Ghost Developments Research Sketches [1]

What follows is a series of research sketches, avenues, questions and ideas. The post is intended to be fairly open-ended as many of these research interests are in their infancy and will be built-upon or continue to be addressed in future posts.

 

battery court demolition edit

 

 

Following the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, Ireland experienced one of the worst property collapses in recorded history[1].  In the subsequent years, unfinished housing estates- popularly referred to as ‘ghost estates’- became one of the central visual tropes through which the economic crash was represented in Ireland[2]. Newspapers and TV reports abounded with stark images of empty, half built or shells of houses through-out the Republic of Ireland. However, in recent years we seem to have become remarkable demur about these spaces- I would argue that a kind of collective amnesia has taken hold of the wider public, or at least a very blind eye has been turned towards the high rates of property vacancy. That said, in the last year there appears to a conscious shift in political and economic discourse on housing in a wider sense in the country. Many will be aware that Dublin is experiencing a renewed property crisis, this time round in the guise of a housing shortage in the capital- coupled of course with rising rents and house prices, and huge profits being amassed by those that benefit from property speculation[3].  Although the government has recently introduced mortgage lending control legislation, no attempt has been made to tackle the issue of rent controls in the country. The problem of the lack of social housing has been raised by a number of academic and social organisations, particular by those researchers attached to NIRSA (National Institute for Regional and Spatial Analysis),  however this has not as of yet had a significant impact on Government social policy. Furthermore, the issue of ‘ghost estates’ is again topical, with a number of the more spectacular of that phenomenon currently cited for demolition.

 

 

Witness the recent demolition of the unfinished section of Battery Court in Longford. This housing estate became notorious by media exposure a few years back (indeed I have written about it myself as part of a previous project)[4]. Of the houses completed, 75% remain vacant. Work has just completed on the demolition of 32 units, by far the largest demolition project of its kind thus far carried out in the region. Despite its infamy, Battery Court can hardly be described as the most extreme example of an unfinished housing estate; it does at the very least have signs of life, a small population, and given its location in Longford Town, it is close to services and amenities. The logic behind the recent demolition of 8 units at Slí Corglass in North Longford is no doubt attributable to its isolated setting, however Battery Court suffers from no such disadvantages. Perhaps the most proffered excuse of ‘health and safety’, or its happy bedfellow ‘anti-social behaviour’ are at the root of the decision to demolish Battery Court unfinished units. Had completion of these units been proposed as an alternative to demolition?

 

screenshot

 

For many this news will be a welcome development. From the brief article cited below[5] the notion that the unfinished units are ‘an eyesore’ appears to be central to why there destruction has been so enthusiastically received. But perhaps there is a hidden agenda playing into the demolition project as it stands, and the reported attitudes of the ‘general public’ towards ghost estates. Unfinished housing estates not only represent economic crisis and are a persistent physical reminder of economic, planning and personal accumulative folly, they consequently stand in the way of efforts to talk Ireland back into recovery. People don’t want to be reminded of what went wrong, but if we have no means provoking reflection then the chances we will allow it to happen again are distinctly probable. We have not allowed Irish subjectivities the temporal capacity for understanding these spaces as material, affective, sensory, spatial or ephemeral environments. Could we begin to see them as experimental spaces for exploring our relationship with our built and natural environments, for sparking a national discourse on the uses of space in Ireland, and as a means to question why in Ireland there is an over-reliance of private accumulation of property as the sole legitimate form of dwelling in the country?

 

Similarly, there has been since the start of the year a distinctive trumpeting of economic recovery emanating from certain quarters, chief among them the Coalition government. Increased tax revenue, new job announcements, a decrease in numbers on the live register, escalating property prices, improvements in retail sales and a general air of optimism among the entrepreneurial classes embolden this positive reportage. However it is worth sounding a few cautionary notes here. To wax lyrical about increased tax revenue for the State is to ignore the huge tax net the Exchequer misses out on by the government stridently gripping onto the absurdly low Corporate Tax rate of 12.5%, and that a substantial section of Ireland’s ruling elite do not pay tax in this country. The live register needs to be qualified and quantified against the emigration rates to have any real significance as a statistic. A lot of these positive developments, such a new international investment in job creation and healthy retail figures, are notable only in large urban areas such as Dublin and Cork.  If Ireland is currently in ‘recovery’ then it is an extremely uneven recovery with a definite region disparity. Rural areas such as Longford, Leitrim or Cavan continue to record disproportionally high rates of unemployment, property vacancy, thinning demographics and almost weekly closures of businesses.  Furthermore, this uneven recovery, economic and geographical disparity continues to impact on two groups most substantially- the young and the poor.

