The Deserted Village

Sweet smiling village, loveliest of the lawn,
Thy sports are fled, and all thy charms withdrawn;
Amidst thy bowers the tyrant’s hand is seen,
And desolation saddens all thy green.
                       Oliver Goldsmith – The Deserted Village (1770)

It’s a long time since Goldsmith penned his famous poem, but the phenomenon of the empty village is alive and well in Ireland, and growing, just swap Goldsmith’s “tyrant” for “developer” and you have it. Many would argue they are synonymous.

The modern deserted village means something different, a symbol of a country rediscovering its lost link with reality. Once a symbol of destitution, political negligence and famine, the modern deserted village, now called a ghost estate, stands as a useless memento of illusory prosperity, an era of self-delusion in a fools’ paradise when property prices were inflated to fit our dreams. The ghost village is not so much deserted as aborted, never given a chance to live, built on dreams long since turned into nightmares.

Old deserted villages were lonely rows of derelict cottages on streets of mud, poignant reminders of a desperate past. A few of them still exist on islands around the country that were depopulated in the twentieth century, accidental monuments to hard times. Striking examples can be seen in the Iniskea Islands off the Mayo coast, abandoned to the seals and migrating barnacle geese since 1930, some years after the tragic loss of ten local fishermen, and the crumbling remains nearly a hundred stone cottages on Achill Island at Slievemore.

For the last few years Ireland has replaced the occasional holiday homes with holiday villages, we have turned small country towns into sprawling suburban dormitories for people working in Dublin who did not want to suffer the perceived indignity of a two-up-two-down near the city. The now ubiquitous holiday homes, empty except for brief summer periods, stand like empty shells facing the bleak and restless winter seas. Two car families became the norm as we built our “tiger” economy on shifting sand dunes. But the luxury of having a five bedroom first home in these rural dormitories had a high price, as transport costs rose and the daily commute became a nightmare in hours of traffic, despite our network of new motorways.

As small towns grew, the perception of permanence flourished and speculators built like they were expecting multitudes. As far back as 2006, a friend of mine from Mullingar told me there were four hundred empty new houses around that town. Built for rental, there was no market for all these Lego land reproductions. The story was repeated all over the country, huge housing estates sprouting like wild weeds, most of them now deserted like Goldsmith’s classic dissertation, not in ruin through neglect and abandonment but through not being finished and having never been occupied.

A study by the Urban Environment Project at UCD suggested there are 345,000 empty houses or apartments in the Republic, or 17 per cent of all housing. Take away the holiday homes and there are still 170,000 houses and apartments sitting empty, vainly waiting for prices to return to the heady highs that now seem so long ago. It is difficult to imagine that this will happen. Property prices will rise as inevitably as the tides, but there will be no quick return to the top of the bubble. Having been badly stung, this generation has learned to be cautious.

Now most of these deserted villages belong to the State, albeit reluctantly, having dropped into the lap of NAMA. Most of them will never be finished and will end their days with in front of the bulldozers, costing many more millions just to get rid of them. History will be left with nothing but dreary photos, bad memories and mountains of bad debt.

© Ronan Quinlan 2010

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