Celtic Tiger casualties: From boom, to bust, to a better life
Four recession survivors advise on how to keep your head in good times and bad
Artist Chára Nagle in her studio.
Look carefully, and you’ll find evidence aplenty that we’re rounding into a new bout of economic prosperity: cranes puncturing the city skylines. Michelin-starred restaurants no longer taking reservations. Coats retailing in Dunnes at €950. The statistics hint at a new boom, too: the Irish economy grew by 7.8 per cent in 2017, and GDP is expected to grow by 4.8 per cent in 2018, three times faster than any other European country.
Economics is often called the “dismal science”, and this all may sound like ambrosia to the ears for some. Yet there is a sizeable faction of people likely to be experiencing a queasy case of deja vu.
Fifteen years ago, much of Ireland was marked with a new, abominable swagger. Helicopters to the races, limos to the First Communion, Swarovski chandeliers in the utility room, champagne in the hairdressers, weekend flights to New York. Those who didn’t acquire much materially didn’t have far to fall by the time the bust arrived in 2008, but many others flew close to the sun, and had a shuddering bump back down to earth.
Jason O’Callaghan – social diarist
At 23, Jason O’Callaghan succeeded Terry Keane as the Sunday Independent’s social diarist in 1998, and found that every door in Dublin’s social set suddenly opened for him. For a decade, the weeks were a blur of restaurant openings, clubs, high-end store launches and fashion shows. Thanks to loans, he bought a Harley Davison and a Porsche. Later, he acquired multiple properties, including a bolthole in Cannes.
“I was getting 100 calls a day from celebrities like Pierce Brosnan, Michael Flatley, U2,” he recalls. “I was having dinner and free drinks with models – not bad for someone who became a waiter when he left school.”
In retrospect, he refers to himself as “someone at the pinnacle of the bullsh** generation”.
“I bought into my own bulls*** and became too big for my boots,” he admits. “Journalism, it turns out, is hugely detrimental in relation to anxiety and depression.”
Overnight, he lost his job, and the phone abruptly stopped ringing. He broke up with his girlfriend and hit rock bottom.
“Within two years of losing my job I found myself working on the Samaritans’ helpline,” he reveals. “By the time the recession hit in 2008, it was all about retraining and rebuilding and rebranding.”
As a musician, O’Callaghan was able to gig on weekends while getting a Masters in Applied Psychology at Trinity. He started his hypnotherapy practice, the D4 Clinic, out of his front room. He recently moved to new premises in Blackrock, and these days O’Callaghan, a dad of three, is happily living the suburban life and doing the school run. His saving grace during the heady boom years was that he never took drugs. “We all had shedloads of money and champagne but the one thing is I never got involved in any of that stuff,” he recalls.
O’Callaghan offers a word of warning to the current crop of influencers, beseeching them not to believe their own hype.
“It sort of saved me,” he says of his new career. “I put money in the bank and now I accumulate and save cash. I don’t have a huge mortgage or holiday homes. I don’t buy into any of that anymore.
“What did I learn about myself? That I’m a tenacious bastard who doesn’t give up,” he adds. “I knock on doors and make sure than no one else can fire me anymore, or control my destiny.”
Chára Nagle – portrait artist
Chára Nagle, too, was something of a Celtic Tiger IT girl. As a portrait artist, her paintings caught the boldly hedonistic mood of the time, and the smart set paid up in their droves, often up to €13,000 per piece.
Nagle also launched her design business and grew a roster of blue-chip clients.
“I was getting a little bit cocky, jaded and tired,” she admits. “Pretty much everyone was working hard and playing really hard. I had to let off steam big style. Because it seemed like a real pressure cooker we were working in, everyone was just looking for a release.”
Unable to find a way off the hamster wheel, and after a successful exhibition in 2008, Nagle edged inexorably towards burnout.
“I didn’t know what to do or who to paint next,” she recalls. “I was working towards a high, then there was a massive low. I realised that the Celtic Tiger story had been told [with her art]. I didn’t know what to do next.”
