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Into The West

Irish Times, December 6, 2001. Property Section

A novel experience – at swim in the murky waters of the property market.
New-found wealth encouraged novelist Jamie O’Neill to come back to live in Ireland, but he didn’t expect estate agents with attitude – or the staggering prices

Jamie O'Neill: hunting for a house that gives the 'feeling of a smile or a hug the first time you tread the hall'

Galway people don’t ask why you moved to Galway. They’d be as likely to wonder why the sun goes down so dutifully on their bay. Idle speculation they leave to Dubliners.

Why Galway? my Dublin friends asked, in tones of pity and remonstration. You’re never going to live in the sticks? Surely you know nothing happens outside of the Pale. You’ve been away too long. Do yourself a favour: pay the price and settle in town.

Well, my Dublin friends come mostly from Dalkey, and Dalkey people, as they say, are different. We – that is Julien, my boyfriend, and I – had been in London for 10 years. The attraction had waned of garbaged streets, of fumes and traffic chaos, all that hustling, the crush. We had always intended that when I finished my novel, At Swim, Two Boys, we should try somewhere new. Ireland or France, we weren’t sure which.

Indeed, we had taken ourselves on holiday to Toulouse, scouting it out for a possible home. We liked what we saw. The Rose City: pink-bricked buildings with cheerful apartments, spacious and reasonable. The Pyrenees shadowed the evenings.

Then news came of my novel’s sale, and our sudden, as it seemed, wealth. Ireland and the taxman won hands down. My first thought was Dún Laoghaire – Glasthule, Sandycove, Dalkey, the places of my youth. Yet why swap one long-crowded city for a newly crowding Dublin? We leap-frogged the capital and headed for the wilds of Ireland’s west.

Wind, bog and tide: the Galway variant of sun, sea and sand. It was a freezing March morning when we arrived in Galway. We walked the promenade at Salthill. And it was glorious. The wind chill from Canada, the pewter sea, tarnished and burnished by turns, the gruff ruminative waves. The way Clare comes and goes: so clear at times you might nearly count the rocks of the walls; moretimes so grey as to disappear. That first evening at Silver Strand we watched the sun go down. Can you believe this? – white clouds tinged with orange in the palest green of skies. To me it seemed the heavens had laid out their welcome mat.

We had arranged a house to rent in Knocknacarra. There was no hurry to buy. We had time and leisure to find the home we really wanted.

What we were looking for, essentially, was a six-roomed house, the rooms of size and proportion: a lounging kitchen, a sitting-room we could also dine in, a comfortable bedroom, guest room, a study for me to write in and a treatment room for Julien, who works as a shiatsu therapist. A garden perhaps, sunny and sheltered; a terrace even. This, I thought, was not asking for the world. Indeed, saving the garden and guest room, it was no more than we had enjoyed in London.

We knew the price of housing in France. Ireland could not be so very different. We had not reckoned on the tiger’s roar.

Our first intimation was the abruptness, the sheer discourtesy, of estate agents. Enter their offices and wait; wait to be ignored; be sized up by the cut of your coat, sized up and discounted. No, they can’t help you. No, they have no advice. They might have properties in that area, but you’ll have to look for yourself. Mailing-list? – where did you pop out of? Wake up, buddy, you’re in the tiger’s den.

Amidst the gay prosperity, the notion of space had diminished. How many houses have I seen, naturally three-up-three-down, tortured into warrens of bandboxical cupboards extolled as “Bedroom 4” or “Bedroom 5”? The ubiquitous “en suite”, that cold nasty sub-division. Mean, narrow corridors for halls. Ceiling height? – you can go kick for it.

The tastelessness appalls of modern planning – I cannot say design. Bleak bunkers plonked in fields where the advertised “landscaping” amounts to a scattering of grass-seeds. Galway’s tongue has licked as far as Invern, and the coast road is a spoilation of barefaced bungalows. Then we explore the flat treeless expanse of estates. The shoddiness of it all. The half-hearted fakery. The apartment blocks which third-rate hotels would put to shame. And this childish mania for tiny round windows. We’re adjacent the sea – portholes, geddit?

We had never owned a house. But it seemed absurd that we should forsake London – where on meagre wages (mine a hospital porter’s) we rented a bright roomy apartment, close to the river, with trees and bird-song all about – and should come to Galway to be pinched and cramped.

Not all was gloom, of course. We have seen some fine houses, some with character and resonance, which have reached out welcomingly as we entered their doors. That’s what you’re looking for, when it all boils down. That notion of a smile or a hug the first time you tread the hall. It’s in the polish of the wood or the smell above the cooking. You’ll like me, it seems to say: we’ll get along just fine. (And there’s permission to be had for the extension at back.) Some of these houses, God save us, were not too far beyond the quarter million mark.

I’m aware of the pomposity of my speaking out like this, on the head of a novel and a few bucks quickly earned. But I do ask myself, what does Ireland think it’s up to? Do we really want to live in a country where a tram-man’s cottage is a bijou res, where a quarter million buys 90 square metres? For the moment I can afford the joke. But I’m aware my moment won’t last too long.

And what future for young people coming to such a market? A life enslaved to the bosses, to the money-lenders, to the backbreaking climb of a property ladder, ever-greased and ever-looming. This is not progress, it is not economic success. It scarcely makes economic sense. Our wages dip below the European standard. Yet our houses cost double, treble, what our neighbours pay. Here we have an entire population in hock to breezeblock, where the only people who ultimately gain are the auctioneers on their 2 per cent, the media who carry their magnificent ads, the banks of course, and the wise and speculative shadows of gents, who may have (and seem to have) greased this process from the outset.

The climate is changing. Phrases like “forced sale” and “negative equity”, which one heard so forcefully in London a decade back, though not yet on people’s lips here, are not far from their thoughts. Nobody could wish for a recession, for the ravage of unemployment and the misery of emigration resumed. Let those days be remembered, but let them be gone.

However, I must admit a sneaky amusement when estate agents now greet you with a smile. They have the manners to shake your hand and learn your name. One or two even turn up on time.

And Galway still beguiles. Evenings in Neachtain’s, nights in Nimmo’s, the rambling of Quay Street, that passaggiata, so Irishly windcheated, brollied. The drive to Clifden is a dream of rainbows, of rainshine and sunpour. The gorse blurs as we motor by; now the sudden lakes, their black faces stubbled with reeds; the Bens stark to the sky.

We’ve found our home here, if not yet our house. But we will. It just takes time.

© Jamie O’Neill, 2001. No reproduction without prior agreement.

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