In Fact: An Optimist’s Guide to Ireland at 100, by Mark Henry, Gill, 390 pp, €24.99, ISBN: 978-0717190386
Mark Henry’s In Fact: An Optimist’s Guide was a surprise bestseller at the end of last year, helped no doubt by being the subject of an entire Joe Duffy radio programme in Christmas week. The book collects a wide range of behavioural, attitudinal and sociological data comparing Ireland in the early part of the twentieth century with today and the conclusion is surprisingly positive: “Ireland is one of the very best nations in which to live on planet Earth; the United Nations identifies our quality of life as the second highest in the world.”
We are then brought on a tour of almost non-stop good news: our population has almost doubled since the low point of 1961 and emigration has been reduced to a trickle; we’re living a whole twenty-five years longer than we did in 1922; we’re around 12 cm taller; we’re much better-fed: our consumption of fruit and veg has doubled and of fish trebled in the last thirty years; we’re smoking much less and drinking a little less and our suicide and road accident rates have been significantly reduced. Our economy has gone from being a basket case to an inspiration for the rest of the world, a success exemplified by our extraordinary record in attracting the world’s most successful and progressive businesses to our shores.
Henry spells out the sheer scale of this achievement: the top five software companies are located here, as are nine of the top ten US tech companies, all of the world’s top ten pharmaceutical companies, fourteen of the top fifteen medical technology companies and eight of the top ten financial services companies. Arguably the female half of the population has benefited most from the transformation. Almost all barriers to their advancement have been removed, their reproductive rights are under their control and over half now have some form of third level educational qualification.
Henry admits that there is some unfinished business: we’re the second most expensive place to live in Europe, especially for childcare, and homelessness has increased because we’re not building enough homes. Our record on climate change is poor and we’re becoming more obese. However, one could argue that he is inclined to gloss over the extent of Ireland’s inequality. The measurement of inequality is a highly contested area, in spite of the widespread use of the Gini coefficient as a basis for comparison. The author claims that our Gini coefficient score had been in decline over the last decade, making us more equal, and quoting the ESRI he claims that “no other tax system in Europe does more to reduce income inequality than Ireland’s”. Under the same heading he also claims that our education system is a factor in reducing inequality: “nearly everyone receives the same education at primary and secondary level irrespective of their social background”. No evidence is given to support this conclusion: I very much doubt if any exists.
In fact, the latest Irish Times feeder school tables, which chart student progression from second level schools to third level colleges, “expose the scale of educational inequality in Ireland” (The Irish Times, January 8th, 2022). Patrick Honohan’s authoritative account of the last decade doesn’t disagree fundamentally with Henry’s analysis but his conclusion in relation to inequality seems to me more nuanced: “On the whole Ireland has prospered in the era of globalisation. Benefits have accrued to most sectors of society. But although public policy has helped to contain the rise in income inequality to a greater extent in Ireland than elsewhere the resources of the nation have not been deployed as effectively as they might to spread the fruits of national prosperity more widely”.
Therefore, though there are formidable problems to be overcome, they don’t negate the main thrust of this book’s argument: after a slow start and some serious stutters along the way we have taken our place among the nations of the world; a place near the top.
In attempting to explain our success Henry suggests four possible factors or values permeating Irish society: education, community, stability and openness. They are not unique to Ireland but their relative strength here and their interaction with each other may have provided us with a unique advantage. Even in our darkest days the hedge schools expressed our reverence for education, and our rural-based meitheal tradition strengthened community bonds. Our often-maligned STV-PR electoral system has the advantage of ensuring that minority groups have some form of parliamentary representation and the Irish diaspora has made us uniquely curious about other countries; the Skibbereen Eagle effect. All four of these attributes are of particular relevance to our ability to continue to thrive economically and maintain a reasonably civilised and humane existence in the current fraught geo-political world.
Anticipating an obvious question as to why more of us aren’t jumping up and down with excitement at how well we’re doing, Henry uses his original training as a psychologist to explain that humans are programmed from our hunter-gatherer days to expect the worst and that paying more attention to bad news has facilitated human survival. There is also the fact that progress tends to happen incrementally while bad stuff happens quickly. Other factors that contribute to our pessimistic outlook are a tendency to romanticise the past and to be more critical as life improves. More specifically he targets the growth of social media as a major factor in creating excessive dissatisfaction with the status quo because their algorithms invariably favour extreme rather than balanced news. The author introduces a rare personal note here: “I have shifted from being a vocal supporter of the benefits of social media to being wary of the damage it is doing to democracy.” I suspect this will be a growing issue in the immediate future.
In the last chapter Henry casually drops in the most interesting conclusion of all from his exhaustive analysis: in most of the statistical tables Ireland achieves a very satisfactory rating but not as good as the Nordic countries. He concludes that our next goal should be to “reconceptualise ourselves as being amongst Nordic peers, not alongside out historical cousins of Britain or America”. This is probably the most notable achievement of our national journey over the past century: to have unmoored ourselves from the shackles of the Anglo-American worldview and set sail for more progressive Nordic shores.