 

The impact on the built environment of rural Irish towns is likewise significant. Interestingly there has not been a wide ranging discussion or focus on the abundance of vacant commercial property throughout the country. Perhaps housing gains more media and public traction over the physical structures that house business because as ‘homes’ they are instinctively linked with the human and non-human need to dwell. But it seems strange that commercial property vacancy has not registered in the popular imagination giving the scale of some of these developments (vacant commercial property has not enumerated to date, whereas vacant housing stock was quantified under the 2011 Census).  A casual itinerary of Longford’s rental units and office spaces I conducted a few weeks back revealed at least one third of structures were out of business, unoccupied and vacant- many it appeared to be for quite some time now. This feature is not unique to Longford, a similar pattern is observable in New Ross, Carrick-on-Shannon, Cavan, Monastervan, Nenagh, Donegal town etc etc.  Naturally there are many factors that contribute to this- the buying power of large multinational supermarkets and franchise business over local independent traders, a move by the consumer towards internet shopping, the social influence of branding, and quite importantly, town planning that facilitated out of town rezoning of land to build retail units and the accompanying dominance of the car.

 

Rural town centres such as Longford town are strangely airless and skeletal in form, whilst the former green zones surrounding the towns have expanded to reveal lifeless, highly branded and inhospitable spaces. The anthropologist Marc Augé would likely describe these as ‘non-places’. For Augé, ‘non-places’ are the spaces of ‘supermodernity’, a sort of post-modern notion of the reduction of place to series of homogenised, corporatised and internationalised codes, signs, symbols and functions that mitigate against the local, cultural and historical. As Augé states  ‘If a place can be defined as relational, historical and concerned with identity, then a space which cannot not be defined as relational, or historical, or concerned with identity will be a non-place’.  Certainly the uniformity of some of these out-of-town retail and light industrial zones suggest the ahistorical, and in relation to identity they detach from the place names that provide them their homes in favour of the Globalised, the branded, the homogeneity of consumer capitalism- that the ‘consumer’ begins to replace the ‘citizen’ in later capitalism. However, the place name has always had an intense articulation in the formation of Irish identities, local or national. The human geographer Patrick J O’Conner points out that there are 62205 townlands in Ireland[6], an extraordinary tapestry and cacophony names, places, narratives and identities quite incomparable to anywhere else in the world.  This alone renders the notion of non-place a difficult sell in Ireland, and notwithstanding the generic visual language of these spaces and their bow to consumer capitalism and ‘supermodernity’, could it be that the place names they sit upon and the vacancy that blights them offer a route to transform these structures into lived spaces concerned with history and formation of [new?] identities? As Augé contends- ‘Place and non-place are like opposed polarities: the first is never completely erased, the second never totally completed; they are like palimpsests on which the scrambled game of identity and relations is ceaselessly rewritten’.

 

Readings 

For more on the concept of ‘non-place’ see Marc Augé (1995, Verso) Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity’ .

 

 

IMG_1050 copy

 

Single-Standing housing and the social aesthetics of Rural Ireland

Notwithstanding unfinished housing estates situated in poorly serviced and far-flung rural areas, or the exurbia of light industrial units and retail showrooms, the Irish policy body and public organs of discourse have over the last two decades blindly ignored the contentious issue of single-standing houses in rural areas. The NIRSA researcher Gavin Daly is one of the few social analysts to have highlighted the various socially detrimental impacts of a rural spatial planning policy by which county councils continue to grant planning permission to often quite large single standing dwellings (and indeed most of these houses are notable by their considerable size, very few people appear to have built bungalows since the dawn of the Celtic Tiger). It is common in Ireland for anyone critical of this spatial policy to be immediately dismissed as ‘anti-rural’, as a urban misanthrope who wishes to deny the common rural person their primordial right to the land. However, such an analysis can  ‘offer the counter-narrative that, far from maintaining local populations or providing an economic stimulus, it is in fact settlement dispersal which is a key driver of rural economic decline, out-migration, housing vacancy, isolation, higher costs for rural families and the under-provision of critical infrastructure, employment opportunities and public services, particularly in peripheral rural regions’. Furthermore, as Daly states,  ‘[t]o date there has been no acknowledgement whatsoever that rural Ireland is a finite, congested and contested space where multiple sectoral policies are operating at cross-purposes and which simply cannot continue to accommodate the competing demands being placed upon it’.  But is there also an aesthetic issue with the over-abundance of single-standing houses littering the landscape, that one’s vantage point of the sparse is constantly ruptured by these generic, often mock Georgian structures, which contribute to a spatial incongruity that collapses the divide between urban, rural and suburban?

