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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    Irish political life is still riven by factions formed in the civil war that followed partition. The Free State, precursor to the modern Republic of Ireland, was created by the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty negotiated by Michael Collins but repudiated by other leading nationalists. The Fianna Fail (Soldiers of Destiny) party, founded in 1926 by anti-treaty leader Eamon de Valera after his break with harder-line republicans Sinn Fein (Ourselves Alone), has been the dominant force in Irish politics since 1932. Fine Gael, whose name means "Tribe of the Irish," emerged from Collins' pro-treaty ranks and is these days the country's second largest party by membership.

    Sitting in his bright office in Dublin, Fine Gael's current leader, Enda Kenny, looks every inch the 21st century politician: telegenic and sharp suited. Yet while discussing Ireland's way out of the morass, he several times refers to the economy's prospects for 2016. The date is unrelated to any deadlines set by the international community as part of the bailout deal. It marks, rather, "the centenary of the Easter Rising," explains Kenny. The failed 1916 rebellion against British rule "was the start of our path to economic independence," he says. "Fianna Fail would always say they are the true republicans. Here we are almost a century on from the start of that path to economic independence, and they've brought us to the edge of an abyss."

    Elections expected early in the new year could resemble a civil war re-enactment, with Collins' troops aiming to thrash those of de Valera. Sinn Fein's Gerry Adams, who was until recently mired in the conflict in Northern Ireland, plans to give up his seats in its Assembly and Britain's Parliament to contest the constituency of Louth, south of the border. Opinion polls point to a resounding defeat for Fianna Fail and a new coalition between Fine Gael and Labour. Some polls indeed suggest Labour might for the first time in its history emerge with more seats than either of the big parties rooted in the War of Independence. Its leader, Gilmore, a soft-spoken former trade unionist, isn't the most obvious avatar of hope and change — Ireland's scarcest commodities — but he tries to temper his sober assessment of the current predicament with what he calls "the missing piece of the narrative," a positive vision of the future. "We are going to be a growing, thriving economy again. We have to get through this storm. But we are going to get through it," he says.

    Labour faces high hurdles in a culture in which historical ties are decisive. There are signs, though, that the old allegiances may be fracturing. "It's going to have an impact on my generation," says Tara Keegan, 26, who is contemplating joining the new Irish diaspora if her freshly minted master's degree fails to win her a job back home. "It could be a good thing if this crisis gets us [young Irish] more involved in the political side of things."

    Time to Help Themselves
    For the moment, Keegan is staying in Dublin. "I'm giving myself until Christmas here. For me, England is the next step, but people are going to Canada, Australia, everywhere you can get work," she says. Back in her hometown, Longford, prospects are bleak. Even before the austerity budget, due on Dec. 7, unemployment in the Midlands region had risen from 4% in 2006 to 14.5% this year, above the national average and higher still than in Dublin. With hopes of Ireland's eventual return to health pinned on high technology and added-value products and services, it's hard to see where renewal in blighted rural areas may come.

    For some, the despair of joblessness and financial hardship is overwhelming. "A friend of mine last week, 38 years of age, his wife walked in, and he'd left a sandwich sitting on the table," says Killane. "His 15-year-old son went out to check and found him hanging in the shed." Out of work himself and struggling to pay his monthly 1,200-euro mortgage payment with his 1,540-euro unemployment benefit, Killane retains a fighting spirit. "The likes of the banks are turning around, saying, 'Don't feed your children. Don't clothe your children. Don't send them to school. Just pay us,'" he says. "Everyone living on these ghost estates should get together and say, 'We're not going to pay any mortgage. We've had enough.' They say, 'We can't help you.' We should say, 'We'll help ourselves.'"

    Amid political turmoil and economic wreckage, loaded with debt and bereft of opportunities, many of Killane's compatriots are reaching similar conclusions. So there's a glimmering as a dark Christmas approaches. Foreign nations and international institutions may be ready to shore up Ireland, but the Irish know very well that the key to recovery lies in their ability to help themselves.

    This article originally appeared in the December 13, 2010 issue of TIME Europe.

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