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  • Ruined Futures: Gentrification as Famine in Post-Celtic Tiger Irish Literature

One of the defining features of the Celtic Tiger was a massive boom in construction that left a visible mark on the Irish landscape. This essay analyzes the works of Anne Haverty and Donal Ryan to highlight how they use the tropes and lingering traumas of the Famine to criticize contemporary forms of gentrification. In their texts, post-Celtic Tiger communities adopt the signifiers and consequences of a new famine; essentially, they articulate how physical changes to the Irish landscape constitute a “famine of gentrification” that makes land unable to sustain, both materially and culturally, an Irish community.

The relationship between representation and reality under capitalism has always been problematic. Debt relates to the future value of goods and services. This always involves a guess, which is then set by the interest rate, discounting into the future.

—David Harvey, The Enigma of Capital and the Crises of Capitalism

Writing in a postausterity moment, the best way to address the lasting impact of the Celtic Tiger is to begin at its end. The year 2008 has come to signify a clear moment of demarcation for when the so-called New Ireland of the Tiger collapsed under the weight of speculative global capitalism.1 “Black 2008” has entered the timeline of Irish history as a moment of disaster that caused extensive damage to the fabric of the Irish economy and had major reverberations for all aspects of Irish life (Donovan and Murphy 1). Beyond the material and economic damages caused by the property collapse, a major reason why Black 2008 was so disastrously momentous was that, for a majority of Irish citizens, it was so unexpected. As late [End Page 50] as 2007, Taoiseach Bertie Ahern—who has come to represent the excesses of the Tiger—was assuring the public that all was well and any commenters predicting a bursting bubble were just “cribbing and moaning” (qtd. in Donovan and Murphy 144). Much of this confidence was caused by the close personal relationship between politicians, bankers, and developers who, consequently, were less than diligent in protecting the public’s interest (White 38). There was a widespread belief perpetuated by both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, Ireland’s two major political parties, that the sparkling years of the Tiger would continue unabated.2

The social narrative of the Tiger was dominated by descriptions of the boom as miraculous, irrational, and exuberant.3 It was considered the era when Ireland could finally shrug off the history of colonialism and embrace a new vision of itself as a nation with wealth and global influence. Yet underneath this narrative of miracles and transformations, the boom was actually composed of two periods: “the first period (1993–2002) was characterized by export-led growth . . . and foreign investment; the second period (2002–2007) was driven by a property bubble supported by a vast over exposure of Irish banks to toxic property loans” (Kitchin, O’Callaghan, Boyle, and Gleeson 1303). Many critics argue that this two-part boom contained an initial “good boom” that was undercut by an inflated “bad boom” that undid all the gains created from Ireland’s success. This twofold analysis of the boom should not obscure the fact that the collapse of Black 2008 was, in hindsight, encoded in the very mechanisms that created the boom in the first place. On closer examination, Ireland’s shift toward a neoliberal globalized economy came with a political and social assumption “that economic growth produced by the current growth model [the Celtic Tiger] results in enhanced well-being” (Kirby 81). This conflation of economic growth with communal well-being, caused by Ireland’s integration into a system of globalized late capitalism was, primarily, a “Faustian bargain” in which a majority of the benefits created by the Tiger were “swept away by a tide of events that they themselves have helped set in motion” (Keohane and Kuhling 124). If the Tiger was not a stable moment of national, cultural, and economic transformation, the boom now comes to represent how globalization incorporates risk and speculation as a part of everyday life.

As a byproduct of this period of intense accumulation, the Celtic Tiger sparked a wave of construction and development that radically changed landscapes throughout the country. The speculative nature of global gentrification reshaped the way the Irish articulated narratives of property, land, community, ethnicity, and home. As the second period of the Tiger spun out of control, an ethos of gentrification [End Page 51] came to dominate ideas of space and community. This ethos of gentrification is an ideology that was produced by a speculative form of globalization that reconstituted space as a fluctuating commodity. This transformation of space into capital makes gentrification a process by which the vitality found in humanity’s relationship to space is drained into a consumable product. Gentrification is a process of building that separates peoples, spaces, and communities into distinct zones that accumulate and disperse capital. Gentrification doesn’t just impede the act of creating a space fit for cohabitation; essentially, it seeks to make people purchase the experience of living in space.

During the Tiger, for instance, Ireland underwent “an explosion in landlordism as large swathes of the upper middle class bought property as an investment” (Allen and O’Boyle 69). The explosion in Irish landlordism is an anticommunal form of building in which the emphasis is on space as a commodity. The shift in the focus of building to an act of anticommunal gentrification is an important tenet of global capitalism because of the widespread idea that, in the future, investments in property “will inevitably be used for something and generate value, even if it is not for the purposes intended” (Simone 171). There is no attempt to preserve space or act as a caretaker. The purpose behind building is no longer to constitute a space for humans to inhabit; instead, it is streamlined to a harsh arithmetic of capital and returns. Consequently, the result is that capital is funneled toward debt-financed and consumption-focused projects that are not intended to serve the local needs of a community but are mainly created to make the act of living a profitable endeavor.

