Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Bruce Springsteen's coming to Ireland to research his roots and fleece the Irish

Springsteen in Dublin, July 2009
Bruce Springsteen is coming to Dublin again. Great. It's been nearly three years since his last show I'm sure his Irish fans will be thrilled to see him and the E Street Band again.

Irish sure people do seem to love him. Tickets to his shows are always hard to come by. Often extra shows are added after the first sells out quickly. In November 2007 Springsteen tickets went on sale for a show the following May. It sold out in 15 minutes, a second show was added and then a third. Springsteen sold more than 110,000 tickets that day to watch him and his band play in the RDS, a showjumping arena that is not a great venue for a concert. A year later he returned and sold out two shows, another 80,000 tickets.

That was early 2009. A lot has changed since then. Although we knew hard times were coming, they weren't really here yet. The ticket prices were steep, but the full impact of what was about to befall Ireland hadn't been fully realized yet. For the 2008 show the prices were  €81 ($109) to stand in a field or €91 ($122) to sit in the distant stands. A year later they were €86 ($115) and €96 ($129).
Read More:

Bruce Springsteen to play Dublin, research his Irish roots

Bruce Springsteen shows his Irish roots as ancestors hail from Ireland!

'Suffering of Irish people outrageous' says NY Times Paul Krugman

Money was tight then. It's much tighter now. I'm curious to see if Springsteen's Irish fans can and will pony up this time. The tickets that go on sale this Thursday are the same price as in 2009.

The prices of the tickets just stick in my craw. It's not just the old (and valid) complaint about Springsteen supposedly being this blue collar hero while charging top dollar for tickets to his shows. It's that a reduction in price was warranted and what's worse is that tickets for his shows in England are a lot cheaper.

Based on inflation figures there should have been a reduction in the ticket prices. There's more to it than than that, though. Springsteen is not your typical ignorant showbiz type. I'm convinced he knows Ireland is experiencing an economic collapse. I'm sure he has read some of Paul Krugman, who yesterday referred the suffering of the Irish people as "outrageous."

Possibly even more galling is that the tickets to see Springsteen are cheaper in England. A lot cheaper. Okay, there are differences in taxes, but that doesn't account for the vast difference in prices between here and England. The English have to pay £55 ($85) to stand in the field. The tickets to Springsteen's Dublin show are a third more expensive. Why? Why is Springsteen charging his English fans less than his Irish fans?

Whenever Springsteen comes here he mentions his Irish roots, talks about how much he loves it here. He always gets an enthusiastic reception. His Irish audience helped him sell a show recorded during his tour promoting the We Shall Overcome album, the title alone an ironic whack to the head for his Irish fans.

Springsteen's Irish fans are loyal. Very loyal. Some won't care what it costs, "Costs be damned! It's The Boss, after all." I'm sure others will sweat and worry, but pay too whether they should or not. For many, however, $125 including booking fee is simply too much nowadays. Would it have killed Springsteen to have shown his loyal Irish fans some consideration and at least charge them no more than his English fans?

Next summer 'The Boss' is apparently going to spend a little time searching for his Irish roots while he's here. Maybe when he arrives he'll realize it's not his Irish roots, but his Irish heart that he needs to find.

{Photo from James Horan/Photocall Ireland}

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Ireland's 'bagel tax' is a vote of no confidence in the EU

plate of bagels
Bagels - not bread in Ireland
Is a bagel bread? I say it is. The Oxford English Dictionary says it is ("a hard ring-shaped salty roll of bread"). From what I can tell Jewish people consider the bagel to be bread.

Truth is, I can't imagine anyone thinking the bagel is not bread yet, the Irish government does. As far as the government is concerned, bagels are not bread.

Last week the Irish Times revealed that Ireland's Revenue Commissioners (the Irish version of the IRS) are dusting off an old law as to what constitutes bread. Those products that don't meet the definition will now be subject to a 13.5% Value Added Tax (sales tax) rate. Bread incurs no VAT.

Lest you think this is an attack directed against Ireland's tiny Jewish community, it is not. Bagels were non-existent here until about a dozen years ago, but now they are widely produced by non-Jews all over Ireland. Besides, it isn't just bagels that the revenue officials are targeting. Croissants, garlic bread and other 'fancy breads' that became widely available here during the Celtic Tiger years are also in line for the extra tax treatment.

