Johns Hopkins Magazine -- September 1999
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Ireland's economy is booming. But there are some black spots amid the prosperity.

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The Celtic Tiger:
Stalking Cork

Story and Photos by Lavinia Edmunds

The Apple computer plant, all glass laced with green steel, glimmers on the hill overlooking the medieval city of Cork, Ireland. It was the first large industry to locate here, back in 1980, when Ireland was still at the bottom rung of Europe's economic ladder and unemployment rates were hitting 19 percent. Cork leaders were desperately looking for new industries to occupy the city's string of "advance factories," optimistically built to prompt industrial development.

In Apple's auditorium, spokesman Liam O'Donoghue (above), a handsome, gray-haired Irishman in a yellow polo shirt, gives the rundown on the corporation's fortunes in Cork. There is an aura of high-tech success about him, which is reflected in the company lobby with its Waterford crystal globe, the size of a basketball, and in the auditorium, with its large computer screen framed in blonde wood.

"We settled here when no one had heard of the Celtic Tiger," says O'Donoghue. The Tiger, as the boom in the Irish economy is known, really began to rampage in 1997 as other multinational firms followed Apple to Cork: Motorola, Boston Scientific, Eli Lily, Warner Lambert, and Alcatel, to mention a few. Industry, which used to consist primarily of auto production for Ford and other heavy manufacturers, today is made up of 40 percent electronics, 22 percent pharmaceuticals, 7 percent health, and 10 percent international services, among others.

But there are some black spots on the Apple-led prosperity. Just around the corner from the Apple factory, lies a community rimming the city where the unemployed are concentrated and "social housing" is the norm. While unemployment rates in Cork have fallen from 23 percent in 1986 down to 10 percent or less in 1999, the rate of unemployment in some pockets of this community known as Northside rises to five times that of the general population.

"The labor force traditionally came from the Northside of Cork," explains Noel Joy, a community leader who works on a successful community project known as "We the People."

Those who were left unemployed when Ford and other heavy industries closed in the mid-1980s greeted the arrival of Apple in their neighborhood as manna from heaven. But many-- particularly older people with less education--were sorely disappointed. "Ask how many people at Apple are employed from the Northside," says Joy. "Kids on the side of the road are taking down the names and license numbers of the long, fancy cars that go by. They ask how come their parents don't go down that road." As for the Celtic Tiger, Joy bitterly says, "When it passed Knocknaheeny [a nearby community where unemployment can hit 60 percent], it found the nearest tree and pissed on it."

CORK'S NEWFOUND PROSPERITY--and the opportunities and challenges raised by that prosperity--were the subjects of discussion in June at the Institute for Policy Studies' 29th annual conference of the International Fellows Program in Urban Studies. There were 60 participants, from all across Europe and as far away as Australia, and 30 of them are former or current urban fellows of the Hopkins institute. (See "Urban Planning Today," below). Many now work as urban planners in major U.S. and European cities. They came to the conference to share their expertise and swap ideas on urban revitalization, using the city of Cork as a microcosm of the Irish economic boom.

The fellows toured the Apple plant, explored new industrial sites, and roamed through the city center, checking medieval city walls and the modern infrastructure for soundness. Most had distinctive agendas. Vera Kamenickova, who works for the Czechoslovakian government, came in hopes of lessons on using structural funds from the European Community. These funds, given to bolster countries whose average income is 75 percent or less than the average per capita income of other EC members, are considered a cornerstone for the success of the Irish, who have garnered $12 billion in structural funds since 1990.

Ian Appleton, a Scottish architect who specializes in waterfront development, was eager to see how Cork was using entertainment and leisure activities to bolster the economic health of the city's center. Australian Jason Byrne wanted to find out whether Cork's rapid economic development had displaced the poor.

As Sandra Newman, interim director of IPS and head of the Urban Fellows Program, noted, "Ireland demonstrates that a rising tide doesn't lift all boats. Even in the face of unprecedented national prosperity, some people have been left behind, despite high quality public schools and not a very overwhelming substance abuse problem--two issues often seen as the core of the urban underclass in the U.S."

City archaeologist Maurice Hurley leads the urban fellows on a tour of Cork.
THE ORGANIZER OF THE CONFERENCE is Cork's chief planner John O'Donnell. With his white hair and twinkling crystal blue eyes, O'Donnell is living proof that the Irish wit tinged with a healthy sense of doom is alive and well. An international fellow in 1971, he returned to Cork armed with planning theories and practices and launched his career as assistant city planner. During the early 1970s, the fortunes of this city appeared to be on the upswing, with manufacturing production going full-steam and unemployment at just 5 percent. O'Donnell reflects, in retrospect, that the city was "on the brink of a precipice."

