Something odd is happening. In the middle of the greatest economic slump since the 1950s, Irish agricultural land-prices are soaring: €10,000 an acre. This is an astounding figure, but at least it does reflect the success of the Irish food industry. Our beef and lamb are superb. I recently did a blind, multi-national butter-tasting: Irish was easily the best.
We humans might find the Irish climate infuriating, but the livestock and the wildlife with which we share the land do not. Irish grass is rich and kind, while the untamed Irish landscape is rich in neglected foodstuffs: in rabbit and pigeon; in wild duck and pheasant, and on our uplands, grouse and partridge. Our rivers teem with neglected eel and pike and other finned and uneaten eatables. Watercress grows in our streams unharvested except by the incredulous Chinese, stunned at such bounty. Blackberries rot on the bramble each autumn.
I was in London before Christmas. I ate in three restaurants -- Simpson's on the Strand, Wilton's and Rules -- whose menus boasted steak and kidney pies and puddings, oysters, scallops, Dover sole, roast beef, pheasant, partridge, widgeon, goose, steamed puddings, and of course, Stilton, the emperor of traditional cheeses. These are quintessentially English foodstuffs: the feather, fin and fur of field and stream, and the beef and cream of the pasture. (And the staff in all three restaurants, though for the most part central European or African in origin, are impeccably English in manner: which is how it should be.) London boasts dozens of such restaurants.
How many Dublin restaurants specialise in dishes based on Irish produce, Irish seafood and Irish wildlife? Well, if you want to know the meaning of poverty, a good way is probably to open a game-only restaurant in Dublin. Men might eat well-hung pheasant, but most Irishwomen will generally shy in horror at a wildbird corpse with its feet attached.
Next, the sea. The first item on the Anglo-Irish Treaty talks in 1921 was the control of the Irish marine waters: after an hour, it was hived off to a sub-committee as being too trivial to waste time on. Half a century on, and almost the first concession the Irish delegation made in its negotiations with the EEC was the surrender of Atlantic fishing rights to Spain as a quid pro quo for Madrid supporting our demands for higher beef quotas.
Our neglect of the sea and its riches is both pathological and dysfunctional, yet also defining. It reaches its apotheosis in the two Galway Oyster Festival banquets, neither of which serves oysters as a course, for the girls won't eat them (perhaps because the very deed seems rather sapphic in both taste and technique).
Moreover, for all the quality of our beef, most basic dishes -- roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, hot-pot, steak and kidney pie -- are English in origin. Despite the eminence of the cow in Irish culture (all those cattle-raids) there are almost no traditional Irish ways of preparing beef. Contrast with Spain, with a comparable reverence (hence the bullfighting) but with both a rich, beef-centred cuisine, and two industries based on the by-products of cattle: leather and cheese.
Despite centuries of cattle-raising, instead of Ireland becoming a centre of shoe and belt-making, there are no traditions of leather-working here: none. So what happened to Irish hides? Likewise cheese. Until the 1970s, the only Irish cheeses were pseudo-cheddars: usually industrially processed horrors that resembled elephant ear-wax. Per capita, we produced more milk than any other country in Europe -- but with no Stiltons, no Emmenthals, no Camemberts to show for it. Yes, in the past 30 years, some great Irish cheeses have emerged. Cashel Blue is now a world-class cheese; Milleens and Gubeen, likewise. But aside from the quite wonderful Veronica Steele -- easily one of the greatest Irishwomen of the 20th century, and still scandalously unacclaimed -- our cheese-makers have tended to be Irish Protestants or immigrants.
It is as if the Irish people arrived here with their cattle, and colonised the landscape without ever learning much about it. Land almost became merely something to build bungalows on, one in every field, plonk, plonk, plonk, from Bloody Foreland to Carnsore Point. Meanwhile, the gamebirds went unshot, the fish uncaught, the rabbits untrapped, the shellfish unopened, the herbs untasted, the hide untanned and the curd unpressed. Moreover, a binary magic wand is usually waved to explain these extraordinary failures; the penal laws, and landlordism. But neither prohibited cheese-making or tanning: and anyway, the peasantry of all of Europe groaned under the insufferable burdens of a parasitic and slothful nobility. How desperately hungry must you be to eat songbirds, snails and frogs? Ask the French.
Still, we need not be the prisoners of our past. The first instrument to freedom of any kind is the iron-file of awareness with which to cut through the bars of inherited ignorance, superstition and timidity. The Celtic Tiger was killed by insane land-speculation, for we forgot that the only value that land really possesses is in the wealth it produces. Natural riches galore still surround us. That basic lesson should be at the core of our recovery.