Sign of hard times as Irish vote to rescue 'ghost' estates

By Peter Geoghegan
in Longford

On the road from Dublin airport to the city centre stands an eye-catching piece of street art. Painted in 4ft-high red and white letters, located on a concrete wall just a stone’s throw from the half-finished headquarters of the bankrupt Anglo-Irish bank near the banks of the River Liffey, the work carries a stark message: “Greed is the Knife & the Scars Run Deep.”

Nowhere are the scars of Ireland’s decade-long housing bubble, and subsequent financial collapse, more visible than Longford, a market town of 10,000 people, 75 miles west of Dublin in the Irish Midlands. Here, empty units outnumber going concerns on the quiet Main Street, at the end of which sits a pristine 215,000 sq-ft shopping centre, unopened since being built two years ago without an anchor tenant.

But the real tragedy of Longford, like many Irish towns, is the “ghost” estates. These developments, begun during the Celtic Tiger boom, were abandoned before completion when house prices plummeted in 2008. Between them 19 “ghost” estates in county Longford, the bulk located on the once-bucolic outskirts of the town, contain almost 1,000 empty dwellings.

“I bought my house off the plans. It was supposed to be a lovely new development but now it’s just awful,” said John Reilly, one of the handful of residents in Battery Court, a half-built estate a mile from Longford. The road into the estate is unpaved – the developer has gone bankrupt and the stretched council refuses to pay the bill – while the houses are left in various stages of execution; some are almost complete, others just foundations, plastic pipes poking out of the concrete.

During the boom years, Longford’s population surged by 20 per cent as the town attracted commuters who worked in Dublin but were unable to afford house prices in the Irish capital. Now it has a glut of empty houses, many built on the back of government tax breaks, and no demand.

Ahead of today’s general election one issue dominates conversations in Longford – the economy. Barry O’Rourke, a 27-year-old from Abbeycartron, has returned to college to study primary teaching in the hope of getting a job.

“There’s no jobs any more unless you have a full qualification,” Mr O’Rourke, a bachelor of arts, said. “A few years ago any Joe Soap with a degree could get a teaching job but not any more. Back then if a job came up there would be one or two applicants. Now there are hundreds, maybe even a thousand applying for one job.”

Ireland’s unemployment rate is above 13 per cent, but in Longford it is higher. B3 Cables, a global optical cable manufacturer, closed its plant in the town last year, with the loss of 100 jobs. Many smaller firms have also gone to the wall, while public sector cuts are beginning to bite.

“A lot of the lads who used to work in factories have lost their jobs. I’d say around half my friends are on the dole. The rest have left. There’s lads going every couple of weeks at the moment,” said Mr O’Rourke, whose own sister emigrated to Australia at the turn of the year.

Mary Melvin, a poet and teacher originally from Dublin, noted an air of despondency about Longford. “I’ve been here for over 30 years. There are less people now; there are no young people. Middle-aged people are talking about their children abroad,” Ms Melvin, whose two sons live in the UK, said.

Longford, which forms a five-seat constituency with its larger neighbour Westmeath, has traditionally been a hotbed of support for Fianna Fail but not this time around. Although former Fianna Fail prime minister Albert Reynolds represented the county in the Dail for 25 years, the county is expected to vote overwhelmingly for Fine Gael and Labour when polls open at 7am this morning.

“We desperately need fiscal stability and employment for young people,” said Ms Melvin, echoing the sentiments of many in Longford.

“We need to sort out the ghost estates, turn them into social housing. We need to make changes. I do think a new government will make a difference. It has to.”

This article first appeared in the Scotsman 25 February