According to the Irish government, bagels and the rest are "not sufficiently bread-like to be exempt from VAT." The law defines bread pretty specifically based on ingredients and the cooking process. As far as the law is concerned bread is produced by "baking dough composed exclusively of a mixture of cereal flour" and any of the ingredients on their list.

Those ingredients include fruit and milk, but not eggs or garlic, which is why croissants and garlic bread do not fit the definition. Bagels are excluded because the dough is boiled before it's baked. Unless seeds can be included as "dried fruit" a lot of "fancy breads" topped by sesame or poppy seeds are also excluded from the legal definition of bread. Of course loads of bagels come with sesame seeds or poppy seeds or onion or garlic or cinnamon, which only further emphasizes how far from bread they really are in legal terms.

Read More:

Frustration grows as severe Irish budget looms

Death of the Euro is inevitable in continuing European financial crisis

Brown bread as your mother made it

So what's going on here?

Well, ostensibly our broke government is simply looking for some extra dough. Enforcing a long-neglected law on bread is just one more way to raise revenue. However, I think there's a deeper philosophical underpinning at work here, one that runs counter to what I wrote last week.

By breathing new life into this moldy old law the government is telling the Irish people to stop eating that "foreign muck" and get back to eating "real bread." And by real bread they mean something your Irish granny used to make. Traditional Irish soda bread or brown bread is recommended, but good old-fashioned white bread, unsliced, is also fine.

This is the government's subtle way of telling us that all those foreign influences we've imported during the past 40 years of European Union membership are comming to an end. Maybe they think the EU is coming to an end or maybe just our involvement in it. Regardless, this is clear evidence that the government's love of the EU has grown a bit stale.

If they really believed in our long term future in the EU they'd realize that a narrow, Irish-only definition of bread would not survive a challenge brought to a European court. I mean, even Irish people seemed stunned to learn that bagels and croissants are not bread. Is a French or German or Polish official going to concede that bagels and croissants are not bread? Unlikely.

The government's 'let em eat brown bread' attitude ties in neatly with their constant cries of austerity. It also ties in well with the philosophy that drove Ireland's governments between 1922 and 1960, when people endured some significant financial hardship in order to build a new, independent Ireland. This is the first official hint that we are heading back in that direction. I'm curious to see what else they've got cooking.

{Picture from ChiagoBagel.com}

Friday, November 18, 2011

Ireland's sovereignty is probably gone for good

Enda Kenny & Angela Merkel
Enda Kenny and Angela Merkel
before this week's Irish-German spat
There is uproar in Ireland today following yesterday's revelation that last night the German parliament discussed an Irish government document on its budget for next year. Many people are outraged that our tax rates, welfare payments and other government expenditures were discussed in Germany's parliament before it was up for debate in Ireland's parliament. The Irish government is outraged that the document was leaked.

Why is the government so shocked? The shock is mostly contrived. Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Enda Kenny tried a bit of the tough guy act in Germany yesterday and his German counterpart called his bluff. The budget document was leaked by the Germans as a way of letting Kenny know that he's not in control; they are.

I don't understand why so many others, especially in the Irish media, are outraged. Haven't these people been paying attention? We had to be bailed out back in November 2010. We're still beholden to those who bailed us out. Yet the media is acting as if the implications of the bail-out are a complete shock. The penny only finally dropped today.

"Germany is our new master" is the headline across the today's front page of the Irish Daily Mirror.

Yet, Germany has been "our master" for more than a year. Ireland is not a sovereign nation. We have been giving away bits and pieces of our sovereignty for the better part of 25 years, but all pretense at being a sovereign nation evaporated last year when, essentially, we entered Chapter 11. That's the way it goes.
Read More:

Enda Kenny lays down the law to Chancellor Merkel

IMF appoints Dublin representative to oversee bailout

Ireland has a new Chief Secretary

The hard truth is our sovereignty is probably gone forever. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has said that in exchange for Germany committing to fixing the problems in the euro she is seeking a fiscal union across the Eurozone (the 17 EU nations that use the euro). This is what triggered Kenny's tough talk - he told Merkel that her plans for a fiscal union were a step too far.

Yet as last night's leak makes plain, we have limited choice in the matter. If the Germans want a fiscal union, they'll probably get one. The only decision left to us at that stage will be do we want greater sovereignty and greater hardship or less of both? We will get a vote on it, but if we vote yes - as I suspect we will - that will mean the end of independence.

