Reporting the crash

Donald Mahoney

Donald Mahoney

On a foggy Sunday last November, my partner Emma Houlihan and I drove from our home in Dublin to Manorhamilton, Co. Leitrim. Emma had recently finished a five-month residency at the Leitrim Sculpture Centre there, but the final element of her project was still to be completed. She had been working with a large pile of rubble that stood prominently at the end of the town. The pile was all that remained of a house – a fine house, according to local people – that had been destroyed to make way for a housing estate which was never built because the developer was broke. Emma had already transferred a few tonnes of rubble to the gallery, pummeled it with a Kango drill and put the remains into coal sacks. Now she would reconstitute the pebble and dust into nine large concrete blocks that would form an archway. I had assisted with the drilling and would pitch in with the pouring of the concrete.

As we drove west that afternoon, the radio news bulletins were filled with denials from Fianna Fáil ministers about Ireland’s rumoured bailout negotiations with the IMF, the European Central Bank and the European Commission, denials that grew louder the next day and the day after. On Tuesday morning, with Brian Lenihan due to travel to Brussels for a meeting with Europe’s finance ministers which seemed likely to provide some resolution to the crisis, I was online avoiding my part-time internet-based copywriting job. Out of the blue, Larry Ryan, a former colleague of mine at Mongrel, a defunct Dublin magazine I used to write for, began to chat with me over Gmail. Larry had moved to London to work for the Independent and I had not spoken with him since the wake Mongrel held for itself in 2008. He asked me if I was still in Ireland and working in journalism. The paper needed some freelance reporting and he was wondering if I was available to ‘go to some ghost estates and talk to people on the ground and whatnot’.

I only had a few moments to calculate the likelihood that I would screw the story up. I had all but given up journalism. Every highlight of my brief career in the trade had been overshadowed by error or tragedy. A month before receiving a masters in journalism in 2006, I travelled to Cape Town to cover Ireland’s participation in the Homeless World Cup. It was a heartwarming story, though my standing with the team dropped when I reported in Mongrel that the team’s captain Simon Canning and another player spent their daily cash allotment on sex at a strip club named Rasputin’s. Canning overdosed a few weeks after the story was published and I will always bear a sliver of guilt over his death. In another profile on the Irish team in the Irish Examiner, I discussed one player’s spell in Mountjoy. The day the story was published, Tim Vaughan, the Examiner’s editor-in-chief, received phone calls from the player’s mother, who was apparently unaware of the fact, threatening a libel action.

I started to pitch stories about Ireland’s incredible wealth to foreign newspapers. The only person interested was David Rampe, a Paris-based editor with the New York Times and the International Herald Tribune. The Gray Lady needed a new Ireland stringer and Rampe either sensed my talent from the two stories I wrote for him or was very desperate. Rampe and John Burns, the paper’s decorated war correspondent and new London bureau chief, arranged to visit Dublin in January 2008 to formally discuss how I might officially cover Ireland for the paper. Unfortunately, Rampe suffered a cardiac arrest a few weeks before we were to meet. He fell into a vegetative state and died twelve months later in a New York hospital. Burns found someone else for the position.

Despite this dismal history, which had left me feeling bitter and cursed, I was inclined to take up Larry’s offer. My gut told me that all the Independent wanted was a vox-pop full of righteous indignation, and this seemed like something I could provide. Not only did I volunteer, but I mentioned that I was perfectly situated for the story in Leitrim, the ghost-estate capital of Ireland. Not for the first time, my journalistic instincts betrayed me.

Archie Bland, the Independent’s foreign editor, soon phoned to clarify his expectations. He explained that their reporter Michael Savage was reporting from Dublin, but they wanted to talk to some real Irish people who were affected by ‘the ghost estates’. He specified his ideal interview candidate: someone who ‘lived in a ghost estate, had lost their job and was planning to emigrate’. Having lived in Leitrim for five months, I knew that ghost estates – being, by definition, largely or wholly unoccupied – were not great places in which to find people to interview, and I tried to explain this to Archie. He said he would be interested in whatever good stories I could find.

I knew nobody who lived in a Manorhamilton ghost estate, so a casualty of the Irish property bubble would have to suffice. I approached everyone I knew in the town for help. My only substantial lead came from Richard Cavaliero, the Sculpture Centre’s operations manager, who promised to contact his friend Dave O’Hara. Not having got very far with friends, I decided to approach strangers. The four people I encountered inside Gurn’s pub were distracted by the television: Prince William and Kate Middleton had just announced their engagement. Around the same time a text from Archie arrived from London: ‘in an ideal world, we’re looking for someone well-off brought low’. Minutes later, I received a call from the Independent’s photo desk. A photographer was on her way from Dublin. There was no way out.

