The Ghost Estate By John Connell Picador, $29.99
The Irish used to remember the Great Famine of the 1840s as an example of what happens when economics and profit are given priority over people. That disaster was not confined to the poor, those without property or means, but also affected the ruling classes, the old Ascendancy. As the 21st century distanced them from the shame of hunger and starvation, they forgot that lesson.
Instead, the first decade of the new century infected the whole country with a madness born of greed. Nowhere was that more obvious than in the sudden idea that you were no one unless you had a second house. Or a third one. If you could not convince yourself, there were plenty of gurus spruiking a holiday home in Tramore or Lahinch, Bundoran or Kenmare; after all, you had the mandatory two children and each should have their separate inheritance. Besides, it was a gold-plated investment, it would be your comfort in old age, much better than superannuation. (Heaven forbid that today’s Australia learns the spuriousness of that logic, however exalted its proponents or speciously attractive their arguments.)
Those two events in Irish history, the famine of the middle years of the 19th century and the artificial building boom 160 years later, are cleverly combined in this novel. The central character is Ger McQuaid, a young electrical contractor taking on his first big job in a new estate that would include a golf course and a luxury hotel to replace a rundown mansion, once the centre of a large estate with hundreds of tenants. Like the plumbers and bricklayers and roofers, he is paid by the developer who in turn is depending on moneyed backers; all are financed by banks who are falling over themselves to pass out money that they have access to through a corrupted international financial system.
McQuaid is a long way down that chain, though a step above his workers who roll out the wire, drill the holes and position the switches and sockets. He is also the ultimate loser. At one stage, his girlfriend, a student in Dublin, calls him a “bogger”, a searing insult for someone who sees financial security and social respectability almost in his grasp.
When people realised that banks were not their friends, it was too late; today half-finished, vandalised estates are a feature of the Irish landscape. The author compares this situation with the way the countryside was devastated by the famine of the 1840s, although the reader may find the comparison forced and not entirely convincing.
McQuaid’s private life is a mirror of the economic disaster about to hit his country. Incapable of distinguishing between love and farmyard lust, his fall is predictable. The author manages to make him a thoroughly unlikeable figure, lacking the sophistication of his city counterparts or the intelligence and survival instincts of those who live on the geographical edges of the country.
Perhaps I should explain. There is, in certain parts of Ireland, an unstated opinion about those who live in the centre of the island, of whom a recent Taoiseach (prime minister) might be a good example. The view is that they lack the cuteness of the city dweller and the cleverness of those who live in places like Kerry, Cork or Donegal. There is little in this book that might change that opinion and indeed it could be read as a long-winded and overwritten satire on that very situation.
The cover of the book features endorsements by Kevin Barry and Tony Ryan, two modern Irish writers whose work is much more deserving of release in this country.
Frank O’Shea is a Canberra reviewer.
This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.