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Irish Leave Economic Downturn Behind Them


Now to Ireland, where the country's economy has suffered more than most in the last year - then again, it had farther to fall. Unemployment has increased from 1 percent to 11 percent. In the old days, the Irish knew what to do at a time like this: get on a boat heading for the new world.

Ireland became known as the Celtic Tiger when the boom years arrived and the exodus reversed itself. But with the latest downturn, more and more people are thinking of leaving once again. NPR's Rob Gifford reports.


ROB GIFFORD: On the dockside in the small port of Cobh, not far from the southern Irish city of Cork, is a bronze statue of a young woman and two young boys looking out to sea.

Ms. DEBBIE WALSH (General Manager, Heritage Centre, Cobh, Ireland): That's a statue of Annie Moore and her two brothers.

GIFFORD: Debbie Walsh is general manager of the Heritage Centre in Cobh. She says three million people, nearly half the population of Ireland at the time, passed through this port in the hundred years between 1850 and 1950 including Annie Moore and her brothers who set sail for New York City in 1891.

Ms. WALSH: Annie was the first immigrant to be processed as at Ellis Island when the station opened. She is a symbol of emigration, of just an ordinary Irish person, just an immigrant.

GIFFORD: Inside the Heritage Centre at Cobh there's a fascinating exhibition of pictures and mementos of the time. Many Irish people believed those days were gone for good. But now it seems they're back.


Mr. MICHAEL HAYES (Irish actor): I am about to leave this poor little island and head for the United States of America, New York City.

GIFFORD: Michael Hayes is a young actor from County Mead near Dublin. He's starred in a number of TV shows on the Irish channel RTE. But recently, he says, work has completely dried up.

Mr. HAYES: Things have literally just stopped and people are losing their jobs left, right, and center. And it's not just, you know, non-skilled workers, it's carpenters, plumbers, electricians, solicitors, accountants, even doctors now.

GIFFORD: Hayes says he'd rather struggle in New York than struggle in Dublin. His girlfriend, Elva Lee(ph), who's going with him, is equally upbeat about leaving. She's coined a new word for her situation.

Ms. ELVA LEE (Hayes's girlfriend): I am a recessionista is what I like to call it.

GIFFORD: Becoming a recessionista is Elva's way of saying she was laid off in March from her job at a marketing company.

Ms. LEE: This time last year it was 14 people working for us. In January we had three, then in March we didn't take on any other clients. So I lost my job.

GIFFORD: Even though plenty of recessionistas are thinking about leaving, there is a big difference in this particular cycle of Irish history. Unlike before, there are plenty of people who are staying in Ireland.

At a networking meeting for people setting up new businesses in a southern suburb of Dublin, 28-year-old Anna Lee Neland(ph) is getting advice on tax and legal issues.

Ms. ANNA LEE NELAND (Entrepreneur): A this time I think it's really good to have a network of friends and family around to help you out when there's such financial stress. Just surprisingly enough, there's not that many friends of mine running away like the amounts that normally would even during the boom.

GIFFORD: Standing beside her is her mother, 53-year-old Anne Neland who lived through the last recession in the 1980s. Anne lost her job with a multi-national company at the end of last year. She says, yes, Ireland has massive problems at the moment, but people are better traveled now, she says, and crucially, they've tasted success at home.

Ms. ANNE NELAND: One of the things the travel will tell you, as well, is that this is not a bad country. And we have done well and even though the Celtic Tiger was a little surreal, we still managed to get there and became a brilliant economy at one stage. So we know we can do it. We want to hold out, you know, for as long as possible, and get into gear again.

GIFFORD: It may be years before the Irish economy and the Irish jobs do get into gear again. But it's a fascinating new chapter in the book of Irish history. But people are now not necessarily thinking the grass is greener away from the Emerald Isle.

Rob Gifford, NPR News, Dublin.

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MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.