Ireland Essay

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For generations,  the name  Ireland has been almost synonymous  with emigration, but in recent  decades that  image has drastically changed.  From  the  17th century  onward, religious intolerance  and economic conditions  combined  to  disperse  people  from  Ireland across five of the  world’s continents.  The first major exodus consisted of Northern Irish Protestants seeking opportunities in the new British colonies in North  America. The greatest  Irish mass emigration occurred toward the middle of the 19th century when successive failures of the potato crop created famine throughout rural Ireland, which was overwhelmingly Roman Catholic in religion. A quarter of the population of eight million was lost either to death by starvation or to emigration. In the United States in 1850, the census estimated that nearly a million of the country’s latest immigrants came from Ireland.

During World War II, the Irish Republic maintained a policy of neutrality, which made its integration  into the postwar international economy problematic.  The Irish government  pursued  a policy of protectionism that resulted in mass unemployment. Taking advantage of a long-standing  policy of free movement  of labor between Ireland and Britain, thousands of workers crossed the Irish Sea in response to the demand for cheap labor to help reconstruct the bombed metropolitan areas of England, Wales, and Scotland, and to build the social housing that was promised by the first postwar British governments, both Labor (socialist) and Conservative.

The Celtic Tiger Economy

Right up to the early 1990s, a visitor to the Republic of Ireland  observing career  guidance  being given to a typical group  of those  leaving school  would  have noticed  that “how to emigrate” was at the top of the agenda, with young Irish people being advised on destinations like London or Boston where they could find low-skilled work in sectors  such as the construction industry or the hotel trade. Then, from the mid-1990s, the country went through a rapid transformation, gaining a reputation for itself as the “Celtic Tiger.”

The economic boom of the late 1990s came from two main sources: inward investment and house building, so that by the start of the 21st century, the housing sector was accounting  for approximately  15 percent  of  gross  domestic  product,  approximately twice  the  average  of  most  other  European  Union (EU) countries.  Some  critics  of  this  phenomenon were describing the country  as “a building site with a national anthem,” but such comments  cut little ice with Irish policy makers  and business leaders, who for generations  had  seen their  country  regarded  as the “joke” economy of western Europe.

Until the Celtic Tiger economy emerged, the Irish Republic was still a net exporter  of people, as it had been since the 18th century.  The 30 million people worldwide who claimed Irish origin were often called the  “Fifth Province” of Ireland.  The intelligent  use of this diaspora  became one of the key elements  in the Irish drive to attract inward investment. Irish American  business  executives were specifically targeted by the Irish government’s development  agencies and assured that if they were seeking a foothold within the geographical boundaries  of the European Union (which Ireland had joined at the same time as the United Kingdom in 1973), they could do no better than to choose a location which was English-speaking, committed  to a business-friendly corporate  taxation regime, and relatively enthusiastic  toward the Single European Market and the euro single currency.

At the same time, Ireland made full use of regional development  grants  available under  the  EU’s structural  funding  programs  to provide  economic  infrastructure,  such as new transport links and business parks; and it also committed  itself to investment  in human capital through  the modernization of its education system, especially in the university sector. The result  was that  national  income  per  capita  surged upward, and tens of thousands of immigrant workers flocked to Ireland, especially from poorer east European countries such as Poland and Romania.

Toward the end of the first decade of the 21st century, the future prospects of the Celtic Tiger economy began to look more mixed. The worldwide credit crunch  arising from problems in the American subprime money-lending markets resulted in large hikes in Irish interest  rates, with the result being a major slump in the housing sector. Irish enterprises such as Ryanair kept attracting  often-envious  attention from larger but less dynamic competitors.

This small country,  which as a sovereign nation-state with full fiscal autonomy and a seat at the European Central Bank, has a population  similar to areas of Britain, Spain, or Germany such as Scotland, Andalucía, or Bavaria, which operate  merely as “regions” as opposed to “states.” Ireland still punches above its weight in the corridors of power in the EU and other influential   international   organizations.    However, unless there is a new economic upturn,  the signs are that Ireland is moving toward a position of net emigration once again. To begin with, this is likely to involve eastern   Europeans   returning   to   their   homeland, rather  than the traditional  exodus of the Irish themselves to places such as England, the United  States, and  Australia.  However,  if or  when  large numbers of Irish begin seeking work overseas once again, the generation  involved is much more likely to be highly skilled, better  qualified, and  far less ready to enter low-paid occupations than many of their ancestors.


  1. Kieran Allen, The Corporate Takeover of Ireland (Irish Academic Press, 2007);
  2. Thomas M. Cooney and Etain  Kidney, A  Mapping  of Entrepreneurship  and Innovation Policy in Ireland (Dublin Institute  of Technology, 2008);
  3. Colin Coulter and Steve Coleman, eds., The End of Irish History? Critical Approaches to the ‘Celtic Tiger’ (Manchester University Press, 2003);
  4. Desmond Dinan, Encyclopedia of the European Union, Palgrave-Macmillan, 2000;
  5. Brigid Gavin, The European Union and Globalisation (Edward Elgar, 2006);
  6. Hooke & MacDonald, Supply in the Irish New Homes Market: Trends and Forecasts for Residential Construction in 2008 and 2009 (Hooke & MacDonald, 2008);
  7. Brigid Laffan and Jane O’Mahony, “Managing Europe From an Irish Perspective: Critical Junctures and the Increasing Formalization of the Core Executive in Ireland,” Public Administration (v.85/1, 2007);
  8. Ziene Mottiar and Sarah Ingle, “Broadening the Entrepreneurial Perspective—Entrepreneurship in an Irish Furniture  Region,” International Small Business Journal (v.25/6, 2007).

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