In 1986, the Irish parliament passed the Urban Renewal Act, setting up the Custom House Docks Development Authority, and paving the way for the establishment of the Irish Financial Services Centre (IFSC) in 1987. Over 50% of the world’s financial services companies now have offices in the centre, lured by tax incentives and light regulation. Ireland thus capitalised upon the global expansion of financial markets of the 1980s, becoming one of the most globalised nations in the world. Architecturally, culturally, and historically, though, the IFSC appears external to the existing fabric of the city. Its glass-panelled buildings symbolise the country’s place in the system of global finance, and shift Dublin’s axis of activity away from O’Connell Street with its connotations of colonialism and anti-colonial nation-building. It projects a continuous present exempted from the historical processes that define the rest of the city.
Literary depictions of the IFSC such as Paul Murray’s 2015 novel The Mark and the Void register this sense of spatial and temporal rupture between old and new Dublin:
[T]here is some argument as to whether the International Financial Services Centre is truly part of Dublin. It lies only a few minutes’ walk from O’Connell Street, but the locals don’t come here; many of them don’t even seem to know it exists, in spite of the torrents of capital that flow into it every year… Its main function is to be a kind of legal elsewhere: multinationals send their profits here to avoid tax, banks conduct their more sensitive activities with the guarantee of a blind eye from the authorities. (23)
It is a “legal elsewhere”, present and absent, within walking distance but not local. The passage channels the legacy of the Revival, in which Irishness is by definition recalcitrant towards modernity, “thrown upon this filthy modern tide”. Diagnosing and combatting this legacy, Murray’s novel is frequently preoccupied with its appropriateness to the task of representing the world financial system. It seeks a way of understanding the abstract machinations of global finance, and of reproducing the vertiginous light-headedness it inspires. In doing so, however, Murray caricatures the financial sector, fetishizing its complexity and immateriality, reproducing its power rather than enabling its critique.
There is a mystique around financial activity and multi-national investment in Ireland, which is credited with lifting the country out of relative poverty in the nineties. Any attempt to look into their activities is fraught with the fear that they will disappear. This fear has sustained the culture of light regulation of the sector since the founding of the IFSC. But the Irish imagination, sustained by an image of Ireland unwashed by the filthy modern tide, is ill-equipped, and ill-inclined to understand itself as a nodal point in the global circulation of finance capital.
This may help us to understand the public response to the 2008 financial crisis. Primarily, it was focused on the vilification of individuals like the Chairman of Anglo-Irish Bank, Sean Fitzpatrick and its CEO, David Drumm. Of course there is no good reason to absolve such individuals, but as Fintan O’Toole remarks, “it is not sociopaths who create rotten cultures. It is closed, arrogant, unaccountable cultures that turn ordinary people into sociopaths”. On the other hand, paradoxically, such closed systems also enable a sense of collective guilt; in a way, everyone is to blame. Brian Lenihan, then minister for finance, famously declared that “we all partied”. The crisis, then, is a corrective moment of reckoning for a collective excess: we all partied; we all get a hangover.
These reactions, a desire for individual retribution and a generalised sense of collective guilt, are both easier than tackling systemic and regulatory failures widely regarded as linchpins of the country’s economic success. And they are enabled by the original fiction that globalisation was something that happened elsewhere, even when that elsewhere was a block away from the nation’s main thoroughfare: something simultaneously imposed upon us, external to our cultural conception of ourselves, and fundamentally incomprehensible. The appearance of a rupture between the old and the new city, and between Ireland and the world system to which the IFSC is beholden, presents a more comforting vision of that system as something external to ourselves, rather than the reality that we are, as a society, imbricated in the machinations of global capital. The challenge for writers like Murray is not so much in imagining an alternative way of living, as showing that the rupture itself is imaginary. As one writer put it, financialisation “knocked apart the old Irish society and replaced it with something new and hollow.”
Unsurprisingly, newness and hollowness are recurring themes in Irish discourses around financialisation in the post-crisis moment. Aside from its obvious cultural vacuousness, the IFSC was founded on the implicit assumption that it could be used by corporations to funnel earnings and avoid tax. As O’Toole notes, attempts to track such companies “present a picture of Dublin as the Potemkin village of contemporary capitalism, full of fronts with little behind them”. The IFSC contains many brass-plate offices where nothing happens but which establish the technical presence of a company in Ireland. Legal elsewheres.
This hollowness is a feature, not a bug, but after 2008 it spread rapidly, providing some of the recession’s most enduring cultural imagery. Ghost-estates, new residential developments unfinished after the housing market collapsed, dot the Irish landscape, uncanny images of domestic prosperity that, upon closer inspection, are hollow facades. In Broken Harbour, Tana French has captured their effect: “At first glance, Ocean View looked pretty tasty: big detached houses that gave you something substantial for your money…Second glance, the grass needed weeding and there were gaps in the footpaths. Third glance, something was wrong.…[M]ost of the driveways were empty…. You could look straight through three out of four houses, to bare rear windows and gray patches of sky”. Ocean View embodies both the promise of the Celtic Tiger and its evisceration.
