Taking flight to London in search of a job


HARD TIMES IN THE COMMUNTER BELT:A county GAA player is among those who have left Cavan to get a job in Britain

KEVIN DOWNES rubs his tired eyes as he boards the early-morning flight from London, embarking on another hectic weekend of hurling for his home county of Cavan.

The routine for the county's former player of the year during the championship season is exhausting: up in the early hours of Saturday, flying to Dublin, getting a lift to Cavan, playing a match, flying back to London that night, and playing the next day for his adopted club Tir Chonnail Gaels near Wembley.

It's been this way since he emigrated to London in June. Work dried up in his field of environmental consultancy, one of many sectors hit since the collapse of the construction industry.

"There were lots of people asking me to hang around, but no one could guarantee me a job. All the factories were shedding staff. Often in the GAA there's a builder who might throw you some work, but things were so tight that that wasn't even possible," he says.

He's not sure how long he can keep up with the chaotic commute between the UK and Ireland. In any case, it mightn't be a problem for much longer. As the recession hits the UK, he thinks he'll be looking even farther afield for work before long.

"I'm not alone. There are lots of teams being affected, mostly country teams with tradesmen, carpenters, electricians. Over the next year, every team is going to lose at least a handful of players. This is only the tip of the iceberg, as I see it." The emigration of one of the county's brightest GAA talents is a stark reminder that the spectre of forced emigration may be descending on a young generation which has only ever experienced good times.

Figures show that the majority of those being laid off are aged between 20 and 34 years. On top of that, Cavan, like other commuter belt counties, is being disproportionately hit by the rapid rise in unemployment.

Live register figures jumped by 86 per cent at the social welfare office at Cavan town and 93 per cent in Ballyconnell over the past year, compared to a national average of 66 per cent.

Most of those being laid off are from commuter belt areas in the south of the county such as Virginia, Ballyjamesduff and Kingscourt, which expanded rapidly during the boom years.

And it's to places such as Kingscourt that you go to see the recession at its most visible on the streets, in the shops and on the factory floors.

For the best part of a century this bustling market town, located near Meath, Louth and Monaghan, has been a hive of industrial activity. The rich deposits of gypsum, the main ingredient in the manufacture of plasterboard, gave rise to Gypsum Industries. Other major construction firms followed, such as the building suppliers Kingspan, brick producers Kingscourt Brick, O'Reilly Concrete and Hangar industrial doors.

At the height of the boom, the streets would be congested with articulated lorries, commercial vans and private vehicles. It could take minutes for pedestrians to be able to cross the busy roads. But today, on a cold, wintry afternoon, everything is quiet.

"You can fly through here now," says David Blake (39), who runs Blake's pub on the main street, which has been in the family for three generations.

"The big traffic jams are gone. In the plants, a lot of workers are just standing around doing nothing. There are no orders coming in. They've been letting a lot of people go in dribs and drabs. All in all, well over a hundred have been let go so far, and there's talk of more over the next few months."

His own trade on week days has been hit, with younger men either leaving the area or cutting back on spending. Deli counters at the shops are quiet too, he says, while retail is down across the board.

"The vans which would be going off to Dublin with a few lads have basically stopped," says Blake. "Many of them have headed off to the UK, Australia or the US - anywhere they can find work."

These are worrying times for people like Declan Ferry, Siptu's recently appointed Cavan branch organiser, whose days are regularly taken up with crisis calls from employees in firms that are going to the wall.

"It's bad in Kingscourt but, at least for the moment, many businesses are trying to hold their own and trying to ride through the storm," he says.

There have been some positives amid an overwhelming drip-feed of bad news, though. A Belgian firm which makes wind turbines expanded its workforce by 70, while another firm is hiring 30 others for research and development into green energy. Otherwise, though, the live register locally continues to head in the wrong direction.

For public representatives, anger on the doorsteps is palpable, no matter of what political hue they are.

"In the last few months you can feel the frustration and fear in people," says Seán McKiernan, a Fine Gael councillor in his late 20s and based in Bailieborough.

"You see the people you went to school with, the same age as you, maybe with a few kids, and they haven't worked in a few weeks. They're looking out at you from a house which has lost a lot of its value, but they still have to serve a very big mortgage." Some of these people were on very good salaries, he says, buying a second home because everyone else was, but who are now facing an incredibly precarious financial situation.

Many of these young couples are up to their necks in debt, after getting easy credit from almost every available source at the height of the boom.

Anne McKiernan, the co-ordinator of Cavan's Money Advice and Budgeting Service, is seeing them on a regular basis.

Demand for appointments at the office in Cavan town is so strong that a backlog extends right up until mid-January.

"There can be a lot of denial from people who are embarrassed and ashamed at the way they've over-borrowed," she says.

"People are very grateful for whatever advice or support we can give. Their heads can be in such a muddle, even though they have been successful in business.

"They'll often have a large mortgage, three or four credit cards, a personal loan and car loans. They were going to be heading for disaster anyway, but it's all happened very quickly for many of them." When the agency works with these people, dramatic changes in lifestyle tend to follow. First their social life goes, followed by cutting off direct debits for TV or the internet. The car will go soon after, to avoid it being repossessed by the finance company.

"Some people with very nice houses don't even have the money for fuel," McKiernan adds.

As recrimination over the dramatic collapse in the economy continues, some point to grassroots work by the community and voluntary sector as evidence of a more sustainable economic model.

The Bailieborough Development Association Ltd, for example, was established in 1996 by a number of local people who were concerned about the social and economic well-being of the area.

It has established an enterprise centre on the site of an old factory and a childcare service for school-age children, allowing parents to work full-time or undertake education and training. For public representatives like Seán McKiernan, it's a sign of what cohesive communities can do when they come together. Following a major study into the needs of the area, the development association in Bailieborough is going to target the potential to create "green" jobs, as well as research and development.

"There is a lot of frustration that the wealth created over the last few years hasn't resulted in better roads or a better developed tourism sector," he says.

"But communities can do an awful lot for themselves. The thinking in the community and voluntary sector here is, let's address the problems we see ourselves."