SQUEEZED BETWEEN the estuary of the Blackwater River and the steep hill behind, squeezed too—harshly so— by human decisions of more recent vintage, the town of Youghal, in County Cork, Ireland, advertises as succinctly as you might wish the facts of life in a poor country in the middle of this decade. There’s no need to go below the 50th parallel to encounter what are often sedately described as “problems of underdevelopment.”
It’s not as though each time I go home there, the place hastens to disclose the changes in its fortunes. Seen in the pale morning light from across the river, the quays and gray stone houses surely look much as they did to Sir Walter Raleigh, who was mayor of Youghal in 1588; to Cromwell, who made the town the base for his rampages in 1650; to Michael Collins, who sheltered near there during the Civil War of 1922. From the middle distance, at least, Irish towns like Youghal do not conspicuously display the fingerprints of change, which is no doubt why John Huston and his film crew settled in Youghal for a few uproarious months in 1954 to re-create Melville’s New Bedford for the film Moby Dick,
A thirty-five-year-old photograph of North Main Street looks very much like a seventy-five-year-old one of the same view, to either side of the great Clock Gate. When I was driven to parochial school in a trap in 1948, I can remember horse-drawn transportation outnumbered automobiles ten to one and knots of unemployed men lounged away their days in front of Farrell’s grain store. But by the early 1960s the carts and traps were mostly gone and a prosperous Youghal was forced to import labor from the surrounding countryside. Amid the increasing (but still modest) affluence of Youghal’s population of five thousand the town council faced a parking problem, and the odd BMW and even Mercedes announced the spending power and great expectations of a growing managerial class.
Today, a drive down North Main Street suggests that Youghal remains an emblem of this post-war boom, which, for Ireland, surged in the 1960s.
Just for an instant at the turn of this year Youghal seemed unchanged from those glory days. Home from abroad to visit the old place and the old folk, one is loath to dwell upon intimations of mortality creeping across the features of one’s parents or one’s town. But after a day I knew well enough that even if the three new little high-tech plants on the edge of town represented a reversal of the desperate crisis of four years ago, the situation was still pretty bad. “Youghal’s fighting back,” the locals said to me each day, but from the anxious way they put it I knew that for a time the place had been lying awfully still on the floor.
Enter Youghal along the Cork road from the west and you see on your left, just on the town’s outskirts, the textile factory built in the 1940s to house Seafield Fabrics. There had been no substantial manufacturing employment in Youghal till it went up, just a poor retail economy—an economy that, after the British garrison had left, following the Treaty of 1921, had limped along on the tourists coming down in the summer from Cork and beyond to spend a day or a two-week vacation on the town’s fine beaches.
“In 1946 I and some other young fellows agreed that we had our freedom, all right,” Paddy Linehan, owner of the Moby Dick saloon and one of Youghal’s better-known citizens, remembers, “but we didn’t have freedom from want, from hunger, from unemployment, from malnutrition. There was tremendous emigration.” So he and his fellows hunted about to try to get some investment in their town. They found out that a Cork man called Bill Dwyer was looking for some land for his weaving factory, and they made sure that Youghal offered Dwyer a hearty welcome. Up went Seafield Fabrics, and a few years later Blackwater Cottons, its subsidiary, went up alongside it. By the mid-1960s the two plants were employing 600 people between them. An enterprise started in the center of town by John Murray in the mid-1950s became the flourishing Youghal Carpets, employing 850 at its peak. Add in a work force of 120 at Murray’s Kitchens and Youghal had nearly 1,500 manufacturing jobs for an employable 2,500 in the town. Small wonder that workers were being bused in from as far afield as the late Mayor Richard Daley’s ancestral town of Dungarvan, fifteen miles east along the coast; that emigration came to a halt; and that, local history has it, there were only forty incorrigibly unemployed people in the whole place.
The Irish economy as a whole was changing gear from the protected, mostly agricultural system presided over by Eamon de Valera in the 1930s and 1940s. By the 1950s the long-range course was set: credits, tax breaks, and training grants to make Ireland alluring to foreign investors, particularly United States manufacturers looking for a base whence to attack European markets. From 1960 to 1973 manufactured exports increased fivefold and accounted for under half of all exports; by May of 1972 more than half the fixed assets of Ireland’s industry and service firms were foreign-owned. So much for the nationalism of an earlier time: in the 1930s De Valera had put through a law limiting foreign ownership to 49 percent.
Those three high-tech firms, all of them U.S.-owned, came in 1981 as a glimmer of hope to a desperate town. For by then the town, like Ireland, was in deep trouble. Seafield had gone, along with Blackwater Cottons, and, worst of all, Youghal Carpets had closed down. The reasons were not hard to find; indeed, one of them nestled next to my neck after I bought a sweater in Merrick’s clothing store. MADE IN MA CAU, said the label. Youghal had got on the wrong end of what theorists of underdevelopment call the economics of comparative advantage—the comparative advantage of those sweater-makers in Macau being their ability to work for wages far lower than what the sad weavers and spinners of Youghal required to preserve life and limb. Youghal had got on the wrong end too of the consequences of free trade. Ireland’s entry into the Common Market, in 1973, rendered the local factories vulnerable to competition. Describing the low productivity and slack practices of Seafield Fabrics, Paddy Linehan reached for an image of Babylonian luxury: “They had colored toilet paper. It was like the Shah of Iran.”