With her marriage breaking down at the same time, she retreated to Delgany to “lick her wounds” and consider her next move. “It was more like survival,” she says.
Her manager suggested broadening her artistic horizons, and so she started painting horses in one of the few industries largely unaffected by the economic downturn.
Nagle makes a parallel between horses and the true grit of the Irish people: “Our homes could be taken from us, but we could still stand proud,” she says. “I always said that figuring out horses carried me through my own personal recession but the reality is I was painting where we were at.”
I learned that I could still come out the other side
This month, Nagle returns with her Haystacks collection, a nod to her own family life that she painted as artist-in-residence at the Curragh. As a mum of one, her life has changed dramatically, and for the better, in a decade.
How did she manage it?
“I sort of went to the other extreme, and began enjoying isolation,” she recalls. “I learned that I could still come out the other side and still be standing, and still be able to pay my bills.
“My sanity is the most important thing, as is not becoming beholden to [material] things,” she reflects. “I like nice things, don’t get me wrong. But we’ve learned a few lessons; we will do what our mums told us, like turning off the lights and the immersion. Living more modestly enabled us to live at a slower pace, and it’s easier on the head.
“This time around, I’d love to access adventure again, but to do it at a consistent level. My mentor once told me that the key is never to be too high or too low, but to stay in the middle. I think we’ve also learned not to take things for granted, and not to have such a sense of entitlement. No one deserves anything.”
Roger Doyle – architect
For every person who stayed in Ireland, countless others left Ireland during the downturn (about 49,7000 in 2012 alone). Architect Roger Doyle and his future wife Mariam Allawerdi, also an architect, left Ireland for Mauritius when their prospects at home looked bleak. In 2015 they moved to Dubai.
“[The downturn] was a real shock to the system after the good years during the Celtic Tiger,” he says. “At this stage with a growing family we realised we needed to focus on saving for the future.”
For now, the couple have no plans to return to Ireland with their two children.
“Having been through the recession, our mindset over the last number of years has changed significantly,” he reveals. “Our aim now is to save hard to be financially independent within the next four to five years, and then to finally settle somewhere that we can buy land and build property from savings while maintaining the bulk of our savings.
“Ireland is too expensive for us to do that, with the exorbitant cost of houses prohibitive to repatriation. Instead we will choose the country that is best suited to our expected lifestyle in terms of quality of life.
“Our advice for people in Ireland who are looking to buy property at ever inflating prices is don’t,” he adds. “Don’t get burned as we did in the last boom-bust cycle. We learned our lesson the hard way 10 years ago with an expensive apartment on the outskirts of Dublin that we queued overnight for the privilege of putting down a 10 per cent deposit, and that has only recently come out of negative equity.
“Our advice would be to wait, continue to save and bide your time until the next recession, which is likely just around the corner, when real value will return to the market. I would also advise people to look like we did at their financial habits: credit card debt, car loans, long work commutes, and focus on eliminating these to get onto a solid financial base with a good savings percentage and large deposit before investing at the right time in reasonably priced property.”
Doyle suggests that the key to financial stability and generating wealth is deferring that big (or small) purchase, understanding the difference between needs and wants, and eliminating consumerism as much as possible.
It doesn’t matter how much you earn, it only matters how much you save
“Our savings percentage has increased dramatically over the years and, over a relatively short time, is leading to real prosperity instead of surviving or breaking even as so many people do,” he says. “It doesn’t matter how much you earn, it only matters how much you save. And never join the rush to buy inflated property or get on the so-called ‘ladder’, take a longer term view and wait until the time is right to buy.”
Gerry Day – building
For every person who acquired multiple properties in the Celtic Tiger gold rush, there are countless others who merely lived comfortably on a decent wage.
Yet, despite earning more money than he ever had during the good times, the bust set Clondalkin native Gerry Day on the path towards a more meaningful and satisfying career. Growing up in Ballybough in Dublin, he didn’t dare dream of a professional career as a youngster.
“I was only the second in my extended family to sit the Leaving Cert, and even that was the best I could expect at the time. I was expected to go out, get a job and provide for the family,” he reflects.
