The optimism must have been infectious when they started moving into the newly built estate in the summer of 2006. The mixed local authority, social and affordable two-storeys priced at around €150,000 were perched over a vista of distant wooded hills and church spires spilling out from Carrickmacross. There were lovely stone walls in the gardens and communal greens and, after years on the housing list, it was home, at long last.
Bridie Hickey-Racey unpacked the belongings she amassed over 31 years as an emigrant in Britain, Belgium and latterly Georgia, USA. She had waited nine years for the house, since returning to her native Co Monaghan on being diagnosed with
cancer and hearing of Ireland's economic utopia. Aged 59 now and a grandmother, she shares the pristine house she rents from the state-funded Respond! Housing Association with her three dogs. In recent weeks, she has lost more than half her life savings on shares in Irish Life & Permanent. She works five days a fortnight in a Fás-sponsored community employment scheme where about a dozen colleagues have already been let go. One girl learned on the same day she was laid off that her husband had lost his job too. Bridie dreads being cut off from the outside world if she becomes unemployed.
"I've everything paid for. I'm lucky," she says, "but I thought I'd have a little nest egg for when I'm older and I might change my car or have a little holiday. That's gone. It's my sons I worry for. They have mortgages, childcare, credit cards, loans on their cars. If they lose their jobs, what's going to happen to them?"
For her next cancer check-up, she will make a 114-mile round trip to Dublin because the Dochas oncology unit in Drogheda's Lourdes Hospital is being closed and breast cancer assessment and surgery transferred to the capital under the government's cancer strategy. Bridie made €3,500 for the Irish Cancer Society from a cake sale, €12,000 from a sponsored walk and another €3,200 from a country-and-western night where she overcame stage-fright to recite a monologue of Hank Williams' 'Men with Broken Hearts'. Once or twice each week, she walks the dogs on death row in the local pound. On her sitting room wall hangs a framed photograph of Vivien Leigh in the role of Scarlett O'Hara.
Across Tailte an Chlochair estate, radio music emanates from Andrew McElroy's house. Like many of his neighbours, he is at home throughout the working week. It is more than a year since work dried up for the 33-year-old bricklayer and father of four. His last job was on the site of a new school in Ardee. After that, there was the odd house extension or garden wall to be built but nothing long-term. In the good times, he was taking home €1,600 a week, minimum. "I often came home with two-and-a-half or three grand a week. I worked seven days a week sometimes. I worked hard. I was talking to a few boys this morning and I said, 'I suppose we were spoiled'. We knew 18 months ago it was starting to go bad. We were talking about it on the site for the school. There isn't as much as a day's work to be got now."
After leaving school at 13 and emigrating to England at 18, he was back in Ireland and employing 12 to 15 brickies in his 20s and "banks were offering me €50,000 and €100,000 loans every day of the week". Now he gets by on the dole and minds the children during the day while his Lithuanian-born wife works a five-day week for €180. "We spent it while we had it. We spoiled the children," he says. "I've no regrets. Except... Don't get me wrong. I love my wife to bits and I love my kids but, when she comes home, there's nothing left for me to do 'cause she takes over looking after the house and the kids. When she walks in the door I feel stone useless again."