collapse of the Celtic Tiger."
Some responsible media outlets, such as the Polish equivalent of RTE, have warned Poles they should not "demonise the Irish situation''.
However, Polish emigrants also admitted that the image of Ireland that is being pedalled by more tabloid elements of the Polish media means many Poles now believe "Ireland is a third-world country where people are going to rubbish tips looking for food'' and that it is "not unusual now to find dead horses and cows in the middle of fields".
In an ironic reversal of fortunes they noted Polish concerns that mass emigration from "the starving Irish'' could drive down pay rates means many building sites in Poland now have signs saying "no Irish need apply".