The Back Page

A NEW IRISH MIGRATION

Thanks to its economic miracle, the world is now coming to Ireland

PAUL WELLS August 22 2005
The Back Page

A NEW IRISH MIGRATION

Thanks to its economic miracle, the world is now coming to Ireland

PAUL WELLS August 22 2005

A NEW IRISH MIGRATION

The Back Page

Thanks to its economic miracle, the world is now coming to Ireland

PAUL WELLS

MR. RILEY WELLS is four years old this summer. His brother, Mr. Liam Wells, is two. (“What do you want to be when you grow up, Liam?” “Three.”) They live in Arklow, County Wicklow, about an hour’s drive south of Dublin. In Ireland.

The high points of the summer so far for Riley and Liam were near-simultaneous visits from two exotic travelling delegations. Tom Duffy’s legendary Irish circus pitched its tent in a field outside Arklow for two nights. Uncle Paul and Christina from Ottawa pitched their tent in the guest room of the Wells residence for a little while longer.

Tom Duffy’s circus came with tigers, prancing llamas, and three elephants. After the show one of the elephants wandered through the parking lot, munching distractedly on underbrush, until a circus handler tracked the beast down and scolded it back to its trailer. Paul and Christina came with a plastic dinosaur encased in a toy iceberg. Seale differences notwithstanding, this too was a hit.

Riley and Liam’s father, my brother Mark, works these days for a pharmaceutical company.

He didn’t move to Ireland because our family comes from there (although his wife Kathleen is a member in good standing of the great Irish diaspora, Newfoundland division). This wasn’t a return to cultural roots. It was simple economic migration: Mark moved to good work for good pay in a good place to live.

Which makes him part of a revolution.

Practically everyone has heard of Ireland’s economic miracle, which transformed the country from perennial loser to Celtic Tiger. From 1993 to 2001, its economy grew at a staggering annual pace of 8.4 per cent, three times that of the rest of the European Union.

What’s less obvious is that success has reversed a historic flow of human traffic.

For 100 years after the Irish potato famine of the 1840s, Ireland was a place you left if you possibly could. In 1961, Ireland’s population reached its lowest point in modern history, 2.8 million people, less than half its pre-famine tally of 6.5 million in 1841.

In Canada, we like to blow smoke about

how a nation’s greatest resource is its people. You don’t really notice how true that is until your resource is leaving on every boat.

For generations, as the former Irish prime minister Garret FitzGerald put it during a recent speech in New Brunswick, “no more than half of each age cohort was alive in Ireland at age 35. In the early part of the period, they died of TB or some other mortality. And the rest emigrated.”

Irish emigration fuelled Quebec politics (Claude Ryan, Brian Mulroney, Jean Charest), U.S. presidential races (Kennedy, Reagan, Clinton, Kerry), Argentine literature (Juan José Delaney). The Irish found fortune everywhere except Ireland. We visited Kilkenny Castle, which becomes a little less grand when you learn its story: its owners had to auction off all the furniture in 1955 and finally sold the old hulk to the Irish state for £50 12 years later.

By 1958, the wreck of Ireland was complete.

So as FitzGerald told his New Brunswick audience, Ireland’s leaders asked themselves, “Suppose we do the opposite to everything we’re doing so far and see how that works?”

Under the guidance of a humble bureaucrat, T. K. Whitaker—certainly one of the great Irishmen of the last century—Ireland replaced protectionism with a wide-open economy. Ireland joined the European Community, cut business taxes sharply, invested heavily and for decades in public education.

It took decades for these changes to pay off, but eventually the Irish discovered good luck makes good luck. Irish citizens stopped flooding out of the country in the 1960s, and started coming home in the 1970s. By the 1990s, there weren’t enough Irish to do all the work. The world started coming to Ireland.

Ireland’s population is only four million, yet by one estimate, from 1995-2000 a quarter of a million people immigrated to Ireland, only half of them returning Irish. Since then the pace has only increased. In May 2004, 10 new countries joined the European Union. Only Sweden, Britain and Ireland allowed residents of those countries to move in and work right away. In hardly more than a year, 85,000 Eastern Europeans have arrived to work. The woman who checked us into our Dublin hotel was Czech. There’s a Polish pub in Limerick, where the local newspaper runs weekly columns in Polish and Chinese.

Dan McLaughlin, chief economist of the Bank of Ireland Group, has predicted that this immigration will fuel a new “Celtic Tiger II” boom: in an economy constrained only by the amount of manpower, every new arrival contributes directly to the nation’s bottom line. Ireland was always a good place to visit, but as the Wellses of Arklow have learned, now you want to live there. After giving so much to the world for so long, Ireland is finally ready to take some of the world back. fifl

To comment: backpage@macleans.ca Read Paul Wells’s weblog, “Inkless Wells,” at www.macleans.ca/paulwells