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New suburbanism living proof of Ireland's contradictions

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A recent trip to rural western Ireland confirmed an alternative model for mass housing provision.The declining, outdated model is the farmhouse vernacular: hugging contours, missing sun, avoiding wind, sitting easily aside the stone walls of the manufactured landscape. The smart local money is now spent on the new model that deals with current need. There is no recognisable Green Belt, nor affordable homes. Pattern book, 'oneoff ', often self-build, homes have extended ribbon development throughout the landscape; ranches in a sea of tarmac.

Although not so kind on the eye, they are comfortable and, judging by the numbers of marker poles delineating future buildings, popular. Locals who can remember, unlike the visitors who cannot, have no nostalgia for a life lived in brightly decorated, unsanitary horse-drawn caravans, nor indeed for the era of the cramped farmsteads glibly reinvented in the filmed clichÚ Ryan's Daughter.Even Guinness is something of a tourist sop.

I enjoyed the freedom of expression, if not the architecture (so much a matter of taste), but was troubled by the siting. Their fine aspect (magnificent light and view regardless of prevailing wind) is rarely exploited. Instead they stare back down the drive at the road; a triumph of product over place that, perversely, offers an irrefutable case for the removal of all planning control. The layout of the new suburbanism could not be worse, and the planners are incompetent, corrupt or both, so Ireland should be done with them. Money saved on the statute of constraint can then be redirected to the production of new pattern books. There is a real architectural opportunity to improve the single house, the settlement and the landscape setting.

The hot topic, however, was not housing, but a referendum on citizenship (immigration) and the EU. Ireland is no longer a net exporter of people; the Celtic Tiger has encouraged the return of emigrants, to holiday, retire and also to live and work. Perhaps because of this history of departure and poverty, Ireland maintains a marvellous contradictory condition. People are fanatically protective of county, province, state and yet embrace being European.

The Irish have the presidency of the EU, speed along grantaided roads in low-tax cars, and still enjoy the benefits of a vast black economy.Simultaneously, everywhere there are 'No fish' signs (the EU has finished trawling), 'No smoking'signs (smoking is, of course, now illegal in all bars and restaurants), and the Gardai focus on drink-driving. It should be said, though, that in village communities where people live some distance from an astonishing number of front-room bars, this latter is socially, and understandably, seen as more occupational hazard than crime.

In the face of some intolerable controls (and I'm not smoking at present), the easy-going attitude is remarkable - from the smokers as they disappeared outside into the rain and the builders as they priced up the resultant alternative architecture of smoking (porches and extended balconies).

Indeed, when I arrived on Friday 23 April, there was lots of drinking.Recalling the mass celebration that is St Patrick's Day in England, I searched in vain for the reciprocal celebration of St George's Day: it would appear that even in the model EU state of Ireland, some national memories survive.

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