Ireland Unleashed

A booming economy has fueled prosperity, transforming a society long burdened by oppression and poverty

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Campbell also headed for New York City, where he landed a job at a bank. Returning to Ireland in the late 1990s, he became a TV correspondent. “The ’90s brought a great change in mentality among people my age,” he says. “When I came back, I found that, thanks to the boom, a lot of people suddenly believed they could be millionaires.”

The same attitude holds true in Cork (the name means marshy place), the republic’s second-largest city (pop. 179,970). “There’s definitely more of a can-do feeling here now,” Garvan Corkery tells me over a dish of Irish stew and a slice of Gubeen, the local soft cheese, at the English Market off Saint Patrick’s Street. Corkery, a 31-year-old attorney, practices corporate law. “In the business world, it’s because Wall Street has been demystified for us,” he says. “Now we know that things like corporate law, high finance and so on aren’t rocket science.” Furthermore, he adds, “We’ve put the old British problem so far behind us that it’s even OK to be an Anglophile. You can admit you listen to the BBC!”

Beginning in the late 1980s, an economic boom known as the Celtic Tiger and fueled mainly by foreign investment propelled the country from an agricultural to a high-tech economy, altogether bypassing any heavy industrialization stage. In what The Economist called “one of the most remarkable economic transformations of recent times,” the country catapulted from one of the poorest in the European Union, on a par with Greece and Portugal, to the sixth-highest, ahead of Germany.

“When I was living in Boston in the 1980s after graduating from college, there were 60,000 Irish-born emigrants there, most under 25,” says Kevin Whelan, a cultural historian who is director of the University of Notre Dame’s Keough Centre for Irish Studies in Dublin. “In fact, there were more young Galway people in Boston than in Galway. That’s how bad it was. You have to understand that to appreciate what happened in the 1990s.” “

The economic situation here was so dire [in the 1980s] that nearly all my college graduation class emigrated,” recalls Paul McBride, 35, who now runs a software-certification facility in the western town of Ballina (pop. 6,852), near KillalaBay. He studied computer science, but there were no jobs in Ireland so he went to Seattle and worked at Microsoft for four years. “I loved the American lifestyle, and I got to see what was possible, whereas Ireland was blocked,” he says, looking out over the steel-blue waters of Killala. “When I returned to Ireland in 1997, it had been transformed: lots of choice, lots of opportunities, people very hardworking but laid-back. The old repressive mind-set was gone.”

What had happened was the result of good economic policies, hard work and a bit of the luck of the Irish. After the country hit economic bottom in the 1950s, the government stopped banning foreign investment, cut corporate taxes, made grants to modernize industry and lowered tariffs. More significantly, Ireland joined the European Union (then known as the European Economic Community) in 1974 and began receiving billions of dollars in subsidies and development funds. “The most important impact has been access to the European market that [membership] provides, which in turn has been a major attraction for foreign investment,” says Tony Fahey, a professor at the Economic and Social Research Institute in Dublin. “The real driver of our prosperity is investment by American companies”—nearly 600 at last count, which have invested nearly $35 billion and hired more than 90,000 people—“that wanted to get into the European market,” particularly in outsourcing, customer service and technical support. High-tech firms such as Microsoft, IBM, Dell and Xerox have mounted a major push into European markets from Ireland. With electronics the biggest single foreign industry sector, Ireland has become the world’s second-largest exporter of computer software after the United States.

The breakthrough came in 1989, when Intel bypassed Scotland to locate its manufacturing center for European computer systems and semiconductors in Leixlip, west of Dublin. Today, its $3.5 billion plant employs 3,200 workers. Ireland’s latest big American catch? Google, which, in March 2003, announced that it had chosen Ireland over Switzerland for its European headquarters.

Of course, when the tech bubble burst in 2000, the Irish economy suffered along with the rest of the industrialized world’s. Thousands of workers lost jobs; economic growth slowed to a crawl. But with the economy now diversified beyond electronics to include pharmaceuticals, finance and services, recovery is well under way. “The extraordinary growth in the second half of the 1990s,” notes the Parisbased Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in its latest survey of Ireland, “has given way to a more normal, albeit still rapid pace of expansion.”

With its economy attracting both returning Irish (about 40 percent of the 40,000 new arrivals each year) and foreign workers, a complete reversal in the 150-year-old pattern of emigration has taken place. Nearly half the non-Irish come from outside the EU and the United States; more than 160 nationalities are living in Ireland, including thousands of asylum seekers from Africa and Eastern Europe.

The hamlet of Roscommon (pop. 1,432), near the Strokestown Famine Museum, now numbers among its inhabitants Poles, Lithuanians, Estonians, Russians and Filipinos, who work everywhere from mushroom farms to hotels. The village’s largest foreign ethnic group, Brazilians, work in nearby slaughterhouses and dance the samba at local nightclubs. Farther west, in Ballyhaunis, a new mosque accommodates a growing Muslim population of Syrians and Pakistanis, many of whom work in meat and machinery plants.


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