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Sad microcosm of all that was wrong in the Celtic Tiger years

Discovering that Arnotts borrowed hundreds of millions to build a new city quarter with 47 shops, 14 cafes and restaurants and a couple of hundred apartments is like finding out that your spinster aunt invested her Credit Union savings in a brothel.

It's not that there's anything wrong with a shopping quarter. It's just that it's not what Arnotts knows how to do, any more than your aunt knows how to establish a brothel.

The Arnotts story is, in microcosm, what happened all over Ireland when the Celtic Tiger was growling loudest. Decent, sensible people who were good at one thing decided they could do something quite different. As well. On the side. On borrowed millions.

Arnotts know how to operate a department store. Since 1843, they've managed to overcome the prejudices of each new generation of teenagers who initially regarded it as their mammy's store and uncool in the extreme, yet eventually succumbed and became customers alongside her.

We were quite proud, in the boom years, that Clerys and Arnotts didn't get swallowed up by some international department store chain. Instead, they invested heavily and transformed themselves to fit the times. We didn't know their bigger plans.


The problem was that, in the boom, we all lost our grip on reality a little bit. We began to believe that we could do anything. Our heads were turned by dreams fuelled by old myths and new money.

The old myths? "You're always safe to buy land, they're not making any more of it." "Invest in bricks and mortar and you invest in your own long-term future."

The new money? That was the stuff banks such as Anglo lashed at anybody who waved a half-decent balance sheet at them. In the old days, banks doled out money as if parting with a penny caused them grinding pain. In the Anglo era, the cashflow changed into a gusher like the one in the Gulf of Mexico.

We had the confidence of our ignorance and the optimism of the irrational. When it all went belly-up, we decided reckless developers were at the root of it all. Which they were, although not on their own.

We all wanted to believe that it was our reckless nephews who bought themselves Ferraris and borrowed beyond their means to buy property.

They had got above themselves and serve them right.

But the thing is, Arnotts isn't your chancer nephew. Arnotts is like an aunty who keeps herself smart and up to date, but who wouldn't lose the run of herself and believe she could build a new chunk of Dublin City incorporating a series of businesses about which she knew damn all.

That's what Aunty Arnotts did, though. She kept the day job. The Arnotts store is doing rather better than might have been expected in the times we're in.

But outside the day job, she lost her marbles. Our respectable aunt borrowed so much money that Anglo and Ulster Bank now control the whole business. Two banks, one of them a case study in car-crash finances owned by the taxpayer, will effectively dictate the future of a piece of Irish retailing history, impoverished by big dreams and crushing realities.

You wouldn't know whether to laugh or cry. Although crying seems the more appropriate option.