John Lichfield: Our Man in Dublin

Despite predictions of gloom, there seems to be no end to Ireland's upward property spiral
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The Independent Online

Shrewsbury Road sounds, to British ears, like a leafy, suburban street of detached and semi-detached houses, dedicated to lawnmowers and the Daily Mail.

Shrewsbury Road, Dublin 4, is, indeed, a leafy, suburban street of very grand detached and semi-detached houses. One of them - "Walford", a seven-bedroomed, mock-tudor, red-brick 1902-built house with a vast garden - was sold this month for €58m. That works out at £39m or more than £5m per bedroom.

For that price you could buy 10 mansions in Bel Air, California, the favoured home of Hollywood film stars. The top-selling property in La-La land this year went for $6.3m (£3.6m).

For £39m, you could buy eight houses in Earl's Terrace, Kensington, officially the most expensive street in London last year.

Dublin is my wife's town. She and the children flee the tourist influx in Paris and spend July there. When I visited them, the principal subject of conversation and speculation among her family and friends was the €58m house in Shrewsbury Road.

Dublin property prices have risen into the stratosphere in the past 15 years. A million euros now buys you a small bungalow in a pleasant, unspectacular district. The boom in the Irish economy, the return of many wealthy emigrants from the US and Britain, and the shortage of large homes in a low-density, low-rise city have sent property into an endless upward spiral.

Shrewsbury Road has long been the most sought-after address in Dublin, traditionally the lair of senior lawyers and consultant doctors. On the Irish Monopoly board, Shrewsbury Road is the dark purple, high-rent space occupied by Mayfair in the British version of the game.

Even so, €58m for a seven-bedroomed house seems a little excessive. Who could have paid that much? And why?

Speculation turned at first to Bono and The Edge of U2 (unlikely, since both are happy living down the road on the beautiful hill of Killiney, sometimes now known as Bel Eire).

Rumours also linked the house to the businessman, Dermot Desmond (a major shareholder of Glasgow Celtic football club among other things). He lives on Aylesbury Road, Dublin 4, the second most expensive street in Ireland. He has denied any interest in moving around the corner to Shrewsbury Road.

Many people assume that the house must have been bought as a property speculation. "Walford" has an almost two-acre garden. Over the back fence lie the extensive playing fields of the Old Belvedere rugby club.

An avenue driven off Shrewsbury Road to a gated estate of vast mansions called, say "Shrewsbury Gardens", could repay €58m several times over. Would the new owner obtain planning permission? No, according to a well-connected Dublin source, who is also my wife.

When Margaret was growing up, several of her friends lived on Shrewsbury Road. She - and they - now look on goggle-eyed at the prices that the 20 or so houses on "the road" can command.

She is convinced the house was bought as a "trophy" by an Irish person who has made a fortune abroad. According to her own sources in the property business, and rumours in Irish newspapers, the proud owner of "Walford" may well be Michael Flatley, the man with the inexhaustible legs, the high-speed dancer and choreographer who helped to make the original success of River Dance. He has now created his own equally successful, touring show, Lord of the Dance.

In the 25 years that I have been visiting, Dublin has been transformed from a young, friendly, exciting, shabby city into a young, friendly, exciting, booming city. Even the north side of the river Liffey, still depressed a few years ago, is now filling up with Italian delis and specialist coffee bars.

Some Dubliners regret the changes. Many are struggling to keep up with the property boom. Others are struggling to take part in it. Dublin is full of ordinary-looking houses with two new BMWs in the driveway. There are not enough trophy houses to go around.

Despite constant predictions of doom, especially from north of the border, there seems to be no end to Ireland's economic success or the Dublin property spiral. A recent survey predicted that the best houses in Dublin would be worth €100m in 10 years' time. And that was before "Walford" sold for €58m.

Inspired insults

Visiting the centre of Dublin for the first time in three years, I inspected "the spire", the 300ft-high, tapering mast which was built on O'Connell Street in 2003.

The spire has - finally - replaced Nelson's Column, built in the days of British rule and dynamited by the IRA in 1966. O'Connell Street has never recovered, in looks or fortune, from the loss of its column. The broad, once fashionable, street has become increasingly dark and seedy in the past 40 years.

The spire, the tallest statue in the world, is meant to be the centre-piece of a revival. I thought that it looked wonderful: the perfect symbol for a booming city in a soaring country.

Dubliners, however, have invented a score of insulting names for the monument to their success. The printable ones, some referring to O'Connell Street's dismal reputation, include "the spire in the mire"; "the stiletto in the ghetto"; "the eyeful tower"; "the nail in the Pale"; "the pin in the bin"; "the erection by the intersection"; and - most recently - "the stiffy by the Liffey".

One for the road

The unsettling, surreal Dub sense of humour has, so far, survived the boom. A joke overheard in a Dublin bar: "A man walks into a pub with a lump of tarmac under his arm. He says: 'Pint please, and one for the road.'"