Monday 2 February 2015

The day Ireland was the envy of Europe

Kim Bielenberg recalls the opening of the Dundrum shopping centre -- and peak of Celtic Tiger

A local priest spoke for many when he blessed the new Dundrum Town shopping centre on the morning of Thursday, March 3, 2005: "God of Beauty, may we see in the magnificence of this centre a reflection of your beauty, variety, brightness and colour; may it fill us with wonder, and may it raise our hearts and spirits to you."

The opening of the spanking new centre next to the M50, attracting a crowd of 75,000 in its first day, may not have raised spirits to God, but it filled shoppers with awe and wonder.

It marked the moment when the Celtic Tiger shone most brightly with glitzy pomp and circumstance. At the time it became a cliché to fret that we were worshipping the God of Mammon, and that Dundrum was our "cathedral of consumption''.

Shoppers, including an RTE reporter, marvelled over the "five-star car park'' with its painted walls and intricate signalling system alerting visitors to empty spaces.

They queued next to the conveyor belt carrying sushi, and emerged laden with bags from House of Fraser and H & M.

Ross O'Carroll Kelly's wincingly accurate Guide to South Dublin perfectly captures the Dundrum habitués -- "predominantly 16 and 17-year-old girls with bodies like nine-year-old gymnasts, wearing UGG boots, mini-skirts and expertly applied fake tan''; and teenage boys with blond streaks, wearing pink Airtex tops or Leinster shirts -- each carrying a large frothy latte or smoothie "to-go''.

The car park, according to the guide, was full of BMWs, Beetle convertibles and people carriers built like Panzer tanks -- "a perfect snapshot of a contented, materialistically happy Ireland at the dawn of a new century''.

Remembering these gleaming new vehicles, it is stunning to contemplate now that so few people paused to wonder where the money was coming from and how it would be repaid.

It is also hard to fathom now that Ireland in the Bertie era was considered a model of sound governance.

Delegations of civil servants and students thronged the arrivals lounge at Dublin airport on fact-finding missions. They were here to see how the Irish economic miracle had been carried off.

With an annual growth rate of 5pc a year, house prices rising by 15pc, and unemployment close to zero, it was around this time that Bertie Ahern suggested that the "boom times are getting even boomer''.

While Bertie lorded it in Government buildings, his widely respected deputy FF leader, Finance Minister Brian Cowen, was in charge of the economy.

This was no Laurel and Hardy act. So effective was Bertie Ahern in the mind of his fellow European leaders that he was considered a likely candidate to be President of the European Commission.

We were apparently so rich that Brian Cowen was described in newspaper reports as "the envy of other EU Finance Ministers''.

That spring, this anxiety was perhaps best expressed by the President of the Association of Secondary Teachers of Ireland, Susie Hall.

She was appalled that the opening of Dundrum had "convulsed the airwaves and spawned acres of newsprint''.

In a widely reported speech, the teachers' leader said: "The Celtic Tiger has turned us into a crass and dumbed-down society, where people are valued for what they have rather than what they are.''

Irish Independent

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