Ghosts and the Machine:
A Wander through the New Wastelands of Ireland.
Words: Patrick Baxter Photos: Patrick Baxter & Huw Wahl
This piece is the first in a series of essays and audio/visual journeys through the changing landscapes of Ireland. Over the last 20 years Ireland has experienced a period of rapid economic development followed by a sharp fiscal decline. The boom and bust of the Celtic Tiger to PIIG status has had a dramatic and highly destructive effect on the physical geography of the country, radically altering the highways and byways of the land. One of the most visible side effects has been proliferation of unfinished and unoccupied housing estates, commonly referred to as ‘ghost estates’, strange concrete wastelands and ruins that plague the terrain of every county in Ireland.
The aim of the project is quite open. It began when two members of CBiS made a short visit to Ireland earlier this year. The visit was intended as a an attempt to gather images and ideas about what effect economic boom and bust has on the landscape and people who inhabit these environments. Much of what you read here is based on not only external research into the subject, but also on conversation and ideas that occurred during the trip, and upon my struggle to come to terms with my own place within this disrupted environment.
The title to this project may give some clues about the pieces’ methodological, political and philosophical concerns. The idea of ‘wandering’ on one hand suggests a free flowing, multi-directional movement with no central foci. However the notion of wandering is also deeply connected the practice of derive, a current of Psychogeography that attempts unplanned and subversive journeys through usually urban landscapes. Here there is an attempt to use the history of one’s surroundings to radically critique contemporary modes of being, or current economic processes. Therefore, we can begin to think of the ghosts of the title as not only representing the unoccupied houses and other developments that blight the landscape, but as also speaking for the concerns of the past, the people and politics that have preceded us, allowing us to gain a deeper understanding (an understanding that transcends current concerns with policy and practice) into the processes that have led the country to the unenviable position it now finds itself in.
Through the ‘Heart of darkness’, Dublin’s IFSC.
It seemed an unnatural point for me to begin our wander in the IFSC (Irish Financial Services Centre- set up in 1987 by the Irish Government with the approval of the European Commission), and a strange introduction for Huw to the city. For the decade or more that I had lived in Dublin (from 1995 to 2009, a vital period of Ireland’s economic and social history) I had had very little, if any interaction with this area, and had never in fact walked through it in its entirety. For me the IFSC was always a distant beast. It was distant and menacing, I would evoke Conrad to describe it, ‘the heart of darkness’, harbinger of everything I felt was wrong with the direction the country was taking.
Clearly not everyone shared these sentiments. A 1997 scholarly article by one Laurence Murphy from the University of Auckland outlines how the initial plans for a ‘mini-London’ based around a process of ‘flexible regulation’ has become a remarkable success facilitated by the Irish Government, EU Commissions and industry body the IDA (Industrial Development Authority) fostering of a ‘low tax regulatory environment’ at the IFSC [i]. Even more approving in its appraisal of the IFSC and its champions over the years (to include three now disgraced Taoisigh[ii], such as Bertie Ahern, head of State during much of the period referred to as the Celtic Tiger years[iii]) is this 2006 article written for the Irish Independent- in my opinion a tawdry rag masquerading a broadsheet- by Ken O’Brien, chief propagandist for the IFSC and clients. The article uncritically lists the achievements of the IFSC and congratulates those figures who have tirelessly soldiered on its behalf. If the title Masters of the Universe…isn’t ominous enough, the article goes on to state that the business activities of the Centre are such that ‘it is on the way to becoming an industry whose vital interests will need to remain close to the heart of future Governments’ and that it ‘will remain vitally important to the overall health of the economy, particularly because it is capable of virtually infinite expansion, because its markets are global, rather than just national’. Furthermore, O’Brien lauds the fact that ‘(v)ery quickly we learned how to play the offshore-onshore game’ creating one of Europe’s most ‘dynamic’ jurisdictions. That a national newspaper would print such guff at a time when the European Central Bank and The World Bank were cautioning about Ireland’s overheating economy caused by the offshore-onshore, deregulated speculative practises of those at the heart of Irish Banking and Finance is symptomatic of the kind of delusions and smokescreens manifest at every level of Irish public life pre-2008[iv].