Just as I was beginning to panic, Richard contacted me with Dave O’Hara’s phone number and said he would be willing to speak to me. Richard explained that Dave had started a company installing windows and doors in new houses; eighteen months ago, as house construction all but ceased, the company went bust. I rang Dave immediately and found him to be an engaging guy with serious misconceptions about how the media worked. He began by requesting a day to gather his thoughts and prepare for the interview. I informed him that my deadline was looming and the Independent’s interest in his life would not last to the morning. He asked if he would be able to read the story before I filed it and wanted to know how much of what he told me would go into the paper. I could tell he was wary of being misrepresented, and I felt obliged to be direct with him. I said his life story would inevitably be squeezed into a few paragraphs, possibly less. With Archie’s text in mind, I warned him, too, that editors occasionally spin quotes to suit their own news agendas. Dave sounded unsure and hung up to take counsel.

The wait was anxious. I knew the Independent’s story was all but written. All they needed was for me to provide a few quotes and a name to hang them on.

‘A friend says I shouldn’t do the interview,’ Dave said, when he called back. ‘But I want to tell this story. I’m just going to have to trust you.’

He could only do the interview from his house outside Ballintogher, about ten miles south-west of Manorhamilton in Co. Sligo, and as I don’t drive I had to ask Emma for a lift. Before running out the door, I grabbed some blank paper. I had always carried my Dictaphone around with me in my courier bag – in case news found me – but it had been stolen a few weeks earlier. I’d have to rely on my barely legible shorthand. Emma and I got a pizza before hitting the road, and the Romanian man behind the counter told us only positive things about the IMF’s involvement in his own country.

There were no signs of the excesses of the Celtic Tiger outside of Dave’s 120-year-old cottage, where he lived with his wife and young daughter Senna, named after the deceased Formula One driver. Dave had planning permission to build a bigger house on his land, but construction was indefinitely on hold. A dog was tied to a pole outside the house – never a sign of hospitality in my travels in rural Ireland – but the animal was serene. The back garden took in a sweeping view of Lough Gill and the Isle of Inisfree.

‘Do you know your Yeats?’ Dave asked.

I had to admit my knowledge of the poet was limited.

My first impression of Dave – unshaven, quietly intense – was of a West of Ireland hippie, but he described himself as an ‘ambitious capitalist with massive self-confidence who can spot an opportunity’. Over a beautifully made cup of coffee, we sat down at his kitchen table and he told me his story. I interrupted him once at the beginning of the interview and he politely asked me not to disturb him as he spoke. There would be time for questions afterwards, he promised.

Dave’s family had made tombstones in Sligo and Leitrim for seven generations. A sense of adventure had driven him abroad in the 1990s and he managed large-scale construction jobs in Barcelona, the Cayman Islands, New York City and Mozambique. While living in Spain in 2001, he saw the potential of supplying new Irish homes with well-made wooden windows and doors. There was only one other company offering this service in Ireland when Dave launched True Windows in 2004, and he told me that 99 per cent of Irish homes at the time had PVC window frames.

‘The worst-built houses in Europe in the last 50 years are all in Ireland,’ he said.

He sourced timber and glass in Eastern Europe and his up-market products were ideal for Ireland’s frothy property market. While attending the National Ploughing Championships in Co. Kilkenny, he started chatting to two men at the bar about the property game. The men eventually revealed they were developers. Dave explained his business. They ordered half a million euro worth of windows and doors. At the peak of the housing bubble, Dave was importing €60,000 to €70,000 worth of windows and doors every week, and True Windows made nearly €3 million euro a year.

Dave decided he needed an overdraft facility in order to help him manage his cash flow. Bank of Scotland (Ireland) offered him an overdraft, but with a condition. They were worried that Dave did not have enough collateral, so they suggested he buy an established building in Sligo with five apartments and Celtic Bookmakers as tenant in the commercial premises. To facilitate the transaction, the bank gave him a 110 per cent mortgage. And all was fine, until the property bubble burst. Developers owe Dave over €300,000 for stock they had not paid for. Dave in turn owes more than a million euro to a bank that has fled the Irish market.

His narrative was interrupted by Kim Haughton, the photographer the Independent had engaged, who rang to say she was lost in north Leitrim. Dave himself had a parent–teacher conference to attend, so he gave Kim directions to Moran’s pub in Ballintogher, where she and I would await the end of his meeting. Dave gave us strict orders not to discuss our line of work with Mrs Moran, the publican. I’m not sure what Mrs Moran made of us as we gulped tea, camera-wielding Kim and myself, increasingly frazzled by a looming deadline. Shipwrecked honeymooners, maybe. We didn’t know each other’s bylines, an unusual occurrence in Irish journalism that owed mostly to my retreat from the profession. It turned out Kim was one of the few people in the country who were profiting from Ireland’s housing surplus. She had published photo spreads of vacant midlands culs-de-sac in the Guardian and the Financial Times, and a Swiss TV arts programme had chronicled her at work.

Dave turned up at the pub just before it got dark. There was not much post-bubble destitution to document in Ballintogher, but Dave had plenty of inventory. He took us to a cattle shed where hundreds of strangely-shaped glass panes were lined up, not very photogenically, in long rows. In the end, Kim drove a couple of hundred miles for a headshot.

