Ireland Works Well Enough – The Irish Tendency To Settle For Less Than the Best

In one of my early posts I listed “Institutionalized Disorganization & Shameless Lack of Accountability –The Irish Goat Rodeo“ as number one among the Five Tings I Hate About Dublin Ireland.  Now, after 18 months, I can still say that that is my least favorite part of Ireland.  But now I see that the root cause of said Goat Rodeo is the Irish willingness to settle for second best.

Less than a hundred years into self-governance, having barely shaken off a thousand years of occupation (by various countries and religious institutions), and now finding itself turning to the IMF, Germany, and other EU nations for pocket money, is it any wonder that the Irish national psyche is down on itself and uncertain?

The Irish don’t like to hear anybody else say it, but they are the first to criticize themselves.  Sadly, that tendency, when paired with the Irish reflex to avoid making waves or cause ill feelings, leads to passive acceptance of whatever the world hands them.  And the cheerful, upbeat Irish way of approaching life, which makes living here quite enjoyable, means that when the world hands them something suboptimal, they simply accept it and get on with the business of getting on with business.

Over time, this leads many to assume that they don’t deserve anything better.  And, at that point you’re not far from “Oh, why bother”.

After just 18 months, this attitude frosts me to no end.  I know it frustrates the Irish; I hear them complain.  Yet they rarely take action or offer solutions. I can’t figure out why there isn’t more of an outcry about so many issues here.  Ireland is no longer a country of activism in the name of self-interest.  I’ve heard Irishmen say, “when the going gets tough, the Irish emigrate”, but I don’t think that’s quite on point either.

There was a great outcry when Savita Halappanavar died, and a concomitant anti-abortion outcry. Clearly they do get riled up over “issues”.  But I don’t know what moves the Irish to stand up for themselves.  I understand the circumstances that have led to Irish indifference and inaction on a range of issues.  But I don’t think it excuses their inaction, or keeps Ireland from feeling like part of the Third World at times.

Perhaps coming from a country with a relatively distant history of armed conflict, I’m too cavalier about aggressive activism, while the Irish, with a much more recent history of uprisings, are more careful about what moves them to action.  But, what it will take to get the Irish to stand up for themselves, and begin insisting on more than “it works well enough” at every level of society?

If you ask the Irish why they tolerate rampant corruption, fiscal ineptitude, uncovered cisterns that result in potable water in only one tap in the house, tram lines that don’t connect, and a host of other shoddy practices, you’ll hear a number of excuses that all boil down to “It works well enough.”

This begs the question: what could they have if they insisted on something better? I’m a big fan of Dublin.  I love it here.  And Ireland is growing on me, if for no other reason than its potential.  If it’s this nice to live in Dublin now, imagine how great it would be if corruption were reduced, the economy got its act together, and potable water came from every tap.

Things to look forward to in upcoming posts:

International Banking

About Glenn Kaufmann

I'm an American freelance writer, photographer, and web publisher. I specialize in writing about travel, food, arts, and culture. I also write dramatic scripts for stage and screen. I'm based in Ireland.
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34 Responses to Ireland Works Well Enough – The Irish Tendency To Settle For Less Than the Best

  1. Chris Ogan says:

    You could replace Turkey for Ireland and the Turks for the Irish and these would come very close to being my own sentiments. Perhaps it is just that Americans complain more and join more causes to promote change. But I doubt that the outcome is much different. Finally we just get tired of shouting and let it go too, accepting that it is good enough–all the while saying that we are number one!

  2. Dan Price says:

    To some degree you sound like someone who leaves his homeland for a better life elsewhere, then works to make his new country look more like his old. You like Ireland like it is, and I submit that to change it would make it different. Maybe you should leave well enough alone; it works well enough, so get used to it.

    • Dan,

      That’s a good point. But I’m not really advocating that Ireland become more like America. I’m pushing for the Irish to become more proactive about situations they themselves are admittedly dissatisfied with. They just can’t seem to be moved to action.

  3. pensatus says:

    Some really acute observations, Glenn, about the Irish social psyche, and the general ‘settling for less’, but I’d quibble about the “rampant corruption” and “fiscal ineptitude”. For what it’s worth, Transparency International ranks Ireland 25th ‘cleanest’ country and the US 19th. If corruption is rampant in Ireland, what adjective would you use for Somalia, at 174th?!

    If corruption is defined as “the misuse of public power for private benefit”, that in Ireland is on a mickey-mouse scale compared with that in the US, which also specialises in the misuse of private wealth for public power.

