British '99ers join the Irish gold rush

Click to follow
"... AND THEN there was the matter of the local school," said Norman Smith, his voice brimming with admiration. "The parents decided they wanted an extra classroom, so they went and raised pounds 20,000 to build one. Having done that, they then paid for a teacher to go in it. Where else would that happen?"

It was well past midnight and in the lounge bar of a hotel in Westport, Co Mayo, overflowing with the music of two fiddle players, Mr Smith was lingering over a pint, listing at length the reasons he would never return to England, a place he left 21 years ago.

"It suits me living in a republic. There is not the same class system you have in Britain. Here you can be friends with a millionaire, a fisherman or someone who is on the dole - no one minds."

An increasing number of British people agree with Mr Smith. This week a report published by the Irish Central Statistics Office showed that emigration from Britain to Ireland is at a high. The office said that of the 44,000 people who moved to Ireland last year, 21,000 were from Britain.

There are many reasons for the influx - people are drawn by jobs, relationships or the prospect of a less stressful life. Many are second-generation Irish returning to their roots. Others - such as Ken Stephens, a self-confessed drop-out who lives in Newport, near Westport - simply wanted to get out of the rat race.

"I came here on holiday back in 1969 and it made me think long and hard about my life. I was working as an engineer in London and had the trappings that went with the job but it was all about a 9-to-5 existence. I thought there had to be more to it than that," he said, standing outside his cottage as the clean, sharp, Atlantic air blew in off the waters of Clew Bay.

"We have been struggling by ever since. I do various jobs - some repair work, some mechanical stuff, gardening, fishing. I don't think I will ever go back to Britain. There is more freedom here. Once you get used to not having a lot of money, it really doesn't bother you."

Despite Mr Stephens' low-cost philosophy, it is the prospect of money that attracts many to Ireland, whose "Celtic tiger" economy has - with the assistance of European grants - been transformed in the past decade.

In Dublin in particular, companies such as Microsoft and Dell Computing are attracting increasing numbers of young professionals from Britain.

In addition, a number of companies from Northern Ireland whose markets are in the Republic are relocating across the border to reap the benefits of operating within a euro zone and to avoid the disadvantage of the strong pound.

"I certainly think the jobs situation is a major factor," said David Butler, a project manager with the International Development Agency, a government body set up to encourage foreign companies to invest.

"The economy is buoyant and people perceive that there are opportunities."

The job position is such that, even given the influx of newcomers and a 70 per cent fall since 1990 in the number of people leaving Ireland, the government's training and employment authority, Foras Aiseanna Saothair, is still looking for 10,000 qualified workers.

It will be trying to recruit during Expo Ireland, an exhibition for Irish businesses being staged at Olympia in west London next week.

"Ireland is now the place to live," said Doug Baxter, the chief executive of the exhibition. "The country has fantastic appeal. It's cosmopolitan, young and lively, it is steeped in history and culture and good jobs are plentiful."

But there are drawbacks. "The Irish economy is growing faster than anywhere else within the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Even this year the economy will grow between 5 to 6 per cent," said Cormac O Grada, professor of economics at University College Dublin.

"Long-term unemployment is currently at around 3 per cent and companies are struggling to fill their vacancies. There are signs for staff in all the shop windows.

"But in Dublin the effect has been a housing boom that has seen prices rocket as in London and now the traffic situation is a topic of daily comment. Both of these are signs of a booming economy but there is not the housing stock or the transport infrastructure to cope."

Outside the capital the change is also being felt. Mr Stephens said: "When I came here in 1971 people had never even heard of broad beans - now the village stores stocks avocado and garlic. But likewise you could drop your wallet in the street and it would be returned to you untouched. Nowadays you do well to keep your wallet in your pocket without someone pinching it." He sounded as though he was only half-joking.

But it is the local people who are most aware of the change. In the Westport bar where Mr Smith was finishing his drink, one of the musicians was packing away his instruments, having just completed an unlikely- sounding arrangement to buy a banjo for two bottles of poteen.

"Yes, Westport is booming; it's full of tourists. Sometimes we have to hide from them," he said.

"But things have changed. The culture gets killed - things are not the same here. But it is impossible to explain to someone who doesn't know what it used to be like."