If the IFSC is a brick and mortar realisation of the underlying political and economic order that dominated, and continues to dominate Irish life, then how better than to start by photographing its buildings, terrains and social life. We soon discovered that some unseen forces had other ideas about our presence there. Whilst taking a photo of JP Morgan’s bank close to the entrance of the centre, we are approached by a gentleman from Group 4 security and told that we are not allowed to photograph the building, that although public transport moves through it the grounds of the IFSC[v] is private property, he claims he was instructed by someone within the bank to stop us photographing the building. In his own words ‘the American banks are kinda nervy these days’. Notwithstanding the absurdity of a shadowy figure within an American institution dictating that an Irish citizen is not allowed photograph whatever he pleases in his own country, this encounter was to provide a template for the remainder of our wander through the area. Ignoring this censure, we continued to take a cheeky delight in shooting one glass and steel carbuncle after another, always followed at a short distance by sinister men with ear-pieces who would occasionally materialise beside us claiming they ‘managed these buildings’ and asking us why we were photographing, to which we replied: ‘just interested in photography and buildings, y’know’.
We move further towards East Wall and the docks, where the creeping influence of post-modern IFSC meets early terraced residential Dublin, the working-class neighbourhoods that face Dublin Port and surround the IFSC from the docklands down the transport hub around Dublin’s Connelly Train[vi] station and Busaras, Dublin’s central bus terminal. Here the disparity being rich and poor becomes explicit- it seems a rather clichéd photographic device to place these simple terrace homes alongside the empty anodyne chrome of Citibank et al, but likewise impossible to avoid. For here is the direct human and geo-spatial cost of a place like the IFSC. The area of the Docklands where the IFSC now resides first thrived in the 1800s on the back of the industrial revolution, and was soon home to scores of manual labourers and their families. The Docklands fell into decline in the 1960s and those communities that lived there saw their surroundings suffer from years of subsequent neglect. The community was ravaged by poor housing conditions, dereliction, disproportionate levels of unemployment and the flight of community members to suburban areas. Despite efforts by community groups in the 1980s to have the wastelands around Sherriff St in the docklands rezoned for non-commercial development, the site eventually fell into hands of the Customs House Dock Development Authority (CHDDA), created by the 1986 Urban Renewal Act. This organ proposed and heavily marketed the notion of a ‘city-within a city’ that would exist outside the remit of normal statutory planning laws and that would act as a ‘tax haven’ to attract service-based companies and international financial interests. As a consequence of the CHDDA ‘special status’ the Dublin Corporation and local community organisations were cut-out of the decision making process in regards to plans for the site. Indeed the Centre has brought paltry benefits to those who live in its surroundings; the areas of North Wall, East Wall, Sheriff St and Ballybough are characterised by low social mobility, poor or unsatisfactory amenities, and a high level of gun crime and other social ills. The division between rich and poor is cynically rendered physical by an enormous wall that separates the Centre from the local residents on Sherriff St[vii].
I think of the figure of Tony Gregory, an independent TD[viii] for Dublin Central until his death in 2009, a champion of the poor and underprivileged in Dublin’s city centre. The obscenity of the kind of reckless speculation integral to the IFSC’s daily bread contrasted with the poverty experienced by those of whom it towers over is something that must have pained Gregory. Despite his mammoth efforts to force the Government in 1982 to invest in the North inner city[ix], he must also have been aware that it was this very investment that, although never fully realised for the community, forged the way, in classic Neo-liberal style, for the gentrification of a portion of the city, whilst its neighbour would have to make do with an illusionary trickle-down effect.
Not to worry Tony, business is booming in the Centre. On a warm March afternoon the area’s quays are buzzing with young suits grabbing some lunch in the sun. Sunny days too for the international banks and bond holding companies whose investments have been secured by a Government Bank Guarantee, a bail out to the tune of €400 billion ensuring the safety of toxic loans owed by, for the most part, Irish developers and property speculators to Irish Banks, such as the infamous Anglo-Irish Bank. Walk a kilometre or two down the road, towards Dublin Port and East Wall, and you get a very different picture of Dublin circa 2012. Rows of half-occupied apartment complexes, abandoned shop fronts and unrealised hotels annex and juxtapose the tenement houses and pebble-dashed walls of forbidding warehouses of Dublin’s not so recent past. It was here we took the rather obvious opportunity to juxtapose the scene of a simple terraced house built next to a newly-constructed apartment block, the terraced walls ending with jagged edges and crumbling mortar against the smooth sheet glass and steel of the apartments. We are again approached by one of these surly and yet mysterious ‘building managers’:
‘sorry you can’t take a photo of that’
‘I manage this building, I’m responsible for its security…’
‘but I’m on a public thoroughfare, not inside the building, therefore you have no authority to tell me whether I can or I can’t take a photo’.’
‘well you can take the photo as long as its not for publication’
‘eh I don’t think you understand me, I can take the photo…’
‘as long as it’s not for publication.’
‘ no I can take the photo and do what I please with it’.
‘as long as it’s not for publication…’
As you could imagine, our parting was less than amicable.