    Concerning fiscal ineptitude, have we not seen rich variations of this in most countries, while those that seem strong at present such as Sweden and Finland went through their own financial crises at the end of the last century, and learnt from the experience.

    To end on a positive note, though, I agree that the Irish failure to act can be maddening. Perhaps several centuries of powerlessness weakened the will while sharpening the tongue. If you couldn’t achieve much through action (eg, there was a time when farmers who improved their property and acres simply got the rent raised), then you tend to settle for words — complaint, invective, bitter words and wit. Maybe things are changing, though; there’s an increasing ‘demographic’ of young, professionals who are sick of the ‘old ways’.

    • Pensatus,

      First of all, thanks for reading the blog, and for taking the time to comment and contribute (that is action).

      I could be wrong, but, to my mind concerned you’ve pretty much made my point for me. Your “we’re not as diseased as other places” attitude is precisely the level of contentment that I feel keeps Ireland perpetually in second place. Using that argument as an excuse not to improve on corruption and fiscal practices is the thing that holds Ireland back.

      Bear in mind that corruption is not simply public versus private. In Ireland, corruption in the HSE and educational systems are the result of decades of church control on both the national and local levels.

      I agree that there are reasons (but not excuses) for Ireland’s inaction.

      As for a burgeoning class of young professionals ready to storm the Dáil, it simply doesn’t exist. The ones that stay have likely remained here because they’ve getting hired into nice cushy jobs, and the increasing crowds that emigrate are, well, gone.

  4. fireflynn says:

    As a returned expat I have been far enough removed for long enough, to see that what you describe above is the truth. The Irish (and I am one so I can say this with gusto) LOVE to complain, but action is rarely taken as a result. Any kind of discourse quickly devolves from moaning into insult slinging (see posted comments above for example). Argument and action are both weak in Ireland. I think this weakness may be a side effect of a quasi socialist state which over-nannies its citizens. We love complaining but are not equipped for action, much like indulged but badly instructed children.

    As for the outrage around Savita Halappanavar, abortion is one issue that gets the blood boiling to action here, as is anything to do with child protection (if candle lit processions can be considered action). Both of these issues are ones that allow for lots of self flagellation and public hang wringing. Its time to move on, make abortion legal here, and start acting on issues with less obvious solutions, such as government corruption, fixing of the property market by banks and government, and genuine efforts around indigenous job creation that does not involve tugging forelocks before multi-national overlords.

    I am starting to remember why I left Ireland many years ago.

    (I await multiple comments telling me to leave again, further proving what I say above.)

  5. Natasha says:

    Hi Glen,

    I love your blogs and love to read the comments that people leave in relation to your updates. I find them really interesting to read and enjoy seeing how we’re viewed by other nationalities – I’ve noticed that you have a good spectrum of nationalities that follow you.

    I agree with your opinion of us Irish settling for things and more or less rolling over and accepting what we’re given. I think the budget cuts clearly highlight this over the last number of years. When the old age pensions were threatened to cut the elderly put on their coats and hats and went out and demonstrated and the cut was turned around but then we look at the younger generation (of which I am one) and we do nothing to push against cuts/agenda’s we see as unfair or disagree with. When it came to the cuts in the carers allowance a few weeks ago some 200 or so people turned out to protest about something that effects a lot of families directly and indirectly in Ireland and yet the week previous (I think) some 2000 turned out to protest over the death of Savita Halappanavar. And just to clarify I am not belittling or condoning anything in relation to her tragic death – just making a point.

    It just doesn’t seem to add up, we are all very opinionated in how we feel about things and as you staed we have no problem telling anyone who will listen how disgraceful our situation is but we are a nation of people who do not follow through on things and I have no idea why. I have heard two arguments as to why we are a nation of non protesters which I find interesting but have no idea of their validity so any comments would be welcome:
    1. We have quite a bit of floride added to our water which apparently makes us my docile and less agressive and likely to protest – no idea how truthful this is.
    2. The weather, people are less likely to protest in cold, miserable, damp, dark weather when it’s piddling out of the heavens than they are in the relative warmer climates of Spain, Greece etc.

    Oh and on a different topic, relating to your original posting, we have a bug bear about cat litter too as we have 3 of them and recently discovered a new lavender scented littter which clumps really well but also smells really good 🙂

  6. shannonsapt says:

    I dream of a Dublin with connecting Luas lines.