“It’s very bad,”said Tom O’Connell—or, in the Irish version of his name painted over the front of his shop, Tomas O’Conaill. Tom is on the left end of Youghal’s political spectrum, a Labor town councillor, formerly in Sinn Fein. As we stood chatting by his shop counter, children and a surprising number of adults slipped in and out, buying tiny amounts of candy. Remembering how much candy the Irish eat, I joked to Tom that he must be getting a kickback from the local dentists. “It’s one of the few little luxuries people can afford,” he remarked. “Meat once or twice a week, maybe. No vacations. Remember, we lost not just the jobs in the factories but as a result also about 75 percent of the service jobs, in the shops and pubs. You couldn’t give a pub away today in Youghal. People are barely existing.”
A girl in her late teens, looking badly scared, came into the shop and muttered to Tom. He gave her a name and address and she trotted out, hauling her threeyear-old after her. “The ESB has just cut off her electricity,” Tom said, “and she’s trying to find someone from St. Vincent de Paul. A lot of people are depending on charity.” I could sympathize with the girl’s problem with the Electricity Supply Board. Back in the 1960s, when the lights used to go off in our house outside Youghal, we used to run outdoors to see if there was a blackout at the Cunninghams farm, half a mile away across the stream. If lights blazed at the Cunninghams’, we knew the ESB was forcefully indicating its differences with us alone on the nature of consumer credit.
OVER AT THE Allied Irish Bank I had another illustration of Ireland’s woes, as graphic as the label from Macau. I wanted seventy-five Irish pounds—or punts, as they are properly called. The cashier worked out that to get this sum I needed to write a check for $77.96 on my own, New York branch of the Allied. The two currencies are at par; one dollar gets you one punt, meaning that the punt has halved in value against the dollar in the past five years. This is very nice for a firm like Waterford Crystal, which exports to the United States, but not particularly helpful in paying dollar-denominated interest charges on Ireland’s swag-bellied foreign debt. This debt in per capita terms is three times that of Mexico. In a leap familiar throughout the Third World it has gone from $161 million in 1970 to about $8 billion—more than half the country’s GNP—in 1984.
In absolute terms, of course, this sum doesn’t look so huge these days, and international bankers and kindred pursestring minders seem to take a benign view of Ireland. “You Irish have got the economy of Jamaica and the credit rating of Holland,” one such banker once remarked to a friend of mine, by which I suppose he meant that the all-important though unstated bottom line is that Ireland is white, English-speaking, and part of European culture. Bankers wouldn’t admit it publicly, but they associate profligacy and possible default or debt repudiation with banana rather than potato-eating republics.
After a doleful chat with local bankers about high taxes, low land prices, and 17¼ percent interest rates on personal overdrafts, I headed off to see some of the few rays of light amid the darkness—salvation dressed as high tech.
Paddy Linehan says that when he became chairman of the Youghal Council, in 1980, he held an all-night prayer vigil on June 21 of that year. By May of 1981 three U.S.-owned firms were committed to setting up shop in Youghal. It’s the kind of employment people mean when they use words like post-industrial. Doret and Bryant, the two factories alongside the main road to Waterford, just outside town, are small and clean and don’t have smoke hanging over them. They make “documentation products” and rubber mouldings and employ about thirty people each.
Inside another tidy factory, looking like a health clinic up on top of Cork Hill, is Power Products, which employs 120 people in the manufacture of power converters for electronic equipment. Its parent company is in Fort Lauderdale, and it has a brisk thirty-five-year-old Irishman named Barry Kelleher as managing director.
It may be that in the wake of the Linehan-led prayers God was the ultimate sponsor of high-tech’s arrival in Youghal, but Kelleher’s account of why the men in Fort Lauderdale decided to set up an operation in Ireland left me in little doubt as to the executive agent. To firms like Power Products the Irish people, in the form of their vested instrument the Industrial Development Authority (IDA), offer 45 percent of the cost of setting up shop and also basictraining costs (including trips to the United States) and a waiver of corporate taxes on profits generated by exports. The gamble, as the economist Jeff Frieden describes it in his forthcoming survey of the Irish predicament, is with money borrowed abroad to give to the IDA, which in turn gives it to industrialists. The gamble may eventually pay off in cash terms by indirectly increasing government tax receipts from an enlarged wage bill, and it may pay off in balance-of-payments terms by increasing Irish exports. A further incentive to U.S. investors is that the Irish education system offers a bountiful supply of technically well-trained graduates prepared to start off at $10,000 a year, less than half the opening price for their American equivalents. From Youghal the U.S. firm has a springboard into European markets, without the ball and chain of the strong-dollar costs of a purely domestic U.S. operation. And none of the software and manuals generated in the United States has to be translated.
