Dublin: The big cat's dead, but there are plenty of white elephants left

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

The high-rolling bankers and developers lie low, and folk in Ireland's capital, amid the landscape of recession, ask: 'Celtic Tiger? What were we thinking?'

You may not know your IMF from your MFI when you arrive, but it's unlikely you'll end a weekend in Dublin without becoming an instant financial whiz. Ask, for example, any pub bore in Dublin what Nama means – and they will give you a doctoral thesis on the National Asset Management Agency. This was set up to take the burden of bad debt off the banks; they nationalised the debt. Through the Nama the Irish public now own some of the city's most spectacularly depreciating assets. Should you want to, you can even download an augmented reality app called Namaland that guides you around Dublin's Nama landmarks. Sadly, there is nothing virtual about this tour.

There is only one story in town. The Celtic Tiger is dead. Dubliners find it difficult to talk about anything else. It starts in the taxi from the airport (brand new Terminal 2 cost €600m). The new tunnel has cut the journey time to the city centre by half. It's an ambitious infrastructure project; it cost €750m. It was built, says my driver ruefully, "in The Good Times".

We turn the corner on to the north bank of the Liffey in the port. The lights are on at the gleaming new Aviva Stadium, throwing a small aurora into the night sky. It was designed jointly by Irish architects Scott Tallon Walker and Populous, the company that built Arsenal's Emirates Stadium. It cost €410m. Last weekend's climactic game in rugby union's Six Nations Championship was played here. And yes – Ireland gave Grand-Slam-chasing England a good shellacking to boost national pride and briefly dispel the obsessional hum of recession talk.

The Liffey is lined with trees bearing blue-and-white fairy lights. Eye-catching glass kiosks break up the riverside promenade – cafés, bars and shops. It looks festive.

A large glass cylinder – with concentric hoops of green fairy lights – hovers into view. It's a close encounter with an extrovert spacecraft. It is, in reality, Dublin's brand new convention centre; I would class it as attempted "iconic". It cost ¤380m. It also looks festive. But who will come to the party now? The Convention Centre, too, was conceived in the Jurassic era when sabre-toothed property developers roamed the land. The period now known as "The Good Times".

A couple of blocks back from the river, on the other bank, is the Daniel Liebeskind-designed Grand Canal Theatre, which opened a year ago. Liebeskind is the kind of architect for whom the word "iconic" was invented, and this is a statement building at the heart of a larger ¤300m redevelopment of this part of the city's docklands. At a mere €80m, the theatre seems the pick of the property bubble legacy projects. It's also done okay in its first year. Rather better than the adjacent office block, which is still empty and looking unloved.

The talk in the bar at the prestigious Shelbourne Hotel (reportedly a Nama property) turns swiftly to the recent political convulsions. A snap election was called in February and it wiped out the ruling Fianna Fáil party. There is incredulity at the turn of events. It is leavened by Dubliners' begrudgery at their own pumped up presumption – "Celtic Tiger? Who the hell did we think we were?"

About a quarter of the Irish parliament (Dáil Éireann) was booted out. "The new crop of TDs [MPs] are straight out of the bogs," says David. "One of them drove off from the car park in the Dáil and headed for the gates, without noticing she was driving down the steps." Later, I find the footage on YouTube.

Gina joins in, eager to stick the boot into the new crop of political idiots. "You have to see Ming the Merciless [a new MP]," says Gina, rolling her eyes. "He's a caveman." This is who we really are, my Dublin clique seem to be saying. Not tigers, but cavemen. The whole thing was a case of mistaken identity.

I meet up with my friend Stewart Kelly at Fallon & Byrne in Exchequer Street. It's a gastro-emporium on a department store scale – the building is a former telephone exchange. Sprawling over four floors, there is a grocery shop, a café, a wine shop and bar, a restaurant and function room. In appearance, it seems to nod to Dean and DeLuca in New York's SoHo; cappucino froth, mille feuille, wild garlic and mature comté cheese give a good flavour of a time when Dublin aspired to world city status.

Stewart is quick to point out that even here there are financial skeletons rattling around in the larder. The company was in the news recently, reportedly paying a hefty €734,000 to the taxman in overdue VAT and penalties for under declaration. All Dublin stories these days seem to reprise the financial riff.

Over coffee, Stewart describes what "The Good Times" were like. "Property guys could meet up with bankers over lunch and say, 'Listen, I need ¤10m to buy that building down the road', and they'd go, 'Grand, we'll transfer the money this afternoon'," he says. "There were no business plans, no due diligence, it was literally like that."

Warming to his (and everyone else's) theme, Stewart offers to take me on a recession tour of the city. As befits the producer of Carjam, a radio show, Stewart has a suitably ostentatious vehicle parked outside. The 1972 Jensen Interceptor is probably too aromatic (petrol fumes, old leather and hot engine oil) and frankly too stylish, to be the preferred ride of Dublin's erstwhile masters of the universe, but it makes me feel pretty special as the V8 engine roars and we cruise off in search of the recession.

Over the past 30 years Ireland went from being a country where roughly a third of people lived in poverty to one of the richest in the world. It was a phantom trajectory based on a property bubble that didn't so much burst as detonate like a dirty bomb.

We make for Dublin 4 where the high rollers of "The Good Times" built their pleasure domes. We pull up in front of a building of screeching vulgarity. This is the famous "Pink Palace" on Burlington Road, one of the many homes of the emperor of Irish property developers, Johnny Ronan. Ronan would not be impressed by the Jensen. His toys include a private jet, one of only two Maybach limousines in the country (the other reportedly belongs to the singer Enya), and Battersea Power Station.

Down the same road we come to a new office development called Burlington Plaza. Behind its brave new concrete and glass façade it is empty, like many new offices in the city. The pitch on the "To Let" sign offers "Dublin's Best Office Space".

