‘If the recession hadn’t hit, I’d never have gone out on my own’
The Crash – 10 years on: five people describe how their lives changed
Alan Hoey: ‘There was no real warning. I just got called into my boss’s office and told my job was gone.’ Photograph: Barry Cronin
A full decade has passed since the global financial crisis that triggered the official beginning of the recession in Ireland. The real impact wouldn’t be felt until many months later, when what began as a banking and property crash filtered out into almost every sector, ravaging the economic landscape. By 2012, the unemployment rate had peaked at almost 15 per cent.
But emerging from the ashes were stories of hope, resilience and second chances. Ten years on, some of those who found themselves at the coalface tell the stories behind the statistics.
Louise Stokes: ‘The world caved in’
Louise Stokes moved home to Ireland from New York in April 2007. She launched Loulerie, her boutique jewellery story, in Dublin city centre in August that year, right on the eve of the crash
“For the first five months, everything was great. Then, in January 2008, the world caved in. After Lehman, people were scared and stopped spending on non-essentials. There were days when no one walked into the shop, hardly anyone was walking down the street. It was terrifying. It can be very lonely being an entrepreneur, and then a bad day happens, and a little bit of doubt creeps in.
“But I’m not a negative person, so I focused on survival. I’m very much a fixer, if there’s a problem, I don’t like the drama and the wailing. I just want to know ‘what are the facts and how do we fix them?’
“I just knew I had to move quickly: I kept very close to my numbers, I spent nothing, and went as niche as possible. I focused on getting exclusive brands, and that’s still the mantra for the business today. I felt like even in a recession, you mightn’t be able to afford a piece that’s very expensive, but you still celebrate Christmas and birthdays.
“I couldn’t afford staff, so I did everything. With two young children, it was extremely hard. I had no maternity leave. There were days that I did not feel like going into work, especially when I had a new baby, but there was no option for me to stay home and cry.
“I remember heaving a sigh of relief around 2014, and when we started our own fine jewellery line, it felt like a turning point. That’s now a major part of the business. But then again between last September and December, with Trump and Brexit, it felt very recessionary to me again. You can’t go ‘the recession is over now, and things will be great for the next 20 years’.”
Alan Hoey: ‘I came back from honeymoon to no job’
In 2008, Alan Hoey was 29, working as an architectural technician in Dundalk, Co Louth, and saving for his wedding. Then his boss called him down to his office.
“There was no real warning. I just got called into my boss’s office and told my job was gone. I didn’t worry too much at first. I thought I’d get another job easily. It took about a month for it to sink in. It was early 2008, and the people I was contacting looking for work were starting to let people go themselves. I went on the dole. We had a mortgage, we had a wedding coming up. I felt so guilty – I was the only one in my family to ever have gone to college.
“I saw friends emigrate to England, change careers, go into teaching, go into childcare, try to get jobs as civil servants. Eventually, after four months, I got a week-to-week contract for a much more junior role in Belfast. I’d leave home at 6.30am. By the time I paid for my commute and lunch, I was coming out with only a little more than the dole. Then my contract at that job ran out the week before we got married.
“I came back from my honeymoon in 2009 to no job. It was miserable. Eventually, I got contract job, but that ended one week after our first child was born in 2010. But it meant I got to spend lots of time with the baby, and in a way, that was a turning point.
“I started to think seriously about going out on my own as an architectural technician. The business got going in September 2010 from the spare bedroom. My old boss was my first client. Six months later, I got my second client. By 2015, things were busy enough that I started taking people on. Now, there are three of us, and we have a full portfolio of five full-time clients.
“It sounds strange to say it, but I wouldn’t change what happened – I think we were all getting too greedy; we lost sight of what’s important. If the recession had never hit, I’d have kept working harder and harder, and I’d never have gone out on my own, or had that time with my children.”
Regina Mangan: ‘We tried to keep a sense of humour’
Regina Mangan’s Waterford-based property management business, bookaroom.ie, started making a profit in 2005, seven years after she founded it. Eighteen months later, the country was in recession and rents “fell off a cliff”.
“The business finally started to take off in 2005, when we landed some contracts to manage huge apartment buildings in Waterford city. Our turnover grew by 70 per cent that year on the previous one -- and then it felt like about 45 minutes later, we got the recession.
“In the boom days, we were renting 70 new properties a month. In 2008, it went down to 20 a month almost overnight. Rents fell off a cliff. We had to do things like sublet part of the office to survive.
