“If you build it, they will come.” The iconic quote from the film Field of Dreams seems like a rebuke to Ireland’s misguided builders and planners as the depressing sight of rows of newly built empty houses – windows broken and doors flapping in the wind – stretch out in the distance.
I’d come to Co Leitrim, in the west of Ireland, to see for myself the so-called ghost housing estates that first came to the public’s attention four years ago as the Celtic Tiger collapsed leaving thousands of developers bankrupt and projects half finished. Surely in four years, something would have been done about this national embarrassment – so obvious a sign of the demise of Ireland’s once envied economy?
But endless talk of charity schemes buying over the developments to house Ireland’s sizeable homeless population , huge price cuts to entice buyers or even demolition have come to nothing as thousands of houses once commanding price tags of over E250,000 still lie empty. The only solution that seems to have been put into action is fencing off the estates – hiding the embarrassing problem behind huge hoardings – leaving the houses to crumble into disrepair away from the gaze of despairing neighbours who paid full price for an identical house just 200 yards away.
But it’s the sheer scale of the problem that beggars belief. Hardly a town or village in Leitrim – the least populated county in Ireland and the worst affected by the over-enthusiastic builders – has been untouched. Pretty lakeside villages with perhaps just 200 residents now have 50 empty ‘dream homes’ in new developments where fading advertising signs boast of private moorings and roof gardens. Larger market towns have row upon row of once smart new town houses – clearly built with the upwardly mobile commuters who were supposed to move to the countryside as part of the government’s largely ignored decentralisation project – now with brambles growing over the gardens, potholed roads unfinished and adorned with graffiti by the kids who use them as drinking dens.
Impressive holiday homes with ‘stunning sea views’ lie vacant with at most one unlucky tenant sharing their ghost street with long abandoned builder’s rubble and broken advertising hoardings banging in the wind at night keeping them awake.
Surprisingly many of the houses aren’t even for sale any more – even if a buyer could be found in the precarious Irish financial market.