Northern Ireland stage is now set to fool tourists with film set towns
As golf fans are set to descend on Northern Ireland for the Irish Open, we're again investing in fake shop fronts. But this is a false economy, says Malachi O'Doherty.
I have an idea for a bleak and futuristic short story set in rural Northern Ireland. Indulge me, even if that is not the sort of literature that is to your taste.
A decent and jovial wee man who lives alone loses his glasses. This is a disaster for he can neither read the paper or even find the newsagent where he might buy one.
The challenge to find his optician is even greater.
Shall we call him Mr McGoo?
In the morning, Mr McGoo walks into town to try to find the nice lady with the lights and lenses who issued him with his specs just a few weeks before, after he had successfully read back to her a triangle of large letters and got the green and red lights to balance in focus.
He passes the butcher's shop, where the jolly big man in the striped apron smiles silently at him.
He sees one of the old Georgian houses on the corner, recently renovated and occupied. There is a door slightly ajar and a tabby cat sitting on the step.
He says, 'Puss puss' to the cat and the cat remains as placid and content as was before.
But he cannot find the optician.
And for weeks, as the poor man's domestic environment deteriorates because he can't see clearly about his own kitchen, he walks every day into town looking for the optician. And he notes that the place is thriving, and all these happy, busy people are so engaged in their tasks that they hardly notice him. There is now a cobbler and a new bookshop, and a betting office and an antique shop and a little old-fashioned tea shop, but he feels utterly cut off from these charming new developments for want of being able to see clearly.
Now you know where this story is going, don't you?
One day the old man finds his glasses behind a cushion on the sofa. Of course!
And now he looks forward to going through the town that has been prospering so colourfully in the past weeks.
What he finds is that he is the only person left there. The town has as much real life in it as he'd find in a pop-up book. The butcher is made of shiny cardboard. The cat is painted onto the shutter that seals the dilapidated Georgian house. The entire town is a prop and has no life in it anywhere.
It's not a good story. If JG Ballard lived in Ballycastle he would have written it himself and made a better job of it.
But the strategy of disguising our dying towns as busy vibrant and homely old-world villages deserves to be mocked and parodied.
This is what passes for bringing a town back to life these days. For want of economic development we present a cardboard cut-out imitation of vitality and prosperity. It is nice. If you don't look too closely you can imagine that it is real. But it is insidious and it says the worst possible thing about us, that we are content with illusions and we are so oblivious to what real commerce once looked like that we think we can pass off the same grotesque imitation to tourists.
The Environment Minister Mark H Durkan has just allocated a little over 20 grand to prettify the area around the Irish Open next month at the Royal County Down.
He clearly thinks that the sort of people who will cross half the world to see a game of golf are so daft that they'll be happy with over-sized dolls' houses and imitation shop fronts.
Can you imagine it?
Alvin and Mabel decide to take the afternoon off the golf and go for a stroll in that lovely little Irish village they passed on the tour bus. Alvin wants to buy a pullover and Mabel wants to check out that gorgeous Irish linen, in the shop next door to the blacksmith.
Imagine their surprise when they find that the shop is a derelict building with a printed board in front of it to make it look nice. They were only ever meant to see it from the bus whizzing past, not to actually go in and try to spend money there. Bigger fools them.
Now what will they go and tell the folks back home about little Ireland? 'It's a film set', they'll say. 'Nobody actually lives there.'
What's pathetic, of course, is that these glossy facades do actually work. They do make a place look more colourful and cleaner. They hide the flaking brickwork and plaster, the rotting doors and window frames, the dust and the filth. And you can walk by and not notice sometimes that the image is unreal, the shop a pretend shop.
And worse, the boxed ruins are pandering to a myth of an old and rustic Ireland that the naive tourist expects to see here. The facades have become part of a branding of rural Ireland as quaint. But if life comes back to these towns then it will not be in the form of pre-war home-based businesses. It won't be new tea shops and prim cottages where now the curtains and the jug on the windowsill are just painted on.
Why are the designers of these fancy shutters recreating a world that is gone, a world that represents the very economic collapse we have failed to recover from?
But here's another question. Why aren't the owners of these properties cleaning them up themselves?
If Mr Durkan wants to make a real change in the character of our towns and villages then maybe he would try and legislate to force people to maintain their properties, and where owner can't be identified to appropriate them for the state.
But to think that we can impress foreigners with false frontages and quaint images of an Ireland that no longer exists, that died off not in the last recession but the one before that, is risky. It creates the likelihood that the whole project will be outed in the foreign media as a con job.
There is only one thing that will transform rural Northern Ireland and that is human activity, industrial and cultural activity.
But the focus now is on cutting tax to entice big business and on slashing our cultural and artistic life to pay for it.
And hoping that no one will notice that what's left of this place is a backdrop, a fraud, a stage set.