We turn the corner and are in Shrewsbury Road. The houses are, if anything, even grander. Many of them are embassies. Developers and entrepreneurs of the bubble years competed to see who could pay more for a home in the road – one developer splurged €58m for a 4,000sq ft house, which makes London property prices at the top of the boom look anaemic.

Down towards Sandymount, the Jensen pulls into a vast and deserted development. The €475m Elm Park comprises more than 300,000sq ft of offices, a hotel and a hospital. It was built by one of the biggest-name developers in the country who is now bust with debts of €1.5bn. Elm Park could end up being another tumbleweed monument to the crash – and there are many. The Martello tower that features at the start of James Joyce's Ulysses is not far away in Sandycove. It is a genuine monument but modern Dubliners have other more pressing tales to tell, and we pass it by.

Our final stop on the recession tour is the Four Seasons Hotel in Ballsbridge. It is a candidate for the most boring building of the boom; the hotel's Ice Bar was nevertheless the watering hole of choice for the bankers and developers who rode the Celtic Tiger. Back then, you wouldn't even think of pulling up in anything less than a Ferrari, Lamborghini or a Bentley. Today, however, the doorman's face lights up at the arrival of the 40-year-old Jensen. He gestures for us to park up in pole position opposite the entrance.

It's Saturday night and the Ice Bar is empty. "It would have been jammed," says Stewart. "They'd all be inside, and all these wannabe model girls would be there as well. And it would be 'Oh, Monaco F1 is on this weekend, let's fly out to that. Oh, U2 are playing in Paris, let's fly out to that.'"

The playboys are keeping their heads down. I ask the barman if he's expecting the place to fill up later. He tries to talk it up but ends up confirming that the party really is over. "Oh no sir," he replies with a nervous laugh when I ask if there's any chance it'll be like it used to be three years ago, "It won't be like that."

Compact Facts

How to get there

Sankha Guha travelled to Dublin as a guest of Tourism Ireland (discoverireland.com). He flew with Aer Lingus (0871 718 2020; aerlingus.com), which has flights from £48 return. He stayed at The Shelbourne (00 353 1 66 34 500; marriott.co.uk), which offers B&B in a double room from €198 a night.

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

Arts and Entertainment
TVShow's twee, safe facade smashed by ice cream melting scandal
News
Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie reportedly married in secret on Saturday
peopleSpokesperson for couple confirms they tied the knot on Saturday after almost a decade together
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
News
Actor, model and now record breaker: Jiff the Pomeranian
Video
News
REX/Eye Candy
science
Sport
Alexis Sanchez celebrates after scoring his first goal for Arsenal in the Champions League qualifier against Besiktas
sportChilean's first goal for the club secures place in draw for Champions League group stages
News
i100
News
Down time: an employee of Google uses the slide to get to the canteen
scienceBosses are inventing surprising ways of making us work harder
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Business Development Manager / Sales Pro

    £30 - 35k + Uncapped Comission (£70k Y1 OTE): Guru Careers: A Business Develop...

    Graduate Sales Executive / Junior Sales Exec

    £18k + Uncapped Commission (£60k Y1 OTE): Guru Careers: A Graduate Sales Exe...

    Web Developer / Software Developer

    £25 - 60k (DOE): Guru Careers: A Web Developer / Software Developer is needed ...

    Oracle 11g SQL 2008 DBA (Unix, Oracle RAC, Mirroring, Replicati

    £6000 - £50000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: Oracle 11...

    Day In a Page

    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone
    Amazon is buying Twitch for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?

    What is the appeal of Twitch?

    Amazon is buying the video-game-themed online streaming site for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?
    Tip-tapping typewriters, ripe pongs and slides in the office: Bosses are inventing surprising ways of making us work harder

    How bosses are making us work harder

    As it is revealed that one newspaper office pumps out the sound of typewriters to increase productivity, Gillian Orr explores the other devices designed to motivate staff
    Manufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl records

    Hard pressed: Resurgence in vinyl records

    As the resurgence in vinyl records continues, manufacturers and their outdated machinery are struggling to keep up with the demand
    Tony Jordan: 'I turned down the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series nine times ... then I found a kindred spirit'

    A tale of two writers

    Offered the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series, Tony Jordan turned it down. Nine times. The man behind EastEnders and Life on Mars didn’t feel right for the job. Finally, he gave in - and found an unexpected kindred spirit
    Could a later start to the school day be the most useful educational reform of all?

    Should pupils get a lie in?

    Doctors want a later start to the school day so that pupils can sleep later. Not because teenagers are lazy, explains Simon Usborne - it's all down to their circadian rhythms
    Prepare for Jewish jokes – as Jewish comedians get their own festival

    Prepare for Jewish jokes...

    ... as Jewish comedians get their own festival
    SJ Watson: 'I still can't quite believe that Before I Go to Sleep started in my head'

    A dream come true for SJ Watson

    Watson was working part time in the NHS when his debut novel, Before I Go to Sleep, became a bestseller. Now it's a Hollywood movie, too. Here he recalls the whirlwind journey from children’s ward to A-list film set
    10 best cycling bags for commuters

    10 best cycling bags for commuters

    Gear up for next week’s National Cycle to Work day with one of these practical backpacks and messenger bags
    Paul Scholes: Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United

    Paul Scholes column

    Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United
    Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo music review: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it

    Kate Bush shows a voice untroubled by time

    A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
    Robot sheepdog technology could be used to save people from burning buildings

    The science of herding is cracked

    Mathematical model would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
    Tyrant: Is the world ready for a Middle Eastern 'Dallas'?

    This tyrant doesn’t rule

    It’s billed as a Middle Eastern ‘Dallas’, so why does Fox’s new drama have a white British star?