Reverberations of the Irish Boom

Prosperity and its discontents come to Ireland's towns and countryside

The Irish economy, as has been reported everywhere, has become the marvel of the Western world. With economic growth over the past decade of nearly 50 percent, Ireland enjoys a level of prosperity greater than that of England, its former landlord. As the economist Paul Sweeney writes in The Celtic Tiger (1998), the causes are various (and variously viewed). They include investment in the Irish Republic by multinational corporations; funds from the European Union; the communications revolution, which ended Ireland's isolation; fiscal reform; and the increased participation of women in the economy.

Most of the journalistic coverage of the boom has concentrated on Dublin and on a few other cities, including Cork and Limerick. But what has the boom done for, and to, the rest of Ireland? To look into the matter, I recently visited Bantry, a snug locality of 8,000 in the southwest corner of the republic. In the nineteenth century English and American travelers regularly described the place as rife with squalor, poverty, and drunkenness. In the twentieth century Bantry had a brush with the oil business: in 1967 Gulf Oil built a storage terminal on Whiddy Island, just offshore, but the facility was damaged by fire in 1979 and reopened only recently. Tucked in at the head of a vast and peaceful anchorage, behind a statue of Saint Brendan the Navigator, Bantry today looks freshly painted and satisfied with itself. Like most Irish towns, it strikes an American eye as being deliciously free of commercial display. It's a town without cosmopolitan pretension.

Everyone in Ireland talks about the reforms in education, which took place in the 1960s. I made inquiries at the local national (public) school, St. Goban's College, which in 1965 had only sixty-four students. Today, housed in a handsome new building, St. Goban's educates 350 boys and girls, aged twelve to eighteen, in such required subjects as geography, history, Irish, French, and hard science, including computer science. Eighty percent of the students qualify for one of the country's many technical institutes or seven universities, to pursue careers in, say, dentistry or pharmacy or the information sector.

In the old days those Bantry children who failed to qualify for higher education were likely to emigrate and hope for better things in the New World. Now, finding jobs easily in construction, hairdressing, and other trades, they stay in the area, often forming unmarried partnerships and dwelling in homes of their own, separate from their parents. Concrete-block houses are sprouting on every roadside.

Farming in Bantry, as in much of Ireland, has shifted its emphasis and even its look. Neilie O'Leary, a handsome, shaggy forty-nine-year-old, owns a flock of 500 sheep and half a dozen well-trained sheepdogs on his high hillside farm, but he keeps fewer and fewer cows. The dairy business, he told me, is dying out. "The only way for farming here is part-time," he said. "Prosperity has taken people away from the rural." O'Leary's wife, Anne, for example, chooses to work in the Bantry post office rather than having to milk twice a day, like some farmers' wives. His lambs currently sell on the European market instead of domestically or in England—and they are heftier animals now. The EU will subsidize half the cost of a big Suffolk ram to encourage Irish farmers to breed for French slaughterhouses, which like their lambs very large.

Change threatens traditional Bantry farming from other directions as well. The demand for lumber has encouraged entrepreneurs from Ireland and the Continent to plant tree farms. The EU subsidizes their ventures, and the national government, aiming to double the forested area in Ireland, offers tax incentives. Wealthy Germans and Dutch, eager to buy vacation homes on the hilly greenswards above Bantry Bay, also drive up the price of farmland, and more and more farmers, especially the bachelors, are selling.

Europeans come as tourists, too, to stay at the Sea View House Hotel or the Westlodge Hotel and to tramp over the lovely hills on trails marked a decade or so ago under an arrangement between the government and area farmers. The walks were laid out by unemployed workers on public salary, but those workers have full-time jobs now; no new trails are under way. The farmers, moreover, are involved in a dispute with the national government, because the European Union has balked at compensating them for the foot traffic across the highlands, and they expect the government to pay.

European money, which has helped to build not only schools but also many other public amenities, has brought nothing but good to Connie Connolly, one of twelve plumbers in the district. Five years ago, he told me, there was enough work in Bantry for only one, but construction and upgrading have brought all the Irish plumbers back from abroad. Connolly clearly welcomes the prosperity but seems dubious about the potential side effects. He worries about Ireland's becoming "a green island governed by Europeans." He prophesied darkly, "There will be payback to Europe, in my estimate."

Nearly everyone I interviewed had mixed feelings about the new prosperity, but all agreed that the district needs more manufacturing. To see what was already there, I visited Bantry Bay Seafoods, in its two-year-old EU-subsidized processing plant. I parked in a bayside lot and entered the lobby, to be greeted by a tank of guppies and a vivacious red-haired receptionist in flowing green garments. Workers wearing blue smocks and white surgical caps bustled about. So did middle managers who wore neckties and spoke of work in Singapore and Chicago while making preparations for the visit of an Italian delegation. The company's managing director, Denis O'Driscoll, received me in his corner office upstairs and handed me an assortment of gleaming literature. Beginning ten years ago as an aquaculture business (the blue plastic buoys of mussel farms bob all over the bay), Bantry Bay Seafoods now processes and ships shellfish products to supermarkets throughout Europe and will soon be exporting frozen dinners of mussels in garlic butter and a variety of other pasta-with-seafood meals to U.S. companies such as Trader Joe's and Price Chopper. Annual sales have reached about $11 million, and O'Driscoll oversees 120 workers. He is already having trouble finding Irish help. He had just hired a dozen workers from Latvia and was expecting fifteen more soon.

The Sea View House Hotel, the fanciest of the tourist establishments along the bay, is experiencing a similar difficulty. During the 2001 season it had to hire a number of Polish employees. And the fishing boats of nearby Castletownbere have had to send as far as Newfoundland (where allowable catches have been cut in order to conserve fish stocks) to fill out their crews. All over Ireland this global swapping is going on. In 1999 Ireland imported 6,000 workers from countries outside the European Union; last year it imported 18,000. This year it will bring in as many as 32,000, principally for low-paying service jobs in fast-food chains and hotels. Are the people of Ireland, accustomed to sending their own workers to England and America, going to behave any better now than the Germans did after hiring Turks to build roads for Munich and Frankfurt?

From the archives:

"Euroland, Open for Business" (November 1999)
The European Monetary Union once seemed unimaginable. The questions now are What will it lead to? and Will Britain join? By Robert A. Levine

These conflicting pressures were all working on voters in Bantry and elsewhere when, on June 8, Ireland held a referendum on whether it should subscribe to the Treaty of Nice, a complex and dimly understood document, already endorsed by most EU members, that would allow a dozen new Union members, all east of Germany. Although both the Irish government and the Catholic Church lobbied for the treaty, only a third of the electorate turned out, and 54 percent of those voted no. It was an unexpected jolt for the government. Now it's up against conflicting deadlines: it faces a national election by next summer, yet it has only until the end of 2002 to ratify the treaty. The Irish electorate is conscious of a debt to the European Union. But, as Neilie O'Leary told me after the treaty vote, "We were being asked to vote on something we didn't understand. I'm all for the European Union, but where will our development money go? To Eastern Europe? The larger the cake, the smaller the slice."