McQueen Elizabeth, Barack O’Bama and the Luck of the Irish

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The last time I was in Ireland, the country teetered on the brink of bankruptcy. Its political leaders had already been written off as dead men walking (a little unfair to zombies, who are at least capable of inspiring fear if not respect), and its populace was mired in despair. Many Irish expressed the fear that their nation was heading towards pariah status, resented by citizens of other economies that shared the cost of its emergency European Union and International Monetary Fund rescue package and blamed for adding to the turbulence in financial markets.

Fast forward a mere six months and the change is remarkable. On May 16, as IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn faced up to news that he had been denied his own bail out, his deputy Naoyuki Shinohara announced an additional $2.24 billion of loans for Ireland, based on the assessment that “Ireland’s economic program is off to a strong start.” Shinohara continued:

Resolute policy implementation by the authorities has kept the program on track during a period of political change and an unsettled external environment. The new government has taken full ownership of the goals and key elements of the European Union/IMF supported program; after only a few weeks in office, it announced comprehensive reforms and recapitalization of the domestic banks.

So Irish identical twin pop sensations Jedward may only have come 8th in last weekend’s Eurovision contest but it’s douze points for fresh-minted Taoiseach Enda Kenny and his debt-busting government.

And any predictions that Ireland would be shunned or isolated look wide of the mark as Queen Elizabeth II begins her four-day state visit to the Republic—an event of such significance that broadcasters in the U.K. and Ireland appear to be contractually obligated to use the word “historic” a minimum of ten times per report—and amid preparations for the May 23 arrival of the U.S. President and First Lady.

Such high-profile guests present challenges to the security services. An Irish-Muslim convert was arrested after allegedly suggesting Obama would be an easy target for al Qaeda on Irish soil, and dissident Irish republications have called in bomb threats or created alerts in London and Ireland. All but one of these have so far proven false alarms, but a bomb discovered and defused on the eve of the royal visit on a bus en route for Dublin was a viable device, capable of killing and maiming.

The Queen’s itinerary has been unaffected but with crowds kept largely at bay for her protection—denying her the sight of protestors such as this fashion icon—it’s hard to judge the ratio of excitement to animus to sheer lack of interest. Not so for O’Bama: Ireland is already succumbing to O’Bamamania. (The leader of the free world gained the apostrophe, and a catchy theme tune, after it was discovered that his great-great-great granddaddy Falmouth Kearney came from the Irish village of Moneygall.)

Even without that ditty or the fillip of foreign visitors, the mood music in Ireland has brightened. And although residual hostility towards the Queen shows how long it can take to overcome history, the fact that she is in Ireland at all, the first British monarch ever to set foot in the Republic, suggests that history can be overcome. The country has a long way to go to regain the bounce and vigor that characterized its Celtic Tiger days, but it’s already a little more cheerful, a little more confident.