Head west from rugged Donegal’s coastline and you’ll eventually hit Newfoundland. But the feeling of isolation I got facing the Atlantic from the cliffs of Slieve League, Europe’s fifth highest, remained even as I moved inland, toward civilisation. The property boom that swept Ireland in the decades leading up to the 2008 crash has left an indelible mark. Abandoned holiday homes plague the Donegal landscape, like a series of discarded Lego structures. Speaking to locals, some blame themselves, saying people got greedy. Others, though, hold the financial sector to account, with one bemoaning irresponsible lending, saying ordinary people were pressured into investing in property.
The downturn in the construction industry has had a disastrous impact on employment throughout the island and moving into neighbouring counties Fermanagh and Cavan, I could see that the battle lines were drawn. In Fermanagh, locals have decorated the countryside with miles of anti-fracking signage. Despite the promise of jobs, the controversial gas extraction technology has been rejected by many, who would prefer to preserve the exquisite natural beauty of the lakeland county.
On the Cavan border, protests of a different kind are everywhere, but they’re no less vehement. Sean Quinn, a local businessman, was Ireland’s richest man in 2008, with a personal fortune of £3.73 billion. Now, though, his empire lies in tatters. He was recently declared bankrupt, after losing a fortune in the failed (now nationalised) Anglo Irish Bank, who are pursuing him for billions. The Cavan people, for whom he was by far the biggest employer, have covered the north of the county in banners of support, many of which say Quinn is a scapegoat of the “fatcat bankers”.
The final leg of my trip took me to Dublin, where I got talking to someone who has owned a city centre sandwich bar for 20 years. The downturn, she told me, led to a massive reduction in sales. Offices closed and others began cutting back on their spending. In recent months, a few businesses have started filling the vacant buildings around the shop, enticed by tax breaks. But austerity, she insisted, is doing nobody any good.
Even here, a cosmopolitan, urbane capital, the remnants of the property crash remain. I drove for almost half an hour with a friend looking for fuel. During the boom, all the local petrol station owners sold up to property developers. Now, the neighbourhood is littered with abandoned building sites, without a petrol pump for miles.
With its own language, a forested landscape, and a distinctive cuisine featuring spider crab, sheep’s cheese and cider, the Basque country feels out of step with the rest of Spain. In particular, the climate is different. Basque summers are warm, but breezy and prone to showers – quite a contrast to the unrelenting heat you’d expect in Madrid or Seville.
But the whole of Spain is currently suffering the same hostile climate of severe recession. The Basque country’s industrial strength, however, means it’s been less affected than other parts of Spain. Bilbao, the region’s biggest city, a major port and my first stop, was somewhat in decline in the 1970s and 80s but has enjoyed economic and cultural regeneration over the past decades, centred around the 1997 opening of the iconic Guggenheim Museum which showcases modern art in one of Europe’s most distinctive buildings. However, long queues were forming outside the food bank behind my hotel, testifying to the impact of economic difficulties even in this relatively prosperous region.
Tourism has long been a major economic prop in many regions of Spain and, despite its cooler weather, the Basque country is no exception. I saw many other visitors on the streets of Bilbao and strolling along the seafront in San Sebastián, a kind of continental version of Brighton about an hour’s drive away. However, behind the white railings of San Sebastián’s promenade smart boutiques were putting up sales signs. And here I also saw people protesting against the current sharp cuts in public spending, their indignation probably sharpened by a long history of Basque campaigning for political autonomy from Madrid. Such campaigning, along with similar movements in other areas with strong regional identities, has led to significant devolution in Spanish governance – but has also multiplied public spending expenses, contributing to the current strain on Spain’s finances.
Because of this tradition of independence, I knew better than to expect much support in the Basque country for Spain’s footballers as they battled Italy in the final of Euro 2012. But I struggled even to detect much interest in it – other diners in the restaurant where I spent that evening seemed much keener to concentrate on their cod in garlicky pil pil sauce or green apple ice cream, both local specialities, than on the TV in the corner of the room. And as someone with more of a taste for food than football, I was quite happy to take my cue from their political stance.