Walking the dog today, in the first real sunshine we’ve had in weeks, I once again found myself thinking about the country I’d moved to. It wasn’t the people or the government that troubled me; my mind was on the land itself.
I stopped and stamped my feet. ‘Twas a good solid piece of land. What would I pay for it? What is it worth? Could I ever “own” it? What does it mean to possess land? Would I be responsible for it – a steward? What then? How do I ask it what’s wrong with it, or tuck it in at night. How could I protect this one tiny patch of Ireland?
I can hear me now:
“Make sure you wear your hedgerow.”
“Don’t talk to strange developers.”
So then what?
Moving from the U.S., one of the first questions we heard was, “are you going to buy”. In Ireland, property ownership has a special significance. But back in the States, it’s simply assumed. Somehow, if you don’t own your own place, or at least dream of property ownership, you are considered less, uneducated, unengaged, or worse. “You’re non-aspirational, aren’t you?” – as if contentment is something they might accidentally step in.
In a country as big as the United States, land becomes just another asset heaped on a society already blessed with staggering natural and economic resources. It gets taken for granted. Not so in Ireland.
In Ireland, the desire to own land and become a part of the landed classes is a kind of virus (gone well beyond the “fever” stage). During our first few months in Ireland, we kept hearing that everybody in Ireland wants to own property (and they’re frequently unskilled at the practice of being a landlord) because, for so long, the Irish weren’t permitted to own property. Apparently, their colonial masters consigned them to perpetual tenancy. As with many things in Ireland, that’s true, and not so true. The wealthy Irish could always own land. This begs the question:
“Is land ownership the domain of the wealthy and the privileged?
Last summer I asked, where will Ireland’s next boom come from? The unspoken question then was, “what does Ireland have to offer”? Now, as I consider a country as lush and breathtaking as Ireland, where millions of visitors arrive ever year, lusting for a glimpse of our storied green hills, the answer seems obvious. Ireland has land. But we’re an island, and a relatively small one; our natural resources are extremely limited. In theory, that should make them even more valuable, right? It does, but…
That raises the question of land preservation. If land is Ireland’s one true natural asset, should anyone (and everyone) be allowed to own it? Or should it be part of a public/government trust? “But”, scream the Irish, “we can’t trust our land to the thieving politicians.” True, but which citizens get to own it? “But”, scream the Irish, “we can’t trust our land to the thieving bankers and the elites.” Fair enough, but…
What about mixed public/private, ownership? If public/private is our choice, then, once again, the uber-wealthy are the only ones who can afford to buy it and then grant it back for the public good, and the rest of us are still dependent on the “cream of society” to do the “right” thing.
So who owns the land?
Who should own the land?
The truth is, I don’t know the answer to these questions. But I know that land is a limited resource, for which the concept of ownership seems preposterous. Isn’t land conflict how most wars get started, and not just here on an island?
Then again, I guess it’s all one giant island, isn’t it?
Things to look forward to in upcoming posts:
* Renting Abroad, Home Maintenance and Property Management in a Foreign Country
* Corporate Taxes Abroad, and the Con Artistry of Luring Foreign Investment