Looking for laughs in the Irish Republic's gloom

By Nessa Tierney
Business reporter, BBC News

Image caption,
The festival brought a range of speakers together

There is nothing very funny about the Irish Republic's economy at the moment.

Despite denials by the government, there is continuing speculation that it may soon need a European Union bail-out.

The crisis has prompted an unlikely group of people to get to grips with economic ideas and jargon: comedians.

An economics festival called Kilkenomics has been taking place in the past few days, with economists and stand-up comics informing and entertaining audiences in the city of Kilkenny.

"It's got to the stage where the crisis is so complicated and the amount of money being talked about is so ridiculous that it's impossible to get a handle on it," said comedian Colin Murphy.

"We are here to be idiots and to be the voice of the people in the audience".

'World's biggest eejit'

Richard Cook, a comedy and theatrical agent, came up with the idea for the festival.

In order to fund it he took out a loan, saying it was for home improvements.

"It's the most un-economic thing about the whole festival," he said, "but it was too important not to do it."

"I don't think you can have a sense of purpose or a sense of conviction unless you have understanding."

The state of the economy is the main topic of conversation in the Republic these days.

"There are grannies watching the bond markets at the moment," said comedian Colm O'Regan.

He brings his personal experience to his performance.

"I bought a house at the height of the boom and I feel like the world's biggest eejit," he said.

"But by describing that in my show, I'm trying to make some money back."


The audiences for the shows, were quite mixed - teenagers on a class trips from school, young couples and older people.

It's unlikely that an economics festival would have attracted much interest a few years ago, but Irish people are suffering badly and there are further budget cuts coming soon.

One man in the audience at the opening show said: "We're facing so much doom and gloom, this might be our last night of fun."

Maureen came to several shows with her daughter.

"There's so much jargon, I get so mad," she said.

"There's a new term now: 'front-loading', like in a washing machine?

"I don't know what it means but I hope I'll find out here," she added.


The festival had its own currency for the weekend, which people could use in some of Kilkenny's numerous pubs, and a ratings agency called Moody & Poor.

The main talking point of the weekend was the country's debt.

Irish banks, which made huge losses when the property bubble burst, were guaranteed by the state in 2008.

This makes the government, and ultimately the Irish taxpayer, liable for their debts.

Economist David McWilliams, co-organiser of Kilkenomics, is furious about this and believes that the government should default.

He says it is clear the country cannot pay back all the debt.

"To believe that we will, is saying that you have no patriotic vision for this country," he claimed.

"Because what you're saying is that my children will pay the debt of property speculators and developers and bankers who destroyed the wealth of our country".

'Listen and act'

There was a great deal of consensus amongst the economists.

But there were some heated exchanges between free-marketeer and investor Peter Schiff, and other more left-leaning contributors like Phillippe Legrain from the London School of Economics, and Ha-Joon Chang, author of '23 things they don't teach you about capitalism'.

Other speakers included a former Argentinian finance minister, Martín Lousteau, and Professor Bill Black, author of 'The best way to rob a bank is to own one'.

The writer Fintan O'Toole, also taking part in a number of events, felt that the reaction of Kilkenomics audiences showed that the Irish public shouldn't be underestimated.

"The public are very engaged with the issues," he said.

"The challenge for people like me who came here to speak is that they don't just want to listen, they want to listen and act".

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