“But we were in a strong cash position. And through the first seven years, we had learned resilience. We had clients who were absolutely devastated, in tears on the phone to us. Some of my clients died by suicide. There were days when it felt like we were running a helpline. Even now, it’s upsetting to talk about it.
“We did what we could to minimise costs for our clients, but the reality was that some clients had purchased apartments for €350,000 and were getting rent of €500 a month. On the other side, we had tenants losing jobs by the day, and were faced with losing their homes. It was carnage.
“In 2009, I had to make the decision to end my relationship with one of my biggest clients, because I could no longer make a margin on the business.
“My view is that you can’t control what happens, you can only control your response to it. During the recession, I invested in technology and refurbished the office space. I was very conscious of what my staff were going through, so I kept paying them bonuses, because I knew I couldn’t get through it without them. We tried to keep a sense of humour. I had to give up watching Vincent Browne though.
“Waterford was slower to come out of the recession than other parts of the country, but things turned a corner in 2014, and there’s a huge sense of optimism about now. Three years ago, we felt confident enough in the recovery to venture into sales for the first time, and set up a new estate agency, Liberty Blue. My advice to anyone would be to take the tough decisions and run with them quickly. Don’t hang around.”
Barry McLoughlin: ‘I started looking at JobBridge’
Barry McLoughlin was working as a solicitor when the recession hit. He took redundancy in January 2011 and ended up on a JobBridge scheme.
“At first, it was a sense that deals weren’t happening, people were being cautious. When there was a relationship break-up, previously, they’d have just sold the house, and walked away with two deposits, but now they were forced to stay living together. I remember one judge remarking it was interesting how people would work on staying together when the house wasn’t worth what they thought it was worth.
“Around December 2009, it was announced Brian Lenihan was ill with cancer, and it felt like a metaphor. The winter of 2010 to 2011 felt really, really tough, and it hit me that we were goosed. In January 2011, I took redundancy from my job. My wife, who is a solicitor too, had also been let go when she qualified. I did a lot of interviews and there was nothing happening. If you wanted to set up on your own, the costs were really prohibitive. So I started looking at JobBridge schemes.
“We were living off savings at that stage. Family and friends were great, but it was very tough. It’s not even the money, it’s ‘what am I doing with my life?’ You think you’ve done all the right things, and yet here you are.
“I decided to look on it as an opportunity. Towards the end of 2011, I was interviewed by a communications consultancy, and they took me on as an intern. I’m still there today, helping people prepare for job interviews, media interviews and presentations. In hindsight, I can say it was the best move I ever made. But it was difficult getting to that point.”
Jillian Godsil: ‘The lowest point was summer 2017’
Jillian Godsil lost her home in the recession and was one of the the first women to go bankrupt under Ireland’s new bankruptcy regulations.
“Until 2008, life was very good. I was happily married, or so I thought, running my own PR and marketing company, living in a big house we’d bought in 1996.
“Then two things went wrong. I discovered to my horror that I wasn’t happily married, and we started separation proceedings. The second thing was that my ex had got into property. The house had been worth €1.6 million at one stage, and it seemed to make sense to release some equity. So we had huge debts that we couldn’t pay.
“It happened so quickly. My husband went back to the UK and declared bankruptcy. I made a video to try to sell the house on YouTube. The video was quirky and it went viral. I got a cash offer of €500,00 in 2011, and I put that to the bank, but they refused to sell and went on to repossess the house. It sold for €165,000 in 2013. I kept telling my story and I became the poster girl for austerity. But I suppose I took my eye off the ball a bit workwise. I eventually had to close the business and go on the dole.
“I kept thinking I would turn the corner, but it was the longest corner ever. I went bankrupt in Ireland, and when I discovered that meant I could never run for public office, I decided to take a case against the State, which led to a change in the law. I went back to college and did a master’s, but still couldn’t find work.
“By early 2014, I was like a zombie. I was suffering from depression. I didn’t want to commit suicide, but I came very close to it. I felt empty. All roads seemed blocked to me. The lowest point, though, came when I exited bankruptcy last year, in the summer of 2017. I was one of 800 people discharged that day. But we had to move out of our rented cottage, and I wasn’t able to find alternative accommodation. I was couch surfing; it was middle-class homelessness. I wrote about it in The Irish Times, and a friend read the piece, and offered me a cottage he owned to rent.
“I changed the law, I did my master’s, but I feel like the universe turned on its axis that day, and since then, things have got better. Now I have a new career working in marketing for the blockchain industry. I had 10 years where I felt, ‘why can’t I get out of the mud? I have worked everywhere, I have a great network of contacts, and I couldn’t get off my knees’. Finally, things are looking up.”