Housing Market Drives Ireland's Economy Lower

Ireland's economy appears to be in recession. Part of the problem could be that housing prices have dropped dramatically. The hard times are hurting the Irish and migrants from Europe.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The economy of Ireland roared so much for the past decade or so that it got its own nickname, the Celtic Tiger. Now the tiger is dead, or at least dying, or sick. There are plenty of figures to document Ireland's decline, and we asked NPR's Rob Gifford to go out on the streets of Dublin to find out what it all means for Ireland's people.

ROB GIFFORD: It's just a normal evening scene on Grafton Street in central Dublin, a band of musicians playing Irish music.

(Soundbite of Irish music)

GIFFORD: The musicians here are not Irish, they're Polish. Ireland which was once one of the largest net exporters of people to the world has in the last 10 years been importing thousands of economic migrants from Europe and beyond to work during the boom, people like 24-year-old violinist Mijao Cheshluc(ph) who is a lawyer by day, but plays music on the streets in the evening to earn extra cash.

Mr. MIJAO CHESHLUC (Polish Violinist & Lawyer): Better before, better before. At the moment it's recession. We see this. One year ago we have better money. And this year it's very hard to make any money.

GIFFORD: So hard in fact that Cheshluc says he's returning to Poland tomorrow, and that may be it for him in Ireland after three and a half years. And he says he's not the only one.

Mr. CHESHLUC: Maybe 90 percent of my friends come back to Poland in the last two or three months. Ireland is finished very nearly, I think. One year, maybe not finished for good, and finished for long time.

GIFFORD: That's essentially what the economists are forecasting too, a recession quite likely longer than in the U.S. or the rest of Europe. Now the Celtic Tiger has a new feline nickname. In honor of the famously sluggish cartoon cat, some here are calling Ireland the Celtic Garfield. And it's not just the immigrants being hit.

Mr. ANTHONY FITZGERALD(ph) (Irish Taxi Driver): In financial terms I am down approximately 300 to 350 euros a week.

GIFFORD: That's about 400 to 450 dollars a week. And that's Anthony Fitzgerald who's been driving a taxi in Dublin for 15 years. He's upped his shifts to 12 hours a day, six days a week to make ends meet. What Fitzgerald has given up in his life shows something of just how serious the Irish situation has become.

Mr. FITZGERALD: I've actually given up the drink. Would you believe that? I don't go out anymore. And my few pints of Guinness that I loved. Yeah, that's bad. That is bad.

GIFFORD: And after years of boom, his family has cut back too.

Mr. FITZGERALD: I've two daughters, and they - and our mother and friends and relations all went to New York last year. And I suppose it was a group of 25 or so, and they would have been spending, I suppose, roughly $2,000 on shopping, Christmas shopping, yeah. They were in Macy's I think for two days at one stage. But yeah, that didn't go on - that's not going on this year.

GIFFORD: Perhaps the biggest problems in Ireland, as in the U.S., have been caused by a massive crash in the housing market.

(Soundbite of knocking)

Unidentified Man: Hi.

Ms. NOLA GNILEDECH(ph)(Irish Freelance Documentary Maker): Hi, how is it going? Come on up.

Unidentified Man: Thank you very much.

GIFFORD: Thirty-two-year old Nola Gniledech is a freelance TV documentary maker. She lives in the same cozy, small, walkup rented apartment she's lived in for nearly 10 years, and her situation epitomizes Ireland's problems.

Ms. GNILEDECH: I was one of the people who was locked out effectively as prices went up because affordability had left the market. Now I'm not locked out at the moment because the market has come back to meet me, and during the summer I got mortgage approval to buy something. The problem now is that the industry I work in just seems like the work has suddenly dried up.

GIFFORD: And that's the same for many of her peers. The generation that's never known austerity and is used to the boom and getting everything it wanted - the fancy cell phone, the car, the eating out at good restaurants - that generation is now getting used to the bust and rising unemployment.

Ms. GNILEDECH: I'm beginning to wonder was the Celtic Tiger just a myth that we just binged on our own property boom that really wasn't real, and it affected or it brought wealth to a certain kind of very top portion of the population. But ultimately all it did for the rest of us was to encourage us to get into incredible credit card, bank financial debt. And now it's tumbling. And definitely the party is over, and I think maybe the party in terms of the Celtic Tiger wasn't that well managed in the first place.

GIFFORD: Aware of the irony of what all this means for her in light of Ireland's history of the last 150 years, Gniledech says if things don't improve, she may even have to emigrate to find work. Rob Gifford, NPR News, Dublin.

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