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I recently read a Neumann Forum report arguing that liberal economic development is inherently destabilizing; the authors used contemporary Ireland as a case study. Not long afterward I read Show Your Work, a collection of essays originally published in a literary magazine, the Dublin Review. Rather unexpectedly, the two publications have come to form a kind of diptych in my mind, depicting, in contrasting styles, the same subject: the emotional and psychological health of a country that, in quick time, has self-consciously and flamboyantly gone about shedding its past, including its Catholic past.

It isn’t easy to pinpoint a Year Zero for the full-blown social and economic transformation of Ireland, but 1990 suggests itself strongly. Ireland, it is true, had already changed noticeably by then. Weekly church attendance had been in steady decline throughout the 1970s and ’80s. But attendance truly started to plummet between 1990 and 1995. In 1989, the trainee priest population was only slightly lower than a decade earlier. By 1999, however, it had shrunk by two-thirds. The Neumann Forum also traces key economic policy changes to 1990–1995, such as radical cuts to the corporate tax rate (which triggered massive levels of foreign direct investment).

The graphs and tables contained in the Neumann report are haunting. Throughout the 1950s and ’60s, suicide rates in Ireland were consistently four to five times lower than in the United Kingdom. In the 1970s, however, Irish rates began to climb until the situation in the two countries aligned for most of the ’80s. And then, over the course of the 1990s and 2000s, Irish rates skyrocketed and were soon higher than the rates in the UK (though they have stabilized since). Similar trajectories can be seen in homicide rates, alcohol consumption, drug deaths, and fertility.

This picture of contemporary Ireland was still swirling through my mind when I picked up Show Your Work. Most of the essayists were born in or after 1975, meaning that they would have been fifteen or younger in 1990, the year of the great acceleration. As a result, some or all of their formative years have been spent in the new Ireland or in a pretty unmistakable proto-version of it. 

It was the output of many in this cohort that set me thinking of the Neumann Forum report again. I began to wonder whether I was seeing the apparently increasingly depressed and anxious nation of the sociological data bodied forth in prose. Patrick Freyne, for instance, uses his essay to conduct an inventory of the trap doors of his own psyche: depression, anxiety, OCD, narcissism, hypochondria, “cyberchondria.” He recounts his unsatisfying encounters with therapists. He finds himself to be “a boiling stew of self-loathing.”

The collection includes many similar pieces, with anxiety sometimes oozing out of the very titles. Freyne’s essay is called “Brain Fever.” Mark O’Connell contributes a piece called “Self-Portrait in Five Fears” (moths, mice, abandonment, flying, and “basically just walking down the street”). Talented young writers lay bare their neuroses, or riff sarcastically on their own anomie and drift. Kevin Breathnach skillfully ironizes his way through a summer of sexual experimentation and infidelity in Paris. Rob Doyle’s masterful drollery buoys up his account of rock’n’roll hedonism and selling out to capitalism in Berlin, with drugs providing self-medication for psychic wounds and unnamed sorrows. 

Born in 1975, Freyne was one of the older contributors to Show Your Work. At least part of his childhood and adolescence coincided with a time when old Ireland was still trying (hopelessly, of course) to work out a compromise with modernity. Freyne’s essay, both funny and harrowing, is dappled with references to action movies, The A-Team, indie music. In childhood, he and his peers were merely paddling on the edges of the great tides that were on their way.

Show Your Work depicts the inheritors of an agrarian republic now inhabiting a world of cities and suburbs and rented rooms, of cuboid glass-and-steel architecture housing Google and Facebook, of cyber-this and virtual-that, of laptops in Starbucks and pep talks from exercise bikes, of fast food and anti-depressants. Appetites are continuously inflamed and sated and inflamed again. Drugs are no longer something putatively liberating or transgressive, but just part of life or part of coping with life. The older Irish comforts and constraints are nowhere to be seen: no cattle to be milked or hay to be saved, no offspring to be rocked to sleep, no Catholic guilt rising like smoke from pews and confessionals.

The old religion is mostly an unremarked absence, with some exceptions. In Darragh McCausland’s brutally frank account of his bulimia, a kindly priest intervenes with advice that sets him on the road to recovery. And, when trying to summarize his current state of being, McCausland reaches for Dante and purgatory. Patrick Freyne’s worldview is atheistic, yet God was still available in the culture when he was young. He finds himself “not missing the terror of God” until his mother is diagnosed with cancer, and he “faced again the terror of nothing.” 

Show Your Work repeatedly brings the reader face to face with deep, entrenched unhappiness in the generation of writers who grew up and were formed in the new Ireland. To argue that the neuroses that suffuse these essays arise solely or directly from the social and economic forces that have transformed Ireland would be ludicrously reductive. On the other hand, to not notice the patterns running through the collection, and not ponder their connections with the society they have emerged from, would be silly as well. 

So we should examine the data. And we should listen to the unnerving warning Roisin Kiberd offers in her essay, “Night Gym”: “It is possible to practise habits of self-improvement, and at the same time continue to long for your slow destruction.”  Some new and disturbing things have perhaps entered the Irish psyche: things that are complex, no doubt, and nebulous, and not amenable to snap judgments. Are they permanent or are they symptoms of adjustment? Those who are otherwise secure in their conviction that liberalization has brought a world of gains may yet have to reckon with these new realities. 

John Duggan writes from Surrey, ­England.

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