The rapid and intense gentrification that occurred during the Tiger created an “increased distanciation of capital from the material spaces it produced” that “resulted in a situation whereby development became increasingly divorced from the needs of citizens” (Kitchin, O’Callaghan, and Gleeson 1077). The manner through which space is constructed became enmeshed in a system of global gentrification to make space more accepting to the accumulation of surplus capital. The impact of this global gentrification, and the ethos it created, left a visible mark on the Irish landscape and psyche that is not limited to the “traditional economic factors of land, labor, and capital” but manipulates “symbolic languages of exclusion and entitlement” (Zukin 7). In essence, gentrification reveals an anticommunal nature of constructing space that creates a cognitive gentrification in which the divisions created by the flows of global capital are what confer an acceptable social position on some and deny that status to others. At its core, the cognitive effects of this ethos of gentrification are found in how the divisions produced by property speculation and development work to reform how communities think about what constitutes the very nature of a community. [End Page 52]

Irish authors have highlighted the effects of gentrification and have started to create fictions that critique this post-boom landscape of Irish property.4 Anne Haverty and Donal Ryan are two authors who particularly focus on how gentrification during the Tiger was a divisive force that both exacerbated and obscured a disconnect between land and the community that resided on it. Taken together, their texts also show that the scope of gentrification affects both urban and rural communities. Haverty and Ryan develop a critique of Tiger gentrification by noting that it reorganized communal space away from an ethics of habitation and toward an ethos of gentrification. Their texts depict everyday rituals and routines as disconnected from a grounded relationship to the space on which communities construct their identities. Ideas of home, space, nation, and community are reduced to a system that uses land as a mechanism to accumulate capital. In Haverty’s and Ryan’s texts, gentrification adopts the signifiers and consequences of a new famine; essentially, they articulate how the physical changes to the Irish landscape are a famine of gentrification that makes land unable to sustain, both materially and culturally, an Irish community.

The Celtic Theme Park: Space as Property in Post-Boom Dublin

Haverty’s 2007 novel The Free and Easy follows Tom Blessman, a middle-aged Irish American, as he travels to Ireland to fulfill the dreams of his rich Irish great-uncle, who is haunted by images of the Famine. Tom’s uncle, Pender Gast, dreams of ragged Irish people who are “[e]mpty-handed, possessionless, [and] wretched” and have expressions that are “somehow beseeching” him to help (5). Gast is certain that his ancestors are calling for him to use his financial clout to help them end this plight. Under this vague command to help the Irish, Tom travels to Dublin and experiences a city transformed by globalization and gentrification. While he tries “to get a handle on the place, culturally, politically, historically” (111), he is told, by a Dubliner, that “[t]he Ireland you came here probably hoping to find is obsolete. It’s a fantasy. Well, a construct at least” (112). The Ireland in which Tom finds himself is presented as a country completely changed after the speculative boom of the Tiger. He is assertively told that history, in Ireland, is something that no longer exists:

You can forget the last century. And you can definitely forget the century before. Ireland as we know it—and let’s thank whoever or whatever—was born sometime around nineteen ninety-four. Or ninety-six? . . . But there’s always the theme park aspect. That’s an area that’s really thriving. [End Page 53]

Haverty’s text is filled with characters who present the Ireland of the Celtic Tiger as a wholly new country that shares no connection with its history; the era of globalization also purported to be the end of postcolonialism, “which put the British shadow firmly behind [and] created the new context for Irish development” (Fagan 142). For Haverty, however, this new globalized context is not framed as a positive escape from a painful history but as the creation of a theme park version of Ireland where space, culture, and community are commodities to be sold. Her text satirizes the Celtic Tiger by showing how consumerism and gentrification worked symbiotically to create a hollow, self-damaging theme park landscape unable to support a lasting narrative of Irish identity. The characters in her novel increasingly find their gentrified city turning into a dead-end space where the newness of the Celtic Tiger contains no insights into a lasting formation of Irish space.

The theme park aspect of urban Dublin is quickly apparent in the novel as Haverty provides the reader with several scenes of Tom walking around the city and confronting an environment of gentrification. Haverty’s portrayal of Dublin as a theme park underscores how gentrification is a deconstructive form of building that has more in common with tourism than urban planning. Whereas the connection between building and living can provide insights into human experience, gentrification’s anticommunal nature seeks to commoditize those insights into consumable experiences. Tom arrives in Dublin with the “shameful hope of finding stories of famine and upheaval,” but he is disappointed to find “only the mundane detritus of the not-destitute” (Haverty 41). As Tom wanders the city, he increasingly notices the effects of gentrification as Dublin is shadowed by a “mesh of construction cranes” (77) and, notably, features “a big grocery store, fitted out retro New York style” (76). The grocery store embraces “the modern intent on looking like somewhere else or of some other time.” This modern intent is not simply an aesthetic or architectural style. The mish-mash of temporal and aesthetic styles is designed to circulate capital by making urban space a familiar commodity for the individual, regardless of the relationship the individual has with the space. Tom, for instance, is a traveler through the space of Dublin but instantly recognizes the architecture of the store and understands it as a comfortable place to spend his capital. One of the key aspects of Haverty’s critique of gentrified Dublin is that it’s a city in which the existential qualities important in making space into a community have become an economic transaction. For Haverty the communal, aesthetic, and cultural value of spaces and buildings should supersede the desire to turn space into capital. The reduction of Tom’s experiences of Dublin into those of a consumer [End Page 54] gentrifies the authentic feelings of moving throughout the city into something that can be purchased.

The pervasive impact of gentrification during the Tiger emphasized space, first and foremost, as an investment opportunity.5 Yet gentrification is not simply a description of economic practices and development. The influence of global capital on the act of building results in a gentrification of space that produces commodities, not communities. Gentrification, then, is less concerned with an “agency-led creation of habitus . . . and more by the commodified production of habitat” (Davidson 491). The commodified production of a habitat reduces the potential for building to create space for a harmonious and functioning community. The influence of gentrification on the way humans cohabitate creates a range of spatial relations that could broadly be defined as affecting the culture of a community.

