A History of Ireland in 100 Objects
Intel Pentium microprocessor, 1994
In 1989 a US microprocessor manufacturer, Intel, opened a factory on a former stud farm in Leixlip, Co Kildare. It was not an especially sophisticated operation – essentially an assembly line for the basic 486 processor – but the success of the factory led Intel to take a huge gamble on Ireland. It decided to build on the Leixlip campus a facility called Fab 10, the world’s first high-volume 200mm semiconductor wafer plant.
In 1994, when Intel launched the Pentium processor that was central to the emergence of the personal computer as an everyday consumer product, more than half of worldwide production was based in Leixlip. Over the next decade the Irish plant produced a billion Pentium chips. Intel went on to invest more than €6 billion in the site, making it the most technologically advanced industrial location in Europe.
Such a development was unimaginable in the 1950s – and not simply because nobody predicted the rise of information technology. Ireland was a declining economic backwater, with little sophisticated industry, few global trade links and a poorly educated workforce.
The road to Fab 10 started with a dull-looking grey official report called Economic Development, written in 1958 by the secretary of the Department of Finance, Ken Whitaker. It acted as a catalyst for changes that were already under way, especially a shift from economic protectionism to an attempt to attract foreign investment through low corporate taxes. It also provided cover for a major policy shift by the dominant Fianna Fáil party, whose leader, Seán Lemass, backed Whitaker’s strategy.
Change was gradual and, for a long time, seemed likely to shore up rather than threaten established institutions. Fianna Fáil was able to reinvent itself with a brash new generation of politicians. The Catholic church adapted very successfully: well into the 1990s Ireland retained a level of religious practice far beyond that of any comparable European country. The economic boom of the 1960s prepared the ground for a relatively smooth transition into membership of the European Union.
But economic globalisation coincided with, and added force to, large social and cultural shifts. The arrival of television created a new and unpredictable source of information and authority. Organised feminism, beginning in the early 1970s, challenged the idea that a woman’s role was confined to the home. The belated introduction of free secondary education, in 1968, began the formation of a more skilled workforce. The conflict in Northern Ireland created challenges for traditional nationalist thought. Most importantly, Ireland ceased to be a primarily rural society: the 1971 census showed that, for the first time, more people were living in towns and cities than in the countryside.
Ireland’s adjustment to globalisation was by no means smooth. The process ran into severe trouble in the 1980s, as new jobs failed to keep pace with a burgeoning population and the decline in older industries in the face of international competition.
US-led investment took off again in the mid 1990s, however, just as Intel was launching the Pentium. Ireland became the number-one location worldwide for US IT companies and number three for chemicals – a sector exemplified by Pfizer’s decision to make its hugely successful Viagra drug exclusively in Ireland. This investment brought energy, prestige and optimism.
As Ireland moved into the 21st century, its long history of conflict, emigration and poverty seemed, at last, to be over.
Thanks to Brendan J Cannon