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1988 The year they said Ireland was doomed

It is January 16, 1988 and the latest edition of The Economist hits the news stands. A special report on Ireland, its cover features a woman and child begging on the street as a man walks swiftly by.

Headlined "Poorest of the rich", it's a stark, and none-too-subtle evocation of the country's perilous economic state at a time when nobody could conceive of a Celtic Tiger, let alone dream of one.

Inside, journalist Frances Cairncross paints a grim image of a nation teetering close to the abyss. "Ireland today is bravely facing up to the consequences of a decade of borrowing to pay for better public services than its wealth justified," she writes. "Desperate measures are needed to right the economy."

Around the same time, noted historian Joe Lee offered an assessment that was just as emphatic. "It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Irish economic performance has been the least impressive in Western Europe, perhaps in all Europe, in the Twentieth Century," he wrote.

In 1988, with unemployment and interest rates running into double figures and emigration reaching 1950s levels, there was little doubt that something had to be done -- and quickly. But steps to steady the ship had already been but in place, not least the previous September with the advent of Fine Gael's so-called Tallaght Strategy, which meant the party would back harsh cuts being imposed by the minority Fianna Fail-led government.

'Alan Dukes was something of an unsung hero in 1988," says economist Moore McDowell. "It was political suicide on his behalf, but it was absolutely necessary if the country was going to get out of the hole it had found itself in by then.

"The idea was to slowly dig our way out of the mess, but nobody could have imagined how the country's fortunes would have turned around just 10 years later."

McDowell was working in UCD, as he is today, 20 years ago. "It's not just the high interest rates that I recall, but the price of energy," he says. "Petrol was highly expensive and with the cost of kerosene being so high, air travel was not something you would do on a whim like today. I used to fly for work reasons and Dublin airport would be very quiet -- not even a fraction of how busy it is today.

"I remember white goods were also far more expensive, comparatively, than they are today. Electronic products were also much harder to afford and pretty rudimentary too compared to what would come out a few years later. I remember buying a computer in the US around that time and it cost about £3,000."

Just about everybody had to tighten the purse strings that year. For Moore McDowell that meant giving up membership of a gentleman's club on Stephen's Green. "I joined again in the 90s when the situation improved."

John Murray, presenter of The Business on RTE Radio 1, got married in 1988, aged 24. "It was one of those careers where jobs could be had, but a huge number of my contemporaries left Ireland throughout the 1980s for economic reasons," he says. "A lot of them were highly skilled people and they had to go to the US to get jobs that suited their qualifications. For many who stayed behind, there was a sense that you were very fortunate to have a job, and in 1988 the notion of the job-for-life still held sway.

"But if you and your partner had jobs with decent pay you could enjoy a comfortable life. Yes, taxes were high and there was some anxiety about the health cuts, but people took holidays and bought cars and I don't recall a sense of doom about the country that some might feel today when they look back on it. Obviously house prices were very different and you got more for your money so to speak, but with interest rates so high it could still be quite a stretch."

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TV3 presenter Mark Cagney was working as a DJ in 2FM in 1988. "At that time I'd be getting, 50 or 60 or 100 letters a week from people who were emigrating," he says. "They would write in to ask for music requests and, I guess, to let everyone know they were going. The talent drain at the time was extraordinary. Those of us who stayed behind used to joke about the last person leaving the country turning off the lights."

Cagney believes many of his generation didn't just leave for economic reasons. "Sure, the lack of work was an issue, but I think young people were fed up with the sort of country Ireland was back then. The divorce referendum had happened just two years before and many people were really disappointed about the outcome. That had been a vicious time, with the anti-divorce lobby really ferocious in their campaign. I think a lot of people simply wanted to go abroad where basic human rights were the norm."

The broadcaster's switch to new station, 98FM, in 1989 allowed him to enjoy a far more comfortable lifestyle than he'd had at RTE, where living relatively frugally was still the order of the day.

"My salary doubled to £50,000 when I joined 98 and my situation changed abruptly from lower middle class to upper middle class. I think people who were lucky enough to be well paid in the late 1980s could have quite a nice lifestyle. There's a tendency to portray the country of then in a very dim light compared to now, but there were stirrings. We had young turks like Michael O'Leary on the scene. Things were changing."

Contrary to popular belief, Ireland was not a culinary backwater in 1988. Dublin had a number of fine restaurants, including Whites on the Green, as well as the Pink Elephant night club, then the hangout for the upwardly mobile and the country's growing number of yuppies.

The Gibralter Three controversy would be perhaps the biggest news story of the year for Ireland, but there was plenty to lift spirits.

That largely wet summer was marked by Ireland's first appearance in a major football tournament, Euro 88, which included that now legendary victory over England.

Dublin's millennium celebrations went on for most of the year and boasted a wide range of initiatives including the re-paving of Grafton Street and the minting of a commemorative 50p coin.

The capital was briefly dubbed "the city of a thousand bands" as record company scouts descended in a bid to find the next U2, then on a post-Joshua Tree high.

Kenny Live aired on RTE One for the first time that year and RTE Two -- then 10 years old -- was rebranded as Network 2.

Small things for sure, but in the light of The Economist's sobering assessment 20 years ago this week, they counted for much in the pre-boomtown Ireland.


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