The cultural effects of gentrification are produced by the ways in which land, labor, and capital combine to create a “symbolic economy” (Zukin 7) that, in turn, defines the cultural outlines of a community. This symbolic economy reflects how the material “production of space” manufactures symbols that construct a “language of social identity” and belonging (24). By constructing a language of social identity, acts of gentrification can materially reorganize how space and property are understood in a larger social context; as a consequence, those practices can define who has access to inhabit the newly gentrified space, thus creating a symbolic economy that imparts a cognitive dimension to the effects of gentrification. The symbolic language of gentrification develops “a new urban pattern” that “features a greatly widening gap between the upper and low tiers of the labor force” by an “expansion of sectors that thrive on innovation, product diversity, and the provision of personalized services” (Scott 1466). Any attempt to understand the impact of “cognitive-cultural sectors” on the global economy—such as the Celtic Tiger—needs to account for how this production is buttressed by “numerous parallel transformations of intra-urban space” (1470). These transformations of urban space possess “potent direct and indirect impacts on human consciousness and ideological orientation” (1475). The cognitive aspect of building outlines how a “range of architectural and environmental experience” contributes “to a sense of place and environmental wholeness” (Seamon 201). As a result, the interconnected relationship between building and culture means the act of construction helps to shape and inform more than just the physical reality in which we live. The cognitive effects of gentrification can determine how individuals equate communal belonging—the sense of who has a right to be part of a community—with how the materiality of gentrification frames their ability to understand the space they call home. [End Page 55]

Throughout Haverty’s novel, Tom encounters characters that have been cognitively gentrified to understand their community as a vessel to create and dispense capital. Characters assert that Tom “won’t go wrong if you invest in property” (58) and that Ireland “presented interesting possibilities” for investment, from property to culture to art. Along with these suggestions of property development Tom discovers the sentiment, described by a “native film director” (37), that the Irish are done with the “sob stuff” because “[i]t’s over historically” and they now simply “want to look at the present . . . something we can all relate to.” The “positive” present that “all” the Irish can “relate to” is “love, money, [and a] multiplicity of choices.” Haverty presents a new Irish community where the driving narrative of what constitutes a shared identity is enmeshed in the consumerist ideal of having “money” and a “multiplicity of choices” for where to spend that money. The character Etchen MacAnar, a charming and corrupt ex-politician, clarifies that “the healing of our culture” (183) must occur from liberating the country from a “restless and ceaseless wanting.”6 MacAnar’s claims about the need for the Irish to escape from “wanting” represent Haverty’s critique of the ethos of gentrification that turned Irish culture and land into commodities for consumption. The post-Tiger Dublin presented in The Free and Easy is one where the act of building is a force of consumption that not only chews up Irish property but also reflects a broader desire to create “consumable portions of ‘Irishness’ to feed its own self-image” (Cahill 13). The symbol of the grocery store reflects this interchange, in which a consumerist focus on spending capital goes hand in glove with the changing physical landscape of the city.

The cognitive-cultural element of gentrification is a major factor in the remaking of Haverty’s Dublin. As the novel progresses, Tom’s experience of Dublin becomes infused with feelings that are paradoxically both disorienting and comforting. He is continually struck by how the urban space of Dublin promises a culturally unique moment, with its “intimate old-world smell of drains” (40), but he is left in a “constant state of expectation this whimsical Irish sunlight engendered, again and again, and just as constantly disappointed” (39). Any uniqueness in the architecture of Dublin, such as a row of Victorian homes, is “poignant somehow” (76) because it represents “a sense of lives lived, passed away.” The ability of buildings to represent history and community is, in Celtic Tiger Dublin, swept away by a wave of global gentrification that remakes urban space into a circuit for global experiences and capital. Even the smell of drains is overpowered by “the cheesily pungent breath of pizzas baking” (75), which is “[t]he prevailing downtown smell of a western city.” Instead of discovering a primal connection to “an imagined ancestor” [End Page 56] (41), Dublin provides Tom with a bland global architecture vaguely reminiscent of New York City.

The association of Dublin’s newly constructed buildings with New York reflects how Haverty’s portrayal of Dublin is a hegemonic depiction of “sim-urbanity” (Lees 86) in which the construction of urban space focuses on creating a city in which “nothing is unexpected . . . and sensory experience [is] both stifled and scripted.” Along with the New York-style grocery store, Tom encounters the “plum-coloured buildings of Camden Street [that] were wearing the bold yet sombre look of old downtown New York” (271). Haverty’s Dublin is being transformed into an urban center in a globalized world where gentrification works as a form of spatial commodification that “creates new forms of anxiety about the authenticity of things or persons; one no longer knows if they are ‘authentic’ or ‘inauthentic,’ spontaneous or re-engineered for commercial ends” (Boltanski and Chiapello 447). The gentrified space of Tiger-era Dublin is transformed to meet the paradoxical need to be both totally incorporated into the changing forms of global capital and the need to retain a veneer of unique, culturally specific qualities. The part of Dublin adopting the qualities of New York represents the theme park aspect of urban development Tom was told is booming in Ireland and that makes space external to the community in that it is no longer a space to be lived in but to be consumed. The beneficial qualities the act of building provides for a community cannot be found in this city-as-theme-park because it doesn’t create a space for new experiences and new communities. In making the city like a theme park, gentrification makes space a quality external to human experience, thereby making those experiences not intrinsic to life. Since Haverty’s Dublin is external to the human experience, its urban spaces can be sold to Tom and other Dubliners as commodities for them to enjoy.

