Intel turned Leixlip into Ireland’s Silicon Valley
Intel was a step-change because of its scale, which would require massive buildings and infrastructure
Manufacturing Technicians at Intel’s Clean Room in Fab 24. Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times
In the late 1980s, when Intel indicated it was interested in establishing a plant in Ireland, with the likelihood of employing thousands of skilled technicians, many recognised the project would fundamentally shift the perception of foreign direct investment (FDI) in Ireland.
“The biggest multinational in Ireland at that time was Fruit of the Loom, which had 4,500 employees making T-shirts and underwear,” notes Barry O’Leary, chief executive of IDA Ireland. “Ireland was still in the game of attracting clothing and textiles companies.”
Though other multinational technology companies already had operations in Ireland – prominent among them, firms like Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), Apple, Wang, and IBM – Intel was different.
“Intel was a step-change because of the scale. It would require massive buildings, and massive infrastructure,” O’Leary says. It also would be doing more complex, skilled work than the low-level manufacturing carried out by other existing information-technology companies.
But the project also would need big support grants. Intel’s activities “are hugely capital-intensive”, says Dr Louis Brennan, director of the Institute for International Integration Studies and professor of business studies at Trinity College Dublin. “The fit-out is costly, with very specialised equipment. My understanding is that the actual decision for the site to go ahead was a very close call.”
This was in part because of the influential 1982 Telesis report, commissioned by the government to advise on industrial policy. “The report was critical of the focus on foreign inward investment, and lack of attention to the domestic economy and the growth of domestic firms.”
So directing support to such a huge project must have seemed like it risked placing a lot of financial eggs in one basket. Nonetheless, the project was approved. Intel arrived in 1989, initially producing motherboards – the main chip and circuit board of a computer – and systems.
O’Leary recalls that finding the first employees was a challenge. “We had to trawl around the world to help find those initial 250 engineers, encouraging people who had emigrated to come back.”
But this too signalled the start of a trend that would be the fuel of Ireland’s economic lift in the 1990s on into the new century – the back and forth flow of skilled Irish technicians, engineers and business graduates, who would go out for training or work in the US and other locations, and bring back high-level technology and management abilities to Ireland.
Brennan agrees that the company’s arrival was “a seminal event in terms of inward investment in Ireland. It was a very bleak time, with a substantial rate of emigration, and the unemployment rate was very high. Intel’s arrival was a huge boost and a huge confidence statement.”