Lifestyle

Sunday 21 September 2014

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''.

In the accounts of the time, there were few warnings that we were living in a bubble. Cowen did warn later that year of "a soft landing'' in the property market, but that sounded no more threatening than a short slide on a bouncy castle.

The opening of Dundrum's shopping centre may have been the Celtic Tiger heyday, but there were still pebbles grating under the door. The fears and anxieties of the time did not focus on the dangers of economic collapse, but that Ireland had sacrificed its soul for material values.

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.''

The writer Joseph O'Connor may have over-egged the pudding when when he suggested at the time that "there are some of us who worship Versace the way our grandmothers worshiped the Virgin Mary". But there was an element of truth to his soundbite.

A teenager writing in the Sunday Independent summed up Dundrum's appeal: "You get to hang around with people you like, shop when you're minted and generally have a fantabulous time.''

The opening of Dundrum coincided with by-election campaigns in Meath and Kildare. Reports from the constituencies, both containing rapidly-sprawling towns in the commuter belt, capture something of the public mood.

Voters in towns such as Naas, Sallins and Ratoath complained about long commuter times, appalling traffic jams, and their difficulties finding childcare. Experts voiced concerns about children not getting enough exercise and the perceived dangers of mobile phone masts.

Many of these anxieties have now melted away as families struggle to put food on the table.

Weighing up the benefits of prosperity and its drawbacks, O' Connor confessed that he had no wish to spoil the Celtic Tiger party.

"Yes, people are commuting long distances now,'' he said in 2005. "But not nearly so long as the commute to, say, Australia, which is where many people had to go to find jobs a generation ago.''

Now the wheel has turned full circle, Cowen the financial wizard has been cast as an economic bogeyman, and young people consider themselves fortunate if they can get a visa to Australia, let alone a job in their home country.

Irish Independent

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