There’s a catch of sorts, at least as far as any thirty-fiveor forty-year-old person who used to work at Youghal Carpets, earning $200 a week, is concerned. The jobs at a plant like Power Products tend to go to the school-leavers and preponderantly to women, and the pay is about half what the old factories used to offer top-scale workers. As Tom O’Connell put it, “These new companies want seventeen-year-olds, new and fresh, and they want them for ten years. The thirty-five-year-old is obsolete.” I’ve heard the same thing from unemployed steelworkers in the Mahoning Valley, all washed up at forty. It makes for a lot of stress around the house when the wife, the younger sister, or the daughter is the one bringing home the wage.
This shift in wage scales points up the great problem for any Irish government. (There have been four governments since 1977, all vainly struggling with crisis, three duly turfed out after inevitable failure.) To keep exports competitive, wages have to be low, lest the guest company take off for Portugal or Greece or even Morocco, which is itself trying to join the Common Market. But the lower the wages the less the inhabitants of Youghal can afford to buy clothes in Merrick’s, or drink in Paddy Linehan’s bar, or eat candy from Tom O’Connell’s shop, and the more the domestic economy stagnates. As Tom said, “There’ll be a lot of window shopping this year.” This is not surprising, since real unemployment in Youghal approaches 50 percent—even allowing for the “foxers,” or that substantial part of the Irish population that at one time or another works off the books, in the underground economy.
I WALKED OUT TOWARD the Strand, where the old villas and lodging houses have names like Railway View, in honor of the invention that gave them their nineteenth-century prosperity. Tourism kept Youghal going in the old days, and the people of Youghal know well enough that even if new plants are coming in on the urging of the IDA (two more, making floppy disks and nappies for old folks, are on the way), they may in the end go the way of the textile factories. But people will always want to go on holiday. Youghal is remembering how to be a tourist resort. A “draft development plan” has reviewed Youghal’s historical and picturesque assets: thirteenth-century church, fifteenthcentury Tudor house, Cromwell’s arch, the old town walls. For years many Irish people thought (correctly) that if accurately deconstructed, the “picturesque”—whether it was a color-washed cottage or a venerable shopfrontspelled poverty. Thus they rejoiced in pebble-dash bungalows and plastic shop signs. But tourists do not always appreciate the aesthetic properties of upward mobility from nineteenth-century squalor. The draft plan says somberly, “We in Ireland have a great tradition of very good handpainted signs, but, unfortunately, many new signs are brash, gaudy, and in poor taste. It is vital to remember that an otherwise very good shopfront or commercial premises can be completely ruined by brash, vulgar signs; therefore, stringent controls should be given to the size, colour, texture, and position of all these signs.” So much for leprechaun schmaltz. This is a town that has to lure subsidiaries from the factories on Boston’s Route 128 and tourists from the Ring of Kerry.
I wandered along the promenade in the company of some of the town’s unemployed, who have little else to do with themselves each day. There on my right was Perks’ Amusements, where as a fifteen-year-old I had helped run a local version of Bingo, tossing tennis balls into a rack. In my day the big prizes were worth $5 or $10.
I went in, and Sal Perks Tivy, who, along with her husband, Phil, has taken the place over from her father, Jumbo, said that it’s now a matter of $1,000 prizes and that the Bingo boards are of course electronic. No more Showboat Saturday Night Dance, either. Bands cost too much, and people have television these days anyway. Sal went on to describe Youghal’s Walter Raleigh Potato Festival, designed to extol Sir Walter’s importation of the sacred tuber to Youghal four hundred years ago.
On my way home I gave a lift to an earnest young man from Dungarvan who was studying marketing at University College Cork. The Irish, he said, were short of good marketeers of their produce. He said some friends of his had emigrated to Australia.
That evening I went to the Choucas Restaurant, outside Youghal, which had been opened in the late 1970s to cater to the new managerial class. As I ate the exquisite Breton cooking of chef-proprietor Raymond I listened to his wife, Kendra, spiritedly explain the grotesque horrors and injustice of the “value-added” sales tax, and, more generally, the rising cost of getting by.
It was my last evening in Youghal and the sixth day straight that I had not heard the North mentioned even once, nor any politician referred to without uniform derision.
Later, an old friend from Galway, who had laid aside a turbulent political life in favor of white-collar stability, did at last mention the North in the course of a succinct résumé of the Irish situation: “In less than twenty years we’ve seen capitalism promise much and then fail; looking North, we’ve seen the nationalist mythology of Finn MacCool and Patrick Pearse end with little old ladies being blown up in shopping malls; the old ruling ideology of church and state has gone. The kids are all well educated and there’s no hope for them. In the old days they didn’t know it and now they do.”
No one is painting nationalist slogans on Youghal’s new plants. The fin de siècle, this time around, is no time for dreaming. Be thankful to have a plough, and let the stars look after themselves.