  7. Alisa says:

    Hello! You and I have similar situations – I also moved abroad with my husband and 3 pets (no kids) from Austin, Tx. The big difference in we are living in Budapest, Hungary. However, we just learned that there is a good possibility that his company, the ones who moved us to Budapest, will be moving us to Dublin. So I came across your blog, trying to get a sense of what life in Dublin is like. The funny thing is, it sounds like there are similarities between Ireland and Hungary. Things here are just as inefficient and it drives us crazy!!! The service is poor, the Hungarians are still living in the 1980s in many ways and can’t seem to move beyond their communist past. But I must say the public transit is awesome, so they have that down. And there is a lot of sunshine. I have mixed feelings about moving again because we have been here only 7 months, I’m stlll trying to find my identity here. But one big advantage of Ireland is at least they speak English! Have you heard Hungarian?? It is impossible!

  8. Colm says:

    Good morning Glenn.
    I enjoy reading your blog for reasons that I have mentioned before but I really must take issue with you over a number of points here.
    The Halappananvar case got considerable media attention because of two reasons.Firstly,there is the tragedy of a young woman dying in childbirth…. a very rare occurrence in this country and secondly,abortion has been a thorn in this country’s national conscienceness since the abortion referenda of the early 80/’s and again in the 90’s. Very few topics of debate will get normally docile people more agitated than this issue.
    You mention” Irish indifference” and our willingness to accept the status quo. !
    Can I point out to you that at the last general election here the people of Ireland almost destroyed the largest political party that this country has ever known.Fianna Fail were decimated because of their handling of the banking/economic crises. Unfortunately we don’t have the ability to print our way out of recession or virtual economic collapse.Maybe if we had our own version of “Government Sachs” we might have fared better.
    We are a very young Country, less than 100 years old. Not only did we have to start from scratch but we had to tear down much of what was left us after British occupation to build a nation with no outside help ( and i include the US here)in fact we were pretty much international pariahs up until the early 60’s when a certain IrishAmerican was elected to the Whitehouse. Our ability to make light of issues that would annoy other nationalities is what makes us different. We don’t get pissed off over what many would see as trivia rather we prefer to vent out angst at situations that matter.
    We no longer contemplate violent reaction to the issues that annoy us because from our history we find that it is difficult to put down the rifle once we take it up.

    When you mention coming from a country with only distant memories of armed conflict I must say for a second I thought I was reading the blog of sir Thomas Moore from his eternal home in Utopia.
    I am a big fan of the US but maybe you should rethink that little gem.

    Again Glenn, I am sorry you feel like you are in a third world country at times. As we Irish are one of the worlds largest donors of foreign aid and the first country to meet it’s obligation under the Pearson principles , maybe we should spend that money at home…..or maybe not.

    • Colm,

      Thanks for reading the blog, and for taking the time to respond with some very valid and considered points.

      But allow me a moment to rebut.

      1. Your point about the Halappanavar case actually makes my point for me. My issue was not that the Irish were moved to some sort of action over that case. It’s a worthy issue, and one that has long been a divisive issue for the Irish. My point was that the Irish will stand up on issues of that sort, but don’t often stand up for themselves.

      2. ,As I said, I recognize that there are historical, political, and social reasons why the Irish are less assertive than other cultures. But they are not excuses.

      3. Yes, Ireland did usher in a new political party. But to what end? I’d submit to you that the new boss is pretty much the same as the old. Yes, there are differences, but after 18 months here I can’t really tell them apart. Ireland traded center-left for center-right. And there seems to be very little change in the aftermath, and no discernible outrage.

      4. I never said the US had “only distant memories of armed conflict”. I said “relatively distant”. I thought about that exact choice of words quite a bit. As the current US debate over gun possession shows, we are still an extremely violent society. But I’m talking about armed conflict against a government. You can make the case that many of the anti-war and racial demonstrations in the 1960s in the US were armed conflicts, but not in the revolutionary or civil war sense. That’s why I chose relatively distant.

      Thanks again.

      -Glenn

  9. imokyrok says:

    Funny how different cultures view matters. You can’t understand why the Irish tolerate certain matters and we can’t understand why Americans tolerate certain matters. All in the eye of the beholder I guess. For me I’m mystified at how Americans love to be exploited by their employers (because it makes them such good little capitalists I suppose) and actively strive to undermine their own workers rights and happily allow their vote to count for naught as Republicans plot to keep them from voting at all or ensure that when they do vote government is allocated according to their preferences rather than those of the electorate (gerrymandering etc). Also Americans love to pump their tax dollars into weapons of mass destruction to line the pockets of billionaires but resent every penny spent of education and healthcare for the man next door. All these matters and more make American citizens look like complete doormats to me but as I said it appears all to be in the eye of the beholder.

    • Imok,

      Thanks for reading the blog and responding.

      Great points.