Being on the "up" side of the economic cycle is not a bad thing this time around, though, as the Irish economy--fueled by the boom in information technology--shows no sign of letting up. According to Hopkins economics professor Robert Moffitt, "It's a long-term development based on the growth of educational levels of the labor force. They have attracted investment from other parts of the world. Insofar as you look at the fundamentals--the solid labor force and the good flow of capital--that bodes well for future growth."

But along with Ireland's extraordinary 9 percent growth rate, higher than in the U.S. or any country in Europe, Irish planners now are grappling with traffic congestion, incipient urban sprawl, and a fragile central business district--as well as the specter of the growing underclass.

"We've always had traffic congestion," says transportation specialist Donncha O Cinneide, a witty urban fellow who is now a senior lecturer in Civil Engineering at University College, Cork. In opening one of the first conference sessions, on transportation, O Cinneide refers to a 1926 University of Liverpool study. "The main problem then was that we had too many cows on our roads," says O Cinneide, generating an appreciative chuckle. Today, with a 4 percent yearly increase in the number of automobiles, traffic congestion continues to plague the city at the slightest provocation. On one morning, I watch as cars are brought to a standstill for 20 minutes on Cork's main street as Pat's bakery truck makes its daily delivery.

O'Donnell had a hand in developing the city's first working transportation plan, pushing to expand it beyond traffic engineering to include land use issues. Cork also adopted an aggressive plan offering ready-made factories and predeveloped property sites, coupled with tax-free status for businesses during the first years of operation. New industries began to line up. But as the new businesses have boomed, so has the number of Cork residents and commuters.

With funds from the European Community, says city manager Jack Higgins, Cork planners now hope to upgrade the city's buses, 60 percent of which are 15 years or older, a decade past the optimum age. A major new $100 million tunnel just opened to divert traffic from the city, and roads have been widened, but O Cinneide points out that the city needs better interchanges, improved public transportation, and ultimately, less reliance on cars.

To give the fellows a better feel for the health of Cork's central business district, city archaeologist Maurice Hurley leads us all on a tour, which begins in front of a multistoried Cineplex featuring Julia Roberts's latest comedy. The movie house sits on the site of the original north castle gates, erected in the 10th century. Cork was built on islands set on the River Lee. The city has a leisurely feel, with streets meandering up and down hills and over bridges, following the original medieval plan.

We see many people milling about the town center, but the district is not as healthy as planners would wish. Three-story shops, freshly painted in bright pinks, greens, and blues, create a home-grown shopping area, from Bridy McMurphy's grocery store to the "Up 2," a shop that boasts of "the newest trendy toddler and teenage outfits in Town." Structural funds from the European Community, coupled with generous tax breaks, have stimulated city entrepreneurs to buy deteriorating shop buildings, under the condition that they live above the shops and maintain the facades in the same style as when they moved in. Nonetheless, some shops look a little tired. The lack of trendy stores, as well as Gap and other American mall staples, while refreshing, signals a gap in consumer offerings for the new upwardly mobile class, notes Matthew Arndt, a consultant from Luxembourg.

Also looming over the future of downtown is the development of a major new shopping center. Cork's first shopping center, built in the 1950s, never made a dent in the city center's popularity, but plans for a massive mall outside of town are now in the works, pending approval by the planning commission. Located on an interchange in the southern outskirts of the city, it will contain a trade center, two major department stores, an apartment complex, a large supermarket, and acre upon acre of parking.

Planners are trying to direct Cork's overflow growth to satellite towns in the greater Cork area, where the population has already grown to 240,588--almost double that of the city. In Ballincollig, a village outside of Cork, the population already has burgeoned from 5,000 in 1980 to 20,000 today. It seems only fitting that we escape the city to discuss issues of "peripherality"--"urban sprawl" in American parlance--so we hop a bus to a spiffy new hotel that sits on the outskirts of the village of Baltimore.

Along our route, in the idyllic Irish countryside, the pristine green fields chock full of cows are interrupted occasionally by subdivisions sprouting like the fuschia that grows wild here. "We hope that you won't see endless development spreading over the hills," says O'Donnell somewhat wistfully. The planning commission has strict development regulations to maintain a green buffer zone between the country and city but some landowners are fighting for the right to sell their property to developers.

