The Celtic Tiger

The Irish Economy Is Turning Over A New Leaf

What country is the world's leading exporter of computer software? What country has Europe's fastest growing economy? Ireland, the country which for 150 years had only one export: its own people; There are 3.5 million people in the Republic of Ireland, and a staggering 70 million people of Irish descent worldwide. All that is beginning to change. The Celtic Tiger is calling its cubs to come home.

60 Minutes II Correspondent Bob Simon reports on the new land of opportunity.
It is a scene being played out all over America and other countries with Kellys and O'Connors. These days the Irish are moving, of all places, to Ireland.

Martin and Connie O'Brien are leaving New York after immigrating to America 15 years ago. "Everybody else is going back; there must be something good going on there," says Connie O'Brien.

Thousands of Ireland's sons and daughters are returning to ride the Celtic Tiger, the country's roaring economy.

Paul McBride is back in Ireland from Seattle where he traveled nine years ago to work for a company called Microsoft. "At the time, I think most of our class, almost all of our class emigrated," says McBride about his schoolmates. "There was just no option for people."

McBride, who is 31, now runs the Irish operation for Lionbridge, a software testing company, in a village that was dying. In fact, he first set up shop in a former morgue, then in a pub, before the company's new building opened smack dab in the center of downtown Ballina. "We run a certification program for Microsoft. We are one of four sites worldwide," boasts McBride. "The others being in Paris, Tokyo and L.A. that can certify software for Windows 2000."

It's a high-tech world that is making the legendary green countryside even greener - with cash and with the envy of others. The giants of information technology are here now, lured by Europe's lowest taxes, a well educated population and a work force that speaks English. In no time at all, Ireland has driven straight from the agricultural revolution to the information technology revolution.

The town of Leixlip in County Kildare, is the birthplace of Guinness beer. But Guinness was yesterday; the company of today is Intel, which recently built a plant worth $5 billion.

Thousands of Irish workers are making the chips that drive Europe's computers. Intel knows a good thing when it sees one; a new building is being added to its plant in Kildare.

And the boom is spreading to other counties. Do you remember the sad town of Limerick of Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes, where jobs were as rare as jewels? Well, today 4,000 workers are busy building computers for Dell.

The race from poverty to prosperity is moving so fast that historians like Tom Garvin are having trouble keeping score. "I have to make a mental effort to remember the Dublin of the 1950s, which is in many ways a Third World city," recalls Garvin. "Horses, no motorcars, children in bare feet, dirt everywhere, people living in slums, no television, no bathrooms - a really impoverished European country that really didn't seem to be going anywhere."

The only place the Irish people - folks like Conor O'Kelly - were going was abroad. "We left for economic reasons," says O'Kelly. "We left because there wasn't a lot of opportunity. We didn't leave because we didn't...want to live in Ireland. Of course, we wanted to live in Ireland."

O'Kelly, who left in 1983, worked on Wall Street for seven years. Now he runs a financial services company in Dublin. "People are getting a lot of joy out of the success. You know, I think we feel...that we deserve it," he says. "We've had it bad for a long time."

The potato famine of the 19th century killed a million people. Millions more left because it was the only way to survive. The economy never recovered so people just kept on leaving.

"We had a lot of broken hearts," says Father Harry Bohan, a priest in the west of Ireland. "We had a lot of people, a lot of parents who never saw their children again."

"There was huge sadness about that type of emigration," he says. "In some ways we became ashamed of a lot of what was Ireland."

But in the last five years, shame is out and pride is in. Ireland is now the envy of Europe. Unemployment is down from 20 percent 15 years ago to today's 4 percent, the lowest of Europe. In fact, Ireland now wants to import 300,000 new workers in the next couple of years.

It's never been a better time to be a college graduate in Ireland. "They're so cocky. I mean, you know, they're interviewing you," says O'Kelly of his job applicants. "They're putting their feet up on the desk and saying, 'You know, what have you got for me?'"

To fill the job rolls, Ireland is looking to its past to find its future.

One hundred fifty years ago, the ships carrying hundreds of thousands of hungry Irish families to the United States during the potato famine were called coffin ships. The Jeanie Johnston alone made 16 Atlantic crossings. Now her namesake, a replica, is about to sail again - this time, not carrying people to America, but a message: Come back to Ireland, to the mother country, now hungry for workers.

And the hunger is not just for high-tech workers. Gregory Craig, who saw eight of his own brothers and sisters emigrate, is Ireland's chief job recruiter overseas. "We're looking for nurses. We're looking for construction workers. We're looking for people in call centers," says Craig. "It's across every sector, every, every job imaginable."

So who's picking the potatoes? Not the Irish. Latvian workers have been imported just for that. Ireland is also importing construction workers from England, the old colonial master.

"I never thought that I'd live long enough to see English wrkers on Irish building sites rather than Irish workers on English sites," says Garvin.

And many of the Irishmen who have lived and worked in England all their lives can't believe it when they see an Irishman like Craig recruiting workers in London.

Craig describes how two older men came up to him while he was recruiting: "And they said, 'We heard you on the radio this morning; we heard you saying there was a show in London offering jobs in Ireland, and we just came along to make sure it was happening because we couldn't believe it.'"

Along the emotional spectrum, Ireland's mood is changing - from depression to delight. You can see it in the clubs and in the cars. And that family car, or even the first car, is likely to be a BMW - that is if you can find one. There's a six-month waiting list for a BMW in Dublin. And in Ireland, BMWs start at $60,000.

Eileen Corrigan could be on a poster for the New Ireland. The youngest of 15 kids, she became at age 20 the first woman in the country to sell cars. That was before she got her driver's license.

Now she is BMW's leading salesperson. The owner of two homes, she says she knows what her contemporaries want: "People are after status, but they're also after luxury - leather seats, air-conditioning, alloy wheels. They would have been luxuries in the past. But now they're necessities, people want them."

And this new attitude has brought social changes deeper than the bogs. Ireland's place of worship on Sunday is no longer the church so much as the shopping mall. The Catholic Church once dominated Ireland as it did in no other country. That was just before the good times started rolling.

"The church is not there anymore," says Garvin. "Certainly not in its traditional Irish sense. The numbers of priests and nuns and brothers have shrunk to virtually nothing. You must remember that 50 years ago something like one in four, one in five professional people in Ireland were men or women of the cloth."

Bohan says Ireland is still a Catholic country in name. "But in practice, I think that we are going through massive transition," he says. "And it could not be defined, I think, as Catholic in any sense anymore."

Church attendance is less than half of what it was a decade ago. And the church's authority has declined even further. Divorce has been legalized; condoms are now sold over the counter. And guess where Viagra is made: Ireland.

But joining the modern world has brought its usual package of problems: more traffic, stress and suicide. And everyone seems to be in a hurry. The Ireland of the ballads and the bards, so romanticized in the bars of Boston and New York, is disappearing.

Garvin says the reputation the Irish people had for being eccentric has been lost: "People are beginning to arrive on time. We were known perhaps for eccentricity, but certainly for a lack of punctuality. If an Irishman said he'd meet you, welhe might show up - he might show up a week after, or he might not show up at all. And this wasn't considered discourteous. It was considered normal behavior. I'm afraid I rather miss the unpunctual Irishman. He's dying out."

Of course, the pubs are still there, and the pints of warm beer. Some things will never change.

But some believe a new attitude has emerged. "I'm beginning to believe that for the first time we're becoming a confident people," says Bohan. "For the first time we are beginning to believe that we have taken our place among the nations of the Earth."



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