So I’m at work a couple of Fridays ago, groggy after a gig the previous night in Belfast (where I got lost trying leave the city and ended up driving in circles through loyalist strongholds for an hour, AGAIN). My Friday intention was to get home after work, put the feet up and relax for a few hours, then toddle down to a gig in the city and have a few pints. That all went out the window when I got a lunchtime phone call from Kieran Lawless, who was a man short for the opening night for his new club in Westport, Co. Mayo (the niftily titled Westport Comedy Club). Someone had dropped out, and Flawless was panicking. And although the thoughts of a quiet night in Dublin were all that was keeping me going through the day, I couldn’t refuse Kieran.
And that’s how that Friday turned from a trip up the N2 to a hot dinner and a relaxing night into a 300 mile, seven hour round trip. I knew going over that the gig would be worthwhile; that there would be a decent crowd, I’d get good stage time, and I’d get well looked after (all of which was correct, and a special mention for Kieran here for organising such a great gig). But I was wondering how I had gotten the call, out of everyone that could have gotten the gig. Kieran has seen me gig dozens of times and knows I’m reliable enough onstage, but I think my booking was more to do with the fact that he knew I’d be able to drop everything at short notice and traverse the country to do a remote gig. To anyone trying to get a foothold in comedy, that’s the best advice I can give – having a good set is one thing, but being able to travel at a moments notice to do a gig, any gig, is just as important. Right now, as you read this, if a guy rang you and offered a gig in some faraway city… would you drop tools and be there? In my first year, I drove up and down the country from Donegal to Kerry, Galway to Dublin, almost always to do seven minutes for no money. It may seem impossible, but take it from me; from Dublin, there’s nowhere in this country you can’t be in under five hours.
This trip to Mayo was different from most journeys comedy sends me on, however. Most of the times, you can get on a motorway or a good dual carriageway, and the car practically drives itself. From Ardee to Mayo however was mostly old-school National Route driving. I wasn’t particularly pushed for time so this didn’t really bother me too much, unlike some right-to-the-wire Cannonball Runs I’ve done. Instead of cold concrete and crash barriers whipping by at 119 kph (I stay RIGHT under the limit, having given enough money to the Traffic Corps Christmas party fund), you get to drive through beautiful countryside, charming villages, small towns… rural Ireland. It’s been a while since I’ve had to go cross-country: seems every week there’s a new bypass or motorway opening, saving you time and the hassle of looking at fantastic scenery. But the one thing that became very, very clear to me on those three and half hours to Westport was something that I’ve known about for a long time, but never realised just how bad it was until I saw it…
Everywhere, outside every town, row after row of shitty cut-and-paste style houses, empty, boarded up. Whizzing everywhere on a motorway, you don’t see the full extent. It’s when you drive through a small town you see the truth about the absolute total fucking mess we have made of this country, with every picturesque town and village marred by identikit housing schemes.
My first experience with ghost estates came a few years back, when I was working as a travelling sales rep for a plumbing supplies company. I hated the job: going from building site to building site, trying to pawn stuff to disinterested builders like a well-dressed pikey. This was right when things were starting to get really bad, when work was starting to dry up around the country, but I was to naieve to notice. My job was to get out there, find new customers and sell as much material as possible to them. It was pointless, but I stuck with it gamely until I was laid off, trying my damnedest to find new customers. One day, I was driving around the Carlingford area of north Louth, when I spotted an estate being built down a small road. I drove to it, parked, and looked around. No-one. There were half-built skeletons of houses jutting up from the ground, scaffolding still erected around them. There were what appeared to be several finished houses too; including one showhouse. I looked in the window and seen a house decked out to the nth degree; this is the house that potential buyers would be shown, to entice them to buy one of these buildings for themselves. The other houses didn’t fare so well; the insides of them looked not to have been finished, but that construction had just stopped. I couldn’t see anyone onsite – no foreman, no labourers, no security men. This was the middle of the day, where the fuck was everyone? Thinking everyone was away for lunch, I sat in the car waiting like a peon for an hour before sticking my business card in the letterbox of the showhouse and heading back to HQ for another bollocking from my boss.
I went back to that site every week, as part of my rounds, to see if anyone was there. One day, I got cheeky; I went round the back of the houses, to see if any of them were open, if I could find an old invoice with the builders name on it, so at least I would have some contact details to ring him and ask him if he wanted to buy anything from our company. I found a door at the back of one of the houses open, and went in. When I hear the term “Ghost Estate” used now, it’s this house I think of. The place wasn’t so much deserted as it was frozen; there were newspapers lying around so you could see the exact day that construction stopped. There was a half drank mug of tea, gone sour and growing mould. Rotten sandwiches in lunchboxes. Plaster mixed but never used. It looked like whoever was working here either left in a hurry, or died and were still here. At any moment, I expected zombie builders to come charging down the stairs and rush me.
