IF THERE is one thing we Irish are good at -- no, not good at, absolutely genius at -- it is turning our great misfortunes into great art. In fact, if you only glance backwards at history you will notice that the greater the misfortunes, the greater the art they have engendered.
And although much of the art takes the form of deeply sorrowful songs and poems, a lot of it is very funny. Flann O'Brien's An Beal Bocht is absolutely hysterical, and to my mind it is this ability to find not only humour but sophisticated humour at that in subjects like poverty, starvation, oppression and whatever else the Good Lord throws at us that makes us such a great nation.
We may not be quite as oppressed or deprived these days as we once were. But we are having hard times. And there is no doubt that a certain amount of corruption and greed has contributed to the recession that we are now experiencing. And there is absolutely no doubting the fact that many people are suffering horribly as a result of this crisis. But as always, where there is tragedy, an Irish man sees the funny side.
Ruadhan Mac Eoin is a friend of mine (another thing we Irish are great at is helping our friends) who has invented a board game called Namarama which, as the name suggests, is based on the current situation. It is a snakes and ladders-type board game in which each player gets to be a property developer. The aim of the game is to offload your devalued property as quickly as you can, while availing of every opportunity to get one over on your opponents. As you progress towards the 'Nirvana of Nama', you pick up a series of 'Tribunal' cards, which very much reflect the goings-on that have occurred in actual tribunals. Good things can happen to you, for instance, you can get agricultural lands rezoned for development; and bad things can happen -- you may have bought a land bank but some little old lady may be sitting on a slice of property bang in the middle of it.
Obviously Christmas is the time of year for board games, and so it was an opportune moment to come up with such a game. And because I like Monopoly, I was more than willing to try it out. My family, friends, and I all found it was extremely funny, as you might expect. But weirdly, as a result of playing the game, I began to develop tremendous sympathy for the property developers, having had a chance to be a property developer myself for a few hours. When I had agricultural land that could be made more valuable by rezoning, my natural instinct was to see if I could not give somebody a brown envelope to make that happen. And I was more than willing to get rid of a rare species if it was spoiling my plans for a housing estate.
Luckily I am not the owner of any property, so I can't be corrupted in that way. But I suspected that some of the dodgy things that the property developers get up to might actually be based on reality.
I asked Ruadhan how much of the game was based on fact.
"While some people might see some similarities between real life and the events depicted in the game, the events are completely fictitious! And any resemblance to real events is purely coincidental!" he says with a laugh.
Ruadhan has been working as a journalist specialising in planning and environmental issues for a number of years, and has been aware of the various stunts, wheezes and scams that were pulled over the years.
"While the game is all a bit of fun, I have an underlying concern that if we don't learn from the mess that the country is in, we will repeat it," he says. "The current crisis was predicted by environmentalists and economists because the damage to the economy was the result of a misappropriation of limited environmental resources."
Ruadhan believes that we could learn from other European countries and have a system that is more fair and less corrupt.
"In Amsterdam, the state owns 90 per cent of the land and leases it on 100-year leases. This largely changes the relationship between the stakeholder and the land entirely, as it removes false speculation," he says.
"In the old days, the game was about collecting property, now the game is about getting rid of your property, which was what gave me the idea. I made a board game for my friends and it got such a great response that I had to go into production, and we have already sold out the first run, with more in production."
I wondered if he is happy to have found a way to make money during the recession?
"I share the disappointment that what started out 15 years ago as good economic progress ended up as totally unsustainable," he says.
"While everyone else was making money out of the bubble, I was giving out. It would be ironic if now that people think there is no money to be made, I might get rich out of the recession!"
He is also optimistic for Ireland's recovery.
"We will get through this. Nama is the chickens coming home to roost and no doubt there are developers out there building the coops," he says.