Lessons of the Pandemic… from a village in the shadow of the Corkscrew Hill.

I guess the best place to start this story is in February 1994 when I made the executive decision to quit University College Galway and take a mooch out into the world. At some point I will meander into David McWilliams latest, excellent podcast episode, on the evils of conventional thinking in the midst of a pandemic. But for the moment Iet’s luxuriate a little in the past.

My choice wasn’t a eureka moment, where in a flash of insight, I woke up one fine morning and discovered the true meaning of my life. Unfortunately it was an altogether more prosaic quirk of circumstance. A collection of third year Christmas exam results, that wouldn’t have looked out of place set to a musical score in a slasher movie.

A couple of sharp F’s here with a flourish of flat E’s there. And one nasty non-attendance thrown in to my permanent record as a chorus line. Quite why anyone would schedule or indeed attend an exam on the European economy, at 2:30 of an afternoon, in a Salthill location, when there were two casinos on the same street and an opportunity to support the faltering Irish economy remains a mystery to me. I might have been the last patriot on the promenade.

To be kind to myself, and I frequently am, attempting to gain a Bachelor of Arts degree in Economics and English back in the 90’s was no easy task. No Sirree. I mean there were at least 11 hours of lectures a week. Every week apparently. And get this, for some reason many of these learning opportunities were before noon. Yes, as in AM – ante meridiem. An economist in the Crane Bar , might sagely point to a naive set of underlying assumptions underpinning this type of curriculum model. A failing economist granted.

On my occasional trips to the campus, as a visiting dignitary, I restricted myself to frequenting only the large amphitheaters of education like the O’Flaherty theatre on the concourse or the college bar in the Quadrangle. Not for me the confines of a small, mandatory tutorial class in one of the altogether un-poetic tower blocks. No, my attitude, as Leona Helmsley might have put it, was that tutorials were for the little people.

Alas, this approach to wisdom gathering went completely unrewarded in the Ireland of 1994. It also left me in a stark situation where near straight A’s were required, at summer examination halls up and down the city, to pass overall. I took the decision that the risk/reward of this scenario was as unappetizing as it was unlikely. So I hit the reset button and wandered out into the world while I awaited the cassette deck to rewind to the beginning. So as to make a fresh start the following college year. Or perhaps not at all.

My hitchhiking got me as far as Co. Clare and I spent the next 6 months in the tourist hamlet of Ballyvaughan working as a hotel bar-man. A half-year away from the hustle and bustle of 11 hourly lectures a week, replaced instead with 60 hour weeks for an 80 punt wage and my own caravan for sleeping quarters. I was, on most days – not to put too fine a point on it – as happy as a pig in shit.

On other windswept nights after work though, I would occasionally stroll down to Ballyvaughan pier and try to make out the silhouette of the Galway city lights across the bay and wonder about the future I had recklessly risked leaving behind. Would I want to hit play when September rolled around again? A late pint in Monks pub was usually required to ponder these questions. Or any questions really.

As luck would have it I learned a little about both Economics and language in this sleepy coastal village. The hotel was a small, family run business, like many hotels in the early 1990’s. And like any small Irish business that survived the era of Charlie and Garret, it was meticulously and extremely well run.

Although I didn’t appreciate it at the time, I was observing the nuts and bolts of how a good business is efficiently run and the economies of small scale in holiday village Ireland.

The race for business, was and still is, a race against the clock. In the 1990’s the 1st of September was the finishing line. Bookings, room management, food and beverages, ordering, stock control, waste management, bus tours, till balancing, customer experience and entertainment were all vitally in play.

The difference between mark-up and margin was highlighted to me in university but only fully understood here . The importance of the small function room as a revenue generator cannot be understated in any venue. How the difference between a good summer and an average one – might be one extra small wedding or a popular, preferably elderly man, dying and the ensuing 3 day funeral celebrations. And they were celebrations by day 2 and 3. A good funeral was economically far better than a great wedding.

So you might say, I got plenty of exposure to economics and a commodity I hadn’t much experience of – hard graft. All day. Every day. Well most days.

That same summer, that same family business opened a small Art college in the wilds of the Burren a few miles away in a renovated castle as I recall now. As the day of the grand opening approached, many of us would be double jobbing between the Hotel and the Castle in preparation for the arrival of the President Mary Robinson.