Tom is informed by some of his distant relatives that part of this transformation of authentic buildings into commodities was Dublin exporting unique cultural buildings to a global market. Tom is told that the Irish “don’t do Irish pubs any more. We export them. Like the emigrants before them they’ve gone out into the world and multiplied” (59).7 The authenticity of the Irish pub has become a globally known commodity that can be exported to maximize profit. Irish pubs have more value as an export than as a part of the community in Haverty’s novel, in which they have been replaced with tapas bars to cater to a post-Tiger market that craves a spatial commodity to consume. Haverty’s Dublin has been incorporated into a system of globalization in which space is abstracted “element by element” (Boltanski and Chiapello 445) to make possible the introduction of spatial variations in order to produce commodities that are “relatively different, but [End Page 57] of the same style.” The process of gentrification that exports Irish pubs and imports tapas bars is directly tied to the universalization of capital because it finds what about a commodified space gives it a “truly authentic character that accounts for its value,” then selects “certain of its qualities—the most significant or the most transposable . . . and ignores others, deemed secondary.” The export of Irish pubs—Tom is told there is a “very nice one” in Murcia (59)—reflects the privileging of capital as the key element in the spatial politics of Dublin. This exportation of cultural Irish commodities is an act of commerce that sells off the unique qualities inherent in a space. The exportation of Irish pubs is, for Haverty, emblematic of space being sold off to the highest bidder; essentially, Dublin is a cog in the system of global gentrification that aims to export, as valuable commodities, the essential elements of Irish culture. The changes to a post-Tiger, post-globalized Dublin were only “sugarcoated” (Kelly 184) examples of positive development as the urban space of Dublin was “recast” for the interests of a global consumer. Haverty’s commentary on Irish pubs reflects that gentrification is more than simply a way of describing new additions to an environment. Gentrification is also an act of subtraction.

The various strains of Haverty’s critique of speculative and gentrified Dublin all come together in an art installation developed by Tom’s friends, Frog and Aaron. The installation, called “Home,” recreates a working-class living room in an art museum. This artistic home consists of a “small shabby pea-green sofa” (201), a “small kitchen table,” and a constantly running television. The two artists inhabit the space in a way that mirrors real life by being “oblivious” of their audience and performing the actions of domestic space, such as smoking, cooking, and reading the newspaper. The staging of “Home,” with all the mundane realities of life, is described as “looking profoundly homely, the kind of homely that some might consider plain old dirty.” The interplay between “home” and “homely” in the performance is a rejection of the slick mish-mash of styles changing the spaces of Dublin. By enacting the “hyper-realist detritus of daily life” (203), the actors expose the ways in which the reality of life in Dublin has been gentrified into a consumer-driven theme park. The installation presents a more authentic presentation of a livable space than all the expensive new buildings Tom notices during his walks around town. He understands that “Home” is a “cave” (204) and a “refuge from the outside world.” While the rest of Dublin (and Ireland) is racing to gentrify into a global city, Haverty frames this art project as an anti-Tiger performance that seeks to reclaim the local and communal aspects of space. The artists’ decision to present a version of the home that would not be out of place in a play by Brian [End Page 58] Friel strongly underlines a different understanding of Irishness that conflicts with the postmodern, speculative architecture overtaking Dublin.

The daily rituals and routines presented in “Home” are Haverty’s attempt to recode the narratives of post-Tiger space to embrace a notion of place in which a building or place allows individuals to exist harmoniously by preserving the unique qualities of that space. Unlike the process of gentrification, Haverty understands the act of building not as the physical act of construction but instead as the creation of a site that serves as a space for reflecting about what constitutes an Irish community. Reformulating the act of building allows us to more fully inhabit buildings and spaces by dropping the facades of ownership, property, and gentrification. This is an act of constructive “de-urbanization” that prioritizes the concepts of relatedness, rights, and rejuvenation (Lees 86). Whereas gentrification seeks to incorporate land into a system of global capital, de-urbanization privileges the locality of space as a key component in living.

The importance of “Home” in Haverty’s text is an attempt to posit an authentic moment of culture that escapes the rapid gentrification that devalues, on both an economic and cultural level, the spaces of Dublin. Since the installation is directly tied to the artists performing the rituals of the home, the piece cannot be sold to speculative art investors. As the artists continue their performance, the re-creation of home draws together the space, culture, history, and community of Ireland. “Home” becomes a huge success and a signifier of “protest and hope” (Haverty 229) that allows for a reflection on the current state of life during the Tiger, leading one viewer to exclaim, “at last we are worthy of our forebears.”8 Its mundane representation of a home rejects any attempt to evaluate it as a commodity. The art installation draws attention to the qualities of de-urbanization that cannot be easily reduced to the value of a home as a piece of property.

Eventually, the installation becomes a political statement as the artists refuse to leave the museum even after the exhibition concludes its run. Despite the artists’ continued silence toward the audience, a crowd develops around the piece to protest “home prices and the whole cabal” (226). As the furor around “Home” grows, Tom begins to understand the installation as a critique of the entire speculative environment of Tiger Ireland: “Poverty and wealth, power and impotence, the homeless and the housed, the fusion of art and reality—miraculously, ‘Home’ embodied them all” (231). Unfortunately, the artists are quietly evicted from the museum and left to worry, due to the “way things are these days” (236), that they will never have a home outside the museum. Tom’s last thoughts on “Home” are, symbolically, quickly overtaken by his need to purchase “an elegant [End Page 59] redbrick” building with “a dodgy lease” for the corrupt MacAnar (237). The protest and hope of a reformulation of Irish space represented by the artists’ call for an Irish “Home” dies with a whimper, replaced by the prospect of purchasing a gentrified, “dodgy” building.

