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Things have changed
by Conor MacGillycuddy

There 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.

The 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 desired.

For 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.

If 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.

Around 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.

Next 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.

Labour 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 towns.

The 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.

The 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.

But 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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