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A Cycle on the Celtic Fringe … Part 45

In the two years from 2005 to 2007 house prices in Ireland rose by over 30%. The Celtic Tiger was roaming the Emerald Isle and the money seemed to be endless. After generations of playing the poor man of Britain and the poor but well beloved lost son of Europe, the Irish were finally rolling in it. Well some of them were. The economy was booming and an ancient landscape was beginning to pay the price. (Or show the benefit; depending on your point of view).

Between 2007 and 2013 Irish property prices fell by an average of 65%. The tiger had a powerful sting in its tail.

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The term Celtic Tiger was coined by Kevin Gardner of Morgan Stanley. He saw the rapid growth in the Irish economy akin to that of Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan. It caught on to the extent that the whole country became known by the term while the money poured in.

The initial growth was sustainable and impressive. Ireland became a world leader in information technology and was handily placed between America and Europe to capture a large share of the pharmaceutical market. What followed was mirrored across the western world but rarely quite so dramatically.

I visited Ireland last in 1987 when a fellow in a Clare pub bemoaned the state of the country. “Sure”, he said, “The whole country’s in a terrible mess. We should hand the whole place back to Her Majesty the Queen and apologise for the state we’ve left it in.” He wasn’t being entirely serious. In fact he was merely having a melancholic moment between songs in a rare old Lisdoonvarna session. A moment later, armed with a fresh pint of Guinness he was hooting and a hollering and making ironic requests of a lisping Chesterfield troubadour with a speech impediment to give everyone his version of “Wed is the Wose!”

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There was certainly no-one in mind of re-forming the old union in the boom years of 1995 – 2008. Great change was afoot. Housing projects got off the drawing board with indecent haste. Whole estates were built, never occupied, and some were later demolished. Areas of Dublin changed beyond recognition. The doors at the ports and airports had people pouring through on their way into, not out of the country. Ireland finally began to embrace multiculturalism.

The builders were making huge profits. Wage packets were bulging and property seemed the place to double, and even treble, your money; as well as giving people the chance to live like the old Lord of the Manor.

All across Ireland four and five bedroom mansions started to appear. The way it was put to me was that the plasterer would build himself a house with a large frontage, an acre of lawn and a double garage. The plumber would go one better and add a treble garage including space for a land cruiser and a quad bike. The bricklayer, not to be outdone would match all of this and then add the stable for the horse.

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Who can tell where it might all have ended. The vast majority of the people continued to work hard and leave the property bubble well alone. The speculators made a killing and then some of them lost it all and more. Many people lost an awful lot. The country had to go to the European Commission and the European Bank for a bail out and the population were told to put up with austerity measures to pay off the sins of the profiteers. The country has dealt with austerity with remarkable forbearance and dignity and is once again showing itself to be a healthy economy.

The legacy of the Tiger can be seen all over the countryside. The new build, plaster still damp and no green on the lawn, mansions that all look sad shadows of the egos that built them. Four and five bedrooms and garage space to park a fleet of taxis. There is very little beautiful about them and they steal an awful lot of historic, rustic beauty from any location they have come to dominate. Many are lived in but many are not. They stand like clubhouses of not very tasteful golf clubs. The architecture has nothing to do with Irish heritage, the positions have less. Some share fields with reed beds and streams and are destined to flood come a bad winter. Some have proved bargain buys for those who rode the last flicks of the tiger’s tail. All, in my opinion are a blight on the landscape.

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Ireland has suffered a great deal through being poor. There is little dignity in poverty but it created a culture and nation as strong, and rightly proud, as any in Europe. The countryside survived. Agriculture and farming survived. Villages survived and held onto their unique character. Twelve years of over-exuberant spending and a great deal of the charm of rural Ireland has been lost under the quarry tiles, crazy paving and turfed lawns of the nouveau riche.

I ride along wishing I could obliterate them with a flick of a disappointed wrist.

Of course there are vast areas of unspoiled countryside. I saw miles of it this morning between Ballygawley and Ballyfarnon. I also saw too many stretches of road where the view was dominated by a temple of poor taste. I began to assume that there is no planning regulation in the country. Either that, or worse, money turns a blind eye. I hate to come across as a bleating outsider bemoaning the loss of quaint but unsuitable housing and the right of the Irish to live in some comfort. The views here are my own but they reflect a great number of Irish people I spoke to on my journey. These houses represented perhaps one in every two hundred properties at most and yet they changed the character and flavour of whole areas. We are talking less than half of one per cent of the population at most. You might as well have shoved up a MacDonalds or a Wal-Mart. My lament was for the loss of Irishness, of identity, of beauty and grace and all the things that Ireland has been a world leader in for generations. It will survive as a cultural world leader but it’s been given a considerable jolt.

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I reached the River Shannon an older and a wiser, and not a little sadder man. The car had once again made everything in these parts accessible. No-where was out of the way. It increased my desire to go west again and see Mayo and Connemara. I trust the golf houses and garages and stables never got that far. I’m sure that they won’t look so bad when the trees grow up around them and they don’t all look so new. The world is changing. We are told we cannot stop progress. But is it progress?