The last pages of The Free and Easy harken back to “Home” with another artistic performance that critiques gentrification even more severely. Tom’s attempt to help the Irish has failed and MacAnar has a warrant out for his arrest. His final moments in Ireland are spent attending a historic re-creation of the Famine organized by one of his friends. Ironically, this re-creation mirrors Gast’s initial dream and Tom’s earlier “hope of finding stories of famine and upheaval.” The re-creation is staged in “one of the recent developments of swish commercial and residential” spaces that are encircled by “gleaming steel and glass structures [that are] challengingly new” (279). The actors enter this cathedral to gentrification in “ancient dress” (280) and sway rhythmically in “a great keen of a mourning nature.” Some of the actors are also stuffing “what was perhaps imaginary grass in their mouths.” Despite the fact that the novel’s Famine is staged, the juxtaposition of Famine imagery with the new buildings underscores the inherent damage hidden and ignored during periods of intense gentrification. The reemergence of the Famine in Haverty’s text allows Tom and the rest of the spectators to conceptualize a communal narrative that was supposedly banished to the dustbin of history by the New Ireland of the Celtic Tiger. This confrontation with a symbol of the Famine enacts Stuart McLean’s argument for the Famine’s potential, as a historical event, to be the “conduit” for “the reawakening of a hitherto disenfranchised material nature” (162). Haverty’s text ends with a powerful image of a new famine—a famine of gentrification—that not only suggests the changing landscape of Ireland is hiding another potential famine but also prods readers to see the famished bodies of the performers as a productive warning. It is a warning that Ireland should not allow itself to be dissolved into the system of global capitalism and gentrification but rather must confront the realities of both.

This final image in Haverty’s novel directly represents the damage done by speculative property development. The historical recreation of the Famine articulates the inability of space-as-property to be space for a community and hints at the economic collapse hiding in the material conditions of life in Dublin. The novel’s two artistic critiques of speculation force Haverty’s reader to think about how the economic restructuring of space in order to privilege speculative returns harms the efficacy of such ideas as home, nation, and community. [End Page 60]

The Ruins of the Future: The Haunting Ghost Estates of a Future Unlived

In much of the scholarship on gentrification, the phenomenon is presented as practically synonymous with urban life. If viewed from a wider perspective, though, gentrification is not solely an urban-centric phenomenon. Neil Smith broadly defines gentrification as the manner through which “capitalist societies” and their “fundamental social relations” manifest in space and engender a spatial unevenness in relationship to privilege or access (74). Smith calls gentrification a “locational seesaw” (88) in which “the successive development, underdevelopment and redevelopment of given areas” is altered as “capital jumps from one place to another,” all the while “creating and destroying its own opportunities for development.” Although the underlying emphasis behind the act of gentrification remains the same in both urban and rural communities—the desire to maximize profits produced by a given space—there are some fundamental differences in what constitutes “the potential heterogeneity of gentrification in different types of rural settings” (Darling 1017). One of the fundamental differences is that gentrification in the country focuses on transforming green spaces of nature into homes and buildings that produce capital. What Darren Smith and Debbie Phillips term “greentrification” (qtd. in Darling 1017) stresses “the crucial importance of nature consumption in the rural gentrification process” (Darling 1017). The consumption of nature seeks to transform the aesthetic qualities of rural land into picturesque commodities for new homeowners. The greentrification of rural space is a direct contrast to the concept of de-urbanization, which emphasizes that proper acts of building seek to preserve and maintain space.

One of the major elements of rural gentrification is that the desire to preserve the inherent qualities of the land is swept away in order to make the land into an acceptable commodity for consumption. Unlike building to preserve the natural qualities of a space, rural gentrification seeks to highlight only the qualities that are desirable to a contemporary housing market. The impact of global gentrification has exacerbated the conflict between the traditional layout of villages, fields, and common lands and an evolving geographic context that centers on the “commodification of land” (Blomley 119). In rural postcolonial communities the state and market agents interact with each other to boost redevelopment and create a series of market incentives to attract globalized capital (López-Morales 146). These activities often rampantly bypass mechanisms of social participation and political accountability. During the Tiger-era property boom, the demand for rural development intensified. Yet, this push toward rural [End Page 61] development was not always aligned with the realities of demand and, consequently, created “significant oversupply” in rural communities (Kitchin, O’Callaghan, and Gleeson 1073). The explosion of building in rural Ireland is an extension of colonialist principles in that the priority is to extract as much profit from the land as possible, often at the expense of the local community.9 In Ireland, the dominant state policy adopted this colonialist approach to Irish space by appropriating Irish land as “mere real estate,” a passive entity designed to maximize profit (Wenzell 129). Rural gentrification moves building further away from a stable balance between land and community by making construction an act of creating capital. This approach toward the land creates a crisis in rural communities in which even traditional farming practices are overcoded by a process of gentrification aimed at creating a commodity.

Rural gentrification in Ireland was notable for the increased demand it created for houses in the country.10 This desire for rural homes created a pastoral sprawl in which tourism and gentrification combine to transform rural space into a lifestyle commodity. J. Dwight Hines defines the primary focus of rural gentrification as being the transformation of the land into a commodity of tourist experiences that focus on the successful consumption of aesthetic experiences. This emphasis on consuming an idyllic rural lifestyle makes rural gentrification into the process of permanently inscribing tourist experiences on the “social and physical landscape” of the countryside (522). The rush to transform the rural landscape represents a contemporary crisis in building where an idealized conception of rural life is the answer to the ills of urban life, such as congestion, traffic, and rising prices. The rush to build in the country, to fill a crisis in urban development with more buildings, results in a form of gentrification that not only fails to resolve this crisis but also deepens it by radically damaging the landscape. Ireland’s housing boom “opened up a wound in our ambivalent responses to the Irish dream for bigger, better and more homes” (Daley 56) by emphasizing the production and consumption of experiences over any attempt to create a lasting community.