In the ‘90s, Day “kind of fell into” the building industry, and was eventually headhunted to becoming a purchasing manager in a building company.
“The kids had piano lessons, drama lessons, anything they wanted,” he recalls. “We had a sensible car and a couple of holidays in Ireland and France during the year: nothing excessive. For a while, money wasn’t an issue. I remember in a meeting with my boss, putting down a huge amount of money on a piece of paper and pushing it across the desk to them saying, ‘that’s what I’d like to be paid’. It wasn’t a problem. It was kind of ridiculous.”
Yet by 2008, the warning signs were rounding the corner.
“The company was being scaled down,” he recalls. “You knew there was going to be a hard landing, but you couldn’t jettison from that.”
Eventually, Day was made redundant in 2009: “Traditionally, you’re in the role as breadwinner and in a way the job defined who I am,” he admits. “I had to keep busy and create a routine.”
Someone like me never dreams of becoming a teacher
That July, amid what he calls a summer of “personal panic”, Day went to Liberties College and completed a counselling course. It gave him an appetite for learning and self-improvement, which eventually culminated in him getting an arts degree from NUI Maynooth and qualifying as a geography and English teacher. He recently secured a CID – a contract of indefinite duration – which Day describes as the “promised land” for teachers.
“Someone like me never dreams of becoming a teacher because back in my school days, teachers were these educated people. I learned about lifelong learning; it’s important to be open to new opportunities and to upskill all the time.
“I know people are saying that the good times are here again, but it’s so important to plan and be responsible for that change,” he surmises.
After he used his redundancy to leap-frog into a more gratifying career, Day advises others to really ask themselves if they enjoy their line of work, or merely do it for the steady pay cheque.
“My advice is always think about a few years down the line.
Instead of seeing redundancy as the worst thing, I grabbed the opportunity with both hands
“I don’t know what I could have done any differently. When you’re getting a good wage, you think, ‘How can I give this up?’
“I was getting quite a lot of money in the building industry, but I didn’t thrive and it didn’t fulfil a deeper need. Instead of seeing redundancy as the worst thing, I grabbed the opportunity with both hands and it became such a wonderful journey.
“It’s only when the headlights are blaring in your face that you feel you have to make contingency plans. I’ll never let that happen again. I’ve come a long way and I believe I’ve finally made my touchdown.”
How to survive a boom (and avoid making the same mistakes that we did a decade ago)
Save: If you’re able to enjoy a few nights out a week, you’re certainly able to harvest a few quid and stick it in a rainy day fund. Professionals often suggest having three to six months’ expenses in a separate account.
Forget owning multiple properties abroad: Yes, Bulgaria was a growth market at the time and it’s usually good to invest in bricks and mortar, but only if you have the money to begin with. Don’t put yourself in debt because you’ve always fancied owning a Portuguese bolthole. Use Airbnb instead.
Forgo champagne/cocktails with brunch: Sorry to sound like your mum, but spending within your means, and not on the assumption of future wealth, is the best way to avoid a lifestyle crunch in the event of a downturn. Besides, tea is better for you anyway.
Keep your eye on your own paper: Who cares that the neighbours have a new car/extension/driveway? Everyone was at that carry-on a decade ago, and look what happened there.
Don’t panic buy: If you’re a first-time buyer, don’t panic buy property if the market is rising steeply. It may feel like the race is on to grab a bargain while you still can. Wait, continue to save, and bide your time until a modicum of value returns to the market.
Be sensible with your finances: Aim to eliminate niggling finance deals, car loans or credit card debts and get a sensible pension and savings plan in place. The aim is to build a good defence, rather than working reactively if disaster strikes.
Upskill: Evading the redundancy gauntlet is an imprecise science, but upskilling regularly will help you feel more in control of your professional destiny. Skills such as digital marketing, bookkeeping or training aren’t likely to go out of favour any time soon.
Keep informed: The best way to stay ahead of financial ups and downs in the wider economy is to really get a grip on economics, investments and what’s really going on in society.