This bizarre encounter made us question what really happens within these buildings that are apparently protected by people paid to guard its image, physically and through representation. A little away at West Road a billboard posted by the Homeless charity Focus Ireland announces that there is currently up to 5000 homeless people in Ireland, presumably the overwhelming majority of which reside in Dublin. One would assume that the time, money, space and energy would be better spent on re-housing some of this 5000 in these dormant apartments than spending hand over fist on security and building managers. Let us imagine for a moment what the North inner city of Dublin would have looked like if Tony Gregory and his constituents had got their way rather than the CHDDA and its cohorts in government and business. What would a community driven Docklands development mean for the local inhabitants, for the design of cities in general, and for the then as now moribund Irish economy? We had been so beaten in submission over the years of the Celtic Tiger to view the country as an economy that we forgot somehow that it is also a society. It appears to me that it is always the voiceless and dispossessed, such as those indigenous inhabitants of Sherriff St and the Docklands and the 5000 homeless, that are excluded when times are good and shoulder the greatest burden when it all comes crashing down. So what if they had been in the driving seat for a change? In a way I’ve become so used to and jaded by the soulless monstrosities New Corporate Architecture and its insipid, hegemonic crawl through our urban space that I find it almost impossible to imagine a Dublin not this way. But it is perhaps possible to conceive of viable community spaces, where children could play and be reckless, rather than rich speculators doing so. No doubt the area wouldn’t be quite so sleek and angular, but it would I feel have retained some of the character of a Dublin for its people, for street traders, musicians, artists, writers and the great wits that had made the city famous the world over. Again one can only speculate that if the people of inner-city Dublin had had a say, perhaps the rest of country would not have been quite as scarred as it now is[x].
Longford: right in the middle of it but so far from everywhere.
Dublin city and county are awash with unoccupied property, so numerous it would make your head spin to even attempt to navigate them, and certainly given the brevity of our trip, it was felt that a smaller region would be better suited to explore and document on this occasion. We drove to Longford town, my home town and administrative centre of the eponymous county[xi]. Longford seemed to me to be a reasonable place to begin photographing ‘ghost estates’ as over the last ten years the town has seen as disproportionate rise in new housing developments. Many of these were initiated under the Rural Renewal Scheme, a sort of tax-incentivised free for all under which the likes of County Longford and neighbouring County Leitrim have particularly suffered. I recall returning to Longford during the summer of 2005 after a long period of absence, and going for lengthy walks with the new dog at my mother’s house, I was flabbergasted by the extent of the change in the areas surrounding my family home ( 1 mile from the town) and the previously greenbelt areas around the town. Where once there was small country boreen[xii], there now sat a huge housing estate of generic, identical homes. Where once there was a nice oak tree to sit under and enjoy the summer air, you were now engulfed by hideous brick and galvanised warehouses. Where there had been fields that were traditionally flood planes, there now were homes and families.
I by no means want to romanticise Longford. Growing up I thought it was most miserable, rain-sodden, small-minded and insular backwater imaginable, though I might have used less restrained language back then. Although Longford town is short on natural beauty and the county as a whole is quite marginalised in terms of national prestige, I have come to realise that it is a town no better or worse than any other, and as my home town I have no desire to see it being brutalised. It’s your average rural centre, perhaps ‘average’ being the operative word. But lets for a moment view it as a microcosm of the kind of development processes that have accrued in Ireland over the last ten years (whilst acknowledging that the Rural Renewal Scheme was purpose built for places like Longford with its low industrial/commercial prospects and a paucity of resources). Longford has a much as any county suffered from the boom-over development- bust- desolation machine that allowed banks, developers and other profiteers almost unfettered access to our environs. Social analysts at NIRSA (National Institute for Regional and Spatial Analysis) have described the machine quite succinctly as follows:
The thrust of property policy to private benefit was driven by a neoliberal policy agenda of promoting the free market, minimising regulation, privatising public goods and retreating from state services such as public housing, framed within a political system in which localism, clientalism, and cronyism existed to varying extents across the modes and scales of governance. The state thus loosened the regulation of finance and construction, introduced widespread tax incentive schemes, changed the parameters of stamp duty, lowered capital gains tax, allowed developers to forego their affordable and social housing obligations, promoted a laissez faire system of planning, allowed the construction industry to self-certify quality and standards, and failed to address the vestiges of clientelism (see Kitchin et al, 2012). In short, it facilitated the property sector to be driven by developers, speculators and banks, rewarding them with tax incentives, less tax obligations and market-led regulation; it enabled buyers to over-extend their indebtedness; and it provided too few barriers to development (Honohan 2010; Kitchin et al 2010).