Later, in a talk on "The Threat of Peripherality," John McAleer notes that the information age has radically changed the working world. "For the first time in history, work can be said to be independent of location," says the regional director of the Southeast Region of Ireland. "Knowledge is now a market commodity, which can be produced anywhere and delivered instantaneously to the customer, irrespective of distance. In the case of Ireland, all parts of the country, including the most peripheral, are well placed to participate in the information society and therefore be competitive in the global economy."

In fact, many of the highly educated Irish who have immigrated to the U.S. or elsewhere for better opportunities are coming back as high-tech entrepreneurs to take advantage of the ripe economic climate and the high quality of life. McAleer names a number of a new "information" companies that are finding homes in Cork county. For example, there's started "1-2 Travel," a new travel agency started by Conor Buckley and two Irish friends that does all its research and business via the Internet. With the help of $7,000 in Enterprise funds from the EC, the company's seven employees work out of a renovated barn on a farm in Castletownshend that's been in Buckley's family for seven generations. Castletownshend's population: 141.

Where does all this growth in electronics and information technology leave those older Irish, with less education? More entrenched than ever in social housing projects on the rim of the city. During one session back in the city of Cork aimed at examining the plight of the poor, the IPS's Newman draws comparisons and contrasts between the American poor and the Irish poor for her international colleagues.

"In the U.S. we have experienced about a 5 percent growth rate. While there is some evidence this has reduced the unemployment rate of young black males, the unemployment rates of middle-aged black males ages 24-64 have been intransigent," explains Newman, who has done extensive research on inner city revitalization. Many of the older cities in the U.S. have lost large shares of their mostly white population to the suburbs, she adds. "This leaves a large proportion of mostly black unemployed residents in the inner cities." In the U.S., she notes, frequently cited reasons for high unemployment include poor education, lack of job skills, and social problems.

In Cork, the factors linked to unemployment can be narrowed down, she says. There is racial homogeneity--the population is primarily white and Catholic--and public education is strong. But for the older generation, those who had previously worked in manufacturing plants or on assembly lines, education may not have been of the same quality, Newman suggests. It is these older workers, along with a growing number of single women, who now comprise the bulk of the hard-core unemployed in Ireland.

This skills mismatch is one key common point between unemployed people in both countries, Newman tells us. In Ireland, the government has identified "unemployment black spots" and has set up training programs to improve skills, promote attitude changes, and create more jobs, says Cork City Partnership chairman John O'Callaghan. Some programs require companies to hire one older worker for every eight young ones. Another program provides one-on-one counseling to potential "early school leavers"-- Ireland's high school dropouts.

Are there strong enough incentives for the unemployed to take jobs? Irish policy-makers are examining ways to cut back on unemployment benefits, which are considered generous by U.S. standards. O'Callaghan flatly replies that any Irish man or woman would prefer work over life on unemployment.

EAGER TO PUT A FACE on this poverty and gain insights firsthand, I take off for Mayfield, a thriving social housing project on the Northside, and later to a "halting site," where "travelers," the poorest of the poor in Ireland, hitch their RVs (see "Ireland's 'Travelers'").

I am expecting the worst conditions, but Mayfield is a model development. Once a collection of ill-built boxes constructed in the 1960s, about half the complex has undergone major facelifts. As city architect Neil Hegarty designed the refurbished townhouses after extensive interviews with residents. The result: bay windows, front and back gardens, and bright, cheerful common spaces, among other things. There is today a three-year waiting list for the apartments, and crime in the last five years has decreased virtually to nothing, the Mayfield housing manager tells me.

In the center sits a sparkling new childcare center, chock full of every Little Tykes toy on the market. Mayfield offers childcare to its growing number of single mothers for just 1 pound (equal to $1.30) for a half-day. A recent survey of long-term unemployed, including travelers, lone parents, and early school leavers in Dublin, found last year that lack of childcare is one of the biggest factors in their not going to work. But the provision of childcare, subsidized or not, is a rarity for Irish workers. As I maneuver down the neat sidewalk, between groups of boys and girls playing ball, I meet Cork native Margaret Jones, an energetic, well-dressed 37-year-old single mother in platform shoes. We strike up a conversation, and upon hearing that I am an American, she invites me upstairs for lemonade.

Jones dreams of owning a house but sees no quick way out. Housing prices have soared over the last decade--from an average of $30,000 to $120,000.
As she drops neatly sliced potatoes into a pot of roiling oil, she tells me, "This is the Northside," as if those four words say it all. The Northside, she explains, is not only at the bottom of the economic ladder in Ireland but of the social scheme of things as well. Like 28 percent of Cork's citizens, Jones is an early school leaver. Some 59 percent of the long-term unemployed in Ireland fall into this category.

