The Celtic Tiger ate Ireland but 'lesson wasn't learnt'


Paris (AFP)

When Irish novelist Dermot Bolger began writing his highly-praised novel "Tanglewood", the booming Celtic Tiger economy was still roaring its loudest.

The once poverty-stricken island whose biggest export had been its people was growing at such a rate that by 2005 the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development said it was wealthier than Switzerland.

But the sudden riches were to prove illusory. And Bolger's book about two couples' doomed plan to profit from its rocketing property market by building a house in their gardens is a powerful parable about a society that "had completely lost its bearings".

"I began writing the book before the crash," said Bolger, 57, one of a golden generation of Irish novelists who emerged before the boom including Colm Toibin, Anne Enright, Roddy Doyle, Colum McCann and Joseph O'Connor.

During the boom years, Ireland "became a country where it was very hard to measure anything any more.

"For a generation of Irish people, all their dreams came true -- and that can be a very terrifying place to be," Bolger said.

"You'd meet taxi drivers who couldn't afford to buy a home in Dublin but who had bought apartments in Bulgaria or Estonia and who'd tell you it only cost them 80,000 euros ($89,000), not realising that they had paid twice the price," he added.

- Spectacular crash -

"I knew it would end eventually but I never thought it would come crashing down so spectacularly and so soon," Bolger recalled.

But down it came in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, with Ireland becoming the first eurozone country to face financial collapse.

"Halfway through writing the book," Bolger said, "Ireland had to go cap in hand to the EU, our banks almost collapsed, and we completely lost our economic independence.

"I didn't know how to finish the book," the writer admitted.

But in recentring his story on the two couples in the wealthy south Dublin suburb of Blackrock, and the migrant workers who build the house for them, Bolger found a way through the impasse.

"Tanglewood" is "a state-of-the-nation book but it did not set out to be that," he said.

Chris and Alice are a cautious, humdrum middle-aged couple who need an extra bedroom but cannot afford to move house because of spiralling property prices.

- Lives destroyed -

To do so they strike a Faustian pack with their wheeler-dealer neighbour Ronan, who is in need of cash to keep his new trophy Filipina wife Kim.

"On one level the book is an economic parable about how a society can delude itself into believing it is rich even though there is no real foundation to those riches," Bolger said.

But it is really a "book about the lack of intimacy in marriage and the difficulties of sustaining a marriage".

Bolger found himself in a similar bind to his characters as a lowly paid writer being constantly outbid when he tried to buy a home at auction.

"The Celtic Tiger was very bad for Irish writing," he argued. "Almost nothing came out of it. No one could afford to take the risk to write.

"I myself felt like a pauper. Tiny, bad little houses were being sold for enormous sums.

"I now look at the people whose lives were destroyed by winning those auctions. They will never escape that debt."

Meanwhile the property speculators "who owed the banks billions have had their loans written off".

Bolgers claimed many of the big developers whose staggering debt brought Ireland to its knees are back profiting from a new property boom, with cranes once again dominating the Dublin skyline.

Seven years after the near collapse of its economy, Ireland is booming again, with its 7.8-growth last year outstripping even China and India.

But Bolger fears few lessons of the recent past have been learnt. "Ireland is capable of remarkable change and not changing at all," he said with a wry smile.