KILKENNY, Ireland – 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," says Colm O'Regan, an IT consultant turned comedian.
Another declares that since central banks print money anyway, they're built to be defaulted on. "They're just like my dad," quips Joe Rooney.
The medieval city of Kilkenny, renowned as Ireland's capital of comedy, is hosting the nation's first-ever 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 today is battling to stave off an international bailout in the face of record deficits, surging unemployment and unfathomable bank losses.
"We're here to wallow in how immensely bad it can get. Us Irish, we love the idea of a hard old time on the way," Rooney declared inside an ornate theater-pub, prompting knowing laughter from the standing-room-only audience, many of whom were hoisting pints.
The laughter grew as 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 (expletive) we don't complain," he complained. "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 Sunday, had a deeply serious anti-establishment undertone that challenged the Irish to educate themselves about the crisis. Its founder, economics commentator David McWilliams, says he hopes to mobilize the public against government policies that favor 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 McWilliams, a former Irish Central Bank economist and investment banker who forecast the collapse of Ireland's property boom years before it happened in 2008.
With panel discussions named "What If?" ''How Bad Could it Get?" and "The Best Way to Rob a Bank Is to Own One," the festival blended irreverence with detailed debates about the mismanagement of Irish banks, the dynamics of debt defaults from Iceland to Argentina, and the best course for Ireland to take out of its fiscal nightmare.
A band called Dead Cat Bounce — a Wall Street term for the brief rebound of a stock that hits bottom — provided nighttime 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."
Much talk has 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 rumored euro80 billion ($110 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 skeptical world that Ireland can get its finances under control without a rescue.
Cowen says the 2011 budget being unveiled next month will contain euro4.5 billion ($6.3 billion) in tax cuts and euro1.5 billion ($2.1 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.
But to comedian Neil Delamere, Ireland's treating itself worse than the IMF would is simply perverse.
"It's like you're outside the pub on a Friday night, there's a fight brewing up — but instead of waiting for the other fella to hit you, you start punching yourself in the face, kicking yourself in the bollocks," Delamere said to roars of laughter during the show "What the Hell Just Happened?"
The economic crisis has inspired satirists worldwide. Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert rallied tens of thousands to Washington last month for a semi-serious show of anger against the inadequacies of America's political elite. In debt-defaulting Iceland, voters in June elected a comedian to be the new mayor of Reykjavik.
The Irish long have battled tragedy with good cheer in remarkable ways despite their country's history of famine, dispossession and emigration. It's here, after all, that death itself is marked by a three-day social event, the wake, strong on irreverent reminiscences about that poor bloke in the coffin.
"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 O'Regan. He notes he is one of perhaps 300,000 households stuck with a negative-equity mortgage as property prices have slumped 50 percent in the two years.
In the worst cases, families are trapped in half-built "ghost estates" that have no street lights or sewage pipes.
"Kilkenomics has definitely provided a forum for the anger that many people are feeling," he said. "But it's also a celebration of the spirit and ingenuity that goes on all the time in Ireland but doesn't get publicized."
He's appeared in skits as a county councilman who, after taking a bribe from a property developer, uses his fairy wand to turn cow pastures into rich development land. He also tells a children's story about a boy who uses 10 cents of ice-cream money as collateral for a euro400 million ($550 million) loan.
O'Regan concluded one set by describing the modern Irish version of Rapunzel.
"Rapunzel lived in a tower," O'Regan deadpans. "But that tower was in a ghost estate. And the builder hadn't put in any stairs."
David McWilliams blog, http://www.davidmcwilliams.ie/
Colm O'Regan, http://www.colmoregan.com/
Dead Cat Bounce, http://deadcatbounce.ie/