The year the plan expired

Life is full of moments. This is one now and that was one then. If you walked into that Dublin hotel you could, as a non-privy spectator, have mistaken it for a wedding reception, such was the crowd. The same crowd that could confuse would also, on closer inspection, give the game away. The colours were all wrong.

Dark shades and black ties had won out. Hands were busy, holding either hot drinks or each other, offering a consoling hand on the shoulder or a hug to those who needed something more. Caffeine trumped alcohol as we talked with family and friends, reminiscing about my father, whose funeral had been that morning.

2007 had an awful lot to answer for.

With a breaking heart and a muddled brain my phone rang, and I answered it. I excused myself and confirmed it. As planned, the phone line would be connected tomorrow. No ifs or buts. And no father. He had visited the busy construction site before and we pointed out the place we believed to be ours. I hope he saw the one we meant. I know he felt our excitement.

The year could not, would not, end this way.

We finally had our keys and, after two years, couldn’t wait a minute longer to move in. Our relationship was going from strength to strength. Our subsequent desire to make a ‘grown-up’ decision was to put us in the company of thousands of others – not of developers, or investors, but of couples in love who wanted nothing more than the opportunity to turn a house into a home, our home.

In the five years that passed, it never became that to me. I couldn’t bring myself to let it.

The property crash, and the gradual realisation that we were to become a statistic in the mess and little more, led to a deep inward resentment. It goes without saying that I, like many many others, did not see the crash coming. There are plenty who will say that they did, but had they been of a certain age, means and motive, would have done similar. They now have hindsight, without the bittersweet aftertaste, and can rewrite their own personal history as they see fit.

The truth be told, we did our best to be pragmatic, making sure to stick below the €317,500 in order to avoid paying stamp duty. That additional outlay is now but a small percentage of what we owe, which will never be recouped by what we own.

Watching things pan out in a way you never expected, with each twist and turn making it painfully clear how little control we have over this situation has proven to be gut wrenching and too often, gut wrenching on a daily basis. The five-year plans of many homeowners have by this stage fallen by the wayside.

2012 was our expiration date.

Wearing the now tattered and ill-fitting clothing that is negative equity does little to compliment the outfit that is our life in 2013, and what it has become. The term ‘long-term’ has for too long held only negative connotations for me. My imagination, vivid as it is, would struggle to visualise a different property in our future, the property that would become our real house, the one that would allow for pet ownership, better amenities and a shorter commute.

Thankfully, the starting of a family, whenever that will happen and however it’ll be funded, is considered a compromise too far by both of us. There will come a point, however, when space, or the lack of it where we are, may come to play a part in that as well.

By virtue of the things this real house would allow for, it couldn’t but become a home.

Couldn’t it?

As a journalist I spend a great deal of each day being objective. My own inner newsreel does not benefit from any such objectivity, however, when thoughts of signing on the dotted line 2005 are replayed. No balance. Just bias. And let’s not forget the misplaced self-criticism at not being able to foresee what the future would hold.

In the years that have passed, life has gone on in this house. Ten birthdays and six Christmases have been celebrated here. Having never missed a mortgage payment and with two incomes (for now), we remain the lucky ones. There are those who can no longer afford their mortgage repayments, those whose homes have been effected by pyrite, and those from Priory Hall who remain in limbo.

I can only write about my reality, however, and the reality is that holding onto that five-year plan and watching it count down to zero was a waste of time and energy. When everything had changed but the self-imposed deadline which justified the purchase, simple math rendered our best intentions redundant.

It’s time for a new plan.

What is common to us all, regardless of our financial burdens – past, present, or future – is that each of us remain in possession of something that has never dropped in value, and never will.

If you’re still struggling with your New Year’s resolution for 2013 and, more importantly, if you find yourself struggling in general, adopt the one that I should have adopted in 2009 – the one that I am adopting now.

Be a better friend to yourself.

Feel the fear, do it anyway, but accept yourself – always and without condition. Be your own best friend and safeguard the only thing you will ever own that is truly priceless.

It’s time I made this house my home.

Giving Balbriggan a future by recognising its past

Balbriggan harbour, a maritime history kept at arms length

Balbriggan harbour, a maritime history kept at arms length

It’s a damp grey day in Balbriggan. Driving through the town my tyres splash through Drogheda and Dublin Street, streets named after the places they’ll take you to, instead of enlightening you as to where you are. The street names remind me of the jaded joke whose punch line asserts that the best feature of a place – a place with people, dreams and a history – is the road, or roads, which leave it. In the five years I’ve lived here I’ve gotten to know some of its people and I know the dreams of many, my wife and mine included, but I know little of its history. The Balbriggan Maritime Museum is trying to change that.