 

The British architectural critic Owen Hathersley commented of the British countryside, that in contrast to the much propagated myth the Britain is filling up (presumably with unwanted migrants), the English landscape is very sparsely populated. Here the huge concentrations of populations, particularly in the formerly heavily industrialised Northwest region of the country is complimented by rural cluster settlements around villages and small towns that rarely spill over into rural landmass proper. This is likely a result of historical migrations towards industrial centres and a conservative attitude towards maintaining the ‘natural’ shape of the countryside. As Ireland did not experience significant industrialisation, with the exception of heavily industrialised Belfast, perhaps a different notion of space, land and how the countryside should be maintained accrues.  Irish post-colonial theorists often point to the discontinuity of Irish historical development (colonisation, rebellion, displacements, bloody conflict), contending that British experience is historically framed around continuity of institutions and cultural development.  I feel that this analysis of Britain ignores the massive shifts in social reproduction and population displacements that followed land enclosures, the removal of the commons and cotter ways of life, the emergence of the industrial revolution that saw mass migrations from rural to urban environments, and the many popular struggles and social movements that sought to resist these processes, the most notable of which are likely the Luddites. Perhaps I am delving too far into the comparable, contrasting or indeed shared histories of both nations to ponder what is essentially a relatively recent development in how rural planning and maintenance of the countryside gather social importance. That said it might to useful in this regard to look at how the ‘Picturesque’ movement emerged in 18th century as movement of social aesthetics. As art historian Christopher Woodward noted

“The Picturesque…had such profound influence in eighteenth-century England…because it was an artistic expression of the new ‘philosophy of associations’. At the beginning of the century beauty was judged by classical rules, and architectural design was based upon certain mathematical proportions. Perfect beauty was considered to be an objective quality…The Picturesque was the first aesthetic to suggest that beauty could be subjective, translating to the visual arts the mind works by the association of accumulated memories’

In this aesthetic construction the valorisation of ruined abbeys, thatched cottages, ivy covered walls and other figments of a self-conscious recreation of the archaically rural through which the imagined history of the countryside- the ‘accumulated memories’ of scholars, artists and architect’s visions of the past- became a mechanism for the safeguarding of the landscape against rampant overdevelopment at the heights of industrialisation[7].  Perhaps Ireland, due to its colonial history, has not experienced an equal aesthetic influence of the Picturesque, notwithstanding the cultural nationalism romanticised gaze towards the West and the idyllic works of early 20th Century painters such as those of Paul Henry and some of the early works of Sean Keating and Jack Yeats.  In the post-Independence period, the reification of the West of Ireland as the embodiment of the Gaelic and Celtic nation, had places such as Longford been looked past and therefore increasingly marginalised in the Grand National Narrative? The colonial military and economic strategic importance of Longford pre-independence may have in the long-term been its Achilles Heel- in the eyes of planters, loyalists and the colonial administration the last outpost of civilisation, in a newly independent Ireland a place one needed to look beyond to engage a political and cultural aesthetic of true ‘Irishness’.

Readings

 

Gavin Daly’s analysis of single standing housing can be found here: https://irelandafternama.wordpress.com/2013/10/26/counting-the-cost-of-rurban-ireland/

Owen Hatherley’s A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britian (2010, Verso) is an excellent, sardonic account of post-New Labour architectural Britain.

For more on the ‘Picturesque’, the asethetics of and artistic fascination with ruins see Christopher Woodward’s In Ruins (2002, Vintage).

Fionna Barber’s Art in Ireland since 1910 (2013, Reaktion books) provides a great overview of art and cultural nationalism.

 

Why are the Irish so attached to Private Property?

In discussing the property crisis, Fintan O’Toole makes the following statement: ‘The Irish obsession with having a secure home rooted in a history of eviction and displacement- meant that the desire to own one’s own house remained stronger than in other countries’ (my italics).  O’Toole does supply statistical evidence to support the higher degree of home-ownership in the Republic in comparison to other countries. However, given that this is an oft-delivered declaration in Irish public discourse, the historical basis for such assertions require unpacking. What factors other than eviction and displacement (surely a historical legacy in many nations) forge the Irish ‘obsession’ with home-ownership? What was the relationship to private property in Ireland prior to conquest and subjugation by the English, presumably the source of the evictions and displacements O’Toole cites? Is there any evidence to support a counter narrative to this statement, an alternative history of communalist projects, or have the Irish always been solely property obsessed?

