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Ireland's young adults look anxiously to greener shores

Now that the nation's economy has tanked, workers are beginning to bail in search of opportunity elsewhere.

March 16, 2009|Henry Chu

DUBLIN, IRELAND — They are the Celtic Tiger's cubs, the young men and women who grew up basking in the sunlight of the booming Irish economy.

For them, the Emerald Isle was a place to stay put and seek their fortunes, unlike their ancestors who emigrated by the millions in search of relief from poverty and oppression.

But last year, their luck ran out when their economy -- once the fastest-growing in Europe -- skidded off a cliff. Gone was the rapid growth that began in the 1990s. With job losses mounting, banks drowning in debt and experts warning of worse to come, Ireland has joined other nations that have sunk deep into an economic and psychological funk.

Experts now predict up to a 7% contraction this year in an economy that used to boast double-digit growth.

Many of the nation's young are once again turning their gaze outward, ready to pursue opportunities abroad and resurrecting the specter of Ireland's best and brightest deserting the country for distant shores.

Among them is 22-year-old Vicky MacEoin. Resting her feet after hours of prowling the booths at a graduate-school fair, MacEoin lamented the sudden reversal in her country's fortunes, and in her prospects as a young adult poised to enter a shrinking job market.

"Our parents said it's going to get worse, and we were like, 'Oh no, it will be fine,' " MacEoin said, sheepishly recalling the optimism of former days, before the extent of Ireland's crash became apparent.

"We're actually thinking of going to America," MacEoin said, nodding at a classmate, Nicola Cleary, 21, who sat beside her. The two friends expect to graduate in a few months with degrees in forensic science from a university in northwestern Ireland.

Both women have been to the United States and are aware that the land of opportunity has a lot less of it than before, now that it too is struggling with a major economic downturn.

But in a measure of how fast and hard Ireland has fallen, and of the long-standing tradition of moving out to move up, many young people here still see the U.S. and Britain as a more promising bet than their homeland. A lot of buzz also centers on Canada, which many believe remains in relatively healthy economic shape.

Ireland is a nation haunted by memories of mass exodus. Its population today, a little more than 4 million, is half what it was 150 years ago. The potato famines of the 1840s led to mass starvation and emigration, mostly to North America; by some estimates, 8 million people fled the island in the 19th century, a drain from which it never fully recovered.

The rising prosperity of the last two decades sparked a mini population explosion of 20%. But today's young adults are still only a generation removed from the hard times experienced by many of their parents, and the idea of quitting Ireland for a foreign land still has a strong grip on the collective imagination.

David Collins had hoped to get into radio after earning a degree from Dublin City University this spring. But now the 21-year-old is considering going abroad, possibly to Canada, to ride out the economic storm.

"It was obvious that it couldn't last," Collins said of the recent boom. "I think it'll eventually recover, but I'm slightly concerned about how long it will take."

The economy here tumbled headlong over reckless lending by banks and a superheated property market, with home prices in some coveted areas rivaling those of New York.

With astonishing swiftness, boom turned to bust, and companies that used to woo people to come work for them are issuing layoff notices. Those still hiring are worried that the trickle of qualified young people leaving the country may swell into a flood.

"Some of the top talent has been going overseas, so our talent pool is shrinking," said Niamh Gaffney of Gradireland, a careers agency. "It's made both employers and graduates more competitive."

The situation isn't expected to improve any time soon: Economists predict that Ireland won't claw its way out of the economic hole before 2011, later than some countries because of how hard it has fallen.

How many of its young people will stick around waiting for that to happen is difficult to say.

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henry.chu@latimes.com

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