There’s a reason that “Was it for this?” remains one of WB Yeats’s most recited fragments of poetry in Ireland. The line comes from Yeats’s September 1913, which poured scorn on how the greed and hypocrisies of the business class had replaced the romanticism of previous Irish generations.
Ireland’s modern dismay, however, is at rampant and growing inequality, and the way in which its cities and cultural spaces are being hollowed out by speculation, gentrification, poor or absent planning and squandered opportunities.
After five years of what could justifiably be called social revolution in Ireland, the cliche is that the country responded uniquely to the crippling austerity that followed the 2008 financial crash, not with anti-immigrant populism but with progressive politics.
Protest movements and grassroots campaigning, much of it driven by young people, resulted in landmark referendums that had a global impact, with Ireland legislating for marriage equality and overturning a ban on abortion. But this much-needed social progress is now serving as a veneer to mask harsh neoliberal economic policies and political myopia.
The most urgent crisis is housing. More than 10,000 people were homeless and using emergency accommodation in Ireland at the end of August. This does not include the many hidden homeless, such as people sleeping on couches in friends’ houses, or indeed rough sleeping. Focus Ireland, a leading homelessness charity, has said that when Leo Varadkar’s conservative Fine Gael party came to power in 2011, eight families were becoming homeless every month. Now that figure is 90 families a month. It may be staggering to read this, but the increase in the number of families becoming homeless each month in Ireland over the past eight years is 1,000%. Social housing spending was cut by 72% between 2008-2012, and we are now reaping the consequences of that.
Things are being built, but not for people to live in. Hotels are flying up around Dublin city centre, to the point that city councillors recently voted (albeit symbolically) to curb hotel construction in response to the erosion of cultural life. Dublin does indeed have a shortage of hotel beds, but there is a sense that tourists, not people in need of permanent accommodation, are being prioritised. The same goes for the proliferation of high-end, purpose-built student accommodation buildings. Not only have such developments been mostly in working-class areas of the city, they are aimed at wealthier international students who can afford €1,000 a month for a room.
People who are feeling hit by this squeeze can at least rest assured that what they’re feeling is real rather than existential dread. According to a cost of living study by the pay and pensions specialist, Mercer, Dublin is the most expensive city to live in the eurozone, ahead of Milan and Paris.
Many young people and those working in the arts are waking up in a capital that feels actively hostile to their wishes and needs. Rent is Dublin is now on average 36% higher than it was at the peak of the Celtic Tiger boom a decade ago. Meanwhile, developer-led planning decisions are steamrollered through, leading to the demolition and closure of edgier cultural spaces to make way for homogenised newness.
Ten years on from a property crash that pushed Ireland into financial collapse, the Dublin skyline is again filled with cranes, and we are in an era of global investors, corporate landlords, cuckoo funds, real estate investment trusts for whom maximum profit per square metre is the modus operandi, and a rental market skewed by the presence of global tech companies headquartered in Ireland (one Irish property developer recently offered Google first dibs on 1,000 new apartments). And then there’s Brexit, which on the one hand has created its own property boom as Dublin becomes the top EU destination for firms fleeing London, but on the other threatens an economic impact that is uncertain but won’t be pretty.
Meanwhile the development and demolition that is altering streetscapes has had a massive impact on cultural and creative spaces. Several large clubs have closed and been demolished, but the saddest and perhaps most symbolic is the ranshackle but much-loved Bernard Shaw pub, which is set to shut at the end of October. This venue was seen as a cultural outpost in a neighbourhood now bookended by WeWork office buildings. Such closures aren’t just about venues or dancefloors, they’re also about the sidelining of communities that have emerged from such places: young, music and art-focused.
Art is still thriving in Dublin, but it feels in opposition to the city rather than enabled by it. The expensive bars, restaurants and multimillion-euro fit-outs that are new feel conservative, suburban and generic. Some artists and those working in creative fields who survived the recession are now leaving the city for places such as Berlin, in what the novelist Kevin Barry calls a “cultural brain-drain”.
The scramble to stop what’s happening may be largely fruitless. Fixing or even alleviating the housing crisis would require an ideological shift that the governing party is never going to make.
Sporadic housing protests and occupations of buildings have somewhat dissipated, and there’s a palpable sense of exhaustion among people who formed movements and fought for social change. The fuel in the tank is depleting. A generation of young, creative Irish people who embraced the potential for change, and set about moulding the financially battered republic into a progressive one, may now wonder who gets to enjoy those spoils.
• Una Mullally is a columnist for the Irish Times, and editor of Repeal the 8th, an anthology of writing about reproductive rights in Ireland