The image of the Gombeen man looms large in the Irish popular imagination. Gombeen men is the term that was given to small time hustlers and money lenders during the British administration in colonial Ireland (the term origins during the 1845-48 Great Famine), known for not only their complicity and unscrupulous, shady character but also for profiteering at the expense of their fellow country suffering at the hands of an indifferent or often brutal Imperial master. Currently, people evoke this term to describe the very ‘localism, clientalism and cronyism’ mentioned above. It involved the proposed rezoning of land by county council members in bed with local developers, the same local politicians in a endless quest for votes waxing lyrical about ‘how the town is coming along a sight’ and decrying those who obstruct ‘progress’. Coupled with this was a culture of poor planning arrangements, often paying scant notice to environmental and social drawbacks of these new constructions. Finally when it all collapses, it is those who have effectively been conned into investing in an over-priced, mortgaged to the hills, poorly built home paying the price.
Our first stop on the Longford tour of decay is Battery Court, a half a mile from my home, and a typical example of what have become known as a ‘ghost estate’, one that had suddenly appeared in 2008 on the Demesne Lane, what once was a quiet residential lane that stretched towards the open fields at the back of the Rugby and tennis club. I have fond memory of my little street urchin friends and I flinging stones at the posh kids playing tennis. The AIRO survey of this lifeless place recorded that of the 94 houses originally planned and started, exactly half have been completed and the other half have been marked as ‘incomplete’. Of the completed houses 10 are currently occupied whilst 37 (or a staggering 78.7%) of the estate lies vacant. It has also had the dubious honour of recently featuring in this Al Jazeera report on the subject: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sm9tqaLfPig
We drift through the estate photographing what we see. Barely constructed houses, the guise of progress being the few signs of continuing work by an absent construction firm, shovels here, generators there. The almost mocking tag-line for the estate- ‘if you lived here, you’d be home now’- adorning plastic banners that flitter occasionally in the wind, with the heavily pixilated logo for Battery Court an offense to even the most casual observers eye. The unfinished interiors of these ‘homes’ harbour unexpected signs of life, but these turn-out to be daily habitus of the builders, or perhaps the security men- tea mugs, rudimentary tables, items of clothing in a maze of unsecured cables, lose fittings and uncaringly piled pieces of 2×4. Other than the ubiquitous and unintentionally hilarious advert for the estate, there are a multitude of signs alerting the passer-through to the presence of 24 hour security. The local teenagers have made this there ‘temporary-autonomous zone’, to borrow Hakin Bay’s phrase somewhat surreptitiously, as is evidenced by the amount of empty cans strewn about the front of one of these ‘gaffs’. There are other signs of life too: a pair of Irish children run and play freely around the estate, but this doesn’t quite fit the desolation and despair hypothesis we have in mind so we move along[xiii].
Battery Court sits abreast of the quite affluent Battery Road, once on the main road out of the town from Dublin to Sligo, before the town was bypassed in the mid nineties. It got its name from the British Army barracks positioned at the town end of Battery Road that from post-independence till recently serviced as a functioning Irish Army barracks (closed down last year, another victim of austerity measures). Indeed many of the houses on the road are thought to have been home to British military staff in the day, and still retain their colonial somewhat aloof air. It is not a far walk to the rather tragically named ‘Longford Town Centre’, by which I do not mean the actual town centre (forlorn as it is). This collection of monolithic white square façades, visible from most of the surrounding area for miles, a NAMA listed failed attempt at building a shopping plaza in a marginal rural town, tells all kinds of tales about the hubris that gripped the ‘business community’ during the pre-pin picked bubble of yore. The fenced off development of paved slabs and lamp-lit bridges have all the hall marks of the regenerative exclusive-inclusive fable that was so popular with county councils and other minor moneyed henchman. Why anyone thought this would have been a goer is beyond me and it seems most people I meet in Longford, sitting as it does the white elephant in the room, if you forgive the deviation, of Longford’s now self evident economic blunder. Tragic-comic value is daily drawn from the lofty banner declaring ‘Longford Town Centre- Opening Soon’ (erected some 3 years ago). Nevertheless its exceptionally easy to scale the fences and enter the grounds of this ghost, I’ve done so on a number of occasions, and despite usually being alerted by some anonymous voice over the security intercom to leave the area immediately, and from experience, in the past there was never any follow up to these threats . However, on this occasion, a matter of minutes into setting up and light metering, a terse woman’s voice booms over the intercom with tales of ‘armed security systems’ and encroaching police. Ignore it, probably a recorded message, and though Huw notes the sound of the receiver being laid down, I insist that it’s a recording but as it turns out, moments later, and more forcefully than before, we are given our marching orders- ‘hey you two, you have been seen by our surveillance cameras, the alarm system has been armed and the Gardai are on their way, VACATE THESE PREMISES IMMEDIATELY OR YOU WILL BE PROSECUTED’ – rather in the manner of a cross school teacher for whom you have a reputation of unruliness and for who you’ve yet again forgot you homework. We decide its best to leave.
