Page last updated at 13:54 GMT, Thursday, 19 February 2009

Lean times in Limerick

The worldwide economic downturn seems to be hitting the Republic of Ireland with particular savagery. One of the cities badly affected is Limerick, where computer giant Dell is set to cut nearly 2,000 jobs. James Helm visits the city to see how it is coping with the downturn.

Dell Factory, Limerick
There had been speculation that many jobs would go at the plant

The computer giant's announcement was described by a local newspaper editor as the biggest bad news story to hit his area in a generation.

His headline read: The Blackest Day.

Denis Ryan is one of those who will lose his job. He has spent the last 10 years as a stockroom controller with Dell.

He is 53, and lives with his wife Mary and their six-month-old son, Daragh.

He says this is his third taste of an Irish recession, having lived through lean times back in the 1970s and 80s.

He is an optimist, but still describes the time before he leaves later this year as "like waiting for the hangman to pull the rope".

The city where Mr Ryan has worked for the past decade has probably endured more than its share of hard times.

The hometown of the late Richard Harris and, indeed, Terry Wogan was described to the world in Frank McCourt's bestseller, Angela's Ashes.

This tale of the author's childhood in Limerick, with its depiction of poverty, grime and deprivation annoyed some locals.

'Stab city'

But Limerick had an image problem before the book and before Dell decided to close its doors.

Some people here call it "Stab City". It has developed a reputation for knife crime and gang warfare.

Late last year to public revulsion, a well known and popular local rugby captain was murdered in the street - a victim of mistaken identity.

A Dell computer
Dell employed more than 4,500 staff in the Irish Republic at its peak.
Before Christmas, I was despatched to this historic city on the banks of the River Shannon to write, of all things, a travel article.

It was a concept which produced gales of laughter among friends in Dublin. But I had been to Limerick before and I am genuinely fond of the place.

It has got problems, of course, and just as Liverpool or Glasgow have in the past, Limerick has learned that once a tough reputation is gained it can be very hard to shake off.

But it has also got a lot else besides: fine pubs, an easy pace, lovely countryside nearby, and, in rugby stadium Thomond Park, it has got one of the great sporting cauldrons.

And it has got great people too, who, despite it all, are proud of their city and determined to improve its image.

Difficult times

I stayed at a brand new hotel, a Georgian townhouse right in the heart of the city.

It opened its doors at a difficult time - made worse by the announcement from Dell, with the prospect of fewer international executives coming to lay their heads on its comfortable beds.

Its owner, Patricia Roberts, is trying to persuade her friends from around Ireland to spend a weekend in Limerick.

The Irish have a reputation for looking on the bright side

Despite the promise of difficult times ahead for the city and its people she is positive that she can still spread the word and that the hotel will do well.

But the impact of Dell's departure seems sure to put dozens of companies and many livelihoods at risk.

What has made Ireland's new economic reality feel so grim is not just the extent of its fall with the country's banking sector embroiled in turmoil.

It is also because of what came before: an unprecedented boom, a sustained period of growth and success - some would say excess - which has raised living standards and made Ireland the envy of many around the world.

Friends say it brings back memories of Ireland 20 years ago. In those days, well before they started calling the economy here the Celtic Tiger, you did not see foreigners coming to Ireland to work.

Then, as now, in some quarters at least, many young Irish people were travelling abroad for jobs.

Today the construction sector - such a driver of Irish growth in recent years - is at a virtual standstill.

Architects are among those who are feeling the pain. I know one who is talking about going to work in the Gulf, while his family remains here.

Weight watchers

The Irish have a reputation for looking on the bright side. As Denis Ryan prepares for life beyond Dell, he has been to night classes studying landscape gardening, which he hopes will eventually provide him with a new means of making a living.

And at least, he says, losing his job will mean he gets the chance to spend more time with his young son.

And there is humour to be found as well however dire the situation.

A friend told me about a Weight Watchers class, where the leader had suggested that those attending should avoid watching the nightly TV News.

The reason? She feared that the nightly diet (no pun intended) of job losses, business failures and all-round bad news would encourage comfort eating.

As the people of Limerick have known for years, and as those who are trying to fight the flab amid a global economic downturn are just discovering, when the going gets tough, it can be a good idea to ignore the headlines and just keep plugging away.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Thursday, 19 February, 2009 at 1100 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

SEE ALSO
Dell set to cut 1,900 Irish jobs
13 Jan 09 |  Business

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