Donal Ryan’s The Spinning Heart explores the damaged and uninhabitable landscape of a post-Tiger rural community after the collapse of Black 2008. The novel begins after the shady real-estate developer Pokey Burke has fled Ireland, leaving the entire countryside in disarray.11 The fraud committed by Pokey reflects how Ireland’s collapse was connected to global capitalism, insofar as Pokey stole from his Irish construction site to invest in “some monstrosity beyond in Dubai” (22). Ryan’s narrative unfolds via twenty-one first-person narratives that provide a patchwork picture of post-Tiger life. Although the reader is presented with a series of narratives from struggling [End Page 62] men and women, the central narrative follows Pokey’s ex-foreman, Bobby Mahon. Ryan uses Bobby’s narrative to rewrite J. M. Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World in a contemporary setting: Bobby is the pride of the town, gets falsely accused of murdering his father, and is eventually ostracized by his community. The intertextual connections with Synge’s play underscore how the result of the failed building project has created a new Famine for rural Irish communities. Ryan uses the damage caused by rural gentrification to evoke the legacy of the Famine with debt, unemployment, and underwater mortgages now the primary causes of pain, suffering, and diaspora.

At the center of Ryan’s novel is a “massive estate of houses” (22) that is practically empty except for two occupants, an old lady and a single mother named Réaltín. Across Ireland these nearly empty “ghost estates” (44) are the unintentional monuments to Tiger-era gentrification. For Kitchin, O’Callaghan, and Gleeson ghost estates are physical representations of “the communal madness of the Celtic Tiger property bubble” (1077). They argue ghost estates are the unfinished ruins of the future:

Unfinished estates offer a new form of ruin that is not constituted through an abandoned past but rather an abandoned future. . . . As spatial articulations underpinned by this set of narratives, unfinished estates have been left bereft of a future because the future to which they were heading no longer exists.


“As the ruins of the Celtic Tiger,” they argue, ghost estates “recast that period as one of ‘chaotic’ excess rather than ‘rational’ progress, while also signifying the ruined future promised by the Celtic Tiger” (1077). The ghost estates are more than failed development projects: they are scars on the landscape, temporal and material signifiers of the Celtic Tiger’s empty promises of newness and continued consumption, and the failed attempts to gentrify the landscape into the consumption of rural experiences. Ryan reveals the dark side of the burst property bubble by framing ghost estates as contemporary famine follies: stark and unlivable ruins that mark the landscape and splinter the community. When land becomes property and property becomes massively devalued, the landscape becomes worthless in terms of culture and community. By associating ghost estates with the famine follies, Ryan’s text eschews the tropes of the “conventional Famine novel” (185) to align with what Christopher Morash has argued is the “radical disorder” of nonconventional Famine novels that “remind us that history has no intrinsic shape.” In Ryan’s novel, the excess of gentrification is coded as a cultural and material Famine in which the very act of building is a factor in [End Page 63] making the land habitable. The ghost estates are the legacy of how the Celtic Tiger was a period of radical disorder in which the nation was battered, both within and without, by the unstable forces of global capitalism. Ryan’s text frames rural gentrification as a famine in which ghost estates are emblematic not only of a lost age (that is, of history) but also of a future unlived.

Ryan explores how the future ruins of ghost estates are monuments to an uninhabitable landscape via the character of Réaltín, a single mother who is trapped on the estate due to her expensive mortgage. Réaltín’s narrative is punctuated by images that have come to historically represent the Famine, such as lone women keening for their lost families, strange noises in an empty field, and dilapidated homes. Living in her ghost estate, Réaltín describes a desolate, abandoned community: “There’s an old lady living in number forty. There’s no one living in any of the other houses, just the ghosts of people who never existed. I’m stranded, she’s abandoned” (42). Ryan’s text underscores how the empty estates do not just lack occupants, they are haunted by a future that was promised but never achieved. Réaltín understands the ghost estate as a site of temporal trauma that signifies the lack of a future both for her and for Ireland. Her haunting by “the ghosts of people who never existed” represents a traumatic encounter with a landscape that contains signifiers of spectral bodies that highlight both “privation and excess, the latter figured most strikingly in the guise of an uncontainable materialism” (McLean 161).The impact of the ghost estate removes any hope for sparing and preserving the land, which consequently affects the ability of the land to support life in the future. The rural gentrification presented in Ryan’s text does not only represent how the land-as-commodity is unfit for sustainable development but also how the use of land as a means to create capital disrupts any future attempts to build a sustainable community. Even if the ghost estate is demolished, the land has been irrevocably altered and turned into a damaged and scarred space. The excess of the unneeded houses, built solely as commodities to be quickly sold, is an imposition of global gentrification that creates a ruin of Irish futures. Réaltín is, for Ryan, the reminder of the human costs of those caught in the ruins of gentrification.

Furthering the imagery of a landscape haunted by a ruined future, Réaltín’s experiences in her estate adopt a gothic style that shapes the estate into a modern-day famine folly. She is haunted in her isolation, trapped at night by strange noises. The houses have become ugly monsters with “gaping, empty windows” and “spooky stone faces” (43). Her father, who visits often, is cast by Réaltín as a “grumpy . . . Cúchulainn” who is “trying to fight back the tide” of [End Page 64] ruination that is taking over the estates. For some members of the community Réaltín takes on the gothic presence of a “blow-in” (153), a “crazy single mother living in a freaky ghost estate” (85). The gothic elements found in Réaltín’s narrative highlight the ways in which the ghost estate causes a psychological strain stemming from an inability to dwell. The haunting Réaltín experiences is a traumatic reaction to her feelings of being trapped in a space of failed gentrification. Ryan’s text uses these gothic signifiers to expose “a terrifying abyss in an occupied land, the looming presence of a nonverbal ‘history’” (Punter 120). The nonverbal history of the ghost estates in Ryan’s fiction reveals that when market values replace a communal system as the manner through which people cohabitate and property becomes massively devalued the land becomes worthless, harmful, and unfit to sustain homes capable of providing the community with a livable space.

