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Affluence and Irish Pubs

You surely saw the great story by Mary Jordan today from Ireland, which apparently is no longer the same place depicted in "Angela's Ashes." The Irish Miracle has not only caused a spike in affluence, it has shuttered at least a thousand rural pubs as people change their basic routines in life. The image of an Irishman at home with a glass of Chardonnay is jangling, no? The Irish, I was always told, never drink alone, nor would it occur to them. You have the pint as part of a social interaction.

(This is true, too, in Japan, where, as I'm sure I'm mentioned before, I was told by my interpreter, "A man never pours his own sake." My interpreter, Shigo, was very old-school. At one point, over a long, traditional meal on tatami mats in the mountain village of Amari Onsen -- something like that -- a hot spring town full of temples -- I tried to refill my cup, and Shigo's hand shot out as if from a bazooka. He grabbed the pitcher and poured it for me. The impression I got is that pouring one's own sake is a virtual outrage, flamboyantly crude. I wonder if, in a tight-quarters society, the prohibition evolved as a way to constrain excessive drinking and the social chaos that can come of it.)

The Irish pub story points to a more fundamental fact about human society: Affluence can undermine community. The number one thing that people do with money is free themselves of dependency on other people. Affluence builds walls. Something as basic as air-conditioning effectively vacuumed people by the millions off their porches and out of their yards. Electronic gadgets suck people indoors as well. Who could have predicted, 500 years ago, that capitalism would lead to people not knowing their neighbors?

I don't depend on my neighbors for much, but there are some exceptions. Murphy, next door, is the indispensible source of knowledge about local flora, fauna, geology, paleontology, when to plant tomatoes, etc.

And of course I need to borrow Angus's weedeater regularly. Also I steal his firewood and specifically his black walnut (he chops it at his farm and I use it when grilling). Once, when he was out of town, I stole the canoe he keeps under his house, but I returned it, only slightly damaged, which wasn't my fault, as the rock in the river was completely obscured in the rapids. Also I watch a lot of TV in his garage.

But that still proves my point: I don't depend on the guy, just on his stuff.

By Joel Achenbach  |  April 25, 2008; 10:30 AM ET
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