      I’d hoped to keep the post from becoming a comparison of America and Ireland (which is fairly impractical and completely unproductive).

      Happily, I really don’t think that’s what you’ve done.

      You’ve made some excellent observations.

      Thanks.

    • Seth says:

      Nailed it.

  10. Jolie says:

    Hi Glen

    I really enjoy reading your blog and get excited each time I get a ‘new post’ notification in my inbox. Your posts articulate exactly what is in my head and it relieves me that there is at least one person who understands the frustrations (but also joys – see 5 Things I Love about Ireland post) of living in this country brings.

    Keep up the good work and I look forward to the next post.

    This particular one is my favourite as I have been here for 8 years – no other words are really needed except, ‘I totally get it!’

  11. Marc Springer says:

    Hey Glenn, as a American boy that grew up in Germany (on base) I have to agree with all of your points and they pretty much reflect everything I have been criticizing in my last 18 months here.
    I have to agree that many things here just don’t work well and that I am astouned by the Irish just accepting everything without putting up a fight. I love the people and the country but there are many things that irritate me. I know people don’t like to hear this but after 15 years of living in Germany I have to say that most things just work there and if they don’t like something they’ll fight until the bitter end (Stuttgart 21 trainstation is a good recent example).

    Anyway I just feel like you do, it makes me mad to see the potential but people not really willing to change things.

    Regards und Gruesse, Marc

  12. John Kernan says:

    Hi Glenn, I’ve just being having a read of your blog, very enjoyable. As an Irish person who returned to Ireland from Asia after 12 years I have to say that I agree with you 100%. I never noticed it when I lived there, but we as a nation put up with the most horrendous **** from our leaders. I keep on saying to friends and family, “As taxpayers you are shareholders, and if Ireland was a PLC you would have already replaced the board of directors and most of the senior managers for not taking care of your investments. So why do you keep supporting the people who are not looking after your best interests?” The usual reply is along the lines of, “Ah sure, aren’t they all the same”. Anyway, I’m working in in Russia now and oddly enough, the few Russian people I’ve spoken to about similar issues in their country are of the same mind – sure what can we do, aren’t they all the same? Maybe Russians and Irish are more closely related than anyone guessed. Or perhaps it’s a world wide trend of the majority feeling powerless in the face of government, “big business”… Right, excuse me for going on! Thanks again for the enjoyable read and good luck to you in Dublin!

  13. JoeBW91 says:

    The ‘sure it’s grand, leave it alone’ attitude is the WORST thing about Ireland. Every other problem we have stems from this national sense of only having to get by and make sure things don’t completely fall apart. The enormous pride in our culture and cultural identity is the flip side… we know what it means to be Irish. The problem is that we don’t take the same pride in Ireland as we do in our Irishness. Irish people do the same with their houses, things just have to function well enough to get by… what matters isn’t the house, it’s the family that lives there.

    My mother is American, and I always felt the difference in our attitude to how we lived in our space. British people (at least middle class British people) take great pride in their front gardens, the cleanliness of their street, and the general presentation of their public spaces. We have no sense of that. We treat Ireland like our home, for better or worse. If a lightbulb goes but you don’t NEED it to see, it’ll be grand. If the skirting board peels, just cover over it. If the healthcare system isn’t as good as it should be, just leave it. If the bankers are corrupt, sure that’s just how it is.

    I don’t want to justify the attitude because I think it’s incredibly damaging. At some point you’re going to need to replace the roof because of the rising damp, or bailout Anglo-Irish. Still, it’s important to know that it comes from a place of familiarity and comfort rather than apathy or contempt.

    • Joe Carroll says:

      Glenn,

      Stumbled across your blog and have enjoyed reading some of the posts. The post above is insightful, hard for any people to stand back and honestly assess themselves so it’s great to see the views of a reasonable outsider (hope this is not an insulting phrase).

      The issues around service, ‘it will be alright’ attitude is frustrating but are deeply engrained. We need to strive for excellence in every walk of life. That has to become opt collective stated aim as a nation. So public services, hotels, transports, education should all aim to top international league tables and not be content to be in among the pack.

      Not sure how this can be done but a debate and realisation about the current situation would be a start. In this your blog is doing a service.

      You can’t change others but you can change yourself so maybe we need to start small.

      Joe

      • Pensatus,

        Thanks for taking the time to write in.

        Perhaps the “pocket money” reference isn’t as universal as I’d hoped.

        Yes, Ireland is paying back the money it owes, but it certainly seems as if they have to consult their financial masters before making any Irish financial decisions.

