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Technology and the green glow of Ireland

Karlin Lillington: For a quarter-century, State has been attractive to global tech sector

Back around the turn of this century, when I was a freelance technology and business journalist eager to pitch story ideas as far and wide as I could, one beat never failed.

At this time of year, I knew at least one editor of a good technology or business publication abroad would bite on my proposal for a story on Ireland’s extraordinary tech growth story. Editors are always eager for a timely story hook, and what better in March than an Irish-angled story for the month of St Patrick?

Plus, it was a great story, evergreen (appropriately) as yet another March roared in. Always, always, there were fresh growth statistics to pepper the tale of how one of the smallest nations in Europe, initially one of the EU's poorest, became the destination of choice and expansion for some of the biggest names in the technology sector (sometimes, a mixed blessing).

These days I'm no longer aiming for that market abroad, and some of the outlets I wrote for are gone, casualties of a failed transition from print to online. But each year, St Patrick's Day is personal for me, a reminder of that extraordinary link between technology and Ireland, and how those early stories became signposts for a career I never anticipated.


Up until the late 1990s, and the unexpected revving of Ireland’s tech engine, I’d viewed journalism (and some earlier work in the profession) as a momentary stop on a journey to what I assumed would be my impending academic career. In the arts.

Big name firms

However, my childhood was spent in Silicon Valley, in Palo Alto, a then-quiet town whose funny name nobody recognised outside of northern California.

While I didn’t have any formal training in technology, I’d grown up steeped in the valley’s technology environment, which even included a mandatory school coding class when I was 13. On a dishwasher-sized, donated “micro” computer from Stanford (how I detested that class and that hulking computer).

I also had a background of real-world, early-adopter experience. In the 1980s, my medical academic father had become a computer enthusiast, joining his local PC club, and we often talked about the software he was fiddling with.

He also had a curious 1960s connection to the development of what are now called expert systems, even meeting with Bill Hewlett (of Hewlett Packard) and briefly consulting for HP in the 1990s.

By the 1980s, I was in Ireland, using both PCs and Macs, and also online via university accounts. Encouraged by some computer science friends, I ended up being the first arts grad student to apply for an email address at Trinity College, a request the baffled computer science department had to ponder for a couple of weeks before ultimately finding no grounds for rejection.

Thus, by the time I was doing my “temporary” journalism work in the late-1990s, mostly writing general features, I knew enough to do a double take at the increasing presence of big-name technology companies in Ireland, and the growing success of Irish-led tech companies in the US.

World stage

These developments fascinated me, and I soon realised, readers all around the world. To use a favourite tech industry term, I pivoted – from general allsorts features to predominantly technology.

And I loved it. As happens to so many people who think they have a clear roadmap for their future, I discovered the detour was the destination. The stop-gap job became a career.

Technology and all its varied iterations and impacts across business, society, the arts, politics, private life, education, the economy, all of it was such a fresh, exciting area to delve into and write about. All the more so as the general public embraced the subject at so many levels, from personal-use interest to recognising tech’s profound business and social significance.

Most compelling for me was the unique and fascinating angle of Ireland. What was happening here was seen, rightly, as a phenomenon worldwide. Often, I’d snag an interview with some major global tech figure only to find myself eagerly questioned by them about developments here. And, as a journalist from Ireland, I was well aware how often I’d been given access to individuals and companies precisely because of Ireland’s sky-high international tech profile.

The oddest discord was that for years I struggled to convince people in Ireland that the country was transforming in these astonishing ways, that Ireland had such a secure position in tech by the late 1990s that it was always on the shortlist for multinational expansions and for energetic start-ups looking for a European base.

Ireland’s huge global profile was why my St Patrick’s Day pitches were always of interest, year after year. And that blend of Ireland and technology ultimately became a career.

But that was then and this is now. A quarter of a century later, how many of Ireland’s old selling points remain valid? And how should Ireland keep evolving towards a successful tech future? I’ll consider those issues in next week’s column.