Racing to Bustville
Galway set the stage for our flash builders, oh what a sad end
The handbags back then cost more than the horses do now. Back then is only three years ago. In Galway, at the races, during the last days of the naked empire. Galway Races, more than anywhere else, symbolised what it was to be Irish when we were the fastest-growing economy in the world.
The days when, if you stood a child a tenner to have a few bets, you would hardly get a thanks. The days when the helicopter rotors whirred like cake mixers in a cookery school. The days when Ireland Inc, like Genghis Khan's empire, was ruled from a tent at the races.
It was all about style and show.
Beautiful women who would look good in an onion bag at Ladies Day in Galway maxed their cards. You might as well be naked if you didn't wear a designer outfit stitched up by a big name.
One builder gave me a present of his sunglasses.
"Ah,'' he said, "wearing them yokes while you're looking at all those lovelies is like watching them on television."
Later, I discovered the shades cost a few hundred bills. A street kid grabbed them off me outside a pub on Shop Street before disappearing into the thronged bazaar.
"Good enough for you," exclaimed the builder. "Wearing sunglasses in the dark. You must have thought you were f*****g Bono."
Two hundred a laugh and BT would surely have another pair.
I enjoyed the occasional glass of champagne with the so-called architects of boom and bust. They were good company. The champagne was only for the sake of the pop and fizzle, to mark the occasion.
It wasn't for drinking. Most were pint men.
Shakespeare wrote plays about great leaders who were destroyed by their lust for glory and riches.
Some of ours could throw up a wall in an hour and that was what they were good at, building. When it came to minding their money and counting it, they were less well qualified. Strong but flawed, like my namesake's most enduring characters.
They bought horses off lads in a pub after a few drinks. The next morning the buyer couldn't even remember how much he paid for the nag. The invoice would arrive from a trainer and it was casually referred to the accountant, who used pencils without erasers. All the while, the builders were being told they were worth millions more than they owed. On paper. The only problem was the paper wasn't legal tender.
Many of their kind were exported to England by their own state, worked day and night to build up a stake. Some came back, the unlucky ones.
They came home, because it was home. A home where they were shaken down by gangster politicians and corrupt government officials from the minute they stepped off the boat. There was only one game in town and if you didn't pay the entry fee for Dublin Hold 'em, you went broke.
I was told of a builder who gave his men a good bonus every Christmas and never saw them stuck at Communion time.
He was patriotic in his own way and proud of the fact he was giving employment to a good few men who would have been in England or on the dole, but he paid bribes at Christmas too.
What most people do not realise is there was fierce competition between the developers when it came to who had the fastest horse or who paid the most millions for a farm that would soon be turned into concrete forever, and, ultimately, lie fallow and abandoned. The leavings of a lost civilization.
Somewhere along the race from Boomtown to Bustville they lost their way and we, their people, will pay the tolls for at least two generations.
And herein lies the Shakespearean part of the tragedy.
None of the builders that I met at Galway ever planned to go broke.
Like all casinos, there have been winners and losers. Some of their largesse has been saved up by the prudent.
The truth is, however, that Galway Races was full of gamblers, betting with our money.
We decided to leave the races early. The third last was a two-year-old maiden.
The favourite was owned by a big builder who was also in the bar. He was in mid-story, with his back turned to the television, when the runners broke from the starting stalls and he didn't interrupt himself to watch the 70-second sprint around Ballybrit.
The developer still didn't look up at the screen as the field came around the last bend for the short run up the straight. His horse won pulling a JCB. The prize money was 15 grand.
"Did he win it?" enquired the builder.
"Yeah, he won it handy."
There was a wave of a finger over and back along the length of a long counter, signifying drinks all round.
Lately, the builder updated me.
"There were nights when I was starting out when I would have to go home early. I didn't have enough to buy my turn and I remembered my dad's advice, 'never a borrower or a lender be'.
"Thirty years later, I put my family home up as a guarantee for a loan of I don't even know how many million."
He hardly got excited that day when his horse won the maiden at Ballybrit.
The drinks were duly filled. On his tab. The hangers-on laughed loudest at his story. But it was only the first act. This play had a very sad ending. For him and for us.