Friday, March 9, 2012

'Look on my works, ye Mighty'

The photos adjoining these words pretty much sum up the state of Ireland these days.

They are of a house that I pass most mornings, as I bring my daughter to school on a rural back road. I don’t know who built the house, but during the past decade it was very common to see sites like this dotting the countryside. As the economy heated up and housing prices escalated, the easy profits were too tempting for farmers. They sold sites like this to people looking for an economical way to have a grand house. Sometimes they sold the sites; sometimes they built houses themselves to sell with the sites. Sometimes the houses were meant for their own adult children. Sometimes they were for people working in a nearby town or city but who didn’t want to pay city prices for a house or maybe just liked the idea of living in the country. Sometimes the buyer was a speculator from Dublin, planning to hold on to the house while the prices appreciated further.

The trouble with a housing boom is that it inevitably turns to bust. And if you try to jump on the bandwagon too late or hold out too long for too much money, you can find yourself with a new, unfinished house on your hands. I don’t know the specific story about this house, but I was amused one day when I happened to notice that, apparently having given up finding a buyer anytime soon, the owner had put it to another use. The unfinished structure was filled, floor to ceiling, with bales of hay. Demonstrating the exceedingly practical nature of Irish farmers, this one was using the newly built house as a barn. If this isn’t a metaphor for the Celtic Tiger, I don’t know what is.

For most people here, the reigning metaphor is the “ghost estates,” that is, the empty housing developments on the outskirts of cities and town that have been abandoned because there is no one to live in them. The ghost estate metaphor took an even darker turn recently a couple of weeks ago when a toddler wandered onto such an estate outside the midlands town of Athlone and was found drowned in a pool of water.

Some would say that these ghost estates—and my Celtic hay barn—are lingering monuments to greed. In a way, they evoke the ruined ancient statue described in Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias.” A traveller finds the remnants lying in the desert sand along with a pedestal that reads, “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!” To my mind Ozymandias is a better metaphor for some political careers than for the housing boom.

While some of us watched in wonder at the madness of the building frenzy, it wasn’t a completely illogical reaction to the lax Irish banking oversight of the time and the low interest rates dictated by the European Central Bank and which suited the cooler economies of Germany and France better than the then-booming Irish economy. This and subsequent events in Greece show how hard it is to get a common currency like the euro right—when so many different countries and types of economies are involved. And, of course, the politicians’ solution is to put Ireland and the other member countries under even more control by the euro architects and the ECB.

One wonders if we are watching the rise of yet another Ozymandias.

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