Guess Who's Having a Good Recession?

One of the mantras repeated endlessly in the Irish media is that the country is broke. Apparently those vast fortunes accumulated during the boom have all disappeared like snow on a ditch. It came as something of a surprise then to learn that in the days leading up to Christmas eight people were willing and able to part with €4,000 a piece for Hermès handbags stocked in Brown Thomas. When the exclusive accessories sold out disappointed customers were forced to add their names to the waiting list in the Grafton Street store.

Apparently the cold winds of recession have not reached the more affluent parts of the national capital. In the first of what promises to be a long-running series, Michael Cronin offers an answer to the question 'Guess Who's Having a Good Recession?'

It is a relief to know that not everyone is having a bad recession. Michael Parsons, writing in the Irish Times on two art auctions which took place in Dublin in December 2010 noted what he calls a 'startling observation' in the Washington Post on November's sale of works of art from the Bank of Ireland collection. What was the Post's startling observation? 'The event highlighted the resiliency and quirkiness of Ireland, where for decades wealth was kept hidden under the mattress – and where savers once again are seeking a haven safer than the country's crippled banks.' All but one of the 145 lots were sold at the auction. So it is reassuring to know that the hidden wealth is not averse to the odd public viewing.

Parsons, however, then offers his own 'startling observation' on why poverty and the picturesque are often congenial bedfellows: "Anyone still sleeping on an O'Dearest stuffed plump with banknotes might want to consider next week's big art sales in Dublin which neatly frame a Budget likely to produce a collective scream à la Edvard Munch." So while the poor could cut a striking figure by holding their heads in despair at the callous assault on their wellbeing, their masters could consider the tasteful symmetry of two art sales that 'frame' the budget.

Just how well stuffed some of those mattresses are was revealed in a piece given top billing in the Irish Times (published as it was at the bottom of page 11). Here we learn that according to the Revenue Commissioners there were over 800 millionaires in Ireland in 2010. 608 individuals were set to earn between €1 million and €2 million with a further 188 earning over €2 million.

The Minister for Finance, Brian Lenihan, whose work was not on display at the Christmas charity auction in the Mansion House for works of art by members of the Oireachtas, added his own inimitable flourish in response to a request for the numbers of those earning in excess of €2 million, "The breakdown by income bands requested by the deputy [Burton] is not provided in relation to incomes exceeding €2 million due to the small numbers of earners with incomes in excess of that level."

In other words, that so much should be earned by so few, is one of those 'startling observations' that is not fit for public display. No matter how many O'Dearest mattresses you pile on, the bitter pea of inequality will still bruise, and bruise badly.


Professor Michael Cronin teaches in the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Dublin City University.

(Image via UggBoyUggGirl on Flickr)