Napoleon dismissed the English as a “nation of shopkeepers”. By this he meant that the English were an inconsequential nation of money-grabbing mediocrities who were only interested in, to paraphrase WB Yeats’s expression, “fumbling in a greasy till, And add the halfpence to the pence”.
This deep prejudice shown by both the Emperor of France and the Nobel prize-winning poet is a typical trap that many self-proclaimed romantics fall into, which is to demonize the noble pursuit of small commerce.
The prejudice of the great dreamer against the little man is nothing new. But it is misplaced. At the end of the day, the bottom-up, mercantile English were far more flexible than the rigid, top-down French. And England beat France both on the sea and, ultimately, on the land.
Napoleon’s great dreams of a centralized, French Europe, governed by clever bureaucrats in Paris, was undone by the British, whose down-to-earth ability in trade and commerce gave them the financial prowess to eventually out-finance and, ultimately, out-gun the French.
A century on, Yeats’s dismissal of the small trader looks like simple class snobbery – a weapon that is very easy to deploy if you are born close to the top of the heap.
The exiled outsider James Joyce was so much more in tune with real Ireland than the senatorial and locally-loved Yeats.
By making his hero Leopold Bloom an advertising salesman, a small businessman who strolled around his city, hung out in bars with the locals and agonized over his marriage, Joyce was celebrating the ordinary. It is the ordinary that makes the world go round and the canvas of the ordinary is the city or the town.
There is nothing grubby about ordinary small commerce; in fact it is the essence of a tolerant society, which most of us aspire to live in.
And tolerance goes hand in hand with a liberal economy. Those apparently insignificant everyday decisions to buy and sell are what makes the world go round. The commercial cycle is also what makes towns and cities breathe and we forget the small trader at our peril.
It isn’t fashionable to celebrate the ordinary trader, the grocer, the publican and all those small businesses that make many of our towns and their centres viable. However, without small commerce we have no small towns and without small towns, driven by small town businesses, what does rural Ireland have?
The small town economy is a strange, interlinked and highly sensitive eco-system where we all depend on each other. This eco-system which is built up over time, in many cases many generations of coming and going, ebbing and flowing and is a highly sensitive matrix of interdependent relationships among workers, shoppers, strollers and chatters.
When we talk about the death of small town Ireland – which is happening in front of our eyes – it is essential to appreciate that this is a gradual process and at its heart is economics and the way the local economy works.
The good news is it can be reversed.
But before we reverse the decline we have to understand what’s happening.
Everything in the economics of a small town is related. Every decision you take affects me, even if you don’t appreciate it. In short, your commerce is actually my commerce.
In a small town, we buy and sell things to each other and therefore your spending is actually my income and my income drives my spending, which becomes your income. So the sum of our activity is actually much, much greater than any individual decision. It’s hard to appreciate, but when you take out one bit of the equation the effect can be quite deleterious.
Take, for example, the closing of a local Garda station.
In the first instance it doesn’t seem like a huge deal and the issue people might worry about is security but, I believe, it goes far deeper than this.
The key battleground for a town or a city is the street and anything that affects these key commercial and social arteries affects the health of the town. Not only must the street be safe, it also has to be an appealing place to go.
It has to be somewhere where you think you’ll bump into people for a natter as well as for the purely functional notion of shopping. It is also a place people should live and therefore, should be a platform for the casual meeting, where social classes mix and rub up against each other.
In order for this vibrancy to flourish, the place has to be busy all day, not just at certain times of the day.
There should be grannies nattering in the morning, workers having a bite at lunch-time, kids hanging out after school and in the evening punters maybe going for a drink or sitting having a coffee.
A crucial aspect for a vibrant street is an all day shelf life. This is made immeasurably easier if people live in the town.
When the Garda station closes, the first thing that goes is the cop on the street. The local cops who people know. Then, of course, the local guards stop going to the local cafe for a sandwich at lunchtime.
Then their station, which had been a focal point for all sorts of community affairs, lies empty. Then there is no cop at night.
Then if some of the local lads like drinking up a lane, there is no one to move them on. In time, maybe the older people feel less safe, so they don’t come out as much.
The local pub that served the cops after-hours (never) loses business and the local GAA club loses one or two of its most prominent leaders. Then the cafe owner who used to host the cops at lunch-time feels the pinch and possibly she doesn’t spend as much in the next-door clothes shop.
And so on and so on.
As we look around the main streets of some of our rural towns in 2015, maybe it would be wise to see that all these decisions to close barracks, post-offices and the like, have significant ramifications.
Maybe in 2015, our politicians rather than enchanted by the big stuff, the big romantic visions might focus on the small, the ordinary and the pragmatic and look to make Ireland better, street by street.