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Michael Lewis on Ireland


An excellent piece on Ireland by Michael Lewis. Lewis writes ridiculously well, a writing that is about people and places and interactions and inanities, all knit together to make you feel like you were there. Or at least, that you can imagine you were there. Lush countrysides, built and unoccupied real estate, meetings with senior members of parliament, the comparisons with Iceland, the laid-back manner of the Irish, the dirty behaviour of Merrill Lynch, Polish workers running back home and leaving cars in the airport parking lot, draconian bankruptcy procedures and guys who throw eggs at irresponsible bank chairmen. He has it all, and he has it in a way that makes me wonder why I bother to write. I’m seriously inspired.

In October, Ireland’s Department of the Environment published its first audit of the country’s new housing stock after inspecting 2,846 housing developments, many of them called “ghost estates” because they’re empty. Of the nearly 180,000 units that had been granted planning permission, the audit found that only 78,195 were completed and occupied. Others are occupied but remain unfinished. Virtually all construction has now ceased. There aren’t enough people in Ireland to fill the new houses; there were never enough people in Ireland to fill the new houses. Ask Irish property developers who they imagined was going to live in the Irish countryside, and they all laugh the same uneasy laugh and offer up the same list of prospects: Poles; foreigners looking for second homes; entire departments of Irish government workers, who would be shipped to the sticks in a massive, planned relocation that somehow never materialized; the diaspora of 70 million human beings with a genetic link to Ireland. The problem that no one paid all that much attention to during the boom was that people from outside Ireland, even those with a genetic link to the place, have no interest in owning houses there. “This isn’t an international property market,” says an agent at Savills’s Dublin branch named Ronan O’Driscoll. “There aren’t any foreign buyers. There were never foreign buyers.” Dublin was never London. The Irish countryside will never be the Cotswolds.

Which way entire nations jumped when the money was made freely available to them obviously told you a lot about them: their desires, their constraints, their secret sense of themselves. How they reacted when the money was taken away was equally revealing. In Greece the money was borrowed by the state: the debts are the debts of the Greek people, but the people want no part of them. The Greeks already have taken to the streets, violently, and have been quick to find people other than themselves to blame for their problems: monks, Turks, foreign bankers. Greek anarchists now mail bombs to Angela Merkel and hurl Molotov cocktails at their own police. In Ireland the money was borrowed by a few banks, and yet the people seem not only willing to repay it but to do so without a peep of protest. Back in October 2008, after the government threatened to means-test for medical care, the old people marched in the streets of Dublin. A few days after I’d arrived the students followed suit, but their protest was less public anger than theater, and perhaps an excuse to skip school.

Oh, you must read the whole thing.


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