Monday, 26 August 2013

The Celtic tiger shows its wounds

I have just returned from a few days in Donegal.  Driving back and forth between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland I am always struck by the casual lack of any obvious border between the two countries.  The only immediate clue is in the sudden change of style in the road signs.  Miles become kilometres, the iconography looks different.  But as one proceeds through the countryside there are other, more dramatic contrasts.  Traditionally Ireland is a country of green landscapes, agriculture and farmsteads.  But when I first visited in the early 1980s change was already in the air.  Old farmhouses were being abandoned in favour of spanking new ranch-style bungalows with running water and the full complement of services, often built from the template designs in The Bungalow Book.  Irish rural settlement has always looked different from the traditional village that is so familiar in most of the UK.  Homesteads tend to be scattered rather than clustered, and there is little of the peculiarly English rural romanticism with its cottage garden and roses round the door.  But these new Spanish colonial style developments looked particularly incongruous.  Although the houses themselves may be quite grandiose, with pillars and stone ornaments much to the fore, the effect is stark.  These new builds usually stand naked in their standard one third of an acre, without the softening effect of any surrounding garden.  There may be some grass if you’re lucky; that can be zipped over with a ride-on mower.  Whole estates of this kind, often brightly painted in blues, reds and greens, create the impression of a giant Toy Town.  During the days of the Celtic tiger it was a pattern that became ever more prominent as spare money was poured into new houses and second homes.  Some of the old farmsteads were renovated and became holiday cottages; others were left to disintegrate.  But then, along with its European neighbours, the Celtic tiger faltered.  Bungalows have been abandoned at every stage of construction, as their owners were hit by the recession.  No doubt Northern Ireland has also suffered, along with the rest of the UK, but the wounds in the Republic seem much more obvious, a stark public display of the uncomfortable and sometimes tragic personal consequences of a challenging economic situation.

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