Social actors operate under a basic imperative to construct explanations for the events that surround them. Many issues that dominate the societal agenda today are not available to direct perception, derive from traditionally expert domains and are relatively remote from immediate local experience. This presents a challenge for lay explanation of these issues. Social representations theory offers a useful framework through which the construction of lay explanation for such issues can be examined. The current study recruited this theoretical framework to investigate lay explanations of the recent economic recession in Ireland. Data consisted of semi-structured interviews with 14 members of the public and a web-based survey (N = 138). The data suggested that explanations for the recession could be organised into three major themes: Power, Ordinary People and Fatalism. Strictly economic explanations were eschewed; instead, people drew upon a wide range of ideas about society, politics, morality, public spheres and personhood. The implications of these findings for understanding lay explanation of contemporary social crises are discussed. Copyright © 2011 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.