To walk the streets of Dublin and Limerick, Cork and Galway, Shannon and Waterford, is to see them everywhere: Mothers giving babies their bottles in restaurants on Dublin's Grafton Street. Expectant mothers helping friends with their tiny children in parks and on street corners. Tiny scraps in blue and pink asleep in push chairs up and down the country.
Trinity College students stride past their gray granite buildings and between their emerald lawns in Dublin. City streets swarm with jeans and jostling young office workers until anyone in his 40s stands out as ancient as Methuselah. Classrooms are jammed at a shiny new technical-vocational school in Limerick.
It comes as little surprise to learn that half of Ireland is under 25. Moreover, 40 percent is under 19. Thirty percent is under 14.
But those figures are the key to much of what is happening in Ireland today. The Irish population is the youngest and fastest-growing in Europe.
Young people are at once a challenge and an opportunity, as Ireland struggles to overcome world recession, an imported-oil bill of $1.53 billion a year, unemployment running upwards of 10 percent, a large balance-of-payments deficit (more than $1.1 billion), and an inflation rate measuring 21 percent in the year ended in February.
On the one hand, Irish young people put the government under pressure to create jobs in a hurry. They also need housing, schools, social services. Irish Prime Minister Charles J. Haughey says that "every aspect of our policy" is guided by the youthfulness of the population.
On the other hand, as Mr. Haughey told the annual convention of his Fianna Fail Party in Dublin April 11, "The generation now emerging is the most talented , the most enthusiastic, and the best educated" Ireland has ever known.
The task ahead is enormous. Ireland is a small, heavily Roman Catholic country, with a population of 3.36 million growing at the rate of about 1.5 percent a year.
For a century, the cream of its young people emigrated to better jobs and opportunities in the United Kingdom, Europe, and the Untied States. More than 1 million Irish-born people now live in the United Kingdom alone. An estimated 16 million people of Irish descent are scattered around the world.
But in the early 1970s, the outward tide of people began to be stemmed. In the last few years, experts believe, it stopped. In 1972, the population hit 3 million again for the first time in 50 years. The census just taken in April is expected to show a population of around 3.5 million.
So the first priority is jobs.
No one in Dublim seems to know just how many graduates ("school-leavers") cannot find work in today's recession: The figure could be 20,000 a year, some believe. (The official unemployemnt figure of 125,000 does not include school-leavers.)
Dublin residents tell of young people who have never held a job since leaving school. They tell of university students picking peas for the Birdseye frozen food corporation, getting a taste of foreign life, and emigrating when they graduate.
They tell of girls working in the US as hotel chambermaids, and deciding to emigrate as well. Irish nurses pick up jobs in the Middle East. Schoolteachers flock to London.
Yet more and more young people, and young parents, are now staying home. Free education began in Ireland in the mid-1960s. Irish farmers (20 percent of the work force is still on the land) grew more prosperous when Ireland entered the European Common Market in 1973. The worldwide recession has dried up jobs previously available abroad.
One way to generate jobs in a small economy is to entice factories to come in from abroad. Remarkably successful at it so far is the government-financed Industrial Development Authority (IDA). From his office above the Dublin skyline at IDA headquarters, John Lyons runs a network of 49 officers in Britian , Europe, Japan and Australia.
Right now, it is proving exceptionally difficult to draw in overseas companies. Mr. Lyons has an anxious eye on the job target for 1982.
Last year, however, the IDA pulled in promises of 1,850 new manufacturing, service, and small-industry plants, with a total job potential of 35,600. The target for 1981 is 35,000 jobs. In British terms, that's the equivalent of about half a million new jobs.
The 1981 figure will be met, Mr. Lyons said, even though recession has hit many countries hard. Studies show that about 60 percent of the jobs promised in any given year are actually translated into concrete employment later. On that basis, the IDA has actually helped create 55,500 jobs since 1977. It usually takes five years for the full 60 percent ceiling to be reached.
The long-term strategy for the IDA (1978-82) was to pull in promises of 150, 000 jobs, in the hopes that at least half (75,000) would stick. If this year's target of 35,000 job promises is reached, IDA will be almost 10,000 over target.