We will head towards the centenary celebration of the 1916 Easter Rising against British rule knowing we spent roughly the first half of that century trying to achieve greater independence and the second half giving it all away again. By 2016 we will have completed a century long swap of British rule for German.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Michael O'Leary and Ryanair are great for passengers and for Ireland

O'Leary - always outrageous, always in the headlines.
Ryanair. If you live in America and you know the name Ryanair it's probably because (a) you know the airline is legendary for its abysmal customer service and/or (b) you know of Ryanair's Chief Executive, Michael O'Leary, who adores playing the clown, saying the most outrageous things – especially when there are members of the media around.

The media and people in general in Ireland, in England and pretty much anywhere Ryanair flies love to moan about Ryanair. The 'customer service stinks,' the 'hidden charges are unfair,' the flights 'take you to airports way out in the sticks' (Dublin Airport is unusually central) and, of course, 'O'Leary is an arrogant windbag.'

You know something? It's all true. You know something else? I don't care. I love Ryanair. Okay, 'love' is the wrong word, but generally speaking I am quite a contented customer. In fact, I'm so contented that I've often wondered if O'Leary would deliberately sabotage my travel plans if he knew because O'Leary gives the impression that contented customers are the last thing he wants.
Read More:

More Ryanair News

Storm as Ryanair boss says he'll allow porn on planes

Ryanair's O'Leary: Greek passengers ‘can pay in mountain goats'
Yet, I have flown on Ryanair many times and despite the poor customer service, despite the lack of comfort, despite the constant selling by the cabin crew and despite the fact you have to line up like a kid waiting for the school bus in order to board the plane I keep coming back for more. Why? Because the cost of flights for the whole family is the lowest in Europe and from what I can tell, lower than any airline offers in America.

back of a Ryanair seat showing safety instructions
Ryanair airplanes.
No seat pockets means no safety cards -
painted on back of seat instead.
{Photo thanks to Wikipedia.}
Over the past five years we have been to England, Scotland, Belgium, France and Germany on Ryanair. We've been to most of those places more than once. The most we ever paid for flights was €150 ($200) - for five tickets. Most of our trips cost just under €100 ($135). Again, that's five tickets. A few years back I was able to get 4 round trip tickets to London for €0.08 (that is 10¢, one dime).

We have been able take the children places and show them things I never thought would be possible thanks to Ryanair.

Sure it can be annoying. You have to be willing to go when they want you to go. You have to use the 'right' card to buy your tickets. You have to pack lightly and tightly. You have to be willing to endure discomfort for 60-90 minutes. You have to play by Ryanair's rules. We're able to manage all that, which is why we fly Ryanair.

We're not alone either. Ryanair is one of the world's most popular airlines, despite being almost universally loathed. 74m passengers will fly on Ryanair this year. I don't know how many of those are contented passengers, but O'Leary doesn't care if they're contented so long as they keep coming back.

As for O'Leary, his clownish behavior and outrageousness is so transparently a marketing ploy that I'm amazed the media hasn't started ignoring him. Ryanair doesn't use advertising to publicize the fact it's the lowest cost airline in Europe. It uses press releases or O'Leary's mouth to get that job done.

Whenever there's a lull in the news O'Leary pops up with an announcement that Ryanair will get rid of co-pilots or charge passengers to use the bathroom or allow to passengers to watch pornography on board or whatever. He says something shocking. The media loves it and reports it breathlessly. All of this has the effect of reinforcing one message: Ryanair is cheap.

Read More:

More Ryanair News

Storm as Ryanair boss says he'll allow porn on planes

Ryanair's O'Leary: Greek passengers ‘can pay in mountain goats'

All of which keeps Ryanair's shareholders sweet and O'Leary does care about those people. You can tell O'Leary cares about Ryanair's shareholders because when he's on CNBC the clownishness is replaced by seriousness as he discusses passenger load figures, revenues, aircraft purchases, etc.

Shareholders, in turn, may not love O'Leary, but they're probably contented too. Despite difficult trading conditions for European airlines, Ryanair is growing bigger and more profitable.