        1. Sure the U.S. (like all countries) has a lot of issues where public policy differs from public opinion. That was never my point. As regards the gun issue, at least there are solutions being proposed and acted upon. I can’t say I’ve heard of any viable motions in government for continued reform of the Irish Banking sector.

        2. I’m not saying (and have never claimed) that all of the Irish act that way, or that all Irish initiatives are poorly run and operated. My point was that, on balance, “settling for less than the best” seems to be a condition that is widely prevalent, and too easily tolerated in Ireland.

        And, to answer the question, I don’t know. The Irish certainly seem to be smart enough and industrious enough to do great things when properly motivated (whatever that means).

        And, yes, on par you are right, the condition I speak of does seem to be true only about 50% of the time. But, sadly, that’s enough to make it stand out, and have a pronounced effect on society.

  14. pensatus says:

    There’s a lot I agree with here (though “turning to the IMF, Germany, and other EU nations for pocket money” is absurd; Ireland has to pay every penny back, and is paying around the same as Germany, 40bn euro, to ‘save’ the euro, much to bondholders in Germany who should have shared the burden).

    Anyway, I want to ask two questions, not in a ‘ah, but look at [name the country]’ spirit, but to refine the discussion.

    1) As regards the Irish acceptance of so much that is unacceptable, I’m thinking of the US Senate’s defeat of the minor gun reforms. It raises the question of the massive power of special and moneyed interests in the US. After all, nine out of 10 Americans say they support background checks. So what kind of a democracy is that, and why do Americans accept it? And it’s hardly the first case of money and power overriding the people. How many things might a visitor to the US find to provoke the question: How on earth can Americans tolerate this and why don’t they do something about it?

    As I say, I’m not saying this in defence of the Irish apathy about so many things (since a lot of Irish do talk rather than act, unlike the Americans), but am wondering if each country has got the same problem to some extent.

    2) The other question arises from this: at the recent Ecofin summit in Dublin, a Norwegian media guy was heard saying to his colleague: “The Irish really know how to organize this kind of thing.” Very anecdotal, I know, but there are many examples of this. And it counters the suggestion that the Irish always or even mainly settle for second-best. So the question is: Since the Irish seem to be able to do a great job when they put their mind to it, why do they often not bother to do a great job, or accept someone else not doing so?

    A general point is that, when you say something about the Irish, the opposite is also usually true.

  15. Cornelius says:

    I am not sure that you have ‘gotten’ Ireland and the Irish yet. Lonely Planet summed it up well in the guide to Ireland. The Irish complain about Ireland because they know its the best country in the world. My own impression from being a long term emigrant and pitching up to support the soccer team in all corners, is how easily the banter, singing and plain sociability binds everybody from prince to pauper in what is ultimately a celebration of Irishness. Last year in Poznan, the Polish people were simply taking pictures of the strange spectacle of thousands of green clad supporters invading their city with nothing more than good humour. Its the reason why the sons and daughters of Erin (like myself) hanker – and cherish what is more than a place but where people and nature often touch the soul.

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  18. Santiago FLORES says:

    Dear Glenn:
    Being a Chilean and having lived in Ireland for about 10 years up to the debacle of 2008, I am fairly tempted to agree with your statement. However, and casting my Latin traditional upbringing of “Jamais Content” so typical of us offsprings of old Rome-via-Iberia aside, that could easily be the case of my own Chile and, for that matter, many countries around the world. We have an inclination to settle for what works and the sooner the better. Mind you, I would even go as bold as to say: only a few countries and cultures have that strange thing of not settling for anything bar the best, and one might again be tempted to call those countries “The Developed World” (I mean, that is WHY they are developed…). The Irish appeared to me (and no offense intended, since it couldn’t be one for me) as the most Latin among the pale skinned peoples of northern Europe: laidback, no sense of time, booze lovers, good laugh lovers, nothing-is-too-impotant kind of attitude, which, obviously, was a godsend to me, being a Latin-Américan meself. But, it is their own country and they (as us here in Chile) love to complain and set the world to right just as a sport, and visitors would have to adapt. If anything, I found that the only striking difference we have is that the Irish are by far a more warm hearted people than we are (we dry lot…), and to warm hearted people, the quest for the best has always hindered the “Dolce far Niente” hasn’t it?.
    All the best,
    Santiago.

    pd: sorry for the late response.

    • Hi Santiago,

      Great points.

      Thanks for reading the blog, and for taking the time to comment.

      Just curious did yo move back to Chile or to somewhere else? I’m be interested in hearing to know how it was going home for you, or making the transition to yet another new “home”.

      Cheers,
      GK

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