Shellshock in Ireland: 'The bottom fell out of the world'

Once the European Union's beacon of prosperity, Ireland has buckled under the weight of its collapsed property market.

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DUBLIN // On the banks of the Liffey in Dublin, a blend of Irish dancing and ballad-singing still has the power to coax groups of Croatian, Spanish, American and German tourists into a cavernous hotel lounge. At first glance, business seems healthy. "Don't believe it," said a visitor to the capital from Mayo in the west of Ireland. "This time last year, it would have been heaving and you wouldn't have found a seat."

Most of all, it is the Irish themselves who are missing. As the mighty roar of the Celtic Tiger is silenced by job cuts, stifling tax rises and an overwhelmingly sense of gloom, the economic miracle that was Ireland is over. Midweek outings, for now, are a luxury many cannot afford. Pain is felt throughout the land, from the plush homes of embattled men of property, who amassed gigantic debts in an explosion of borrowing, to charities struggling to offer a flimsy lifeline to drug users and down-and-outs.

If sympathy for the speculators is in short supply, so is money to help the poor. At the Merchants Quay drop-in centre opposite the old Dublin city wall, staff are preparing for ever increasing demands on their services as the economic crisis produces more human debris. But they are working with diminished resources. Denisa Casement, the woman in charge of fund-raising, is in no doubt: the centre has become one of the recession's casualties. An American from one of the most renowned families in Irish history, she began her new job last September, just as the Irish Republic was sinking into a recession faster than any other member of the European Union and from which, some analysts suspect, it may be the last to emerge. But funding cuts have left a shortfall of €800,000 (Dh3.87 million), which will worsen if, as feared, ministers order further savings later in the year.

"I had hardly begun and the bottom fell out of the world," said Ms Casement, the Arizona-born granddaughter of a second cousin of Sir Roger Casement, who was feted as a hero of Irish independence but hanged as a traitor in Britain after a failed plot to smuggle German arms to Irish rebels for the 1916 Easter Rising. "I am sure our work will become more intense, but it will have to be done with a lot less government help. Whereas my original strategy was for growth, now it's for survival."

Signs of recession are everywhere. At the showpiece mall opposite the elegant St Stephen's Green public park, some shops are boarded up or announcing closing sales. A mother trying to deliver cardboard, paper and glass to an award-winning recycling centre was turned away; it was closed, the staff laid off. A teaching union's annual conference opened with warnings that there would be no jobs for 2,000 of the teachers qualifying this summer.

In an emergency mini-budget, Brian Lenihan, the finance minister, presented a raft of austerity measures, including heftier income tax bills for low as well as high earners, cuts in benefits and more to pay for health care. A public servant earning €30,000 a year was instantly made €175 a month worse off. One middle-class woman earning twice as much estimated that she would have €800-€900 less each month in disposable income. "I actually understand why people go home and hang themselves," she told a radio phone-in.

In Ireland's Commercial Court, the colourful property developer, Paddy Kelly, who famously once said he owned most of the cranes dominating the Dublin skyline, has admitted to debts, mainly to banks, running into hundreds of millions of euros. In turn, his main creditor, the Anglo-Irish Bank, to which he owes €700m, and the Bank of Ireland, were bailed out in a €7 billion government rescue plan, and the government has created the National Asset Management Agency (Nama) to sweep up billions of euros in "toxic" - or high risk - property investment loans.

Surprisingly open, Mr Kelly told The National he is among perhaps 20 Irish businessmen who each owe in the region of a billion euros. "I have fantastic assets but you couldn't at present get money for them," he said. "So no one can say what they're worth." But he remains philosophical. "I believe business has to have risk associated with it to be free enterprise. You have to have success and failure, but there is always a solution to every problem."

On Mr Kelly's analysis, the Irish economy veered out of control because bankers, developers, homebuyers and the government all found themselves operating in a "very positive environment", paying no heed to the pitfalls ahead. Others adopt a harsher approach. "We are making sacrifices, not for a better future, but to pay for the greed, stupidity and corruption of our betters," one of Ireland's best known commentators, Fintan O'Toole, wrote in the country's most authoritative newspaper, The Irish Times. O'Toole likened ministers' response to Winston Churchill's wartime declaration to the British: "I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat." But what was missing from their refinement of the Churchillian message, O'Toole added, was his promise of "victory in spite of all terrors", his affirmation of buoyancy and hope.

Over tea and sandwiches in the Shelbourne Hotel, where the Irish constitution was drafted in 1922, a man who has advised some of Ireland's biggest property investors says the country capitalised on low interest rates and government tax breaks to embark on a buying spree. But the boom was unsustainable. "It was the party to end all parties," said Sean Davin, now retired after 35 years in auctioneering and property consultancy. "And now there's a terrible mess to clear up."

Mr Davin believes the appetite for land and home ownership is widespread in Ireland, having grown since independence, after 700 years of friction, from Britain. "After being dispossessed for centuries, it is not surprising that we took to possession with such enthusiasm. There is a deep-rooted belief in Ireland that land is life." He says it is too early to identify the low point of the crisis. When the "valuation floor" becomes evident, it may then take five to seven years to return to growth in property value unless inflation and low interest rates hasten recovery.

Once Nama establishes the true market values of substantial holdings of development land, he says, forced sales will be a painful necessity, though the "relative youth and future needs of the population" will lead to opportunities for risk-takers able to fund their purchases. Irish workers affected by the downturn display a mixture of anger and bewilderment. "The crisis, and the way the government is handling it, is on everyone's mind," said Paul Mason, 53, facing a bleak future after losing his job of 20 years at SR Technics, an aircraft maintenance firm that is closing its plant near Dublin airport, citing soaring costs and the loss of a vital Aer Lingus contract. In all, 1,150 people will be made redundant.

"It's pretty grim, and I still haven't quite got my head around it. Just a month ago I had a reasonably decent job, and now there's nothing. Even applying for social welfare and medical cards means a 10-week wait for them to get through your papers." Dublin's decade of prosperity brought a large influx of foreigners in search of work and intent on tasting the capital's celebrated joie de vivre. The near-collapse of the economy is being felt by many of them, just as it is forcing people who still have employment to look anxiously over their shoulders, cutting back on evenings out and other personal expenditure.

Outside a city centre job agency, Jean-Paul Printaniere, 25, from Mauritius, presses his face against the window, hoping to find something better than his insecure work helping out in shops or cleaning. "I'd like something in security," he said. "But it's tough. Let's hope things improve; at least with the summer coming, people will start smiling again." Invited to represent the Casement family at the official commemoration of the 93rd anniversary of the Easter Rising, Denisa Casement described the occasion as a timely reminder that the country had endured even harder times: "If you don't recognise the sacrifices made for Ireland's sovereignty, then you don't hold it as dear as you should."

On another busy day at Merchants Quay Ireland, as staff wait for the regular flow of the homeless and addicted for basic meals, health advice and encouragement, it is a theme to which she returns. "The Irish people are tough, resourceful and creative," she said. "They will get through this as they have overcome adversity in the past."