Longford Town Centre development is listed on as a NAMA (National Asset Management Agency) property, an institution set up in 2010 by the now much-maligned former Government of Fianna Fail and the Green Party. Along with the social housing leasing initiative and site resolution plans, NAMA forms the trust of the Government approach to dealing with toxicity within the Irish property market, post Bank Guarantee, and it is the most popularly known of these schemes. The function of NAMA is to administer the toxic loans of large developers owed to Irish Banks, bought of these developers at a reduced risk, but a risk now held by the Irish Taxpayer. NAMA only took on loans of 25 Million and over, so its quite heavy hitters we are talking, not the small business man, nor heaven forbid, the households that bought homes around Ireland in the last few years often with 100% mortgages and who now find that their homes are technically worthless. Of the properties now held by NAMA hotels and other developments in the UK feature heavily. There are serious questions over whether this institute can eventually sell on these properties at a profit for the Irish taxpayer, one of the stated objectives of the Agency. Added to the general public perception of the unfairness of rescuing the very wealthy at the expense of the populace as a whole, and the possibility that the initiative could fail and cost the nation further, on an ideological and policy level, NAMA[xiv] would appear to be a continued stab at the very Neo-liberalisation of the economy that got us into trouble in the first place. As Kitchen et al contend NAMA and the others schemes as a an initiative is
short-termist and market driven, and are part of a strategy that has used the crisis to deepen neoliberal policy designed on the one hand to protect as much as possible the interests of the developer and financial class, and on the other to implement widescale austerity measures and severe cutbacks in public services and privatize state assets and services…. Moreover, it is employing as experts (bankers, estate agents, property consultants, planners, lawyers) the very same people who created the bubble, some of whom are overseeing transfers from their former employers. (12-13)
On the immediate outskirts of the western reaches of Longford Town, the evidence of past failures in social housing is all too visible. We find Gleann Riada – a NAMA listed development- an estate fronted by an hideous, almost Stalinist looking apartment block that was never occupied mainly due to the developer’s (Eassda Ireland Limited, formerly known as Keygo Properties Limited) failure to meet even the most rudimentary planning regulations[xv]. Flanked by unsightly galvanised warehouses and scrubland that had since time immemorial flooded at the mere suggestion of rain, Gleann Riada is now prominently home to many of Longford’s extensive new migrant communities, and is a sad indictment of the future these families have in envisioning life in their adopted home. If you are looking for the desolation and decay angle, then Gleann Riada ticks all the boxes.
Carrig Glas Manor: Aristocracy to Catastrophe
Longford County has a vacancy rate of 20% according to the DECLG Unfinished Estates 2011 survey. The 2011 Census accumulated the population for the county as standing at 19,351, a rise in population of 2533 or 13.3% since 2006. This is admittedly a strong population growth in such a small county (third smallest in Ireland), however it does not explain nor justify the extent of new housing built in that time period. As Kitchen et al state; The 2006 Census revealed that 216,331 housing units were vacant (excluding holiday homes), but between April 2006 and the end of 2009 an additional c.215,000 properties were built (DECLG 2010)…As of October 2011 there were 2,876 documented unfinished estates in Ireland, present in every county in the state, 777 of which met the criteria of a ‘ghost estate’…the vast majority of estates experienced very little change in the level of occupancy between 2010 and 2011. (6) Ireland had given itself over to a kind of collective, machine like awe-consuming madness, thoroughly egged on by property supplements in national newspapers and no less a figure that Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, who in an address to the Dail advised the electorate to keep spending, invest and get credit from the banks, whilst harbingers of doom and economic gloom were told to just go kill themselves.
Nothing though quite prepares you for the spectre that is Carrig Glas Manor. Once the home of the aristocratic Huguenot Thomas Lefroy, who had built the manor on a vast estate in 1830, these lands had until 2007 been heavily wooded, marshy land of little agriculture interest, but being 5 miles from the town, and secluded from main roads and other infrastructures, a place nevertheless to scale the walls and get lost in childhood adventure. Lefroy himself was a fascinating character, a fierce and vocal opponent of O’Connell’s Home Rule platform; he was a magistrate and Tory MP for the Dublin-Constituency in the mid 19th Century. He was furthermore said to be greatly admired by Jane Austen (not to put it too euphemistically), and it is rumoured that the character of Mr. Darcy from Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is based upon Lefroy. The manor, designed in Gothic Victorian manner by Daniel Robertson in 1830s, and its grounds retained for me that distant air of a vague colonial past of which I barely understood but yet it had a presence that one intrinsically grasped as ‘Other’. Clearly the Irish aristocracy had fallen on hard times: the estate was sold to Kearns-Bowen Construction sometime in the mid-2000’s.
