The Lean Green Grass of Home

This weekend I have been enjoying the comforts of a warm welcome back to my childhood home of Ireland. At close to 1,5 years since I last visited, this is the longest single period of time that I have been away and as much as I enjoy the adventure of life far from its shores, there is something unmatchable in the comfort of returning to the house you grew up in and filling your self with some very familiar home cooking (Viv, your lemon stuffing still makes a chicken!)

This time around, I was particularly interested to understand what life looked like post the economic crash that the country has experienced in the intervening months. Recently a new friend in Denmark asked me to describe Ireland to them and I had to admit that I really wasn’t very well equipped to give them an accurate answer. Having left over 11 years ago and spending not much more than Christmas’s and the odd weekend back there since, I am painfully aware of how much has changed and how little I really know of it compared to the country I grew up in.

Mine was the probably the first generation that felt no economic urge whatsoever to emigrate, I was one of a very small number of graduating class to leave, something that had become tragically routine during the decades before and is indeed commonplace once again. The mega boom of the 2000’s was something that I watched from a afar and the mega bust of today is equally something rather foreign to me. The half empty car park as we circled Dublin airport told me that all was not as I had left it. The lack of gridlocked traffic on the M50 ring road confirmed it. This bubble had certainly burst.

Sharing stories with friends of how it looks on the ground was a sobering business. A friend shook his head as he explained how an acquaintance was struggling to meet the mortgages on 4 houses – all of which were now in negative equity. I began shaking my head with wonder as to how a 32 year old came to own 4 houses in the first place and exactly what kind of mentally retarded bank manager might have deemed him credible for his second, third and fourth mortgage application.

The best answer anybody seems to have is that the whole country fell under a collective trance, enraptured by the lure of easy money in a property game where nobody seemed to loose out, save for those who failed to play the game. Now there are ghost towns of half built homes in satellite towns across the country, so badly built and so unlikely to be ever filled that that they are seriously considering knocking them back down again.

It is of course no fun listening to friends recount the challenges of finding a job or even getting paid for the work they do carry out. Yet I can’t help but feel that Ireland will bounce back from all of this, for all the madness, Ireland does not deserve to be the I of the PIGS. As one of the most youthful workforces in Europe, demographics remain on our side and our open labour laws have allowed a whole battalion of Eastern Europeans to both arrive and depart again with a minimum of fuss. The multinational investment that so dominates our economy is primarily of the high tech, plant and equipment variety which is thankfully hard to withdraw in a hurry and the government (and indeed the people) seem relatively serious about pulling in the spending and getting the public finances back in order.

For sure there are a couple of lean years ahead of us, but there is no doubt in my mind that Ireland will remain fundamentally changed and for the most part greatly improved from the decade I have watched from the sidelines. Its car parks may be less full now, but the gleaming airport I flew in and out of is as transformed as any other part of the country since I began using it as a stepping off point 11 years ago.

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