Without attempting to labour an alternative communalist history of Ireland in this short space, it may be salient to point to a number of counter examples of a narrative of Irish attachment to land as private interest. Although there remains dispute as to the actual communal quality of Brehon Law as a system of social organisation in pre-Colonised Ireland, the considerable heterogeneity of this legal and social system in application throughout Ireland suggests the possibility of communal forms of land distribution and tenure. Two contrasting viewpoints on Brehon Law’s communalist, or lack thereof, character is evidenced in the accounts presented in Anglo-Irish historian Patrick Joyce A Social History of Ancient Ireland (1906Brehon Law as highly communalist in nature), and that of conservative historian and Free State Ireland establishment figure Eoin MacNeill’s  “The Law of Status or Franchise”, Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy, 36 C (1923- here arguing Brehon Law as an elaborate system of property management).  Both accounts are interesting for their near contemporaneity, as a means of analysing the external economic and social contingencies that such differing accounts serve to reinforce, whether revolutionary or statist.  Regional variation of social practice continuing into colonial periods, and indeed surpassing the periods of land enclosures that began in the late 17thcentury, have posed considerable problems for historical accounts of Ireland’s agricultural and land issues. Take for instance the communal agricultural ‘rundale’ system.  The NIRSA based sociologist Eoin Flaherty accounts for a significant degree of pre-Famine communalist, subsistence tillage farming based primarily in the peripheral regions of Northwest Ireland.  Utilising ‘the interdisciplinary rubrics of resilience ecology and complexity theory’, Flaherty’s study accounts for the ecological constraints, local economic factors, and distinct typological and topological variations that separated regional agricultural process in pre-Famine Ireland. If it is unclear the degree to which the ‘rundale’ was a system of cultivation of great antiquity, its very existence is evidence of the heterogeneity of Irish social reproduction.

 

Further complicating straight-forward readings of Irish attachments to private property as a result of colonial displacement are the histories of agrarian secret societies or redresser movements such as The Whiteboys or The Ribbonmen in the late 18th and early 19th century.  Whilst not structurally politicised or ideologically determinant in the sense that the evolving constitutional and political nationalist movements were, redresser movements were thought to be specifically opposed to processes of enclosure, the replacement of tillage farming with livestock intensive agriculture, and the collection of tithes by landlords or their agents. In terms of the regional relevance of agrarian secret societies to my own research, I have been reviewing the Outrage Reports at the National Archives- RIC reports and accounts of land disturbances from 1835-57- which record very high instances of redresser activity in County Longford pre-Famine.  The most notable body of activity is attributed to that of the Captain Rock and the Rockites, an infamous millenarian secret society that engaged in a kind of agrarian economic sabotage, or what could be called ‘Direct Action’ in contemporary parlance. Interestingly and somewhat unusually for Redresser movements, in the context of late 1830’s Longford, Rockite activity appears to have a distinct political edge in that much of the sabotage, retaliations and intimidations were directed at those who voted for the then Tory election candidate Charles Fox.

 

Regarding the last century of Irish struggle for and eventual independence a number of fascinating historical incidents and contexts are worth drawing attention to. For instance, one can point to the Limerick Soviet of 1919 or the activities of Jim Gralton in the early 1930s in Leitrim, whose story was recently reproduced in Ken Loach’s 2014 film Jimmy’s Hall.  Another fascinating and little discussed communalist history is that of the Dublin Housing Action Committee (DHAC), active in the late 1960s Dublin and comprising of a loose amalgamation of Troksyists, left-wing Sinn Fein, Feminists and independent militants, this organisation mobilised for mass-squatting campaigns of Georgian inner city Dublin in defence of tenant rights. It also existed in the context of the Lemass governments modernising policies which directly lead to increased property speculation in the capital, a for its time considerable property bubble and subsequent housing crisis in suburban Dublin, and what was for many, the wilful destruction of the Georgian architectural heritage of the city. They also produced images, such as the one below, which were to prove prophetic, for it was much of Georgian Dublin that would in the future be subsumed by successive property bubbles and the undermining of working-class communities to build the Irish Financial Services Centre (IFSC) [8]– a source of much of Ireland’s current economic woes.