Their contribution to the history of this ambivalent place can only be described as ‘scorched earth’. The development was intended as a luxury five-star hotel with golf course, health spa and accompanying gated-community- what remains is something very different. For once you scale the wall over a missing slab in the loosely cemented frontage, narrowly avoiding the collection of broken glass that would be quite a surprise to any unsuspecting intruder, you are confronted by such an eerie sight that it is difficult to reconcile what some had envisioned it as becoming with what is now. You begin along a series of more or less completed, though abandoned, town houses, and continue over the space of a few acres of similar standing constructions in various stages of arrested development. All around lay heaps of rubble and top soil, huge craters of nothingness, a strange and disconcerting silence pervades, plastic insulation coverings of uncompleted houses flap menacingly on a near wind-free evening. Walled as you are, you feel quite exposed, at the mercy of whatever malign creatures your imagination might speculate resides there. It is less like the set of some high-end Jane Austen adaptation, more like the stage for a zombie-holocaust trash epic. A most bewildering place, and after an hour taking photos of its apocalyptic environs we are more than happy to leave.
There is little that you could imagine can be done with a catastrophe like Carrig-Glas: a friend suggested using it as an army training ground (though the Irish Army is a sparse force at best), or perhaps as I have alluded above it could be used for zombie film shoot (never a big money spinner and short on the ground in Longford). So I come back somewhat tiresomely to the question of: what the hell were they thinking? [xvi]Longford is not Malaga. It has no business with five-star hotels and luxury playgrounds for champion golfers, IT whiz kids or economic high fliers, and nor would I want it to. Carrig Glas is a document of the property bubble, a monument to financial/planning improprieties and misadventure. And it leaves behind is my torn up memories, laid waste in a place where we once, covertly, dreamed and played.
In Search of Ghosts
The scar on the landscape left by the property collapse is not only felt in urban and suburban areas, but much of the countryside has been heavily affected by reckless development, even areas of the country that one would not assume to be desirable in this regard. We journey into North Longford to find a ghost estate in Drumard that had captured my eye once about a year before when on a drive in the area but find ourselves getting quite lost on this occasion. The region is characterised by marshy land, large tracts of bog and small enclosed fields, traditionally designating the area as poor in terms of agricultural exploitation. The landscape is dull and patchy, the roads form a bewildering network that twist and wind endlessly through their beleaguered environs, signposts or the lack thereof confuse matters further, and the small villages have a grey, parochial feel to them. Taking a wrong turn, we briefly hover around Ballinamuck, significant in Irish history as the site of the infamous defeat of the United Irishmen at the hands of the British during the 1798 Rebellion.
When I first discovered the Slí Corglass estate in Drumard it was a sight indeed; almost the entire estate of 2 storey houses were fenced off and the grass had grown so high and wild around the constructions that it seemed to have engulfed the ground floors of these houses. However, on this occasion the thick foliage has been stripped away, laying bare its barren wares. However, thinking about the image there was nothing significantly new about what we are capturing here, not to undermine the importance of this place as an experience for those who lived in or passed it on a daily basis, but we felt we should move along. As we cross into County Leitrim the network of non-descript roads persists, and the arrested development persists. Uncompleted houses compete for space in this barren land with their finished, though weirdly un-manicured counterparts, and each new home is as ugly as the last. I am aware that this is an aesthetic judgement, but it still appears to me, that the terrains of North Longford and South Leitrim, as they were in the 1980s sparse and humble, have been overcome by single standing, lifeless abodes to such an extent it becomes nauseating after a time. The thought occurs to me, and whilst acknowledging the levels of personal suffering experienced as a cause of financial strife in Ireland, that the recession may have been a blessing in some respects as it put a halt to this rampant construction, and I wonder had it not been for recent setbacks would the entire country have been consumed by these bland, prosaic spaces. I begin to feel ill at this thought, so we decide to take a break for pint in Drumshambo, beside Lough Allen, an area now controversially proposed for shale extraction by means of hydraulic fracturing, or ‘Fracking’ to the common man.