Ads on the planes -
another revenue stream for Ryanair
{Photo from Ken Fielding}
At some point O'Leary will step down. At the moment he's the closest thing Ireland has to Steve Jobs. Although he's more like the 'anti-Jobs.' Everyone knows O'Leary, identifies him closely with the business he runs, but generally he's despised as is the company he heads.

The Irish media loves to lambaste O'Leary and Ryanair, but both have been great for this country. Where other businessmen have headed for tax exile, O'Leary has remained in Ireland.

Ryanair can take a lot of the credit for the competitive air fares and the boom in tourist numbers Ireland has experienced over the past 20 years. Soon Ryanair will be the biggest company on the Irish stock exchange. It is already the best Irish company.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Ireland's cowardly government closes Vatican embassy

Villa Spada in Rome
Ireland's Embassy to the Holy See since 1946
{picture from DFA.ie}
Last week the Irish government announced that it is going to close its embassy to the Holy See. Despite what everyone believes, the government claims that the embassy's closure has nothing to do with the souring of relations between the Vatican and the Irish government over scandals in the Catholic Church in Ireland. In fact, Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Enda Kenny "reacted angrily" to the suggestion that the closure was due to anything other than budgetary constraints.

That Kenny and T├ínaiste (Deputy PM) Eamonn Gilmore are willing to claim that the closing of Ireland's embassy to the Holy See is due to the need for the state to make savings says more about their cowardice than it does about the state of Ireland's finances. This decision is transparently NOT about saving money.

The Irish government will save €1.2m ($1.65m) with the closing of the embassy. While that's a lot of money to the average Joe, that's not a whole lot of money for a state, even a bankrupt state like Ireland.

Sure the government has to cut back and, yes, Gilmore's Department of Foreign Affairs has to do its share, but it doesn't take long to realize that there are inconsistencies in this tale of budget cuts that make a nonsense of the government's tale.

Start with the building itself.

Ireland's embassy to Italy
{picture from Google.com}
The Irish embassy to the Holy See is in a beautiful building, the Villa Spada {see photo above}, in a beautiful setting on the top of the Gianicolo. Selling that would probably net the government a fair amount, but they're not selling it. No, they're moving Ireland's embassy to Italy from its cheap, rented accommodation {see photo left}into the Villa Spada. If they were serious about saving money they would not give up those cars-parked-in-the-doorway, paint-peeling-off-the-walls offices for a perfectly maintained hilltop Roman villa.

Then there is the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) budget.

This same government department that decided it cannot afford the $1.65m for the embassy at the Vatican is still spending over €400m ($550m) on "Official Development Assistance" or foreign aid. Okay, yes, of course we can't simply cut all foreign aid to poorer countries simply because, well, we're bankrupt. We may be bankrupt, but the people in those poor countries who are dependent on our aid still need to be helped, even if it adds a dollar or two or half a billion to our debt mountain.

Fair enough because those countries are really poor. Right?

Well, if they're really poor and need our aid how come countries like Ethiopia, Malawi, Mozambique, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe are all able to afford an embassy to the Holy See in Rome when we cannot afford the same? After all, those countries are receiving aid from us, yet somehow they can afford that which we can no longer afford. Will the DFA cut off aid to countries rich enough to afford a Vatican embassy? Of course they won't because the cost of a Vatican embassy is not worth worrying about. If it was only about the money we could probably share office space and administration costs with the Malawians.{Here's a great map of the world showing which countries have diplomatic relations with the Vatican and a resident mission, which is what Ireland is closing.}
Read More:

Prime Minister slams suggestion that sex abuse row prompted embassy closure

Shock closure of Irish Embassy in Vatican Announced -- Further evidence of deep problems between Ireland and Holy See

More news stories on the Catholic Church in Ireland from IrishCentral

No, it was never about the money. That is a fib they're peddling because they're worried about alienating the still fairly sizable minority here who take their Catholicism seriously. At the same time they want the kudos for taking a populist stand, for confronting the Catholic Church over its mishandling of its many scandals.

How gutless. How wimpy. If they want to make a statement on the Catholic Church in Ireland then make the statement and stand over it. They should take the flak.

They didn't. They used prevarication and obfuscation in an attempt to hide the truth from those 'knuckle-dragging' voters who still go to Mass on a Sunday. It didn't work. Now those same voters feel that the government insulted their faith and their intelligence.