 

DHAC image

 

 

Another brief note in regards the uniqueness of Irish attachment to housing as a form of private property. Britain is another nation that records significant degrees of, or at least a social emphasis on home-ownership- particularly evident after the Thatcher government’s policies of ‘right to buy’ that sought to ideologically break with previous post-war social housing programmes. It is interesting to note in drawing comparisons between state policies on housing in Britain and Ireland, that the Lemass government in 1966 introduced legislation which allowed tenants to purchase local authority social housing, essentially a policy of privatising of social housing, anticipating Thatcherism by well over a decade. In contrasting the experience of housing in Britain and Ireland it’s fascinating to question whether  contemporary Ireland lacks a developed or extensive history of social or communalist movements for alternative dwelling much evident in Britain in the form of housing co-operatives or squatting, and if so what are the reasons for this underdevelopment?  Furthermore, such political or social movements have acted until recently as an ideological and practical anchor against rampant private accumulation, although it is worth noting that, at least in respect of the British context, these movements’ social purchase has been eroded significantly with the onslaught of unfettered neo-liberalism and city planning geared towards regeneration/gentrification.

 

Readings

The quote above is from Fintan O’Toole rigorous account of the follies of the Celtic Tiger Ship of Fools: How Stupidity and Corruption Sank the Celtic Tiger (2009, Faber & Faber)

You can read Eoin Flaherty’s article on the Rundale System here: http://www.maynoothuniversity.ie/nirsa/?page_id=63

For reading on agrarian secret societies see David Lloyd’s Anomalous State (1993, Lilliput Press) ch: ‘Violence and the constitution of the novel’ pp. 125- 155,  Kevin Whelan’s The Tree of Liberty: Radicalism, Catholicism and the construction of Irish identity 1760-1830 (1995, University of Cork Press), and James S. Donnelly Jr’s Captain Rock: the Irish agrarian rebellion of 1821–1824 (2010, The Collins Press), which unfortunately neither deals with the decade before the famine or Captain Rock activity in Longford.

For further reading on the Dublin Housing Action see here: http://www.wsm.ie/c/squatting-politics-dublin-housing-action-committee

Conor McCabe’s Sins of the Father: Tracing the Decisions That Shaped the Irish Economy (2011, The History Press) provides a thorough and insightful account into not only social housing in Ireland, but also the history of regressive economic policy and the emergence of a specific Irish ruling elite whose activities would have a seismic effect on Ireland’s current economic situation. Pat Collin’s excellent essay-film Living in a Coded Land (2014, Harvest Films) deals in part with similar issues. 

 

Footnotes

[1] See Kirby, P (2010), Clarke, B &Hardiman, N (2012). Also cited by a number of press outlets, see :

http://www.independent.ie/business/personal-finance/property-mortgages/property-crash-wipes-257bn-off-

value-of-homes-in-six-years-29166104.html and http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-03-18/irish-

foreclosure-wave-risks-housing-recovery-mortgages.html

[2] See Kitchen R, O’Callaghan C & Gleeson J (2012) ‘Unfinished Estates in post-Celtic Tiger Ireland’ NIRSA

Working Papers Series 67, University of Maynooth

[3] http://www.irishtimes.com/business/personal-finance/number-of-irish-millionaires-hits-90-000-as-property-prices-surge-1.1971419 Please be aware that Irish Times articles require subscription if you wish to view them a number of months after publication, they can however be accessed through Ireland’s public library system. Apologies to international researchers.

[4] See https://castlesbuiltinsand.wordpress.com/ghosts-and-the-machine/

[5] http://www.longfordleader.ie/news/business/bulldozers-sent-in-to-local-estate-1-6426260

[6] See Pat Collin’s documentary film ‘What we leave in our Wake’ (2010) Harvest Films

[7] It’s also worth noting how the rural planning policies of the post war Labour government were thought by some to negatively impact on the social aesthetics of the British countryside. Particularly relevant in this regard is the early work of architectural commentator and writer Ian Nain and his ideas of Subtopia. See Outrage: On the Disfigurement of Town and Countryside (Architectural Review special 1955; book: 1959)

[8] For an interesting reading on this matter, see this unpublished thesis on the history of the development, the consequence for its surroundings and the process of ‘new-built gentrification’ of which the IFSC is a fitting example: http://igitur-archive.library.uu.nl/student-theses/2011-0805-200738/Master%20Thesis%201.pdf

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