If over the last 15 years the Irish people, more specifically, the Irish household has had more money, more social influence and political purchase than any other time in history, bolstered by commonly held doctrine of individuality and private gain, how then did this produce such absurd levels of uniformity and conformity? The Slovenian psychoanalyst and sociologist Renata Salecl has writing extensively on how the notion of ‘choice’, a central ideological tenet of consumer capitalism, leads to high levels of anxiety in society, as a choice is not isolated to the individual but that every time a person makes a choice it is linked to wider societal concerns and norms[xvii]. Choice is therefore conditioning to modes of consumption and a form of socialisation in late capitalism. What it has led to in the Irish countryside, evident as we criss-cross through counties Leitrim and Roscommon (counties with a 22.3% and 19.9% vacancy rate respectively), is the replication of the same dull construction codes house after house after house. Just as Le Corbusier, the renowned and for some infamous French Architect and urbanist, described the apartment complexes he was designing in the 1930s as ‘machines for living’, we can look at these homes as being ‘machines for conformity’, the visual realisation of those values that promoted a certain lifestyle during the ‘boom’ years.
The borders of each county tend to zig-zag around the mighty River Shannon and the lush banks of the River Boyle. I comment to Huw that we are in John McGahern country, the writer of such classics as Amongst Women and The Dark, both set in the landscape we’re now travelling. I suggest we visit Cootehall, the village on the river Boyle where McGahern’s father had been a Garda Sergeant and the environs of which McGahern spend much of his youth. It had been a number of years since I’d been in Cootehall and was shocked by what I saw, the transformation of a quant country village into a ghost town of holiday homes for the very wealthy. Even the best view of the village and river has been fenced off in private interest.
I wonder what McGahern would have made of these changes to the land of Leitrim and Roscommon, so unforgiving in his novels, yet so beautiful to the eye in even its now spoiled form. McGahern’s work was highly controversial in 1960’s Ireland, a time when public morality was controlled by the Catholic Church and when individual choice was stifled by an agricultural economy and the invariable prospect of emigration to England. The Dark was banned in Ireland in 1965 for addressing these very issues; it attempts to view society in Leitrim through the prism of a teenage boy’s emerging sexuality and his struggles to choose between two life paths. This novel, as with much of McGahern’s work, is heavy with the air of aggression and impending or implied violence; there is oppressiveness to his prose that mirrored the society in which he was living. The aggressiveness of the pace of over-development in his home counties would surely have been something he would have commented upon, it is an act of violence towards the landscape, the repression of public space to benefit private gain. When I look at Cootehall, or Carrig-Glas Manor or the other ‘ghost-estates’ we have visited, I don’t see progress- I see vandalism on a enormous scale, a crime for which no one has been prosecuted and from which the victims, all of us, continue to suffer.
On the day we finish our journey there is a large demonstration held in Dublin against the introduction of a household charge, a sort stealth property tax that is likely to hit the poorest property owners the hardest.
Whilst it is encouraging to see people getting active, organised and resisting austerity measures in Ireland, I wonder if the campaign is not ever so slightly misdirected. The household charge is a tax like any other, and if defeated there is nothing to stop the government introducing a different tax under a new name. What we do with the vacant lots and empty homes that litter every stretch of land in Ireland is another, and I feel more pressing matter. It involves how we conceive public space, how we use the environment around us to benefit the majority rather than the minority. Spaces like the Battery Court and the empty apartments in North Wall should be occupied and form part of a community based strategy for dealing with spiralling homelessness. We should be reclaiming ‘ghost estates’ for nature and setting them up as community gardens, and indeed there are encouraging signs that a group of intrepid guerrilla gardeners on Facebook are doing just that. Development likes Longford Town Centre should be taken back and used as community centres or Arts spaces, and giving that they are property of NAMA i.e. the tax payer, we have not only the right to demand that this happen but the moral and ethical authority to put this into action. Furthermore we have a duty to the generations that come after us, who have in no way contributed to the economic chaos that has befallen the country, to turn their environment into a place of play and wonder, where public space is the right of all and not the preserve of the very wealthy, and where ideas of community and creativity take root and flourish. And perhaps Carrig Glas Manor could be used as the set for Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.
[i] See Financial Engine or Glorified Back Office? Dublin’s International Financial Services Centre Going Global Area Vol. 30, No. 2 (Jun., 1998)
[ii] The Gaelic plural, from the noun Taoiseach, meaning head of Government or Prime Minister.
