Friday 17 January 2020

Soaring house prices and the link with Michael Davitt and his Land League

March against property tax in Dublin last year
March against property tax in Dublin last year

Gerard O'Regan

FOR those anxious to buy a house - or for those prompted to try and sell one - the low-level mutterings and sometimes high-level hysteria continues.

Their worry is understandably all to do with price. Will the general move upwards continue? Have things peaked for the moment? Is now the time to make a move? Should they dither and delay, but perhaps regret their inaction later?

We are told endlessly that we are over-fixated on home ownership in Ireland. Why is it that - unlike the situation in countries like Germany - more people will not consider long-term renting, rather than concentrating almost everything on owning the roof over their head? Meanwhile, endless theories are put forward as to why our rates of house ownership continues to be among the highest in the world.

On a practical level, renting is, of course, much more regulated in some continental countries, providing the tenant with greater protection and security all round. Here, it's much more hit and miss. But the overwhelming pattern is that once Irish people hit a certain age, the vast majority will try, might and main, to buy a place of their own.

It has also been suggested that the Irish attitude to property "is all in the mind''.

Perhaps the madness of the Celtic Tiger years was symptomatic of some deep national psychosis? Inevitably, references have been made to our history, when dispossession was a feature of life for generations. Common sense, apart from any deeper considerations, would suggest that this legacy is surely embedded deep in the folk memory. It might explain why so many would-be purchasers will be out and about this weekend, viewing houses they can't really afford. It may be all in the mind. But the option of long-term renting for these wannabe property owners is something they simply will not countenance.

Former Taoiseach John Bruton stirred things up a bit in recent days, with his suggestion that Irish nationalist politician John Redmond, and his non-violent quest for Irish Home Rule, has not been getting the recognition he deserves. He maintains Redmond's legacy has been dwarfed by the build-up to the 100th anniversary of the 1916 Rising.

Inevitably there are strident voices on both sides of the debate. But it is a reminder that certain historical figures, who directly or indirectly fashioned the people we are today, tend to be either underplayed or almost forgotten.

And with an eye to those currently scouring the property market, it may be time to acknowledge somebody, who has left a deep imprint on our psyche.

It's fair to say Michael Davitt, who founded the Land League back in 1879, would - in modern day parlance - be described as being "fixated'' with property. He did, indeed, flirt with other strains in Irish nationalism. But his belief that one should be an owner, as distinct from a tenant, has left an indelible mark on generations of Irish schoolchildren. We have all been fashioned by tales of heartless landlords evicting those without rights from their estates and land. The image has endured in our collective sub-conscious.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a series of Land Acts passed by the British steadily transferred hundreds of thousands of acres into Irish ownership.

It was to have a profound effect on Irish life, socially, economically, and otherwise. The effects - particularly the psychological legacy of property ownership - still lingers today. The social structure for Ireland, often grasping when it came to acquiring land, was set in train for decades.

We also had the arrival of the "big farmer'' and the "small farmer'' and the belief that all concerned should know and accept their place in the hierarchy of things.

The decades, of course, have rolled on, and the number of people living on the land continues to decline.

But the move to Dublin, the bigger cities, and urban areas in general, has really done little to change the old mindset.

Maybe, just maybe - because of Mr Davitt and his times - most Irish people have an aversion to lifelong renting. Most will eventually try, might and main to hustle up the money, and the mortgage, to pay for a place of their own.

Such deeply-ingrained beliefs are unlikely to change anytime soon. It's interesting also that despite the overall flight from farming as a way to earn a living, the amount of agricultural land coming up for sale is still very limited.

Maybe that's also part of the folk memory. Sentimental attachment to place, property and possessions, and the security such things bring, is a powerful force. However, during the boom these nascent instincts ran out of control. We can now see there was a kind of collective madness in trying to amass houses, land, and even office blocks, by people who simply couldn't afford them.

But that's all retrospective rational thinking. Even now when it comes to basic home ownership, many Irish people still lose the run of themselves. It remains the national mindset, fashioned over a few hundred years.

It's no wonder the property tax touches such a raw nerve. Many people who willingly accept a penal PAYE burden, somehow or other feel this is a kind of intrusion on their deepest feelings of personal liberty.

There is almost a sense of threat, of faceless government bureaucrats holding a Sword of Damocles over the dwelling in which they live.

The fact such a tax is the norm in many other countries counts for nothing. There surely is "something" about the Irish and our attitude to things like bricks and mortar and land.

Maybe the genesis of it all is summed up in those impassioned pleas Scarlett O'Hara's father, Gerald, makes to her in the movie Gone With the Wind.

"It will come to you, this love of the land. There's no gettin' away from it if you're Irish. Land is the only thing in the world worth workin' for, worth fightin' for, worth dyin' for, because it's the only thing that lasts,'' he says, desperate to push his beliefs on to the next generation.

Mr Davitt would understand. And so would those out house hunting this weekend. Because we all know the Irish and their love affair with property will run, and run, and run.

Irish Independent

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