They have given my journey a purpose and my car a destination. The Bracken Court Hotel is hosting a ‘pop-up’ exhibition for one day only, giving a temporary address to a town’s history – a history which finds itself homeless. As I am to learn, Balbriggan has a rich and varied maritime past, made possible by the towns harbour; completed 250 years ago this year.

Trevor Sargent and Jimmy Deenihan TD

Trevor Sargent and Jimmy Deenihan TD

I arrive to hear ex-TD, Green Party member and Chairman of the Balbriggan Maritime Museum, Trevor Sargent, speak passionately about Balbriggan and its active community, his words filling the already full room. He speaks of his wish for the artefacts on show to have a permanent home in Balbriggan’s former lifeboat house, his speech pleading for ‘this one thing’ time and again. The coup of the day is undoubtedly the attendance of the Minister for Arts, Heritage and Gaeltacht Affairs, Jimmy Deenihan TD, who heralds the ‘pop-up’ museum as ‘a positive beginning’ to the creation of Ireland’s first maritime museum.

Balbriggan’s former lifeboat house - the proposed location for the museum

Balbriggan’s former lifeboat house - the proposed location for the museum

Once the speeches have ended, the museum is opened for a few short hours. Life and death are on show here for all to see, with recent events both at home and abroad having sadly brought the latter to the fore once again. The rich, detail-laden stories and memorabilia which await me, however, leave no doubt that the Irish Sea, to which the town stares out onto, has given our island nation far more than it has taken.

While the replica boats and unearthed cannonballs on display draw the eye, the dots are joined and the ears informed by the elder statesmen of the town, as they revel in their ability to hold an audience with their knowledge of a smaller town, in a simpler time. It is the strong human element that ties it all together, from the identification certificates of fishermen now long dead, to the slips of laminated card which accompany the items on display, giving the details of those whose private collections now stand liberated before us.

Exhibition replica

Exhibition replica

There is a lot of history in a quarter-millennium, but its cyclical nature ensures that while the antagonists may change, the same threats re-emerge. In 1777, the United States Ship (USS) Lexington, anchored close by, effectively held Balbriggan to ransom, threatening to turn its guns on the town if fresh water was not provided. All these years later, Balbriggan is once again under threat, but this time the enemies are less visible.

Once one of the fastest growing towns in Ireland, Balbriggan became the bottom rung of the property ladder for many. As one of many who came, my 5-year plan was to prove far from recession proof. Vast estates of duplexes and one-bedroom apartments with little resale value have forever altered the town’s landscape and makeup, leaving it with an unsure identity but an unaltered history.

The once sleepy town may be no more, as the short-term dreams of Balbriggan’s recent residents’ transition into long-term realities, but the wide variety of ethnicities present at the exhibition is proof of a growing, inclusive community. The irony of the town’s single nightclub being called Home may, in time, cease to be so ironic. While the cessation of commercial shipping in the 1960s may have resulted in Balbriggan’s boats no longer reaching the far-flung destinations they once did, the town has now found itself home to citizens from many of those same places.

A single place with the ability to bring all this together has the potential to give rise to the ties that bind, especially in a town with an ever-increasing daily exodus. The recent curtailment of Fás training courses in the town has forced the over 5,000 unemployed to cast their nets further afield. Combined with the employed commuters, vast numbers leave the town each day only to return again during the hours of darkness – the economic fisherman of a modern age.

In a cruel paradox, the growth of Balbriggan has left it with less. Its maritime history, however, remains unaffected and unaltered, with an ability to shine a positive light on the town much brighter than its lighthouse, built by the Hamilton family in 1796, ever could.

Balbriggan lighthouse, built by the Hamilton family in 1796

Balbriggan lighthouse, built by the Hamilton family in 1796

Balbriggan harbour is a piece of living history, coming into existence at a time when Ireland was still recovering from The Great Famine and America was still a British colony. The changes it has lived through acts as proof that things do end, just as history will one day detail the end of the current recession.

Ireland’s troubled economic climate may continue to leave Balbriggan’s history without a home. Should this transpire, the living accounts of those who have played a major part in it will reach a much smaller audience before vanishing forever, leaving only the artefacts remaining and the dots disjoined.

Balbriggan beach and harbour

Balbriggan beach and harbour

In the few short hours that it existed, my visit to the pop-up museum taught me everything that I have now told you. Balbriggan has, up until now, asked for very little and in return lost a lot. The 9th of February 2012 marked the day when the town asked for this one thing. It will be interesting to see what tomorrow’s catch brings.