Noelle McCarthy

Noelle McCarthy is a Herald columnist

Noelle McCarthy: Beaten Celtic Tiger hanging on by its claws

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I am at home in Ireland, in the house where I grew up. A two-storey redbrick on an estate of houses on the north side of Cork City, across from the Apple computer factory on Blarney Rd.

I'm writing this column in my old bedroom, where I studied for my Leaving Certificate exams and listened to Smashing Pumpkins cassettes when I was 16 years old.

I'm back in my town, among my people, walking through my city, and it feels like how everything is suddenly stupidly tiny when you go back to your old classroom at school.

This isn't Ireland's fault, of course, it's a natural corollary of growing up.

I left here when I was 22. Nine years later, my perspective has shifted, and with it my view of my home. But if I have changed, that's not to say that my country hasn't, too.

What can I tell you about Ireland? What can I write that won't make me cry?

You've heard the worst already. The bubble burst; the tiger was de-clawed.

The shameful bailout, the swindles, the cynicism, the misplaced confidence, the future built on sand.

It took me 39 hours to get here and the last four hours were the worst.

That was the time I had at Heathrow, looking through the Irish Times and the Independent, reading about the disaster I was flying into, pages and pages of writers trying to figure out what happened to Eire - a collective journalistic reeling over a country broken into bits.

It wasn't just one thing, as far as I can tell. A self-reflexive kick at history by daring to wallow in success, plus a burning desire to believe our own press.

A spend-up, a bonanza, a spree. For a minute there, everything was possible, and everyone bought two.

Nothing was paid for anyway, that much has been established, least of all by white-collar kleptocrats in some of Ireland's banks. Ignorance met collusion in a moment of collective self-confidence as Ireland reared up and threw off the shackles of its past.

But we bought our future on credit, unfortunately, and now, amid the abandoned building sites and ghost estates, what we're learning is that it doesn't really matter what's for sale if nobody has the money to buy it.

I finished the last leg of my journey in ribbons on Monday, exhausted from travelling and from the hand-wringing op-eds in the Irish press. I put on a slick of lipstick in the toilets of Cork airport and walked out with nothing to declare.

The country waiting for me is as knackered as I am and as badly in need of a good wash. The change in energy is recent - you can still feel the pulse and the vitality of whatever collective frenzy went on before.

It's as though I've arrived at a party and everyone's just left by another door.

They've left their works behind them - the empty houses and half-built shopping centres that litter the countryside are physical manifestations of the economic hubris that sealed our fate.

Forgive me, I didn't intend to sound so fatalistic. It's probably the jet lag talking.

But I can't shake the feeling I've arrived in the wake of some sort of national paroxysm or recent natural disaster. I know the comparison may be tactless, given what Christchurch has been through in the last month, but that is how it looks and feels.

Last night I walked down one of the most magisterial streets in Cork, the venerable Grand Parade. Past the City Library and the lovely old fountain, and the tucked-away greenery of Bishop Lucey Park.

And it seemed like I was teetering between the past of my memories and a nightmarish future wherein my home is turned to dust.

There were the landmarks of my childhood, and the shops, bars and restaurants I grew up with, some thriving, some abandoned and empty, the buildings rotting where they stood.

A new cafe, all glass and gleaming wood beside the Capitol Cineplex, a cinema that was once a Cork landmark, the place where I saw Ghostbusters, now stands with its eyes poked out.

At least she's still standing: two of my favourite restaurants have simply disappeared without trace.

It is as though a mighty wind has swept through this town and only some of the inhabitants have weathered the storm. What's gone is gone, and what's hanging on is hanging by a thread.

The new stuff is bold and looks beautiful but whatever spirit built it is long gone. It remains to be seen whether this new generation of buildings and people have what it takes to stay put.

For now, though, through these eyes, it seems like Ireland is beaten and blasted but raggedly, defiantly, hanging on.

- NZ Herald

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