Mel spent fifteen years in Ireland and had bought a house at the height of the property boom in 2007. Seven years later, she handed back the keys and fled to Australia, where she was born.
HANDING BACK THE KEYS
How did you end up in Ireland? You are Australian and your husband is British...
I have a British passport and had lived in London before and decided to go travelling again. I thought I'd spend a couple of months in Ireland and ended up there for almost fifteen years. I met my husband in Dublin and we moved to the Midlands.
You don’t want to tell me where you were living. Tell me about that fear: what does it feel like to have walked away, having handed back the keys?
I felt criminal in a way. It wasn't something I ever thought I would do. We knew from talking to people that there are other people in our situation who also had to leave Ireland to escape the debt that we couldn't repay.
What were the factors that resulted in you have this unmanageable debt?
It was not even a year after we had taken out our mortgage. At the time both my husband, and myself, were in very good jobs and thought we would not have any problem paying off that mortgage, at all. But maybe eight or nine months after we had taken out that mortgage there was lots of rumblings and even my husband said "maybe we should just sell up and go". I thought, "no, that's ridiculous! We've put all this effort into the house; we've planted trees! We've got this lovely colour scheme in the lounge.
We were told that our wages were going to be docked, but quite a few of the staff were saying "don't be ridiculous, that's something out of Charles Dickens novels! That's not going to happen," but [it did]. There was universal social charge, there was the pension levy and also my husband's vehicle that he used for work; that was taken away from him as part of cutbacks in his job and I had to ask my parents for a loan, which I found really awkward given that I was in my forties at the time, and my parents are retirees in Australia.
Our kids had both been in childcare or after-school care so what we decided at the time was that my husband would leave his job, look after the kids at home; we gave up an income because the cost of childcare is ridiculous.
We explored all sorts of options. We thought about declaring bankruptcy and then someone told me if I did that I wouldn't be able to keep my job. We were also told that our names would be published in the papers and that it would be quite a long period of time before we'd be able to get back on our feet again.
What are your lasting memories of that time?
One of my abiding memories is every month we had to fill out this form for the bank. We used to write letters to the bank to try to explain our situation. We had this magic figure of a thousand euro a month. We said that’s something we can repay so we kept writing these letters outlining everything down to the last cent; birthday presents, meals; everything.
Another thing that really stands out for me is in winter time, the cost of oil to heat our house; we’d get the bare minimum and try not to use too much oil and after a while I thought “this is crazy, we can’t live like this."
I actually got an apology from this woman whose job it was to be our liaison at the bank; the fact that there was so much inflexibility. There was even a little thing at the bank saying “we’re here to work with you” but we certainly didn’t have that feeling. If anything they didn’t seem to believe we were in hardship.
I remember listening to things on the radio and you’d hear people who were representatives from the banks and they were trying to sound empathetic and they were very understanding of people’s situations and, what was it? Debt forgiveness and, you’d hear other terms being bandied around and you’d have this glimmer of hope that maybe you’d be able to hang on to your house. It’s the biggest asset most people have. We wanted to hang on to that house or have it as an investment. I remember going into the bank. We had regular meetings with them. I don’t think ever cried but I felt pretty close to it, and I just felt they saw us as being dishonest; as not giving them a factual account of our situation. They just weren’t going to give an inch. Maybe they felt if they did that for one person they had to do it for everybody and the debt was just so huge at that point.
Are you still angry?
If I really let myself think about it. When I first came back to Australia I was depressed; I found that very hard, and I didn’t want to hear anything about Ireland. I remember The Cranberries came on the radio and I switched it off because it was something that reminded me of Ireland. I personally didn’t have contact with my colleagues from Ireland who were very dear friends.
We hit the ground running when we got back here. I joined an employment agency, we found a house; we bought a dog, we got the kids into school; that all happened within about three weeks! So I didn’t’ have too much time to really think about it.
Also, my friends in Australia didn’t know what was going on in Ireland. They’d heard little bits but most of them didn’t have a clue so I’d talk to them and they’d just glaze over.
What do you see in Australia that reminds you of Ireland?
I’m working with people that are facing homelessness or are homeless. A lot of them don’t have an income. They’re not able to be assisted by any of the crisis housing services or, if they are assisted, it might just be for one or two days and then they’re back in exactly the same situation as before. I’m aware that they housing stock which is available for them is of an extremely poor quality; I was also aware of that in Ireland particularly in Dublin and for the people I worked with there.
I’ve seen our rent go up and up since we’ve been here. Houses around us go for ridiculous prices but we’ve seen the downturn. There’s a couple of houses that have had for lease or for sale signs on them, and nothing seems to be happening. When we were living in Ireland, the street where we had our house; there were a couple of other places we looked at which stayed empty for the whole seven years we were living there. They were brand new builds and we saw the grass growing up, and we had a couple of ghost estates near us as well.
What do you miss about Ireland?
I had a lovely bunch of friends. Because I didn’t have any family in Ireland we had a woman I called my “mum away from mum”. She was kind of like a surrogate grandparent for my children. She was just like Mrs Doyle out of Father Ted, she used to churn out endless cups of tea. They were wonderful people; really decent, lovely, hospitable people. Real characters as well! It was a very picturesque area. There was a lake near and my husband and son used to go fishing. They had a rowboat that they could use anytime and went pike fishing. We used to pop across the border to Marks & Spencer and stock up. There was a lot that I really did like about my life.
Another thing I have to say is, in terms of things that I really appreciate; my children both went to an Irish school and they had a fantastic education which has stood them in good stead since they’ve in here [Australia]. I think they’ve got a fantastic work ethic. I’m really proud of the fact that my kids take their studies very seriously and I do think that came from the six years they had in Irish schools.
What advice would you give to someone in the situation you found yourself in?
A few times my parents have said “things are really looking up in Ireland now.” I have no idea if that’s true. I haven’t wanted to know and I’m sure in the county that I came from and probably most places outside of Dublin that it’s not.
The advice I would give to people if they’re unfortunate enough to be in that same position; if you have the means to get away from that debt? Do it. It was definitely the right thing for us. That level of stress and worry; it was only after a few months that we were here, I felt lighter. It was a phenomenal release not to have that sense of being in the wrong and worrying about whether or not someone was going to come and repossess our house.
How difficult has it been to deal with feelings of guilt and shame?
I think that not being in the country has been a big thing. When we were in Ireland we were constantly listening to the news, reading the papers, going on the internet and I don’t know if that was always helpful. I think coming over here, being that far away from it geographically and in lots of other ways [helped].
Once, we went to see a lawyer when we came here because I was very conscious of [the idea that we could] be pursued. Will someone come looking for us down the track? We did go to see a lawyer who turned out to be Irish and had experiences within his own family of people who had done the same as us.
What was his advice?
He actually just said "don’t worry; it’s okay, you’re fine,” which wasn’t a very lawyer-ish thing to say but it was a very human, and very nice and kind thing to say. It was good for us to hear it. I also took my parents to that appointment, because I did feel this shame …
Did you want your parents there to bear witness to this advice?
Yes I did. That was very much what it was, and my dad was so chuffed he went out and bought a bottle of Irish whiskey and brought it back for the lawyer because they needed to hear it as well, because they were worried about us. My parents are in their eighties and nineties; they didn’t want to think that their child was going to be in huge debt and pursued by creditors.
If you could give a piece of advice to the authorities on behalf of people in your situation, what would ask them to change?
We didn’t feel as if people were acknowledging the human face of what was going on. I remember hearing about Iceland and the fact that they didn’t bail out the banks, which I thought was fantastic. That was a big source of anger for us, that the Irish government was really going to fleece its people in order to bail out the banks.