While top European officials and Ireland’s beleaguered politicians work out the details of an Ireland bailout package meant to save the country from collapse, the Irish Main Street is reeling, desperate for some sense of stability and a glimmer of hope that some semblance of the roaring “Celtic Tiger” will return.
The boom years that began here in the mid-1990s and made Ireland the envy of Europe for its rapid growth and virtual full employment are over. Today, unemployment, personal debt, and a lack of optimism dominate the country.
The Irish have come to terms with accepting a life preserver in the form of European Union and International Monetary Fund aid, which may reach $120 billion. Still, many are bracing themselves for a wave of austerity cuts that have already swept Europe.
Ireland will likely have to raise taxes and cut public services, including the unemployment benefits and, according to some sources, retirement pensions that many are now relying on.
Young Irish adults in particular are expressing deep concerns about their futures. Andrew Murphy, a recent university graduate, has taken an internship at the European Commission in Brussels and doubts he will find permanent work at home.
“I’d like to come back to Dublin; I’d like to get a job in Ireland. I like living there. I still think it’s a good country. It’s kind of a strange feeling having left Ireland and knowing that even if I wanted to go back perhaps I couldn’t, perhaps I couldn’t find a job,” he says.
Ruth McNally, another recent graduate, is living on unemployment benefits. “My friends thought they definitely weren’t going to get jobs, but I was more positive and I thought, ‘We’ll be fine, we’ll get something.’ But then there didn’t seem to be anything. I couldn’t find anything.”
Ms. McNally says her friends are all “pretty much” in the same position. “Two of my friends are going to teach English in Korea.”
Despair and humiliation
Indeed, there is a sense of despair that has taken hold here and a feeling of humiliation among many as Ireland seeks help from the rest of Europe.
“There is a very real sense of shame at the failures of government and the business class,” says novelist Gerry Feehily, a native of County Donegal who now lives and works in Paris. During good times, Ireland, for the first time in its history, was a destination for migrants seeking to make their fortune. Now, Ireland is again supplying labor to the rest of the world.
According to government statistics, unemployment is now above 13 percent and 27,700 people left the country in the first four months of this year, more than anytime since 1989. An estimated 5,000 Irish people leave every month, an increase of 81 percent on figures from 2009.
Things are so tough that even labor unions are telling members about prospects abroad. “As a result of the downturn we’re finding that a lot of members are finding it hard to get work and many are considering immigrating to the United States, Canada, and Australia,” says Sean Heading, spokesman for TEEU, a union for engineers and technicians.
The most striking aspect of the bust is the collapse of the housing market. Not only are houses not being sold, the Irish landscape is now littered with so-called “ghost estates,” housing complexes that are sparsely inhabited and often unfinished.
Architect Dominic Stevens says government policy fueled a boom in house building that could never be kept going. “As late as 2008 the average new house price was €375,000; €120,000 of that went straight into the government’s pockets in taxes and levies,” he says.
“These were being built for reasons that had nothing to do with making homes for people. In [rural County] Leitrim you had estates that were populated entirely by people working on building other estates,” he said.
An estimated 280,000 homes are unoccupied in the country, 23,000 of which are new homes that have never been lived in.
For homeowners who bought before the real estate bubble burst, foreclosure is a growing concern. In early November, the government reported that 1 in 10 Irish mortgage holders is failing to keep up with payments.
Michael Culloty, a spokesperson for the Money Advice and Budgeting Service, an Irish charity that provides independent advice to people with financial problems, says that people are seeking advice but that widespread foreclosures have not yet begun.
“We’re currently experiencing an increase in the volume of people we see,” he says. “People are getting into difficulty with consumer debt in particular.”
Mr. Culloty says the banks have not yet begun to force people out of their homes in large numbers: “Most people are hanging in there.”
Not all commentators paint the same picture. Economist Morgan Kelly wrote that mass home repossessions were on the horizon. “If you thought the bank bailout was bad, wait until the mortgage defaults hit home,” he wrote in the Irish Times.
Lenny Antonelli in Dublin contributed reporting for this article.