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