Things have changed
by Conor MacGillycuddy
is a big shock in store for returning emigrants if they
haven’t been home for five or so years. Even regular visits
home deliver new surprises at every turn, as the boom of
the so-called “Tiger economy” reverberates for good and
bad, across all walks of Irish life.
exceptional growth of the Irish economy over the past six
years has been well publicised. The size of the economy
will have doubled over ten years if current rates of growth
continue for another two or three years, as is forecast.
Although no-one is complaining about the new wealth, Answered
Prayers are well known to bring about more than what was
many years in the eighties, while Irish emigrants aspired
to become yuppies in New York and London in the Thatcher/Reagan
heyday, Ireland enjoyed little more than modest prosperity.
Returnees to Ireland at that time felt they had done the
right thing in leaving, as the pace of change at home was
so slow it seemed little had moved on. Visiting home was
a predictable step back to the old familiar world of tranquil
streets, quiet pubs, spontaneous social life with family
and friends who had time on their hands to chat and drop
in on each other, and seldom any need to make reservations
ahead. This was distinctive and wonderful, but bitter sweet
in that what kept it so special was the reason for the need
to leave: Poor employment and economic growth.
only then we knew what was to come! The days are long gone
when beautiful houses were on the market in Ireland for
a fraction of what they sell for now, when complacent Londoners
(like me) imagined that it would always be the case that
their humdrum flat would sell for the equivalent price of
something really special at home.
five years ago Visiting Home began to feel very different.
Airports became more crowded; taxi queues began to look
like the queues in the airports you had departed from, and
the jobs section in the Christmas issue of the The Irish
Times was in colour and twice as big as the main paper.
Years before, the jobs section filled one and a half pages,
offering such situations as lecturing posts in marine biology
in University College Galway and opportunities selling life
insurance. All sorts of surprises started popping up: the
solicitor’s billboard offering the usual range of services,
but now including immigration advice. At first I assumed
it was a spelling mistake, but no, it certainly wasn’t.
The headlines started covering self-made local IT millionaires.
This was new stuff indeed.
came the stream of scarcely credible economic statistics,
showing the economy growing at unheard of rates pushing
10% a year. Inward investment from IT companies raced ahead.
And here the consequences of the answered prayers began
to make themselves felt. Housing prices have rocketed, fuelled
by the low interest rates set by the European Central Bank
(ECB) for the sluggish major Euro economies, (Ireland represents
an economically insignificant 1% of the Euro bloc). The
car population has risen so fast that traffic congestion
is now an economic problem. Journeys that used to take minutes
can take hours, so crossing town to visit favourite places
or friends is no longer practical. Improvements in roads
and public transport are years away. Having exported construction
labour for decades, there is heavy irony now that the government
coffers are bulging with tax receipts to spend on infrastructure
projects, the once abundant labour force is not available.
shortages are now acute across all sectors. Measures to
recruit workers from Brazil in meat plants, Polish plumbers,
Russian hotel workers - even Nigerian priests - which once
made news, are now commonplace. It is no longer unusual
to be served by someone who doesn’t speak English properly
in a bar or shop. Increased tourism has meant parts of Dublin
are now besieged, their character changed beyond recognition.
The bland chain shop fronts of the international groups
are well entrenched, pushing aside the quirky owner-run
shops and businesses so typical of all Irish streets and
construction boom is not confined to the cities - old mills
and crumbling wrecks in the country villages are now coveted
for the first time in centuries as potential apartment complexes,
hotels and businesses. Tax incentive schemes have revitalised
depressed areas, not always sympathetically.
distinctiveness of the Ireland we left has been eroded,
as many of the unpleasant side effects of prosperity are
manifested in congestion, dirty air, sharp-elbowed busyness,
intrusive mobile phones and the spiralling costs of housing.
Some things that would be nice to see change are still plainly
evident, such as last summer’s train drivers’ strike of
ten weeks which held the hapless public to ransom, and scandalous
attempts at property developments, one case being a proposal
to build a golf course and conference centre on the land
adjoining one of the country’s finest, untouched early Christian
monastic sites at Durrow.
on the positive side, there is a tremendous sense of excitement
and potential in the air: All around there is evidence of
huge improvements in such scattered instances as new museums,
roads, Aer Lingus’s fleet of aircraft, restaurants, and
in opportunities for all the working population. If the
Industrial Revolution passed Ireland by, the Information
Revolution has certainly come to stay. Government policy
is aggressively positive on e-commerce, and the good economic
news is set to continue for several more years, even though
infrastructure bottlenecks, inflation and labour shortages
are now becoming real problems rather than threats. The
new self-confidence of the nation is probably reflected
most noticeably in two areas long overdue for a reassessment:
the first being an exposure of political sleaze (“brown
envelopes”) through tribunals set up to uncover wrongdoing
in public life, and the second being a new relationship
with the UK, casting aside a lingering colonial inferiority
complex that bred suspicion and defensiveness. The future
for all Irish citizens, and the many people attracted to
live there, looks brighter than ever.
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