Goodbye To The Countryside?

“Bungalow blitz” of weird-looking new homes spreads across the farm fields

By Robert Sullivan

Ugly Irish Houses
Ugly Irish Houses

These days, Americans who visit Ireland’s countryside come back singing a slightly different tune. The people, the pubs, the humor are as great as ever. But there’s less talk about the scenic beauty, and more about the scattershot homebuilding that’s rapidly eating up the landscape. In real estate terms, a kind of “perfect storm” is going on in Ireland that combines sudden wealth with a decline in farming, weak zoning laws, and a popular architectural style that looks wildly out of place. It’s threatening to turn west Ireland, in particular, into one of Europe’s less-attractive suburbs.

Ireland’s economic explosion has set off a land-grab as intense-if not quite as large-as America’s housing boom after World War II. A key difference, though, is that lots of younger, newly affluent Irish don’t want to live on the outskirts of a city. Instead of building little “Levittowns” within sight of Dublin, many are putting up their dream homes deep in the countryside.

Roads To Ruin?

This trend is being helped by new economic opportunities in rural areas. In Ballymote, near Sligo city, our Ireland Fun Facts’ friend and sometime contributor Dick Cahill tells us that “Abbott Medical, Masonite and the credit card company MBNA all not have facilities very nearby.” Further south, on the Beara Peninsula, a revitalized fishing industry has made it possible for more people to live and work locally. But the biggest force behind rural development, according to many, is Ireland’s modernized road system, which has made it possible to commute much further to work, and to quickly get to weekend homes in places that seemed like the end of the earth just 10 years ago.

The Irish government has also helped, with a number of investment tax breaks. Back in 1995, a wave of summer home building was set off in the West by the “Seaside Resort Scheme.” Then in 1998, the “Rural Renewal Scheme” helped fuel new year-round home construction all over the Northwest. When these incentives were first put in place, Ireland’s rural counties needed help to get out of their long economic decline. From today’s perspective, though, they seem only to have turned the Celtic building boom into a speculative frenzy.

Cut to Ribbons

What may be damaging the countryside more than the number of homes, however, is “ribbon development” – the widespread practice of scattering homes evenly across the landscape (along the “ribbon” of roadway), rather than clustering them to protect at least some open space. Right now, it seems like almost no large tracts of land are being protected from development.

Many in Ireland feel that any restriction on ribbon development would be a kind of heresy. In fact, the government has made repeated moves over the past three years to make it easier for builders to bypass even the weak local restrictions that now exist in the countryside. Martin Cullen, Ireland’s Environmental Prime Minister, has argued for looser standards, based on the fact that Ireland has always had a “dispersed population,” and grouping homes together would be somehow un-Irish. The “cultural” argument, odd as it may sound to American ears, is a favorite rallying cry of those opposing any restrictions on rural development.

“Agriculture is in decline, so this is hardly surprising” says Frank McDonald, Environment Editor for The Irish Times. “There have traditionally been some restrictions against ribbon development, but many of them are now being removed by local counselors who are either acting for developers or who are real estate developers themselves.” Counties including Wexford, Galway, Mayo and Kerry are passing laws to allow multiple homes to connect to a single septic tank and cutting back on sightline requirements that have traditionally limited density. Mr. McDonald warns that half a million new homes are projected to go up in the countryside in the next 20 years, adding “there will be no unspoilt countryside left in Ireland just 10 years from now, outside of national parks and mountain peaks.”

Scattered Townlands

A different view comes from Jim Connolly, a sculptor in West Clare who founded the Irish Rural Dweller’s Association (IRDA) three years ago. Mr. Connolly, who has rapidly become the best-known voice against tighter zoning laws, stands hard by the cultural argument. “The traditional Irish townland is a scattered community, although its people are tightly knit. This approach goes back for thousands of years.” Connolly argues that Ireland has the lowest housing density of any county in Europe. “I’m not opposed to any kind of control,” he says, “but what’s missing is an understanding of people in an under populated country.” What kind of building controls he does favor, however, remains a vague topic. As for any negative impact on tourism, Mr. Connolly says, simply, “if people want to see the green fields, they should go to places like Scotland.”

