By Eileen Murphy
Want to read something that will really make your hair stand on end? Then skip the latest Stephen King horrorfest and pick up this book by Irish journalist and professional curmudgeon Fintan O’Toole.
“Ship of Fools” traces the dizzying thrill ride that was Celtic Tiger Ireland. There’s the steady ramp-up that started in the mid-1990s, followed by the the multiple peaks of banking deregulation, political corruption, property speculation, globalization and foreign investment that swelled the economy at turn of the century. Inevitably, this was followed by a precipitous decline. The world-wide economic crisis in 2007 revealed that Ireland’s financial institutions were a house of cards: built on speculation and riddled with bad debts. The country’s construction industry ground to a halt as the property bubble burst; foreign companies, following the most dearly-held principles of globalization (i.e., setting up shop in countries with the biggest tax breaks and lowest cost of doing business) abandoned their Irish outposts for the cheaper pastures of Eastern Europe. The jobs that supported the high wages (and flashy lifestyle) of the Irish smart set disappeared, practically overnight. The high-flying businessmen dealt with Irish banks that were under little or no scrutiny from regulators, as the country sought to become the “Bermuda of Europe” – with disatrous results.
O’Toole writes with a palpable sense of anger as he chronicles Ireland’s sure and steady march towards spiritual crisis (the church scandals) and financial ruin. For anyone who lived in Ireland or closely followed the political, financial or social scene of the past 15 years, “Ship of Fools” puts the story in its proper historical perspective. For all, it’s a cautionary tale of what happens when excess is allowed to proceed unchecked.