A STRANGE question passed through my mind as I changed my leftover holiday euros in the bank at Slaithwaite yesterday morning.
Could this be the last time I handle the currency, I thought to myself.
Will the euro still exist the next time I venture abroad? Or will those notes with their bland bridges and dreary doors have been consigned to the history books by then?
A few years ago this would have seemed a bizarre question. In its early days the euro was widely seen as a powerhouse, on course to usurp the US dollar as the most powerful currency in the world.
Then came the crash. The economic crisis wasn’t caused by the euro – or even by the countries which use it – but the global recession could yet claim the single currency as its biggest victim.
Most economists believe the euro could survive the exit of a relative lightweight like Greece or Portugal but if a country the size of Spain or Italy was to crash out, it would take the currency down with it.
Europe is full of these sun-drenched basket-cases at the moment, with finance ministers sweating over the fine-print of bailouts in Athens, Lisbon, Madrid and now Nicosia.
Trust me to go on holiday to the only one of these debt-ridden economies that doesn’t even have a warm climate to lift the mood.
Instead of sunning myself on some Mediterranean beach, I was zipped up against the elements in windswept Donegal.
The weather in the Republic of Ireland matched the economy throughout my week there – a steady stream of rain that threatened to become a flood.
Ireland, like the countries further south, got itself in a hell of a state over the last 10 years.
After several centuries of poverty, the country became rich almost overnight in the 1990s, powered by a low business tax rate and a highly-educated, English-speaking workforce.
Companies like Dell and Google set up their headquarters in the Republic of Ireland as one of Europe’s economic backwaters became the Celtic Tiger.
In the first decade of the new century, property prices spiralled out of control leading to a construction boom helped by planning laws which appeared to be ‘open for negotiation.’
Then came the crash and Ireland’s economy went into shock. At the height of the boom in 2007, houses were changing hands for an average of £250,000. That figure has halved in the last five years.
Building work has ground to a halt. Every county of the Republic of Ireland is now blighted by what are known as ‘ghost estates’, housing developments which were started when times were good and will probably never be finished.
We spent our holiday in our own little haunted patch of the pretty coastal village of Dunfanaghy where a developer had planned to build six cottages in a field five minutes’ walk from the main street.
In the evenings I would watch from the one completed house as a flock of sheep chomped the grass around the unfinished remains of the other five bungalows which had been meant to make someone a fortune.
I couldn’t help thinking, as the ewes chewed their cud, that this was some kind of revenge, that the countryside was biting back against the concrete world which had once threatened to engulf it.
And then I remembered that when Ireland had its own currency – the punt – the coins didn’t feature great leaders or famous writers, but rather animals like the bull and the salmon. It was as if those sheep were quietly reasserting a simpler, humbler Ireland.
A few minutes’ walk from the cottage was another reminder of economic hardship both old and new.
Dunfanaghy’s excellent Workhouse Museum explains the harsh conditions for the generations of penniless, desperate people who sought refuge within its walls.
Numbers swelled greatly in the 1840s as the starving poor of Donegal struggled to survive the nation’s greatest calamity.
The Great Potato Famine of 1845 to 1851 is known in Ireland simply as the Famine and is a trauma from which the country has never truly recovered.
When the blight hit, there were eight million people living in Ireland. Hunger took a million and the coffin ships to America a million more.
Even today, 170 years after the Famine, Ireland’s population is only three-quarters what it was in 1845.
There have been huge waves of emigration since then, particularly in the 1950s and 1980s when Ireland’s economy was in the doldrums.
And now the old curse is back. Last year some 76,000 people left the country. Ireland loses one citizen every seven minutes.
Of course, most of the people boarding the planes to Sydney, Melbourne and London are young.
They trained to become builders, architects and property lawyers only to find that their hard-earned skills weren’t wanted at home anymore.
Ireland is once again becoming a country of old people. The taxpayers and parents of the future are off to make their lives elsewhere.
But whatever its failings, Ireland is a resilient country. It will survive this latest misfortune, even if it lasts another 20 years.
Ireland will go on. But I’m not so sure that its currency will.