How has it done it?
It has been a combination of enterprise incentive (big tax breaks, high depreciation) and wholehearted "aftercare," as Mr. Lyons puts it.
Companies established before January were freed from all taxes on their export earnings. Taxes on manufactured goods were held to 45 percent.
Those rules had to be changed after Ireland entered the Common Market. In January, corporate tax for all manufactured goods, domestic and exported, was reduced to 10 percent until the year 2000.
"If a company has any sophistication at all, it will end up paying practically no tax at all," a US businessman says.
The IDA has also chased certain kinds of industry. Oldline factories (shoes, textiles, clothes) are out. Ireland wants technologies that won't go out of date.
So the Irish countryside is now dotted with scores of relatively small companies (100 to 200 employees) using highly advanced electronics, health-care, pharmaceutical, and engineering techniques. The IDA spends on average about L6, 000 (Irish -- $10,200) in incentives for every it attracts.
Most of the new companies and the new jobs come from the US -- 8,500 of last year's promised 35,800 new jobs. The biggest project was General Electric's 500 -job plant to produce industrial abrasives outside Dublin.
Where has Ireland obtained all the skilled workers for its new electronics and engineering factories?
Hugh Alston, IDA promotion manager, explains: "We had a gap. Factories were coming in. We were setting up new technical and vocational schools to produce skilled graduates. But in the meantime, factories had to be manned.
"So we advertised in the British midlands, where unemployment is very high. We had 1,400 replies from skilled toolmakers, chemical engineers, and so on. We put them in touch with individual companies and provided a grant to help with moving expenses.
"About 400 workers and their families eventually moved back to Ireland to solid new jobs. Almost all of them were Irish or had Irish connections."
The government also appealed to the World Bank for money to build new vocational and technical schools. One result: a glass and brick National Institute of Higher Education (NIHE) in Limerick on the west coast. So far, 271 young people have graduated.
Only about 50 of the graduates have come from the electronic engineering department, headed by a Canadian, Dr. Grant B. Anderson of Vancouver, British Columbia. But the department is growing fast and the numbers will rise. "We're her for development rather than just for education," Dr. Anderson said.
"Industry representatives sit on the boards that select teachers at the NIHE. Industry helps set the curriculum. Students spend to six to nine months of their three- and four-year courses actually working in electronics companies. Some of them are hired back after graduating."
So far, all the efforts of the IDA have not kept pace with unemployment as a whole. But government officials see the authority as laying the foundation for a new Ireland: an industrial exporter that keeps its population, rather than a rural sluggard that loses it.
A new NIHE is being built in Dublin. Irish primary schools are reported to be of good standard. Secondary schools, largely dominated by Catholic clergy, also have good reputations.
Many college classrooms are overcrowded. New colleges are badly needed. Forty-four percent of thsoe eligible went to college in Dublin's properous Blackrock-Stillorgan-Mount Merrion areas in 1978-79, but a mere 1 percent of North Dublin and Ballyfermot did.
The country has built "new-towns" in Tallaght and elsewhere, but much more is needed. The task ahead is to keep the econony stable while the recession continues.
Prime Minister Haughey is hopeful that the "porcupine bench" offshore oil field, 180 miles out in the Atlantic Ocean from Galway, will prove commercially viable this year. Oil is there, but at tremendous depths.
He is widely criticized in Dublin for failing to cut down hard enough on public spending. His reply is that government support is necessary for such a young and fast-growing population.
At this writing, Mr. Haughey was expected to announced a new general election soon. Little serious budget-cutting was expected before the voting.
According to statistics, the Irish economy is in poor shape. Yet, "In Ireland, everything is critical but no serious," one Dubliner comments wryly, trying to explain the Irish penchant for muddling through.
Much has been achieved in the last 10 years. Recession has put a damper on economic progress, growth of gross national product has slowed down, and inflation and unemployment are high. But the young population, and new jobs from abroad, give cause for some optimism, at least.