At the time, I believed that site was an isolated incident – just one unlucky developer who bit off more than he could chew. The years to come would of course prove otherwise, as one by one, each town got their own Zombie Construction site. It was depressing to drive to Mayo, to see so many beautiful towns marred by these ghastly partially finished houses – the once scenic drive now a hideous Horrorshow, a testament to the greed that gripped this nation over the “boom time”. This is a greed I know a lot about, because it’s a greed I myself succumbed to.
See, I’ve got a bit of a cheek on me to start complaining about the state of the country, especially when I myself played my part in it. I’m of the opinion that ok, we had piss-poor financial regulation and banks with borderline illegal business ethics, but if it wasn’t for the fact that half the country woke up one morning and fancied themselves as property tycoons then we wouldn’t have let the country slide into ruin. How do I know so much about greedy people looking to get rich quick, one fifth of an acre at a time? Because I’m one of them. About six years ago, when things were really cooking, I bought a house in Carrickmacross. No problem there, right? Everyone has the right to buy a house, to have somewhere to live, and call their own. That’s not going to cause an economic meltdown, some guy buying a house to live in. But of course I wasn’t buying a house to live in; I was buying an investment. Bricks and mortar, I was told. You can’t go wrong. I didn’t seek financial advice, I just looked at what everyone else was doing, and devised the following plan…
Step 1: Borrow money, buy house
Step 2: Gouge some Foreign Nationals
Step 3: Profit
Step 4: Repeat
I felt like if I didn’t get on the property ladder soon I would be left behind. The future? Who gave a shit abut the future when house prices are rising BY THE DAY. Buy now, worry about it later! Don’t get me wrong, there was nothing wrong with buying property, as long as you were buying it for the right reasons. To raise a family and grow old in? No problem. As a long term investment, a concrete piggy bank? No problem. I wasn’t doing either of those things. I wanted to get rich, quick, then sell the property on to some moron for double its worth. Like thousands of others, I got suckered into what boiled down to the greatest pyramid scam of all time, promising low investment, high return. Al I needed to do was raise a small percentage for the deposit and to decorate and kit the house out. This took every penny I had saved, down to emptying an old An Post savers account that I had since I was five: no bullshit, to buy this house I literally spent my communion money.
And for a few months, it worked like a charm. Then of course, it all went crazy. Everyone wanted in. Houses were thrown up left and right to meet the insane demand. You couldn’t build houses fast enough. The banks got more and more reckless with their lending until the bubble burst. Wages plummeted. Mortgages skyrocketed. Jobs vanished. Building work screeched to a halt, leaving this countries scenic routes a hell of a lot less scenic. As for me, the tenants I had rented the house to fucked off back to Latvia or wherever, leaving me with a thirty-five year lesson as to why a guy with three hundred points in his Leaving Cert and a Diploma in Electronics from Dundalk Institute of Technology really isn’t cut out to be a property mogul.
Of course, this isn’t a sad-faced essay about poor Gerry who couldn’t find tenants to cover his mortgage. I’m not sitting around feeling sorry for myself. I got too greedy and now I’m dealing with it, as best I can. The people I feel sorry for in this whole mess are the people who were just looking for somewhere to live, to raise kids in a home they called their own. They’re now raising that family in a home that cost them three times it’s worth because idiots like me were driving the price sky-high. They have every right to be angry, to march and protest against what happened to them. What the hell would I shout at a protest rally?
But it’s a desperate fool that goes through something like this and doesn’t learn something. Above all else, I’ve learned the value of money, and how to be sensible with it. I’m making enough from my day job to cover my bills and expenses, and I’m very carefull with the small amount that gets left over. What has been impacted most (indeed, obliterated) is, like most people, the entertainment budget. Whereas I used to go to the cinema every week to see any old shite without fail, now I only go to the odd movie if it gets really good reviews. Nights out are now nights in. Whatever I do, I want to make damn sure I’m getting the best value for money possible. If I find I’m not getting satisfaction from something, then I dismiss it as a waste of time and money and never do it again.
This is the way most people live today, and that’s one of the reasons why whenever I’m doing a gig to punters that have paid their hard-earned cash, I do my utmost to give them their moneys worth. No half-hearted performances, no messed up lines, no random bullshit, just the funniest material I have, tried and tested. Times are hard, and paying customers deserve the entertainment they pay for. I’m not saying hey, come to a show, everything will be alright in the morning. If you’ve got financial worries, going to a comedy gig isn’t going to change that. But I think I speak for a lot of my fellow comedians when I say if you come to our shows, if you give us your time, we’ll take your mind off it. In these trying times, if only for a while… we’ll put a smile on your face.