The patchwork narrative of The Spinning Heart heightens the separation, isolation, and desperation by having different characters return to the theme of a ruined, uninhabitable landscape. Vasya, a Serbian immigrant who worked for Pokey, is trapped in Ireland by his undocumented status and laments that “the big work is gone now; many things are left unfinished” (36).12 He spent his time working on Pokey’s estate “shoring the foundations of a large house that would never be built” (41). This house would become a no-place that would never fulfill its purpose to provide a location acceptable for living. Vasya felt at home with the men at the construction site because, even though he can only “speak in sentences of two words or three” (35), the common experiences of work served as a language for him to communicate with others. When the housing project collapses, Vasya is unable to receive any compensation because officials assert that he doesn’t “exist” (37). He moved to Ireland because of the promise of the Celtic Tiger, but now he is a ghost haunting the village and the landscape. Vasya spent his time building a no-place, and when that collapsed he became a nonperson.

Vasya’s path to citizenship and a hybrid Irish identity has vanished. This leaves him in a kind of limbo, as a ghost of the future that haunts the town and a vision of the vanished Tiger Ireland. Vasya spends his time wandering a landscape of “unfinished” (36) work and finds the land to be “dark” and “cold” (39). Vasya’s narrative paints a picture of the land in which there is no future because gentrification has no interest in constructing a balance between nature and building. A key component of sustainable building is the ability for humanity to safeguard the essential qualities of the land and not simply subjugate it to meet the needs of human consumption. Vasya’s story is a clear critique of the ecological damage caused by a failed act of building. [End Page 65] He feels the land itself has taken on the stain of the ghost estate and been drained of its potential and future. Similar to his work on the house that would never be finished, Vasya represents how those who immigrated to Ireland during the Tiger are the future ghosts of a post-Tiger multicultural vision of Ireland that haunt the landscape of a deconstructed community.

Although the structure of The Spinning Heart doesn’t allow for a singular protagonist, Bobby Mahon is the closest to a central character since his presence runs through many of the other vignettes. His surname clearly evokes Synge, and Bobby was an idyll of masculinity for the village when he was a foreman. His position in the novel mirrors Christy Mahon’s performance of manliness that is “at once an assertion of male authority and an apologia for such authority as morally legitimate and conducive to the welfare of the whole community” (Valente 2). Similar to the character of Christy, Bobby “raise[d] people’s spirits” to the point that they sang “The Ballad of Bobby Mahon” to commemorate his place of status in the village (Ryan 150). Other characters in Ryan’s text reinforce this idea of Bobby’s masculine hegemony by initially admiring him as a “man you could be proud of” (26), “a lovely boy” (73), and a “pure bull” (60). Before Pokey absconded with profits from the failed estate, Bobby felt he “had a right swagger . . . thinking I was a great fella” (13). He envisions himself “a great fella” due to his role as foreman, which made him a symbol of the new future that was under construction during the Tiger. He believed in the infallibility of property development because, in his words, “houses would never stop going up. I’d see babies like our own being pushed around the village below and think: lovely, work for the future, they’ll all need their own houses some day too” (13). Bobby’s belief encapsulates the attitude that “foolishly believed that things could only get boomier” (Irish Examiner, qtd. in Kitchin, O’Callaghan, and Gleeson 1076). This belief in perpetual “work for the future” is buttressed by the fact that “the bank kept giving him [Pokey] money to build more and more” (Ryan 13). The influence of Bobby as the the Playboy of the Tiger is due to his position as a figurehead of the promises of global Ireland, where money and success will continue unabated in a virtuous circle of growth.

Yet after the collapse, Bobby’s hypermasculine image of himself deflates and he states that he is “like an orphaned child, bereft, filling up with fear like a boat filling with water” (20). After the bubble bursts the village turns on Bobby, reshaping his presence as the symbol of the property collapse and the ghost estate; the anticommunal nature of gentrification is epitomized and personified in the character of Bobby. Triona, Bobby’s wife, asserts that “people always saw what they wanted to see in Bobby” and now “rejoice at the news of [his] [End Page 66] downfall” (153). Triona is no different from the rest of the village in her understanding of the collapse of the property market as leaving the country “pure solid destroyed [with] no end to the heartbreak” (155). The novel ends with a story narrated by Triona, who reiterates the message that the ghost estate and the men who worked at the site represent the haunting presence of a future unlived.

Similar to how the villagers in Synge’s play turn on Christy rather than face the reality of what their Playboy represented about their desires, Bobby is stigmatized as a failed man who let down the entire village. Bobby serves as a symbol of a lost generation of men who were destroyed by a famine of gentrification that, akin to those who died or left during the Famine, only serve to “accentuate [the] fact that no one in the village . . . can take the absent heroes’ place” (Cusack 578). He is left with the ghostly options of emigration or unemployment, unable to maintain his role as a member of the community. Bobby’s position as the scapegoat for a failed act of building represents the inability of gentrification to create a space for a post-Tiger Irish community. Also, Triona’s narrative underscores how, for the village, Bobby represents the absence of a future, of any time that is to come. Bobby, through no fault of his own, has become a living embodiment of gentrification’s disruption of communal values, inclusiveness, and peoples.

