Ireland: Laughing all the way at the banks

When comedians feast on Ireland's terrifying debt situation, it's time to laugh - or cry. Hard, cold truths will emerge in either case.

"Ireland needs a new credit rating agency. Moody & Poor," said Colm O'Regan, an IT consultant turned comedian.

Another declared that since central banks print money anyway, they're built to be defaulted on. "They're just like my dad," quipped Joe Rooney.

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The medieval city of Kilkenny, renowned as Ireland's capital of comedy, this weekend hosted the nation's first economics festival, a uniquely Irish blend of tragedy and satire. Sharing the same stage, economists and standup comedians are trying to help thousands of shellshocked citizens get a grip on their nation's spectacular economic fall.

Celebrated as Europe's Celtic Tiger success story just a few years ago, Ireland is battling to stave off an international bailout in the face of record deficits, surging unemployment and unfathomable bank losses.

At one show, comedian Rooney mocked his fellow countrymen as deferential masochists - in sharp contrast to the French, who "burn cars and throw sheep" every time their government even thinks about reforms.

"The Irish, we'll take anything. When we go to restaurant, if the food is (bad] we don't complain," he said. "Will we send it back? Never! I wouldn't give them the satisfaction! I'll eat it all and throw up at home."

Kilkenomics, a four-day festival that ended yesterday, had a deeply serious anti-establishment undertone that challenged the Irish to educate themselves about the crisis.

Its founder, economics commentator David McWilliams, said he hoped to mobilise the public against government policies that favour repaying the country's overwhelming debts rather than negotiating a partial default, as other nations have done.

"Knowledge is power, and it's very hard for ordinary people to understand how Ireland has got itself in this mess, and how colossal that mess truly is. They've let our government take us to the cliff edge," said Mr McWilliams, a former Irish Central Bank economist

A band called Dead Cat Bounce - a Wall Street term for the brief rebound of a stock that hits bottom - provided night-time relief.Between performances, an ironic soundtrack played Kenny Rodgers' The Gambler, Talking Heads' Road to Nowhere, and the Beatles' version of Money, That's What I Want.

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Much talk focused on growing expectations that Ireland, determined to pay back the loans that foreign banks have made to bankrupt Irish ones, will lose its own ability to borrow and instead receive a rumoured €80 billion rescue from the EU and International Monetary Fund.

The satirists and economists alike have pilloried prime minister Brian Cowen's austerity policy, which seeks to convince a sceptical world that Ireland can get its finances under control without a rescue.

Mr Cowen has claimed the 2011 budget being unveiled next month will contain ?€4.5 billion in tax cuts and ?€1.5 billion in new taxes, sacrifices that come on top of two years of emergency budgets.

The Irish Central Bank says the discipline is as harsh, or worse, than anything the IMF might impose.

"We're not mourning the death of anything here. We're not looking back with fondness at any of the stupid mistakes we've made as a nation," said Mr O'Regan. He notes he is one of perhaps 300,000 households stuck with a negative-equity mortgage as property prices have slumped 50 per cent in two years.

"Kilkenomics has definitely provided a forum for the anger that many people are feeling. But it's also a celebration of the spirit and ingenuity that goes on all the time in Ireland but doesn't get publicised."