This is a difficult time for Ireland, as it reels from an ongoing economic crisis and struggles to find political and financial equilibrium. In 2011, the country's government collapsed and a new government was elected quickly, but the Irish are clearly worried about where they're headed. A complex, small country with a deeply troubled past, Ireland is rich with history, beauty, and life. Troubled though these days are, this is a fascinating time to visit and see Ireland in transition.
The Irish boom economy of the late 1990s changed the country monumentally -- resulting in an unprecedented spread of unbelievable wealth and a huge amount of property development. The excess associated with the boom -- business executives flying from Dublin to Galway in their private helicopters for lunch at a particularly good oyster bar, for example, and small apartments in Dublin selling for millions of euro -- always seemed unsustainable. And so it was. As suddenly as the boom started, it ended. Over the course of a few weeks in 2008, the economy crashed, sending the country into an economic and political tailspin. Ireland's banks were faced with €8 billion worth of bad loans. In a country with only four million residents, that's a catastrophe. The economy continued its freefall in 2009 and 2010. Property prices in Dublin tumbled by 50% over the course of just 18 months. In 2011, the government that led the country into the economic disaster, resigned.
This all came as a shock to the Irish, who, after more than 15 years of European investment, had begun to believe their newfound affluence would last forever. As recently as 2007, the country was still pouring money into infrastructure -- expanding Dublin's tram system, building new government offices and improving the national transportation system. The chatter of jackhammers formed a constant aural background in nearly every town in the Republic, and the dump truck seemed to be the national symbol of Ireland, as the huge vehicles trundled along by the dozen, carrying tons of gravel and sand to be used laying new roads and building new neighborhoods. But there was little sense to Ireland's growth mania as construction far outpaced demand. Entire subdivisions were built with nobody to live in them -- thousands of new homes sat empty. Developers gambling on future growth built shining new ghost towns. At the same time, property prices were so high, families crowded into tiny two-bedroom apartments, and parents commuted long distances to work in city centers where they couldn't afford to live.
Now, it seems, birdsong is returning to Ireland. But it is a changed country -- littered with unneeded subdivisions and apartment complexes, dotted with soulless glass office buildings. For a while, property prices made many Irish people millionaires -- at least, on paper. Now the plunging prices have left millions of families in negative equity. The crash was so sudden, tales spread of people driving to unemployment offices in €30,000 sports cars.
At the same time, the peace that had held in the North since 1998 was shattered in 2009 by a series of brutal sectarian murders in the North. In the subsequent years, low-level violence has continued. An IRA splinter group opposed to the peace agreement calling itself "the Real IRA" claimed responsibility for most of the attacks, and several people have been arrested. Although the violence was nowhere near the levels experienced in the 1970s, it still sent a shiver down the spine of those living in both the Republic and the North, as they remembered how fragile peace can be on this island. Even before the recent outbreak, this was always the kind of place where you looked over your shoulder when you talked, even in the most inoffensive terms, about religion or politics.
In 2011, with a new government, and Enda Kenny as new taoiseach, or prime minister, the Irish hoped to put the economic nightmare behind them. Experts think the process could take years, though. Possibly decades. And Ireland may never be as wealthy as it was for a few short years during the boom. But it will survive. It has been through worse.
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