This is what angered Kenny. Everyone saw through the official twaddle to the essence of what was happening. Even those Kenny and Gilmore probably assumed would support them conceded that cost was only a smokescreen. The Irish Times admitted it in the first sentence of its editorial. The Irish Examiner said that by its decision the government "has essentially thumbed its nose at the Vatican."

The Examiner then went even further noting that the Catholic Church's tremendous influence across the globe. This is why the United States has full diplomatic relations with the Holy See. "The U.S.-Holy See relationship is best characterized as an active global partnership on a wide range of global issues."

Mary Kenny in the Irish Independent noted that the list of countries with full representation at the Vatican includes many non-Catholic, even non-Christian countries. Thanks to this decision Ireland will now be "a less important link in the globalized network connected to the Holy See."

This is what diplomatic relations are all about. Even when you are in dispute with another state you try to maintain diplomatic relations. Closing the embassy in a fit of pique is short-sighted. Lying about it is stupid.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

John Barry - Irish hero of the United States

John Barry,
John Barry, Irishman and "father of the American navy" seems to be finally getting some of the recognition he's long past due. The most important development is the decision of the United States Naval Academy to erect a memorial to Barry, thanks to the efforts of members of the local branch of the Ancient Order of Hibernians. In addition, a recently published biography of Barry is the first in 72 years. I'd love to imagine that Barry will also receive some national attention in Ireland, where he is mostly known in his native Wexford.

I have visited Philadelphia many times and each time I've taken a moment to look at the statue of Barry. It's not hard to find. It's in Independence Square, right in front of Independence Hall.

You can't miss it, but from what I've seen on my visits very few people actually pay any attention to the man whose statue greets them on exiting the building. During my visit there this summer the thought crossed my mind that many tourists from Ireland probably go on the Independence Hall tour and leave the area without ever realizing that the man who greets them in this quintessentially American location is an Irishman.
Read More:

His Brother's Keeper: Commodore John Barry, Father of the American Navy

A Voyage of Rediscovery: the Irish America Hall of Fame at the Dunbrody Emigration History Centre

Notre Dame vs Navy will be security nightmare for Ireland
It's a shame that Barry is not better known - in America and Ireland - because Barry's story, while hardly unique, is fantastic. He grew up a poor kid in Ireland. His family was forced to leave their farm, supposedly by the landlord, and move to the coastal town of Rosslare. He was drawn to the sea, began working on merchant ships as a young boy and eventually sailed into Philadelphia, where he settled.

When the Revolutionary War broke out Barry, who was then captaining merchant ships, volunteered for and was given the task of outfitting fighting ships. He had a successful war as commander of a of a number of ships and even fought as a marine with Washington at Trenton and Princeton, while his ship was in dry dock. Barry's success during the war was rewarded later by President Washington, who made Barry the first head of the new United States Navy.

John Barry, Wexford
(photo: Paddy Donovan)
Philadelphia is not the only city with a Barry statue. There is one in Franklin Square in Washington, which I have not seen, and one in a prominent place in Wexford, which was a gift from "his grateful countrymen to the people of the land from which he sprung."

{Maybe it's my combative nature, but I prefer the Wexford statue that depicts Barry with the sword in his hand. In the Philadelphia statue he's pointing his hand and his sword is in its scabbard.}

While you can't miss Barry's statue if you visit Philadelphia, you can miss his grave. I know because I did every time I visited until this year. His grave is well worth visiting, however, and it's only three blocks away from the statue. {Although on the day I visited this summer - July 23 - it was over 100F and those three blocks seemed an awfully long way.}

Barry's grave is in a beautiful setting and well maintained in Old St. Mary's Church yard. The epitaph on his tomb, restored in the 1870s, is poetic. It begins with:

Let the Christian, Patriot and soldier
Who visits these mansions of the dead
View this monument with respect.
Beneath it are interred the remains of
Father of the American Navy.
He was born in the County Wexford in Ireland
But America was the object of his patriotism
And the theatre of his usefulness.

Barry is not the only prominent Irishman buried at Old St. Mary's. Thomas Fitzsimons from Wicklow, who signed the Declaration of Independence, and General Stephen Moylan from Cork, who during the Revolution was Quartermaster General, Aide to General Washington and finished the war as a Brigadier General, are both buried there. These two, along with Barry, put Old St Mary's high on the list of important places in Irish-American history.

John Barry's grave
Old St. Mary's Church, Philadelphia