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

Life and Style
tech
Sport
Farah returns to the track with something to prove
Commonwealth games
News
John Barrowman kisses his male “bride” at a mock Gretna Green during the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony
peopleBarrowman's opening ceremony message to Commonwealth countries where he would be sent to prison for being gay
Voices
voicesGood for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, writes Grace Dent
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Sport
Shinji Kagawa and Reece James celebrate after the latter scores in Manchester United's 7-0 victory over LA Galaxy
football
Arts and Entertainment
The Tour de France peloton rides over a bridge on the Grinton Moor, Yorkshire, earlier this month
film
Life and Style
fashion Designs are part of feminist art project by a British student
News
Very tasty: Vladimir Putin dining alone, perhaps sensibly
news
Life and Style
Listen here: Apple EarPods offer an alternative
techAre custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?
Arts and Entertainment
Top guns: Cole advised the makers of Second World War film Fury, starring Brad Pitt
filmLt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a uniform
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
News
Snoop Dogg pictured at The Hollywood Reporter Nominees' Night in February, 2013
people... says Snoop Dogg
News
The University of California study monitored the reaction of 36 dogs
sciencePets' range of emotions revealed
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
News
Joining forces: young British men feature in an Isis video in which they urge Islamists in the West to join them in Iraq and Syria
newsWill the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?
Arts and Entertainment
The nomination of 'The Wake' by Paul Kingsnorth has caused a stir
books
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

    C++ Software Engineer - Hounslow, West London - C++ - to £60K +

    £40000 - £60000 per annum + Pension, Healthcare : Deerfoot IT Resources Limite...

    VB.NET and C# developer (VB.NET,C#,ASP.NET)

    £30000 - £45000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: VB.NET a...

    Visitor Experience volunteer

    Unpaid voluntary role: Old Royal Naval College: To assist the Visitor Experien...

    Telesales Manager. Paddington, London

    £45-£55k OTE £75k : Charter Selection: Major London International Fashion and ...

    Day In a Page

    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

    Meet the US Army's shooting star

    Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
    Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

    Take a good look while you can

    How climate change could wipe out this seal
    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

    Farewell, my lovely

    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
    Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

    Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

    Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

    John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
    Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

    Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

    The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
    The 10 best pedicure products

    Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

    Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

    Commonwealth Games 2014

    Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
    Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

    Jack Pitt-Brooke

    Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism
    How Terry Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

    How Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

    Over a hundred rugby league players have contacted clinic to deal with mental challenges of game