Perhaps the most vivid spatial projection of the hollowness of the promise of that era is the shell of the headquarters of the now-infamous Anglo-Irish bank, still under construction at the moment of the bank’s nationalisation. Sited by the Liffey in the Docklands, its skeletal remains served as a potent reminder of Ozymandian hubris. In The Mark and the Void it is described as a “financial memento mori”, a “skeletal ruin” with “rain lashing through the empty sockets of the windows”. As with the ghost estates, a spectral vocabulary envelops the “zombie” bank.
In the novel, the building is the setting for an ongoing protest against the nationalisation of bank debt. A protest outside an empty shell of a building seems a painful symbol of the aimlessness of such anger in the face of a deterritorialised world system whose centres of power are displaced and beyond the reach of those so powerless they are compelled to protest in the first place. But such edifices also remind us that cities remain, even in an era of deterritorialising finance capital, physical expressions of power. As David Harvey noted, one of the effects of the accrual of capital via globalised finance has been the need for cities to absorb excess capital through property investment. But just as the high-rise buildings that have so ruptured the skyline of Dublin express the enduring power of global finance, so too are they subject to imaginative appropriation by those who inhabit and occupy those cities. The cityscape is not simply a reflection of capital, but a dialogic space in which narratives of power, meaning, and identity are contested.
Sites like the Anglo building take on particular importance in such a context. It is not an ideologically blank space; it is scar tissue from a historical trauma. Nor is it a space beyond the world system of capital, it is an expression of it (one that, in its visible constructedness, its incompletion, tells a tale that the finished product might have obscured). As such it is a physical manifestation of the seemingly immaterial, intractable system of global finance. Yet it is also a space on which an alternative future might be inscribed. It serves as both a reminder of history, and of the mutability of the future. Urban space, by definition tangible, in flux, and always subject to imaginative appropriation, offers the possibility for a different politics of representation.
This is important when we remember that finance constitutes just one circuit within the world system. Just as the shifting valences of the IFSC bespeak the country’s imbrication into global finance, so too the emergence of a transnational population as a force in Irish cultural discourse destabilises divisions between Irishness and the world system as an external force. In recent years novels by writers like Gavin Corbett, Oona Frawley, Hugo Hamilton, and Laima Muktupavela have sought to give voice to the experience of marginalised people like travellers, illegal immigrants, and refugees. These writers capture the experience of Ireland’s globalisation from within its structures, using narrators and protagonists whose experiences and life worlds are shaped by the world system.
In writing Dublin from the perspective of a pregnant Zimbabwean during a referendum on the citizenship of children born to illegal immigrants, or from that of a traveller whose conception of the city is filtered through family and folk mythology, such authors give voice to other experiences of Ireland’s globalisation. In doing so they find new ways of imbuing urban space with meaning, not by closing the door on our recent history, but emerging out of its complex social, economic and cultural consequences. Such narratives signpost the possibilities that are opened up by the hollow, spectral spaces of the former Celtic Tiger.
In literary terms this may be new territory. O’Toole has argued that Ireland lacks a “Utopian tradition, drawing its poetry from the future, taking the city as the ground of transformation”. The “ahistorical innocence” of Revivalism, in which Ireland stands outside modernity, hindered the development of an urban literature: “For it is in the nature of the city that it cannot be merely represented without being transformed”. But even if O’Toole is right about literature, it is arguable that the Irish state was brought into symbolic existence through the imaginative appropriation of the city’s topography. What else to make of the decision of the leaders of the 1916 Rising to occupy the General Post Office? What it lacked in strategic value, it made up for in symbolic significance as the administrative centre of an all-pervading state apparatus and as a symbol of British imperial hegemony. Its occupation turned it, permanently, into a contested symbol of Irish national identity, republicanism, and cultural memory. The imaginative appropriation of urban space is baked into the foundations of the Irish state as it came to terms with the geopolitical and intellectual realities of the postcolonial era. The Rising, which Yeats believed embodied the division between Ireland and modernity, can equally be said to have undermined it through an act of topographical re-inscription. That division is echoed in the current imaginative rupture in the cityscape, which is similarly subject to interrogation in ways cognisant of Ireland’s imbrication in the world system. I note in passing that the Post Office might well serve as a site of utopian reimagining once again, given the current push for postal banking as an alternative destination for our weekly and monthly earnings that does not directly funnel them into the world financial system.
“Sooner or later”, O’Toole writes in his conclusion to Ship of Fools, “the Irish people themselves will have to reinvent politics, civic morality, and the public realm”. The exhortation is notably spatial in its configuration. The empty, scarred spaces of post-crisis Dublin seem as good a starting place as any for such a reinvention of the public realm, a reclamation of those spaces as sites of contest and difference, of meaning and identity. As the nation-state comes to terms with its new and shifting position within a radically expanded and intensified world system, it will be enabled by this cultural legacy of imaginative renegotiation of space, as well as by the new identities and socio-political formations that take shape through processes of marginalisation, transnationalism, and insurgency, the shifting ideas of belonging and citizenship that are a by-product of the dislocations of globalised capital, to generate new modes of belonging and representation, within and between the spaces of the fractured, shifting, global city of Dublin.