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The disappearing philanthropists

Just when a culture of philanthropy takes hold in Ireland, the rich lose their money.

DUBLIN — Just off a two-lane country road south of Dublin, work has been going on for three years on a magnificent modern development set into a hillside, comprising a hotel, conference center and apartments.

The site, at Kilternan on the Enniskerry Road, also includes Ireland’s only (artificial) ski slope, and was poised to become an Irish version of Davos, the winter sports and conference center in Switzerland. But today it is fenced off and deserted, apart from a security guard.

It is a white elephant, one of hundreds of developments across the country lying idle as a result of the severe recession. And that is bad news for a social phenomenon that Ireland was just beginning to enjoy for the first time in its history: the growth of a culture of philanthropy.

Like a number of Irish builders who became multi-millionaires in recent years, the Kilternan developer Hugh O’Regan had made known his ambitions to give away his fortune to do good. Now his wealth and that of many other members of Ireland’s rich list has substantially declined.

The extent of over-borrowing by builders was revealed this month when the minister for finance, Brian Lenihan, announced the creation of a "bad bank" — with the Orwellian name of the National Assets Management Agency — to remove between 80 billion and 90 billion euros ($106 billion to $119 billion) of property loans from the balance sheets of the country’s lending institutions.

“We had got to the point where 500 million euro was donated to charity each year but now people are beginning to see their wealth disappear,” said Tina Roche, chief executive of the Community Foundation for Ireland. “Over 20 billion euro has been written off in the last two years, so if there are bad assets of 90 billion euro, then Irish people’s wealth has gone down by 110 billion euro.”

Even at its peak last year, Ireland was still well behind the United States and 10 years behind the United Kingdom in philanthropic giving, according to Roche, whose foundation holds funds of 25 million euros and makes grants on behalf of donors.

Three years ago, at the height of the boom, the Bank of Ireland reported that Irish citizens were the second wealthiest in Europe, with an average net worth of $268,000. That was when the debate on philanthropy got going. Trinity College Dublin launched Ireland's first course dedicated to fundraising and philanthropy studies, in partnership with the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University. Since 2007, the Community Foundation for Ireland has given an annual award to the Irish philanthropist of the year.