Totally wired: Ennis is the global village

Once a `pleasantly inconsequential' town, it will now shape the future of technology.
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
ENNIS IS described in The Rough Guide to Ireland as having a "pleasantly inconsequential air".

And that is probably how this bustling market town on the windswept west coast strikes most of the summer tourists who wander through its handful of central lanes, admiring its medieval friary or craning their necks to survey the giant monument to the great Catholic emancipator Daniel O'Connell, which dominates its main square.

But appearances can be deceptive. Ennis is now far from inconsequential. Having been designated Ireland's "Information Age Town", it is currently in the process of being showered with IRpounds 15m worth of IT equipment and training, courtesy of Telecom Eireann, which wanted a test-bed for the new technologies set to transform the way people in Ireland, and everywhere else, live and learn.

If all goes according to plan, 80 per cent of households in this town (population 15,535 at the last census and growing fast) should have a computer by the end of October, making the commercial capital of County Clare the most heavily wired community anywhere in the world.

Each and every household within its urban district boundary is entitled to pick up a Pentium II PC plus a suite of software packages and Internet access for a mere IRpounds 260 (normal retail price: IRpounds 1,800). Anyone who still doesn't have a telephone can get a free connection.

A fibre optic ring is being constructed around Ennis to put its inhabitants on to the fast lane of the information superhighway. Local businesses and public amenities such as the health centre will be encouraged to develop online services and everyone in the town will be offered instruction in how to make the most of them.

Ennis, which beat Kilkenny, Killarney and Castlebar - indeed, 50 other Irish towns in all - for the accolade of Information Age Town, is obviously hoping to use it to corner a larger slice of the inward investment that has transformed Ireland's previously stagnant economy into the so-called Celtic Tiger.

At this early stage, it appears, the project is generating not just excitement but also some mild tensions in the town, as well as resentment in outlying areas. Some inhabitants of the Burren, County Clare's bleak and rocky rural hinterland, are plainly peeved that they won't benefit from what could be characterised as a collective technological windfall.

At the moment, though, there does not seem to be much happening in Ennis to stir up envy. The town has not been instantly transformed. The only visible sign of the initiative is the road sign that informs visitors that Ennis is the Information Age Town. There are stickers on a number of shop windows making the same proud boast. And books about computers and the Internet are prominently stacked in the Ennis bookshop, which suggest that computer literacy is spreading swiftly.

The benefits of the project have been felt most immediately and visibly in the dozen schools dotted around the town, which now boast computers in every classroom along with a state-of-the-art multimedia laboratory. The sparkling new facilities at the Holy Family school were even blessed by the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, when he visited Ennis in March to inaugurate the project.

Teachers at both primary and secondary level are being offered training by the University of Limerick, to help them integrate IT into the education process. They are having to adjust to an invasion of green screens and girls at Rice College, a boys' secondary school run by the Christian Brothers, which went co-ed last year. But 15-year-old Lee Shannon and his classmate Clinton Keane appear to be coping with both phenomena. They are especially thrilled, Lee tells me, by the fact that they can now play computer games whenever they have a free class.

Parents are also, naturally, pleased by the scale of investment in their children's education. "I'm hoping it will give him a head start," says Mary Hanley of her five-year-old son, Gearoid. Mrs Hanley hopes to have a computer at home soon, recently having successfully completed the small computer aptitude test set by the task force.

Mary Gilfoyle, 61, also took the test. She's having a PC installed in her home not primarily for herself, but for her 32 grandchildren, several of whom are already old hands at the computer.

In order to receive a PC, one member of each household (who must be 16 or over) has to demonstrate that they can do five tasks: set up and start the PC; open a new file, type five lines of script and save a document; retrieve a document from a floppy disk; access the Internet; and send an e-mail message.

A few of those frustrated by the delay in receiving a PC have voiced their bitterness in the letters page of the local newspaper, The Clare Champion. But the task force has refused to speed up the roll-out rate of around 250 PCs per week.

"There may have been the perception that we would arrive with a lorry- load of PCs and hand them out almost like Smarties," says TJ Waters, chairman of the task force overseeing the project. "This is not in the best interest of the people of Ennis and would be doing a huge injustice to the Information Age project.

"Telecom Eireann has given us the chance of a lifetime. The project must start out on a proper footing so that Ennis truly becomes Ireland's Information Age Town in every aspect of community life."

Triona McInerney, who co-ordinates the project, admits that "managing expectations" has been a challenge. She also accepts there are some inhabitants of Ennis who will probably never get wired. But the biggest technophobes, she swiftly stresses, aren't senior citizens, who are embracing the initiative, but middle-aged men and women.

The entire Ennis experiment will be closely monitored by those who care about the economic and social effects of the Information Revolution. What happens here will also, doubtless, earn a mention in Irish history books, for nowhere illustrates more dramatically the death of the old Ireland and the emergence of the new.