On St. Patty's Day, shamrocks are as rare as leprechauns

St. Stephen's Green, which must rank as one of the world's prettiest central parks, is trying hard to signal spring, but not quite living up to its name. St. Stephen's Gray would be more like it.

Every fallen autumn leaf has been confiscated in a park so pristine the lawns, paths, and flowerbeds appear to have been scrubbed and vacuumed.

But to what end? A few shy snowdrops at best. Petulant crocuses remain tight-lipped and refuse to open up. Not a sprig of new green in the overhanging branches and no blush of pink on the budded peach trees. Worse still: no shamrocks.

Shamrocks, the national symbol of Ireland, are about as visible now as leprechauns. The alarm has been sounded about a national shortage, and your name doesn't have to be Flaherty or O'Shaughnessy to understand the significance of that.

A St. Patrick's Day without shamrocks is like American Thanksgiving without turkey.

The fault lies some several thousand miles east of here: with a bitter Russian wind with sufficient ice in its breath to cover all of the Continent and enough left over to hold even the westernmost country in Europe in its frigid blast.

But some stout-hearted Irishmen believe the shamrock is a hardy little fellow who has only gone into winter hiding and will reemerge when it gets warmer.

By now St. Stephen's Green should be spring yellow and spring green. But there is more color in the green, red, yellow, and blue Georgian doorways around the rim of the park than there is inside the park.

Every handsome door seems to come with gleaming brass door knobs, door knockers, and mail slots. Not a few carry plaques of international computer companies. California may have its Silicon Valley and Scotland its Silicon Glen, but Ireland has the highest number -- per capita -- of computer graduates in the world.

Garret FitzGerald, the Irish prime minister -- or to give him his Gaelic title of the Taoiseach (pronounced T-shock) -- is aware that the Irish computer industry has been in a trough recently, but he insists it's only a ``hiccup.''

The Taoiseach was briefing visiting American correspondents before heading for the United States where he will meet President Reagan today -- appropriately enough, St. Patrick's Day. Another highlight of his visit will be a farewell dinner for retiring Rep. Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D) of Massachusetts, where Dr. FitzGerald will be a special guest. Both the President and the Speaker of the House cherish their Irish ancestry, even though they sometimes view the problems of Northern Ireland quite differently.

This time FitzGerald's visit to the US should cause no pangs of anguish in London now that FitzGerald and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher are paddling the same canoe.

In the past an Irish visit to the US was not enough to stoke up anti-British feeling in the US. But with FitzGerald giving the recent Anglo-Irish agreement firm backing, Britain no longer feels it's sitting in the dock. The agreement, which for the first time gives the Irish Republic a say in the rule of Northern Ireland, has made the Irish view Mrs. Thatcher more approvingly than most recent British prime ministers.

If the British do have some uneasiness about Irish-American sentiment, it's mostly because in the days of early Irish emigration, it was largely the Catholics who ended up in the US. The Protestants were more likely to go to Canada or Australia. The Protestant reasoning was obvious: They felt safer with countries that had an attachment to the British crown.

With Ireland a co-signatory of the agreement, Protestants in the north who favor keeping the link with Britain know that any hopes of changing course and suspending the agreement would require both governments to shift. The Irish government is giving every indication that it will hang tough. Foreign Ministry officials privately indicate that a more accommodating stance by the prime minister would be politically unacceptable to the Irish public.

The agreement brought a surge of enthusiasm for FitzGerald and put him ahead of his main rival, Charles Haughey, leader of Fianna Fail. Since then FitzGerald's popularity has slumped. The problems have nothing to with Northern Ireland, and practically everything to do with the Republic of Ireland's troubled economy.

Ireland's per capita national debt is one of the highest in the world. The taxpayer is squeezed far harder than most other Europeans to help pay for it. Unemployment -- at around 18 percent -- is the highest in Europe.

With an election due next year, FitzGerald has been trying to boost the sagging morale of his Fine Gael party which placed third behind Fianna Fail and a new party headed by Desmond O'Malley, the Progessive Democrats, in a recent poll.

The Irish prime minister has given a more upbeat view of the economy, saying that living standards are finally on the way up again and that inflation will fall for the first time in more than 20 years.

Increased economic growth and a fall in inflation would essentially be a result of the fall in oil prices. Irish motorists are smiling all the way to the gasoline pumps. They already pay more than 3 per gallon ($4) for gasoline, as much as a pound or more than their British counterparts.

A more optimistic assessment of the economy leaves some Dubliners, if not skeptical, then at least determined to try to put the improvement in perspective.

One Dublin journalist says that if there was improvement it was ``from catastrophic to pretty awful.'' But he agreed that at least the economic prospects now look better, which is perhaps more than can be said for the immediate prospects for shamrocks.

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