When I was a child, and for a long time after, Ireland was exotic. As a family we broke away from the yearly trips to North Wales to see family, or West Wales to play on the beaches, and went to the West of Ireland for two years running. I only have dim recollection of the whole experience, I was 5 years old. I remember waiting to get on the ferry at Pembroke Dock, or was it Fishguard.? I remember staying just off the main street in a little village somewhere. The pavements were made of dirt. The house was pokey. And there was a big iron bed for us three kids to sleep in.
There are places and things that endured in my mind. Kissing the Blarney Stone – I was too young to try. There was a photo somewhere of my gaberdine clad brothers, standing next to the man who would hold onto their legs as they dangled off the ramparts of Blarney Castle, near Cork. We went to long white sandy beaches which fascinated me because the sand had formed a crust on top. There was an iron man in a field, a giant, I was told. Like so may things I said I could see it, so as not to be left out. To this day I don’t know where it is or what it was. Beyond that, my recollections are few and far between.
And that was it, as far as Ireland was concerned. I went a few times in the nineties, mainly for work, to cover the Eurovision Song Contest – once in the obscure town of Millstreet in 1993 – and then a few times to Dublin. Usually only seeing the inside of the venue. No time for tourism.
About ten years later I found myself a regular of Limerick, flying Ryanair into Shannon on a regular basis – almost commuting – to record voiceovers in an anonymous building, on a trading estate on the edge of town. Again, no time for tourism. I was mainly holed up in an airless, windowless studio repeating a succession of increasingly meaningless words and phrases. One of the recording booths I remember was called ‘The Coffin.’
And then suddenly recently, I go to Ireland twice. Once to see some Beijing-made friends, doing the tour of Europe. And then this week to help a friend clear up a house, after tenants had left abruptly. This latter trip meant another ferry crossing from Holyhead to Dublin Port, and a drive cross country to the far west of Ireland, to County Mayo and the port of Belmullet.
What struck me most was not just the enormous number of swiftly-aging new build estates – everywhere along the way, rows of out of character, three maybe four bedroom properties, in long affluent lines, but also the empty houses. Half built, but more often completed properties, sitting on their unkempt brambled plots, degenerating before your eyes. Ghost Estates - Eastát na Sí in Irish - which translates as Fairy Estates.
They were the result of the building boom in the late 1990’s as Ireland saw rapid economic growth, and a big influx of migrants from the European Union’s new members in East Europe. Coupled with tax breaks for new build. The roar of the Celtic Tiger was silenced by the financial crash of 2008. Many houses went unsold and even unfinished.
Recent figures show there are around 600 Ghost Estates in Ireland, with 245,000 empty homes listed in 2016. There are no buyers, no will to complete the construction, no banks willing to offer mortgages, no money in people’s pockets. There aren’t enough people to live in them anyway. Economists warned that some properties could see an 80% fall in value. There has been talk of bulldozing the whole lot away.
Even in the idyllic surroundings of Belmullet, the estates sit empty and unwanted.