This Is the House That Ireland Built

Wild property speculation and crazy bank loans have left the Irish economy reliant on emergency aid. The good news: Ireland's people know they have to clean up the mess themselves

  • Photograph by Simon Burch for TIME

    Out of the ordinary Houses at the back of the Silver Birches estate overlook a pool of sewage

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    Critics of Europe's monetary union blame Ireland's surrender of control over interest rates for the bubble economy that burst — and has left Quinlan struggling to snatch his personal holdings from the maw of Ireland's National Asset Management Agency, set up earlier this year to take bad property loans worth 80 billion euros ($104.2 billion) off the books of the country's ailing banks. But Europe has been good to the Irish, reducing their dependence on British markets and granting access to cheap capital that, for a while at least, was well used.

    If only Ireland had known when to stop. Everywhere are reminders of the national lunacy: empty office blocks, derelict warehouses, echoing hotels. At the peak of the property boom, Longford, 75 miles (120 km) northeast of Dublin, attracted commuters whose wages couldn't stretch to a property nearer the Irish capital. Its town center is dominated by a gleaming 215,000-sq.-ft. (20,000 sq m) mall, built without an anchor tenant and adorned for the past two years with OPENING SOON signs. The only big-ticket items for sale on the nearby high street are the leases of boarded-up shops.

    Though the shoddy construction of some ghost estates might suggest otherwise, the housing surplus wasn't created overnight. In April 2006, a national census found 23% of homes in County Longford unoccupied. In the 12 years up to that point, house prices in Ireland had rocketed by 520%. "How alarm bells were not rung, I do not know," says Seamus Butler, a local businessman. "But they just kept on building."

    In fact, alarm bells were ringing, loudly, but they were ignored. In July 2007, Ireland's then Taoiseach, or Premier, Bertie Ahern, vented his spleen at the rising chorus of skeptics questioning the sustainability of Ireland's economic expansion. "Sitting on the sidelines cribbing and moaning is a lost opportunity," he told the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. "I don't know how people who engage in that don't commit suicide."

    He later apologized, but only for any offense he might have caused to the families of suicide victims. Now rage against Ahern and his hapless successor, Brian Cowen, burns bright, as it does against bankers and property magnates. Most of all, though, the Irish are angry at themselves. "You know what's the hardest to accept? We allowed this to happen," says Josephine Donohue, the principal of Mercy Secondary School in Ballymahon, south of Longford. "We got used to a better standard of living, the foreign holidays, the weekends away, eating out. Our lifestyle changed. It became very materialistic."

    Living Well, the Best Revenge
    Anyone who knew Ireland before its party years — a drab, conservative place that seemed permanently preserved in the aspic of isolation and insularity — will cut its citizens some slack for getting carried away in the excitement of its transformation. The politicians who might have been expected to curb the excess were themselves caught up in it. And there was another factor distorting their judgment. Living well, they say, is the best revenge, and the legacy of animus left by the War of Independence against British rule underpins Ireland's enduring desire to flip the bird at Britain or hoist tricolors over British assets. A latter-day republican spirit fueled the government's resistance to the bailout. The prospect of its capitulation earned the scorn of the country's most influential newspaper, the Irish Times . "Having obtained our political independence from Britain to be the masters of our own affairs," fulminated a Nov. 18 editorial, "we have now surrendered our sovereignty to the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund."

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