VICTORIA WHITE: We created the property boom but we never learn our lessons

Come back and write another chapter, Daphne. That’s what Victoria White kept thinking as she stared in horror at the security fencing which now surrounds the Puxley Mansion outside Castletownbere. She explains why.

There were great ambitions that Puxley Mansion, destroyed by the IRA in 1921, would be reborn as a luxury hotel

I’m a sucker for Gothic ruins and a sucker for the Gothic novels of Daphne du Maurier. I’d visited Dunboy Castle and the nearby Puxley Mansion before years ago and I recognised the ruin from the dust-jacket of my copy of du Maurier’s Hungry Hill, which is loosely based on the history of the Puxley family.

Like most of du Maurier’s best work, Hungry Hill is a vehemently anti-empire. It portrays a family which has stolen the land from the natives and plundered the landscape for copper. Both get their own back. The estate returns to the natives and to nature.

But I don’t think even du Maurier could have imagined that the ruins of the Puxley Mansion could be reborn as a top-class hotel. That was the idea with which four local businessmen came up in the early Celtic Tiger years. The idea fired the imagination of the former chairman of the Ritz-Carlton group, the funding flowed and the biggest privately-funded restoration project ever attempted in these islands is almost complete.

The hotel hosted the biggest New Year’s party Beara had ever seen in 2007 but the credit began to ran out the minute Lehmann Brothers collapsed and now the gleaming hotel in the fanastical Gothic mansion sits there telling a giant morality tale about the danger of dreaming dreams which are too big.

I might have inflicted this tale on Irish Examiner readers except even I had to admit that it’s simplistic and it’s not even true. The hotel was probably a good idea. Beara has never managed to attract its fair share of tourists, compared with nearby Iveragh. A world-class hotel might have rebranded the whole peninsula, providing much-needed jobs.

The restoration job inside the security fencing, which I have only seen in photographs, looks stunning, with a massive Gothic reception hall and a three-storey dining facility for two in one of the turrets. The report of the multi-generational family of bats carefully enticed over two seasons out of the 64 mansion chimneys into their own plush bat house is irresistible.

The more I turned the astonishing image of the moribund monster hotel over in my mind the more I began to think that it tells a much stronger tale about who we choose to blame for our troubles. The burning of the Puxley Mansion in 1921 — along with the other 275 big houses which were destroyed by the IRA during the War of Independence and the Civil War — was among the most witless acts of our revolutionary history.

The mansion was never going to be used as a British army base, as the IRA claimed at the time. The Puxleys were not responsible for British rule in Ireland any more than was the writer George Moore or Free State Senator, Lord Mayo, or any of the other families who were ruthlessly burned out of their homes and received scant compensation, if any. The Puxleys got £50,000 for the life’s work of generations of their family.

Those houses were an intrinsic part of our history and they were built by local craftsmen from local materials. They were nothing more than symbols and easy targets while the real target — creating a genuine republic — got partly lost.

Again, when the financial crash threatened our republic we looked for obvious symbols of blame so we could pass the buck. If Nama had been called “The Bogeyman” when it was established to deal with thousands of properties as empty and distressed as the Puxley Mansion (though I’m not saying that the mansion is with the agency) it would not have been greeted by more scary claims. You would genuinely think that Nama was responsible for our mother of all property explosions, not a desperate attempt to salvage something from the wreckage.

The economist David McWilliams advocated letting the banks go and declared in the Irish Independent, “Nama is our economic Stalingrad and it scares all sensible people”. The battle of Stailngrad was among the bloodiest of the Second World War, lasting five months and killing thousands so methinks the comparison was somewhat strained. But McWilliams was in combative form: “The reason we must fight Nama at every turn”, he wrote, “ is because it is the economics of fanatics and the whole world can see this. It will keep money away from Ireland…”

None of this happened. Nama looks like it is going to dispose of most of its assets by 2016, not 2020, and is on target to turn a modest profit to the taxpayer. Contrary to Mc Williams’s projections, the agency’s performance was name-checked by Moody’s and Standard and Poors as among the reasons for Ireland’s recent status upgrades.

Even the namawinelake blog, which has recently closed its investigations of what is certainly a secretive agency, said in its final post, “What appears to be universally agreed — even by detractors — is that they (Nama) are hard-working, honest, accomplished and making progress in what is one of the most high-profile and politically-charged organisations in a country that invented the term “gombeen politics”.

Who remembers the “No to Nama” campaign and the marches in September 2009? The banner headline on the front of The Irish Times advertising an article by Fintan O’Toole on “Why Nama must be stopped?” which seemed to give Nama the powers of a dictator: “Nama will shape the real world in which power will be exercised.” Who remembers Mick Wallace’s speech at the launch of O’Toole’s book Ship of Fools in which he said the Government’s Nama projections were “off the wall”?

Who remembers economist Constantin Gurdgiev’s warning that the Nama project “fails on five fundamental principles: logic, economic and financial efficiency, non-discriminatory action by the state and political and ethical legitimacy.” Who remembers Joan Burton’s heartrending words to the Humbert Summer School in August 2009 when she described Nama as “a monument to the greed which created the crisis” — Joan Burton, now Tánaiste in a Government to which the agency is accountable?

Nobody remembers. And what gets me is that nobody confronts the scaremongers with the truth because we swallowed what they said at the time and we don’t like to be wrong. Most of all we don’t like to face the fact that there was never any Bogeyman. The appalling property boom was created and sustained by us in our free and open democracy.

The problems this creates are fairly obvious. We never grow up. We never take responsibility. We never learn the lessons.

We needlessly hand power to the extreme elements in our political system who can tell a simplistic morality tale very well and we ride on, ready to build another castle in the air.

When the financial crash threatened our republic we looked for obvious symbols of blame so we could pass the buck

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