Sunday, February 12, 2012

Irish Ghost Towns, Fairy Gold, and the Diaspora

John Jeremiah Sullivan writes in "My Debt to Ireland" (in this morning's New York Times Sunday Magazine) about searching for his roots, about thwarted hopes and the elegiac nature of life on the Emerald Isle.

Among other things, he comments on the great many houses half-built, never occupied, now abandoned and falling into decay across Ireland, the result of the unprecedented real estate boom during the 1990s that lasted until the global recession starting in 2008. Americans are familiar with this sort of boom-and-bust cycle, with tracts and developments that are still born, that move from blueprint directly to ghost town without ever being inhabited (all those empty streets in the exurbs of Las Vegas, Phoenix, Tampa, Houston and so on). We grimace, file law suits, and move on to some other city or state, building anew to meet the needs of our ever-growing population.

For the Irish, however, this has been a new experience; they are grappling with both the phenomenon and how best to frame it.

As Sullivan writes:

"It had been a dream, like something in a Celtic Revival play: faeries built thousands and thousands of houses in the night. In the morning everybody was poor again.

It was hard to see why the government would allow the ruination of so much open land, which is one of Ireland’s principal commodities, namely the 'unspoiled' landscape. People go to Ireland for all sorts of reasons, but they mainly go there because it’s pretty, because it’s 'not all built up.'

From the point of view of the rural Irish themselves, however, this may look very different. The greenness of Ireland is a false greenness, after all. Not that it isn’t green — the place can still make you have to pull off and swallow one of your heart pills. It’s that the greenness doesn’t mean what it seems. It doesn’t encode a pastoral past, much less a timeless vale where wee folk trip the demesne. The countryside is not supposed to look like that, to be that empty. Ireland was at one time one of the most densely populated places in Europe. In the 1830s, there were more people living there than today. What you see in the open spaces the island is famous for are hundreds and hundreds of years of Irish dying and fleeing in large numbers. Famines, wars, epidemics and a wretched postcolonial poverty drove them through the ports by the millions. It’s perhaps not so strange that such a people, experiencing their first flush of disposable income, would undergo a mania of home building and land development. Perhaps in a way, the houses were meant for returning immigrants even before they became ghost estates. They were built for the diaspora."

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