We went to the house of a neighbour whose child Dave had to babysit, and he unspooled the rest of his story. He said he had no great grievance with the developers who owed him money. They had suffered too. I expected disclosing the details of his professional failure might depress him, but debt seemed to invigorate Dave. Unemployment had gifted him the time to hunt deer with a crossbow and tan their hides. With a bountiful supply of wildlife and firewood on his property, Dave said he stood to profit should Ireland revert to a barter economy.

I briefed Archie from the bathroom of the neighbour’s house. He seemed satisfied and extended my deadline. After Kim filed her photos, she decided it was time to head to Dublin. She was my only lift back to Manorhamilton, where I’d stupidly left my laptop. We raced through Dromahair and hit a T-junction: to the right was the Dublin road, to the left was Manorhamilton, eight kilometres away. Kim, who was due to give a lecture in Dublin that night, was not feeling charitable.

‘Can’t your girlfriend come to collect you?’ she said. I admitted she probably could, and so Kim dropped me at the side of the road and turned for home. The ground was too sodden to even attempt walking. I rang Emma from a boggy patch of ground and I was back in Manorhamilton twenty minutes before deadline. I supplied a brief explanation of Dave’s troubles and his most philosophical quotes. Archie emailed to say he wanted the voices of other people, so I hit the pubs of Manorhamilton. Everyone was mum in Heraghty’s, but at the Granary, which was run by a builder named Pat Slevin who owned the pile of rubble that Emma had been transforming, the drinkers were more receptive.

‘The general public don’t comprehend what’s coming or the mess that we’re in,’ said Benny Somers, a labourer. His quotes didn’t make the paper, though the eleventh-hour opinions of our former landlady Jackie McKenna, who welcomed the expected bailout, did.

After I had filed all of my material, I went back to Heraghty’s to unwind. There was still no news on the bailout. Archie rang to say that the story was going on the front page. He asked about the location on my byline. We decided on ‘Donald Mahoney in Manorhamilton’.

The elation of stumbling into my first front-page story was quickly drowned out by a dread that the story would disgrace or libel Dave. I phoned him to explain that his quotes would be bracketed inside a larger piece on Ireland and to inform him about its prominence. He seemed appropriately nervous.

It took a few hours for the adrenaline of reporting to subside. A good day’s freelancing is like hitchhiking: the conversations with strangers, the journeys through strange places and, often, the complete surrender to circumstance. As I lay in bed, doing a final mental fact-check, I was surprised to realize how much I’d missed the chaos of the job.

At the newsagents the next day, I recognized my name on the Independent’s front page (a shared byline with Michael Savage) but not my story. Most of the cover was filled with one of Kim’s black-and-white ghost-estate photos. It depicted a young, raven-haired girl in the foreground, face turned from the camera. A ramshackle fence separated her from a row of identical houses that ascended a hill. Detritus was strewn about the ground, electric poles teetered at forty-five-degree angles. A melodramatic headline was planted upon the pale sky, in three decks: ‘Ghost estates and broken lives: the human cost of the Irish crash’.

The Independent was the only British title at the newsagents that did not feature the royal engagement on its front page. Its story began: ‘They stand empty across Ireland, 300,000 unoccupied homes …’ A quote from Dave – ‘The people who have sinned the most are suffering the least’ – was used as a headline on page 2, above a photo of a homeless man outside the headquarters of Anglo Irish Bank. The caption beneath the small inset photo of Dave incorrectly identified him as a former property developer. The story tried to explain Ireland’s economic collapse through the lens of empty houses, and included an update on the continuing uncertainty over the bailout. Dave’s riches-to-rags narrative supplied the human anchor. Only about fifty of my own words were included, though all the reporting seemed peripheral to the story’s photographic representation of national shame. In the Guardian that day was another photo taken by Kim. This one featured two tracksuit-wearing youths on horseback in Georgian Dublin. The iconography of broke, bailed-out Ireland had been created in advance of the IMF’s arrival.

I feared an angry phone call from Dave all throughout the day, but I never heard from him again. Emma bought the last copy of the Independent from the newsagents and informed the cashier that the cover story had been reported from Manorhamilton. ‘Oh, God,’ the cashier said, horrified.

The concrete for the archway was mixed and laid the next evening and we left Manorhamilton on Friday. The arch would take weeks to dry.

To my surprise and embarrassment, the story had an afterlife, albeit a brief one. The Independent’s front page was used to mock Ireland on that week’s episode of Have I Got News For You on the BBC; and in December, Jackie, our former landlady, received a Christmas card from a Welsh friend that included a note scolding her half-sarcastically for supporting the bailout. When I started as a reporter, I used to allay my fears of misquoting or misrepresenting people by telling myself that no one read the paper. A beginner’s mistake.

Read more in The Dublin Review issue No. 42 Spring 2011