[iii] This devious confidence trickster was a central figure in the drama of Ireland’s boom and bust, and has recently been forced to resign from his political party Fianna Fail on allegations of political corruption and financial irregularities during his tenure as Minister for Finance in the early nineties (a period during which Ahern incredulously claimed to have not been in procession of a bank account). For further reading: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/apr/03/bertiesfinalfinesse. Bertie’s activities, along with other politicians and public officials, led to a lengthy tribunal known as the Mahon Tribunal, the results of which are outlined here: http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/breaking/2012/0322/breaking39.html. For those seeking deeper analysis the final report can be downloaded here: http://www.planningtribunal.ie/asp/index.asp?ObjectID=310&Mode=0&RecordID=480
This one is by Tom Gilmartin’s son, the whistleblower developer whose allegations had led to The Mahon Tribunal on planning improprieties when Minister for Finance: http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/ireland/2012/0326/1224313895423.html
[v]According to its website the IFSC now covers an area of ‘15.8 hectares and accommodates over 184,000 sq m of office space, as well as two hotels, two bars and restaurants, a large residential development, retail, a crèche and the €100m National College of Ireland campus’. http://www.ifsc.ie/page.aspx?idpage=6
[vi] This building was named after the Irish Labour leader and trade union organiser James Connelly, one of the executed leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising and a fierce anti-capitalist advocate a revolutionary socialist Ireland that would never be achieved. The irony of the proximity of this Mecca to Neo-liberal economics being so close to that which celebrate the memory of Connelly is lost on no one.
[vii]Here is a link to an interesting Thesis on the history of the development, the consequence for its surroundings and the process of ‘new-built gentrification’ of which the IFSC is a fitting example http://igitur-archive.library.uu.nl/student-theses/2011-0805-200738/Master%20Thesis%201.pdf
[viii] Teachta Dála, in Gaelic, meaning member of the Irish Parliament, known as Dáil Éireann.
[ix] The Gregory Deal was a historic agreement struck with the Fianna Fail government of 1982 for the support of inner-city independents to form a government. The deal had it been successful would have possibly rejuvenated the long neglected area I have spoken about above with massive community involvement, one can only speculate on how different Dublin’s inner city would now look had it achieved its aims. However, the Haughty lead Fianna Fail government fell the following year and the Fine Gael- Labour coalition that succeeded ignored the deal. Here’s an article by Gregory’s comrade Mick Rafferty: http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/opinion/2012/0309/1224313061209.html .
[x] Although in the interest of balance here’s a video of that part of Dublin in 1991 on the run up to filming of In the Name of the Father, and admittedly it appears quite grim, consistent with my memory of the area. Much of the area of the pre-IFSC inner city remains remarkably similar to how it is captured here. The audio is hilarious, if ya can understand it, and is poignant in its own way: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a0p8e1MUC0E
[xi] Ireland, both the Republic and Northern Ireland, is divided into 32 Counties, similar to Shires in Britain. There are 26 counties in the Republic and 6 in Northern Ireland. Each County in the Republic is administered at local government level by County Councils and Urban District Councils, with responsibilities over areas of planning and local infrastructural projects such as maintenance of roads. However, applications for new developments are overseen by local government, and whilst these developments must be approved by An Bord Pleanala (The Planning and appeals board), it is local government that is ultimately the initial arbitrator of planning and re-zoning of rural land for Urban development.
[xii] A small, country lane.
[xiii] A missed opportunity perhaps. If we begin to think of the meaning of empty space for children, purged of adult notions of commerce and politics and prohibitions on movement, then we might imagine these spaces as being places of wonder for a child, place to roam, to make their own, to project the futures they know from Sci- Fi comics and horror films, a place they could plant a tree and watch it grow through the harsh concrete oppressor, or just to go and smash the fuck out of something when their parents, with all their questionable wisdom, behave in the intolerable, irrational and inexcusable manner we have come to expect of them, again. A place for play then, amongst this despair.
[xiv] NAMA is a quite complex organ, but this video by the activist group ‘Unlock NAMA’ goes some way to breaking it down for common consumption: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=mfF1SgPp9nw whilst the failures of NAMA’s sister initiative is discussed here:
[xvi] Bizarrely, some more official and tourist industry based website of appear promote the idea that Carrig Glas Manor is somehow an operating concern http://www.carrigglas.ie/ http://www.ireland.com/leisure/culture/museums/carrig-glas-manor/621816
[xvii] For further reading of Renata Salecl work on this subject see On Anxiety London – New York, Routledge, 2004 or Choice London – New York, Profile Books, 2010, though her ideas are nicely condensed into this RSA Animate video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1bqMY82xzWo.
National Institute for Regional and Spatial Analysis, National University of Ireland Maynooth:
Ireland After NAMA – articles, commentary and analysis:
All-Ireland Research Observatory- excellent interactive map detailing unfinished estates:
Irish Central Statistics Office- Census information:
The City Module- fascinating blog on photography and Urbanism: