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Economic Crisis Strikes At Irish Heartland

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Economic Crisis Strikes at Irish Heartland

As Unemployment Rises, Workers Pursue Familiar Path Overseas, Leaving Depleted Towns Scrambling to Sustain Sports


A key gauge of Ireland's economic health isn't found in the island nation's business districts or trading floors, but on the football fields of the rural west, where rosters of amateur clubs are getting so thin that villages are struggling to find talented players to field 15-person teams.

Sean McManamon left Ballycroy -- a picturesque village sandwiched between the Atlantic Ocean and the Nephin Beg mountain range -- for a job in London in February after his small construction firm folded. Mr. McManamon, a midfielder who was a stalwart of the Ballycroy team's defense, emigrated around the same time as three other players, leaving the village without an adult team for the first time in more than 50 years.

It is the 35-year-old father of four's second stint as an emigrant. He hopes it is his last. Emigrating again, after being in London for eight years and returning in 1999 to capitalize on Ireland's real-estate boom "was easily one of the hardest things I've ever done," says Mr. McManamon, who left his family, a 100-acre farm and a nearly finished seven-bedroom home behind. "I never thought I'd leave Ireland again."

Even as the economic crisis crimps migration world-wide, there are signs that Ireland's particularly dire straits -- unemployment hit a 14-year high of 12.2% in July and the central bank expects the economy to shrink by 8.3% this year -- are pushing increasing numbers of workers abroad. Official emigration statistics will be released later this year; some economists believe Ireland could see outflows of up to 40,000 people a year, the equivalent of nearly 2% of the country's labor force, for the next few years.

The U.S. Embassy in Dublin says Irish applications for short-term work visas are up in the last year. Irish emigrant centers across the U.S. report more new arrivals. Mark O'Donnell, director of human capital at Deloitte in Dublin, says 10% of the 2,000 Irish executives who are potential job candidates for his corporate clients are now working overseas, up from "pretty much zero" last year.

Most tellingly for many here, Ireland's most popular sports -- traditional amateur games called Gaelic football, which resembles a mix of soccer and rugby, and hurling, a sport similar to field hockey and lacrosse -- are seeing domestic teams struggle as players head overseas in search of work. The Gaelic Athletic Association that oversees the teams was founded in 1884 to preserve Irish traditions amid rampant poverty and emigration. Now, Ireland boasts more than 2,500 GAA clubs; increasingly popular overseas teams cater to the country's vast diaspora.

But teams here in Ireland, especially those along the sparsely populated rural west coast, are suffering as players leave. "You can tell what's happening in a local Irish community by what's happening with the GAA club," says Mark Duncan, director of the GAA Oral History Project at the Dublin campus of Boston College. It's a trope of Irish history, he says, that "if a village is struggling to field a team, something is wrong. There's a sense of despair and crisis about the place, that you can't hold on to your young people."


A line outside the Social Welfare Office in Limerick, Ireland

The Irish have a long and painful history of leaving. Starvation and emigration amid the mid-19th century potato famine cut Ireland's population by nearly a third, to 4.4 million in 1861. Emigration continued after Ireland won independence from Britain in 1921; more people left the country than came to it every decade until a 1970s economic revival stemmed the tide. But double-digit unemployment pushed people abroad again in the 1980s.

"For people who grew up here before the 1990s, emigration was a part of the national psyche," says Alan Barrett, an economist with Dublin's Economic and Social Research Institute. That changed when the economy took off in the mid-1990s, he says. "Some would argue that the greatest benefit of the Celtic Tiger was the notion that if you were born in Ireland you had a reasonable prospect of staying."

That notion is fading. Ballycroy native David Doran, 24, worked in Ireland's construction industry for six years until work dried up in January. So Mr. Doran moved to London, where older brothers who emigrated years ago helped him find work. "There's nothing here now," he says, sipping a Guinness in one of Ballycroy's two pubs while home on a recent visit.

The current outflow remains meager compared with Ireland's past emigration waves. Unemployment rates are rising world-wide and some would-be Irish emigrants are returning home empty-handed.

Many of those leaving Ireland now are also immigrants themselves. In 1996, 8,000 more people came to Ireland than left it, the start of more than a decade of inflows that turned the onetime emigrant nation into an immigrant hub. But foreigners are returning home amid the slump.

And though Ireland is set for a steep decline, few believe it will see a repeat of the lost decade of the 1980s. The government has unveiled painful spending cuts to bring down the budget deficit -- forecast to hit 10.75% of GDP this year. Emigration could even help in the short term, by keeping a lid on unemployment and whittling the government's social-welfare payments.

Years of strong growth also yielded a psychological boost that could lure emigrants home once recovery takes hold. "One of the benefits of the boom was that it proved Ireland is a viable economic entity," says the ESRI's Mr. Barrett. "So there's a confidence that growth can be restored and that it's possible to sustain on this island a population in excess of 4.5 million people."

But the departures are hurting Irish towns and teams, especially along the western coast, where poor infrastructure and a lack of industry have long pushed workers away. Last year, Ballycroy -- where the population has shrunk by more than half since 1941 to just under 700 -- completed work on a new Gaelic football field.

On a recent Friday, the grass was calf-high and the changing rooms were strewn with trash. When Sean McManamon and other players emigrated to London this year, the town's chances of fielding a full team evaporated.

"We were small -- we were a junior team and we played in the lower divisions," says Eoin Sweeney, 31, a physical therapist whose family owns Ballycroy's general store. "But it's the tradition of the thing. This is the first time I haven't played football in Ballycroy since I'm about 8. It hurts."


Teams from bigger communities are also taking a hit. Some 35 miles east of Ballycroy, the streets of the 10,000-person town of Ballina are dotted with empty storefronts and "To Let" signs. Ballina's Gaelic football team won the national championships in 2005.

But the team has seen eight key players leave since 2008 and lost its semifinal match by two points earlier this month. "We suffer with emigration anytime there's a recession," says club treasurer Mickey Tighe, 42, who has been with the team as a player or manager for 25 years. "But this is the worst I've ever seen."

Ireland's new emigrants do benefit from perks that their predecessors lacked. Technology keeps them in steady contact with loved ones back home, while cheap and frequent flights make visiting easier.

A round-trip flight from London to west Ireland can cost Sean McManamon as little as 40 pounds ($66), a price that lets him come home monthly. But it doesn't erase the pain of being away. "All the money in the world doesn't pay for not being home with your family in the evening," he says.

Edited by AvidFan

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Economic Crisis Strikes at Irish Heartland

As Unemployment Rises, Workers Pursue Familiar Path Overseas, Leaving Depleted Towns Scrambling to Sustain Sports


Ballina was always madness, its a regional town, very farming centric and they were building gated apartments there for horrendous prices. It is sad, for a while Ireland was re-populating, now the young person drain is starting again. :(

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