A Wall Street analyst might call this whole enterprise diversification. I myself thought these good people were downright crazy in the comfort of my smoke-filled caravan. Today, of course, the English part of my brain can see them for what they were – visionaries. Entrepreneurs might be the acceptable but perhaps not quite satisfactory economic term for them.

As a result of all this hustle and bustle, quite a lot of artsy types were knocking around the village that summer from various corners of the world. Much of the organic conversation and animation in the bar revolved around painting, poetry and music. A storyteller was a frequent feature of the nightly hotel entertainment menu too. Creatives that seemed to be successfully living the artistic life as opposed to successfully making a living from it.

I got to recent thinking about this chapter of my life when listening to David McWilliams yesterday evening. He was breaking down a Pascal Donohue Interview on borrowing and Interest rates where the bold Pascal was challenging a McWilliams hypothesis on Irish airwaves.

David politely but decisively chopped to pieces the ramblings of conventional thinking coming out of the Department of Finance via Donohue’s mouth. As he explained the jigsaw pieces of how an economy fit’s together and how we should approach putting it back together in Ireland. The creativity and boldness required. The inter-dependencies and knock-on effects. It was at this juncture, that I was drawn back again to the spring and summer of 1994. And a summer’s morning spent traversing the highways and byways of north County Clare in a Blue Hi-ace van.

Fresh agricultural produce is a daily staple of any hotel and back then a local man had his own little business supplying fruit and veg to the North and West Clare hospitality market. A genial and entertaining sales-man to boot. Over the years, he developed a great relationship with the hotel management and had the gift of roping any idle member of staff, that was on a day off, to assist him on his daily rounds, catching them at breakfast as he dropped off his wares in the hotel kitchen each morning. A barter system – free labour in exchange for an entertaining mornings conversation and laughter. Before long, I was a regular riding shotgun.

During the course of these morning we’d visit B&B’s, Hostels, pubs, restaurants, hotels and the occasional independent grocery shop. Occasional complaints about the standard of the previous day’s produce would be a feature of the back and forth between supplier and customer. Sometimes the customer was right and sometimes the customer was trying to pull a fast one. Fruit and veg man had another supreme gift, the gift of making customers believe they had gotten the better of him. Most especially when they hadn’t.

Often times, a returned and damaged piece of produce would end up as a special offer in a delivery later that morning. But not in a malicious way. After a couple of jaunts with him I queried him on the practice. To paraphrase, the answer went something like this.

” I have to make all the pieces of my business work together – sometimes this is easy and sometimes it needs a little nudgeen. Whose to say that a damaged bag of apples from a shop in Lisdoonvarna in the morning won’t still make a lovely fruit cocktail in O’Brien’s in the afternoon. You never just know.. ”

These pearls of wisdom were usually delivered with a cackle of laughter and twinkle in the eye. I’m not sure that apples are a constituent part of a classic fruit cocktail but when I think of the anatomy of a local economy in rural Ireland I picture these van trips in my minds eye. Business that summer was good, very good and he expressed the opinion that the following year he’d definitely be able to pay me. Queue more laughter at the thought of such a novel notion.

I was struck yesterday, that David McWilliams talents are often only called into sharp focus, by the majority of the Irish populace, when we are staring down a black hole hoping desperately to find light. Like the business people of my story, he shares their creativity and good humour in the execution of his duties. He’s Ireland’s creative economist. The more difficult the problem the more enthusiastic and optimistic he is about our collective ability to find a way to climb our way out of it. I think this is just as important as his obvious talent for economics.

After another episode of his podcast concluded I was sufficiently enthused to believe the solution to our economic problems may not be in Wall Street or Silicon Valley alone. Most probably the business wit to win this fight, is hiding in the plain sight of our familiar surrounds. In small town Ireland with small town businesses having a big city idea like a 1994 Art college. Solutions found in a Blue-Hiace van winding it’s way through the valley and slopes of the Corkscrew Hill are not to be sniffed at.

After all, not many can turn a rotting apple into a delectable fruit cocktail and turn a profit. Learn to recognise them. Insist on encouraging them.

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