DUBLIN – As an emblem of the modern Irish condition, Frank Buckley is almost too apt. Dead broke, he lives in a house made of money.
Euros here, euros there. Euros in the fireplace. Euros on the floor, on the chairs, in the windows. Worthless euros, taken out of circulation and shredded by Ireland’s Central Bank,forming the interior walls of an apartment that Buckley does not own in a building left vacant by the country’s economic ruin.
Buckley, 50, calls the apartment – built from thousands of bricks of shredded, decommissioned cash (each brick contains, roughly, what used to be 50,000 euros) – the Billion Euro House. He reckons that about 1.4 billion euros actually went into it, but the joke, of course, is that it is worth simultaneously so much and so little.
“Everything is centred on the euro, but euros are only pieces of paper,” he said. “It’s what people do with the euros, the value we put on them, that changes their meaning.”
If there is any doubt about Buckley’s meaning, it dissipates as soon as you enter the apartment, on the ground floor of an empty building in a neighbourhood ridden with them. A large gravestone announces that Irish sovereignty died in 2010, the year that the government accepted an international bailout so larded with onerous conditions that the Irish will be paying for it for years to come.
The marker is decorated by a plaster replica of a hand with the middle finger held aloft.
“As far as I’m concerned, we’re being run by Germany,” Buckley said.
In the all-bets-are-off atmosphere of Dublin, Buckley has been helped by other people’s kindness. The owner of the office building, Paul Ruane, told Buckley that until a paying tenant came along, he could live there at no cost.
“When you walk in and see bricks of money in the toilet, it really gets you thinking about the whole concept of money,” Ruane said in an interview. (Buckley’s toilet is not yet operating; he uses a bathroom in a nearby gym.)
“If only we could rip it up and start afresh,” added Ruane, speaking of money. He is a developer who said the past few years had been “crippling” for him and his family. “It would be a breath of fresh air for everyone. Let’s stop everything right where we are and start fresh – the whole world.”
After Buckley found the space, a local cemetery engraved and donated the gravestone. The Central Bank donated the euro notes, which it had taken out of circulation and shredded because they were old and “otherwise they would have the texture of toilet roll,” Buckley explained. Three bank employees helped him load the ex-cash onto his brother’s trailer.
The house has lights – a company moved into the office upstairs and let Buckley tap in to its electric lines – and is surprisingly warm, despite having no heat. Money makes for good insulation, Buckley said.
He calls himself a hustler, and he seems to have a knack for personal reinvention. In the go-getting 1990s, he worked as a tour manager for musicians. Then he founded a charity – Sport Against Racism Europe – that received an 80,000 euro award from the government. The bottom fell out, the financing dried up and now he is on the dole, living on 188 euros a week – about $250 – in unemployment benefits.
He has since taken up painting. An exhibit featuring his shredded-euro paintings, “Expressions of Recession,” went up at a Radisson hotel here in the fall, but the art has not yet generated any cash. Meanwhile, Buckley owes thousands of euros on maxed-out credit cards and on a house in a nearby town, bought with a mortgage with no money down for 365,000 euros in 2006. (That would be about US$484,000 under current currency conversion rates.)
His estranged wife still lives there, but they cannot meet the payments, which are increasing even as the value of the house declines. The Billion Euro House, built in the Smithfield District of Dublin not far from several large courthouses, has become a tourist destination, a place where people debate the philosophical implications of money, and is a cathartic trigger for a bewildered, struggling population.
He keeps a book where visitors can express themselves.
“Money put to good use, finally,” one wrote. “Came from nothing, back to nothing,” another said. And a third: “I was just on my way to the bank with my dole check of 27 euros.”
Living and sleeping amid all this money while having little himself has given Buckley plenty of time to ponder his, and Ireland’s, predicament.
“I’m one of many, many people,” he said. “I wouldn’t be on the same level as people in business, who owe millions. But the money I owe is the same as owing millions. If you don’t have it, you don’t have it.”