The Celtic Tiger years and the Irish financial meltdown, as seen through my eyes.
At the tail-end of 2004, while I was in sixth year, our school principle ordered us into to the GP room for a “chat.” To sum things up; he wasn’t happy. Our attendance was low and there was a general consensus amongst the teachers that we were not applying ourselves properly. During this meeting, our principle warned us that drastic improvements needed to be made. The gist of what he said was: “If you keep missing days, you’ll do poorly in the Leaving Cert and you won’t get into college.”
After he had finished speaking, he noticed that a couple of guys in the back were laughing amongst themselves. Immediately, he singled one of them out. “And what are you going to do when you finish school, Mr. Bloggs?” The student in question, who was clearly trying to prevent himself from laughing, quickly responded with “An apprenticeship, sir.” Our principle wasted little time in directing his attention to the next guy. “And you, Mr. Doe?” “An apprenticeship as well, sir.” “Do you think that you will just walk into an apprenticeship as soon as you finish school?” asked our principal, who seemed to be taken aback by the cockiness of the responses that he was receiving. “Yea, sir. Sure, it’s already lined up.”
In a way, the Celtic Tiger had eroded our principal’s power. I mean, how could he threaten us with a bleak future when we had all grown up during a period when you could find a job while crossing the street? Some of our peers had dropped out of school two years prior, and they seemed to be raking it in. We’d see apprentices driving by in their souped-up Honda Civics and we’d see our block-laying friends flashing wads of cash on pay day. Some of these 17-year-old lads were renting apartments and driving new-ish cars. It seems outlandish, but at the time, nobody really batted an eyelid. Many of the guys that I knew in 6th year had a construction-related apprenticeship waiting for them. After the boom times had ended, one of them told me that he remembers making €800 for two days work.
As the meeting with our principal was coming to an end, he began to adopt a more casual tone, almost as though he was making one last ditch effort to get through to us. It was during the final part of his speech that he issued us with a warning about the construction sector.
“Lads, it’s not going to last forever.”
A few years later, that sentence came back to me.
When the time came for me to choose what I wanted to do in college, “Construction Management” was at the top of my list. I mean, why not? I didn’t really have an interest in construction, but the Irish construction industry had been booming for years and I figured that I’d be a fool not to take advantage of it. I estimated that I’d be making €1000+ a week in no time. Maybe even more.
Fortunately for me, I decided to take a year out after I had finished school. I wanted to work for a year and save up a bit of money for college. I also wanted to take a break from academia, so to speak. Within a week or two of finishing school, I had found a job at a local furniture company. There, I helped to deliver king-sized mattresses, antique grandfather clocks and heavy recliner chairs. It was there that I got a sense of how people were actually living.
In many cases, we delivered furniture to young couples in their 20s and early 30s. More often than not, the guy had splatters of paint or plaster on his trousers – A sign that he was somehow involved in the construction industry. The houses were large and newly-built and they were often surrounded by spacious amounts of land. Multiple cars, jeeps and vans were parked in front of the house and they always seemed to have ordered more than what they actually needed. In a number of cases, we were filling entire houses with furniture. The perfectly-good furniture that was being replaced was often given to us so that we could take it away and throw it into the trash. Furniture seemed to be more of a status symbol than a utility. You’d be surprised by how many times we were asked to put a stylish €800+ recliner chair in the corner of an upstairs bedroom; a place where it would seldom be used.
Back in 2005, I was at a nightclub when an electrician came up to me on the edge of the dance floor. I knew the guy to see because he had been contracted to do work on a new multi-storey building that the owner of our company was constructing. He was absolutely hammered, to say the least, and I could barely make out what he was saying. Midway through his ramblings, he managed to blurt out “I’m f*cking loaded, man!” He then threw his arms up into the air, as if to celebrate. The Celtic Tiger was in full swing.
During my year out, my father managed to change my mind about taking up a course in Construction Management. He had been working in the construction sector for seven or eight years and he made it clear to me that it wouldn’t always “be this good.” In the lead up to my decision, I had also picked up a bit of an interest in computers. As you can imagine; in later years, I felt extremely lucky that I had been diverted away from such a course.
In the mid-2000s, Wexford, like most Irish towns, was teeming with builders. If you walked through the town centre during lunch time, you’d come across wave after wave of men in hi-vis vests. On a day with good weather, the Bullring, which had a seating area, was packed full of builders eating chicken rolls and whatnot; chatting and joking and soaking up the sunshine. The roads were packed with vans of sleepy construction workers and subcontractors. If you drove through the town at the crack of dawn, you’d see dozens of young men standing at the roadside, waiting for such a van to drive by and pick them up.
Back then, I remember how “knowing somebody” was still the best way to get yourself a job. The thing was, everyone knew a “friend of a friend” that had a position going. Employment was so low that a position could stay open for a couple of weeks before they managed to get somebody in to fill it. I knew a couple of “work-shy” people that would constantly float from one job to the next. They’d work for a couple of weeks before quitting, only to land in a new job somewhere else. This cycle continued, despite the fact that the employment history in their CV probably looked like some sort of monthly diary.