If Bobby was a talisman of the benefits of property speculation, the town now reads him as a pariah. Even though Bobby was not involved in Pokey’s schemes, he becomes representative of shady property developers when he is accused of killing his father in order to inherit a few acres (another character in the text confesses to murdering him). Unlike Christy, who is able to regain some of his dignity and will “go romancing through a romping lifetime from this hour to the dawning of the judgment day” (Synge 67), the characters in The Spinning Heart have no chance at redemption or a future. Bobby ends the novel in confusion and mental anguish. The novel ends with Triona repeatedly asking, “Oh love, what matters now?” (156). Ryan’s text offers no hope moving forward. It ends abruptly on the question of “what matters now,” without any plan for healing the Irish landscape. Although there is no perfect act of building, the damage done to the landscape and community by the explosion of gentrification disrupts rural Ireland and completely alters the landscape. The confusion characters like Bobby and Triona feel is directly related to the unsettling nature of the ghost estate that haunts them and makes them unable to dwell or to find a home in their rural locality. Ryan’s text, at its core, questions the validity of any attempt to rebuild a community on land that is haunted by the ruins of a future unlived. [End Page 67]

Haverty’s and Ryan’s texts reflect the ability of the ethos of gentrification to create spaces in which community, culture, and land are drained of their intrinsic value and transmuted into commodities. The explosion of building that occurred during the Tiger created a country unsuited to acts of transformative construction by enacting a widespread material and cultural trauma. Even when, during the Tiger, Ireland was becoming an increasingly diverse and prosperous nation, the dominant act of construction was creating a space that was limited and unsuited to support the New Ireland that was promised by narratives of globalization. The presence of famine imagery in their novels makes any attempt to integrate Ireland into an emergent global order of gentrification profoundly subversive by revealing the anticommunal nature of gentrification (McLean 160). Taken together, Haverty’s and Ryan’s use of famine imagery presents a history of post-Tiger gentrification that has altered neighborhoods and communities in accordance with the demands of global capital; consequently, these demands have divided the landscape of Ireland into incommensurate and anticommunal spaces, unfit to maintain anything but the ruins of the future.

Jason Buchanan

JASON MATTHEW BUCHANAN <> teaches in the Department of English at the Eugenio María de Hostos Community College of the City University of New York. His chapter “Million Dollar Views: Cognitive Gentrification in Post-9/11 New York City” appeared in the collection The City Since 9/11: Literature, Film, Television. In addition, his work on literature and globalization has been published in Studies in the Humanities, Studi Irlandesi, and Modern Drama.


1. The subprime mortgage collapse in the US was, in many respects, the spark that lit the fuse for the dramatic crash of 2008. As Donovan and Murphy argue, the international turbulence that swept up banking institutions “quickly washed over Irish shores . . . culminating in the granting of the comprehensive state guarantee in respect of the financial liabilities of all six domestic banks” (172). Despite popular support at the time, the Irish bank bailout “has come to represent the source of much of the enormous financial difficulties the country has faced in the years since.”

2. Banville, in an editorial for the New York Times, defined the Tiger as a moment of excess that would not be out of place in an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel. He describes “newly rich middle-class couples from the Republic” that would “have a leisurely lunch” and return home in the “evening happy as Visigoths with their booty—liquor, cigarettes, electrical goods, designer-label clothes and, as the autumn set in, boxes and boxes of fireworks.”

3. The titles of many books trying to account for the boom are proof of the belief that the Celtic Tiger was a miraculous moment of benign capitalism. For instance, see Sweeney’s The Celtic Tiger: Ireland’s Continuing Economic Miracle, Flanagan’s Ireland Now: Tales of Change from the Global Island, and Foster’s Luck and the Irish. [End Page 68]

4. Along with Haverty and Ryan, Kilroy, Corbett, Enright, McCrea, Kelly, Madden, Barrett, Burke, Hamilton, Brophy, Mulligan, and McPherson have all written about the effects of the Celtic Tiger.

5. The Tiger saw an approximate “200% increase in new house building, which has been driven almost wholly by the rise of private house building” (Howley, Scott, and Redmond 3). Much of this private house building, however, was not constructed for residential purposes but via a “property-based ‘growth machine’” that focused on flipping homes for a quick profit (Ó Riain 110). The construction boom saw the construction of homes that were never intended to be lived in. They were simply commodities designed to provide a return on investments.

6. MacAnar’s entire motivation throughout the text is to avoid prosecution in an upcoming tribunal and to drain Tom of all of Gast’s money through a series of expensive and useless cultural projects.

7. According to Richards, the proliferation of the globalized Irish pub is the product of a marketing campaign by Guinness, which sees “the pubs as a vehicle for selling their products worldwide” (7).

8. Another viewer claims the performance is akin to one from 1968, which is a direct reference to when members of the Derry Housing Action Committee (DHAC) disrupted a meeting of the Londonderry Corporation to protest the lack of housing provisions in the city. For a detailed description of the protests, see Melaugh.

9. The “former Upper Shannon Rural Renewal Scheme,” for instance, oversaw the construction of “30,695 houses” despite the fact that “household numbers only grew by 18,896” (Kitchin, O’Callaghan, and Gleeson 1073). The intense focus on developing property never accounted for this gap, which created “529 unfinished estates” in the region.

10. Historically, a distinguishing characteristic of housing in Irish rural localities is the preference of local home ownership over other options or tenants. Murphy and Scott note that this focus on home ownership in rural Ireland was facilitated by a “relatively ‘benign’ regulatory approach to housing . . . which prioritised asset ownership over welfare provision” (37). Regulations like the 1936 Labourers Act helped to foster a “self-build” ethos that eschewed speculative development and the secondhand market in favor of a more closed market system of rural planning.

11. This initial act of fraud has led Johnsen to call Ryan’s text a quasi-crime novel that suggests Irish literature is “ideally placed to produce important crime fiction in the twenty-first century” (139).

12. For a detailed look at the issues of immigration and race during the Celtic Tiger, see Ulin, Edwards, and O’Brien. [End Page 69]

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