Recorded and made December 2008.
ANATOMY OF A RECESSION –- NOTE FROM THE PRODUCER ONE YEAR ON - 24TH NOVEMBER 2009.
In the good times the collective human psychology convinces us that we are living in a new era, where the old oscillations of boom and bust have been banished.
It’s a year since I met that postman on a housing estate just outside the village of Ballinagh, 6 miles from Cavan town. It was a lovely, cold, crisp winter’s morning, the air clean, the sun shining brightly. There were over sixty houses in the new estate.
The walls of the houses were painted a warm cream and the small gardens were well manicured, the overall effect was calm and easy – a nice place to live. A place where you could stroll up to the local village for your milk and paper, or wave over to the neighbour or have an impromptu barbeque on the patio outside.
There was even a crèche in the centre of the estate - how handy it would be to nip across the road and drop off your child before you climbed into your car for the commute to work, young dual income couples would need a crèche nearby, two jobs necessary to pay off the 350,000 euro mortgage.
The only problem was nobody bought a house.
The morning I was there, on the last week of November, 2008, I met the postman who had just delivered the post to the houses in the estate.
“Well there are 64 houses in this estate at the moment there are only 10 or 11 occupied, the rest are unoccupied….to be quite honest I cannot see them being occupied for a long, long time and I’m afraid it’s the same all over the country.”
I knocked on many doors in the estate; there was no one to answer them. One old man answered; he was the only homeowner I came across. He seemed to think there were a few more houses bought but they seemed to be investment properties, absentee landlords.
“We’re a year here and possibly in another year’s time none of the houses will have been sold except if they’re giving them away.”
Three weeks before, ACC bank had foreclosed on the local builders who had developed the estate. Three weeks ago a five bed dormer would have cost 350,000. By the time I got there the price had already dropped to 229,000 euro. How much are they worth a year later?
On one door I knocked the door opened and a young girl left me into the house she had crashed in the night before. Her eyes were stained with last night’s mascara and on the coffee table the ashtray overflowed with cigarette butts. Friends rent the house, she told me. She didn’t know from whom, there were a bunch of lads who did the same across the road who were great craic and did the same thing.
Many of the houses still had local contractors’ names and numbers stuck to the brand new windows and doors…I rang one of the numbers from my mobile. I’m standing in the estate, I said to the man on the other end of the phone, is it as bad as it seems? It’s worse that that the supplier told me.
And that set the tone for the day. It stayed bright and clear as I drove on the N55 away from Ballinangh, past Granard, a scandal in another time, and over the border to Longford town.
People there were already sick of the media and I couldn’t blame them. One feisty lady in her local boutique ran me out of her shop saying Ireland’s financial decline was the media’s fault for talking down the economy. This echoed the phone call I would later get from an estate agent - don’t talk it down, he told me, that’s what you’re all doing.
“George Lee, if we see him again on television we’re just going to crack up…pass me the bucket, we don’t want to hear it. Cheer up.”
It’s hard not to feel vampiric on these occasions. After all, isn’t it easy to swoop in with your microphone, wander around for a couple of days and then leave again, sucking a town dry of all its integrity and dreams. But sometimes what you see is what’s really happening. Empty houses mean empty houses and people would admit that nervously, especially when I turned the microphone off.
Looking back now though it was like Longford town had drawn a magic circle around itself. If you could ignore the brand new shopping mall in the town centre sitting complete, yet idle all seemed well. The Christmas lights twinkled, cafes were warm and bustling, it was hard to get parking on Main Street, but it struck me that there was an uneasy contrast between the warm town centre and the lonely estates surrounding it.
By noon I was driving in the direction of Drumlish village, eleven miles north from Longford passing along the way half finished estates. Drumlish, I later checked with the CSO has a population of 420; I walked around three different housing estates on its outskirts. If I could find anyone to talk to they said the same, It’s like living on a building site…there’s no lights on the street, no footpaths, unfinished houses, some roofless, other windowless.
“You can see it in the village, new estates have gone up …I don’t know what they were expecting who was going to fill the houses…”
At least Dumlish was a village and near Longford town as I drove further north the countries got wilder and more beautiful and the housing estates even emptier. In a place called Leggah the empty housing estate seemed almost ready to be reclaimed by nature. Grass grew long in the gardens, a huge crater like crack erupted through the tarmac on the estate’s main driveway making it impossible to drive, weeds moving up the walls, birds nested inside the houses. It was deathly quiet and the sun was already going down in the sky. The only other sign of life I could see was a church on a hill. I walked up there and rang the bell on the priest’s granite house.
I wonder how the place looks now after another winter.
It was dark by the time I reached Aghnacliff, a village just next to Lough Gowmna and the Megalithic tombs of ancient Ireland. It was difficult to make out this estate as there were no street lamps. But the outline of it was like something out of a bad dream. Most of the other estates had ambitions towards living pleasantly and some stab at design and landscaping.
This seemed like a huge row of small terraced houses incongruously laid out in a gently sloping field. I think it’s best described by a local woman who I spoke to later, “That was a beautiful field…I remember it when I was a child, it had hedgerows and horses there, how could they have built all those rows of houses on it, what happened, was everyone asleep?”
As I said at the start of this piece it is a year since I drove around those roads. I’m wondering what they’re like now, after another winter.
Houses need to be occupied, they need to have roofs for a start, but even if roofs and windows are intact they need to be heated, a current of life has to run through them otherwise they start to disintegrate under the lonely sky and cold winds and another November’s rain.
Sunday 14th December 2008
The speed and severity of the Irish economic downturn took many by surpise.
Producer Ann-Marie Power charts the recent decline and fall of the Celtic Tiger asking did anyone notice the hurricane coming and, if so, why did nobody pay attention?
And now, as the recession has formally arrived, how are people coping in what economists like to call, "the real economy"?
Is it a case, as one contributor says of "mass denial" that we have a serious problem, that we're still, as another says, "putting on the full face of make-up and partying until the wine finally runs out."?
Producer: Ann-Marie Power.
An Irish radio documentary from RTÉ Radio 1, Ireland - Documentary on One - the home of Irish radio documentaries