Her life of poverty is nothing she ever aspired to, but she takes it in stride. "You have to accept the poverty and get on with it," she says, pulling a pan full of golden chips off the stove. "Living like this is no fun. I came here. We had nothing. I can't say I'm bitter about it."

As Jones prepares dinner, she looks through the window at her daughter, Ariana, playing ball outside with two neighborhood children. Within view is her old apartment, its windows shattered and aluminum facades cracked. She and her daughter moved into this newly refurbished two-bedroom apartment last year.

The apartment is spotless, smelling of lemon cleaner, with plush brown sofas and armchairs facing a large TV in the living room; two neat bedrooms with a new bike in the hallway; and a cheery yellow kitchen, decorated with Ariana's art work. As Jones shakes the fries and tends to a prepared pizza, her mother, who is visiting, sits at the table, sipping lemonade and reading a magazine. The move to the new place "is like a dream, like going from hell to heaven," Jones tells me.

Jones grew up poor, without memory of a father, in a family of five girls. Hearing of the boom in the English economy during the early '80s, she dropped out of school when she was 15 and crossed the channel to London, where she worked at various office jobs. Once she became pregnant with Ariana, she returned home to Cork in 1995, just as the Irish economy was beginning to turn around.

Life on social welfare offers extensive benefits in Ireland. Jones receives a lone parent's benefit, a rental allowance, an allowance for Ariana's books and school uniform, and coverage of all preventive and emergency medical care. Over the past three years she has joined a "community employment scheme" in which she is paid a small amount to attend job training classes on a range of issues, from assertiveness training to first aid. She also has a part-time job at an office, where she works each day until 2 p.m. so that she's done in time to pick up her daughter from school.

Jones dreams of having a home of her own--on the south side of town. But realistically, she sees no quick way out. Housing prices in some areas of Cork have increased drastically over the last decade, from an average of $30,000 to $120,000. By U.S. standards, Irish benefits are generous, maybe too generous, according to some concerned Irish policy-makers. Just as welfare reform has become a focus for many American legislators, Irish leaders are now looking at ways to rein in costs of social programs. Among other aims: ending unemployment benefits sooner, instituting more stringent job search requirements for the unemployed, and offering improved health and other benefits to those who are employed.

Jones, unconcerned about the politics, worries about how she would care for her daughter if she worked full time. "Unemployment suits me at the moment," she says.

Margaret Jones (middle) and her young daughter Ariana have tea with Margaret's mother, Elizabeth.
ON THE LAST DAY of the five-day International Urban Fellows Conference, the fellows gather in a small classroom at Trinity College in Dublin. Otto Hetzel, an attorney from Washington whose connections to the program date back to its beginning in 1968, tries to draw together their observations into insights that could be used by Cork's planners in shaping the city's next decade of growth. He stands in front of a blackboard, waving a piece of chalk. Fellows brainstorm, initially concentrating on Cork's Central Business District.

"If the city of Cork continues to build highways around the city, you will get shopping centers and then the CBD of Cork will deteriorate," predicts Klaus Gartler a fellow from Austria. "Downtown is in danger." Others note signs of health and comment that Cork is still a gathering place. "I was astounded by the large number of shoppers during the workday. But the question was, What was attracting them and what were they spending their money on?" asks Newman.

"Cork needs to specialize more, and offer a broader range of consumer goods," adds Alex Jansen, a transportation consultant from Holland. More green space, more pedestrian areas, more boutiques could add to the health of downtown, he says. Hetzel suggests a foldout map listing all the shops, to promote the specialties of the district.

While the central business district prompts lively discussion and suggestions, the fellows are less vocal when Australian Jason Byrne brings up the issue of the neglected underclass. "There are some critical issues about the environment and social justice" left unanswered, he says. "Who speaks for the poor is a big question." For urban planners in today's world, "examining a city's buildings and overall design is no longer enough."

On the brink of developing a new city plan, O'Donnell quietly takes in the observations--which he says will be "quite useful"-- and ponders the future of Ireland's economic boom. Economic structural funds are phasing out, now that Ireland has achieved a higher standard of living. Last spring Apple announced the transfer of 500 production jobs to Wales. And with growth rates slowing down by a fraction, he hedges his bets for the future. "It is possible that any decline could be offset by recovery in Europe. Most commentators predict a soft landing," he says, with his seasoned wariness.

But with a little bit of luck, maybe the poor will yet get a piece of gold from the pot at the end of the Celtic rainbow.

Lavinia Edmunds is a Baltimore freelance writer.