There’s a great deal of debate about whether most new homes are being built for farmer’s children, summer residents or commuters. Most counties in Ireland have long had “local needs” rules, requiring proof that new homes would go to local families. Mr. Connolly, in fact, claims most of the new building results from “existing communities repopulating themselves.” But that’s impossible, according to Ian Lumley, Environment Officer for An Taisce (pronounced “on taskha”), the national trust for Ireland. “There are 130,000 privately owned farms in Ireland,” Mr. Lumley says. “We estimate that there should only be about 3,000 new homes needed each year to house family members who want to stay on those properties. The reason there are 18,000 new homes going up a year is that people are applying for permission in their own names and then quickly selling off the sites.” Mr. Lumley notes that in 2003, 60% of the new building in Leitrim involves second homes.

Bungalow Blitz

Then there’s the “style thing.” Americans are often shocked when they first see the cold, stucco and stone homes the Irish seem to have fallen in love with. The style is often called “bungalow bliss,” after the title of a popular house-pattern book where many of the home designs come from (critics call it “bungalow blitz”). Its popularity seems fueled, in part, by a distaste that upwardly mobile Irish have for old villages, old houses or anything else that reminds them of the country’s recent, impoverished past. On the properties of countless new homes, you’ll see the decaying ruins of an old cottage. IRDA’s Mr. Connolly says that “foreigners need to understand that rural dwellers cannot live in the kind of hovels – the romantic thatched cottages – they occupied just 30 or 40 years ago.” The new homes, he says, have an “international” style.

English composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, who owns a 12th century castle in Tipperary, disagrees. Interviewed by The Irish Independent, Mr. Webber said Ireland is being covered over by “some of the most hideous and inappropriate housing anywhere in the world.” The “Cats” composer called for rules requiring new buildings to conform to local design vernaculars. His statement was quickly answered by several politicians saying foreigners should keep their mouths shut on this issue.

But the “Irish design vernacular” is precisely the problem. There doesn’t seem to be one. “It’s different than in France or England,” The Irish Times’ Mr. McDonald says. “There’s no indigenous tradition of home design here, outside of old cottages, which are hard to renovate.” He says the so-called “big houses” of Ireland’s pre-independence days offer some architectural heritage, but that big, new “trophy homes” take only a disorganized pastiche of elements from them.

“There is a traditional form of rural home, with white walls, a slated roof and vertically proportioned windows,” says Pat Dargan, lecturer at the Dublin Institute of Technology, “but there’s no interest in this tradition now. People are basing their homes on the style of architecture they’ve seen on their holidays in Spain and Portugal. This is totally alien to our landscape.”

A dark picture?

“What’s going on here will eventually be seen as a catastrophe,” warns An Taisce’s Mr. Lumley, adding “there’s a staggering figure about Ireland that average car mileage here is now higher than in the U.S. In other words, people are willing to tolerate driving extremely long distances to get to work and get their kids to school to be able to live near the water.” He says that areas where development is heaviest right now are West Cork, Kerry, Clare, Galway, Mayo, the Donegal and Sligo coasts and the Shannon River coasts – a virtual “gold list” of top tourism regions.

There’s so much wealth in Eire now that Irish citizens have become major buyers of real estate in Britain and in Mediterranean countries. An Taisce’s pro-control message is so unpopular that the agency recently faced serious financial problems due to lack of public support. And last but not least, nobody on any side of this issue seems to have a viable way for farmers to stay in agriculture instead of selling their land.

An American may have little right to ask the Irish to stop all this, when our own economy is built on private home ownership. But on this side of the pond, we’ve all seen “hot” towns become so built-up that people want to flee to the next, less crowded, area. There’s always been a big margin for error in the U.S. Unfortunately, if Ireland’s new homeowners decide the countryside is too crowded, there’s nowhere to go but into the ocean.