By Gordon Kingston, Heritage Action

There was a wonderful summation of Ireland’s passed boom years, by David McWilliams, in the Irish Independent recently and I think that it’s worth quoting it here, in full, to show one local economist’s view of what went on behind the more obvious, on-stage action;

Do you remember only a few years ago all the blather about how our young people and our superior demographics would ensure that Ireland achieved a soft landing? Do you remember government ministers urging people giddily to get “on the ladder”? Holding the ladder was usually a builder or auctioneer, who was making a fortune, and some bank manager who threw borrowed money at these first time buyers like confetti.

The bank manager’s Christmas bonus was based on how much money he stuffed into the pockets of the first-time buyer which went straight to the builder, who in many cases wrote cheques for cabinet ministers in corporate donations to a party the builders knew would support them all the way.

And who paid? Well, the young of course. They paid by buying over-expensive shoeboxes and they are paying even more via unemployment. This unemployment ensures that the demand for the extra thousands of shoeboxes that were built in the boom will not be there. Therefore, the negative equity many are suffering will simply get worse as house prices continue to plummet in 2010.”

I covered some of the same ground in an article last August, with, perhaps, a little less of McWilliams’ light style;

“Everybody must be aware, at this stage, of the calamitous crash of Ireland’s economy. While the whole world has wobbled, but stayed erect, this once golden state has fallen heavily and into a hole of its own excavation.

The much-praised ‘tiger’ economy and government funding-model would now seem to have been based, for the last number of years and largely, on constructing and swapping houses, for progressively greater amounts of cheap, borrowed money. New roads and motorways helped to bring new areas into the city hinterlands, areas that then ‘needed’ more houses, which then, obviously, needed more roads. People became, notionally, very wealthy, but only as long as a platform of confidence remained. Once interest rates rose and house prices dropped, this began to be pulled away.”

I’m quoting these two passages, really, to give some example of the force that exists behind the visible action in the country and its economy, or rather, if I can use the image of a Venetian masquerade, the distinction between face and mask; between what we are told by the media, in all forms, and what is. How it potentially influences our attitudes, opinions and behaviour. The bold letters, in each case, are to draw attention to the most relevant sentences in this respect.

Of course, our immediate concerns, Heritage and the buried past of these islands, are tightly woven into the fabric of the economy. Particularly so in Ireland, where construction on previously ‘green’ land and conflict with heritage interests, were such a prominent feature of our ‘boom’. In the most recent issue of the Heritage Council magazine (Winter 2009/Spring 2010), Dr. Simon Burke discusses the results of his analysis of heritage content in Irish newspapers and, although the article itself, beautifully written, should be read in its entirety, I will set out five of his more notable findings here:

1. The initial terms used, by the newspapers, of ‘builder’ or ’speculator’ changed over time to the more impressive ‘developer’, then ’property developer’. Indeed, you can note the continued reference to it, in this late, recessionary ebb, as the construction ’industry’.

2. Real heritage objects were frequently represented as ‘threatening’ merely notional development proposals.

3. Development proposals were, conversely, always treated as real objects, that is; ‘the new road/ housing estate/ port’, as opposed to ‘the proposed’.

4. Only 348 distinct claims were made about heritage in the 1190 heritage texts and 952 separate subjects analysed, and the 23 most frequently made claims – the majority favourable to development – were made an average of 26 times each. He suggests that such repetition served to; “naturalise them and make them appear reasonable.”

5. Most heritage texts related to ‘events’ managed by sources representing business or the State. He states that; “73% cited a single source and 93% cited sources representing a single perspective.”

According to recent figures from the National Institute of Regional and Spatial Analysis (Irish Independent 27 Jan 2010), there are now more than 300,000 houses vacant, around Ireland and over 600 “empty and abandoned developments”. These are all developments that would probably have been described, just a few short years ago, as ‘absolutely crucial’ to their area and, naturally, you can only speculate what their cost was, if counted in the devalued currency of local environment and heritage.

Perhaps, at this point, therefore, it might be useful to look at an example of the type of text that can be picked up by the media from developers‘ sources and, because the impending conflict over Bremore is often on my mind, I’ve taken one from the website of Drogheda Port. Remember that container traffic in Ireland is in decline at present and any future pressure on port capacity is both hypothetical and in the medium to long-term. I’ve left a couple of clues, to help in your dissection, again in bold type:

“At an estimated cost of €210 million, the development of Bremore Ireland Port was begun in 2002 by Drogheda Port Company as a strategic response to the impending future deficit in port capacity not only at Drogheda Port but on the east coast of Ireland as a whole. In addition to existing facilities at Drogheda and Dublin, Bremore will offer additional choice to Irelands importers and exporters.

The new deepwater port will have 24 hour marine access with facilities to accommodate new short sea shipping services to the United Kingdom, Europe, Scandinavia and the Baltic states, to include Lo-Lo, Ro-Ro and passenger traffics. Bremore will have the deepest berths on the east coast of Ireland.”

How can you tell what is face and what is mask?

Or, if your tendency is, like many of us, not to believe anything you read and to always look for something behind the screen, is there not a danger, occasionally, of ignoring the truth? Sometimes, inevitably, that screen is not a screen, but a face. What then? ‘Wolf?

“Labour is blossoming or dancing where
The body is not bruised to pleasure soul.
Nor beauty born out of its own despair,
Nor blear-eyed wisdom out of midnight oil.
O chestnut-tree, great-rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?”

From W.B. Yeats; ‘Among School Children’

I feel that I’ve ended by tying myself, not unusually, in a bit of a knot. My fellow HA member, moss, has consented to overlook this tangle and state clearly what we have to focus on;

A final word; We at Heritage Action record and write about heritage protection, but in Ireland we see that the protection of sites is seemingly non-existent. The point of conserving past history is that once a site becomes lost, it is lost for ever – our grandchildren will not inherit their past. Motorway archaeology, records and then destroys. What happens then if we jeopardise whole landscapes to further the temporary upsurge of an economic boom? We have only to look at the Hill of Tara to answer that question, it will be forever despoiled by the motorway that will run through the valley below, there is no going back on this, the noise, the visual intrusion is a permanent feature– Not until the petrol runs dry will we ever be able to get back the peace and quiet.
The proposed Port of Bremore, will follow in exactly the same manner, destruction of the natural ecology, destruction of prehistoric mounds and a quiet place to escape – a whole beautiful landscape must again go under the wheels of the bulldozers

An Taisce’s submission: