Half-built homes frozen in time tell how dream died
The countryside is now littered with unsold properties and unfinished estates, writes Ronald Quinlan
WHAT are the neighbours like? Once upon a time, this was the question that could make or break the sale of a house or an apartment.
Since the property market crashed, the neighbours question is still being asked, albeit in somewhat different terms.
What about the neighbours? Are there any?
Take the right turn off the N5 as you are passing through the rural idyll of Frenchpark in Co Roscommon and you will find The Oaks, a prime example of the 621 'ghost estates' left scattered across Ireland in the wake of the property crash.
Of the development's mixture of 53 townhouses, detached and semi-detached houses and apartments, fewer than a dozen are occupied on a fulltime basis.
Knock on any of those doors and you will learn that there are just two families and one couple that the official census would classify as 'owner occupiers'.
But those are only the bare statistics of The Oaks, an estate typical of the hundreds of developments that sprang up on the outskirts of villages and towns during the boom on the back of the special tax designation status the Government granted as a matter of political and fiscal policy.
As long as the boom was getting even 'boomer' -- to borrow the words of former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern -- none of those who bought into the rural and semi-rural dream was any the wiser.
They are now. Walking through The Oaks, all the signs of our irrational exuberance for bricks and mortar are there to see. While half the houses are completed and habitable, the forbidding sight of the unfinished properties on the other side of a fence in the middle of the estate is little short of shocking.
Beyond the barriers, you are greeted by an overgrown grass area surrounded by houses and apartments, all of which are perched several feet above the patches of land where their gardens and driveways should be.
Outside, there are signs of where the work went on before it ground to a halt. An abandoned wheelbarrow has been left on the side of the similarly-unfinished access road by a worker who has long since downed tools.
Speaking to the Sunday Independent on the condition of anonymity, one resident of the completed half of The Oaks described life there.
"The houses themselves are beautiful and Frenchpark is a lovely part of the world, but it's very sad to see the estate empty like this. When we came here, we imagined the place would fill up with families and that there would be children playing there on the green outside.
"We'd be happy even to have the usual complaints, dogs barking or a neighbour playing their music too loud. But we don't have that," the resident said.
Rather, there are the nagging reminders of daily life on a building site, which for now is frozen in time. No need to put the bins out; there are
no collections. Instead, residents buy their bin tags from the local shop before delivering their own household waste to the local tip.
And while the communal areas have been maintained, last summer The Oaks' inhabitants witnessed the poignant sight of the elderly parents of one of the estate's developer's, David Keaney, cutting the grass.
"God love them, they were trying to keep the place presentable for us and for anybody who was interested in buying," one resident said.
While it might look like a hopeless cause, for the estate's developer, there is always hope. According to a spokesman for the David Keaney and Peter Gilhooley Partnership, sales at The Oaks are ticking along despite the downturn.
"It was never a Celtic Tiger development. We bought it from another developer in 2006 and we had seven or eight sales. We would expect to sell a few this year and we have a good clientele in terms of our rentals.
"We would have people living here who work at Castlerea prison and we would expect to sell units whenever there is any buoyancy back in the market," the spokesman said.
Asked to account for the condition of the unfinished section of the site, he said: "It wouldn't be what I would call a derelict site."
On the prospects for the future, the spokesman added: "We don't bank with an Irish bank and we'll be able to carry it [the development]."
Rejoining the N5 and driving in the direction of Dublin, it isn't long before you reach the village of Tulsk and the Meadowbrook housing estate.
Even taking the fact that it is the middle of the afternoon into account, the obvious signs of it being inhabited are scarce enough. Fewer than half of the uncompleted development's houses have telltale signs of life such as TV satellite dishes. And again, there is the metal barricade which fences off the finished homes from the building site where work has paused for now.
In the case of Meadowbrook, developer Tom Henry of Mayo-based T&H Contractors is determined not to let the market drag him or his project down.
"We'll be finishing the houses off next month. Those [uncompleted] houses are ready for their second fixing and we'll be doing that between March and August. There are 21 houses there and we have 15 sales agreed on those. We've had lots of enquiries about them," a determined Mr Henry said.
While such optimism is heartening, one only has to drive a little further along the road to the village of Roosky, to find the Lios na hAbhann development.
There the builders are already at work finishing off the three, four and five bedroom properties. It makes for a curious spectacle until you take note of the sales information on the billboard outside.
RBK Receivers have taken effective control of the development and are selling the houses with prices beginning at the knockdown level of €100,000.
Crossing the Shannon and on to the picturesque town of Dromod in Co Leitrim and you are met with ever more houses sitting either idle or simply unfinished behind metal barricades.
Drive on to Longford, and the crushed ambitions of Ireland's developer class are even more pronounced. Sitting within striking distance of the Dublin Road is the walled estate of Carrigglas Manor.
Back in 2006, the future of Carrigglas's 660 acres of rolling parklands seemed assured as the then Minister for Finance Brian Cowen performed the sod-turning ceremony for what its developers hailed as "one of the most important developments ever to take place in Longford".
A championship golf course, a four-star hotel, a romantic woodland walkway and a selection of exclusive homes were all promised in the marketing blurb.
Roll forward to today, and all you can see from the estate's entrance is the concrete shell of the Carrigglas Demesne hotel.
At the gate itself, meanwhile, there is another and arguably more telling reminder of Ireland's ill-fated fixation with property.
'Tea, coffee and breakfast rolls,' says the sign on the abandoned trailer next to the gate lodge.
Before the bubble burst, it would have been a lucrative business . . . not unlike property itself.