During this time, foreign holidays were the norm. It seemed like everyone was heading off to Ibiza or some sort of winter skiing holiday. Every summer, large groups of people were able to travel to somewhere in Spain for two weeks. If you didn’t have the cash on hand, the Credit Union was there to help you out. Sign a piece of paper and you were off to Tenerife in July with “the lads!” It is worth noting that it was also common for people to go on “shopping holidays” in New York City!
Everybody seemed to be getting loans for everything. Need a new laptop? Loan. Is your two-year-old car cramping your style? Loan. House too small? Sell up and get a big f*ck-off ignorant loan. It was utter madness! I knew a guy who took out €45K, just so he could buy a f*cking jeep! And he was working as a bloody laborer! All around the country, people were having willy-waving contests with one another. Purchasing large cars and building kitchen extensions. “Sure wouldn’t it be great if we had an out-house that guests could sleep in!”
While I was in college in 2006, the banks actually employed people to try and get students to sign up for credit cards! They would stand at strategic positions on the campus and flag you down as you were walking by. One of them asked me if I was interested in signing up and I declined. He asked “Why?” and I responded by telling him that it was basically a short term loan. “Fair enough”, he said as he shrugged his shoulders and walked off, eager to catch the next student that was sauntering by.
The Celtic Tiger dies.
I don’t really remember the beginning of the end, to be honest. I vaguely remember hearing reports about the housing market, but none of them really implanted themselves in my memory. People like me had only known the good times, so the idea that it could all to go to shit never really crossed our minds.
In the summer of 2008, my father told me that he and the rest of the men on his construction site had been laid off. The arse had fallen out of the housing market, so to speak, and the company that he had worked with for nearly a decade was forced to scale down its operations. It was at this time that I finally started to realise that things were starting to take a turn for the worse.
In September of 2008, I was in the college library listening to the radio on my Sony MP3 player when news about the bank guarantee began to break. To be honest, I didn’t really know if that was a good thing or not. I assumed that it was good, simply because the party that had made the decision were the same party that had presided over us throughout the good times. Or maybe I was just hoping that this would “fix” things. I know – Naive, right?
On a cold evening in December of 2008, I was doing some Christmas shopping in town. As I walked in and out of some of the shops, I realized that the radio stations were all talking about the same thing: Anglo Irish Bank. Even though I was only hearing bits and pieces, I could tell by the tone of the various voices that something had gone badly wrong. I took my MP3 player out of my pocket and switched on the radio station. Even the radio presenters seemed angry, as talk about hidden loans and a man called Seán FitzPatrick was being thrown about.
Looking back, I think that the busy Christmas shopping season kind of hid the problem from me. Yes, I knew that the construction industry was failing; however, shops and supermarkets seemed to be as busy as ever. At the time, I had a part-time job in Dunnes Stores, which has helping me pay my way through college. During the Christmas season, we were run off our feet, as shoppers ambushed us from all angles, demanding fresh organic turkeys and whatnot.
After Christmas had ended, it finally started to show. To say that the place was empty is an understatement. I had never seen a supermarket so devoid of people. You could stand there for five minutes without seeing somebody so much as walk by the aisle. It was a frightening thing to witness, as all of “this talk” of a recession was finally beginning to materialise.
2009 was an awful year as we were hit with wave after wave of bad news. Unemployment was rising. The debt situation was spiraling out of control. People’s hours were being cut. People were being laid off, austerity budgets were being introduced and people were emigrating at a ridiculous rate. Construction workers became an extremely scarce breed and the dole lines were becoming longer and longer. The guys that had left school to take up apprenticeships were now lining up at the social welfare office. Every week, you’d see an interest piece in the local paper about groups of friends banding together and heading off to Australia. Emigration made a lot of familiar faces disappear. Nowadays, I still come across people that I haven’t seen in 5+ years. The flashy cars also began to disappear, as the owners either sold them off or they were forced to give them back.
It was a rude awakening, to say the least (especially for those that had to change from construction to another field). I’m just lucky that I chose a career in software engineering and that I didn’t take out a mortgage at the height of the boom. Still, I kind of envy how easy it was for people to get onto the property ladder back then, as now, my partner and I are in a situation where we will need to rent and save for a number of years before the bank will even consider us. I suppose that’s how it should be and that I shouldn’t be using the Celtic Tiger years as a benchmark for anything finance-related!
Although we’re not completely out of the woods, things seem do seem to be improving. Anyone who thinks otherwise has forgotten what it was like to live in Ireland between 2008 and 2011. It was a systematic meltdown. A culture shock that rocked the country to its core. Nowadays, I see a lot more jobs being advertised. During the crash, the jobs page took up about a third of one page in the classifieds section. Nowadays, it takes up an entire page (on some weeks, it’s even a page and a half).
Last month, for the first time in over half a decade, I saw the entrance to a new estate that was being built. It was a strange sight. It had felt so long since I had last seen a building site for a new estate. Even the small cement mixer out front gave me a bit of nostalgia, of a time when everyone had a job and it seemed like we were all living in one big never-ending party.