Monday, September 04, 2006

Changing the nature....

I'm just back from a break in Ireland - the same great people, green hills, heather covered moors and long deserted beaches that have kept me captivated since I was a kid.

But there's a subtle change about Ireland, and one that's not totally for the good.

The Celtic tiger's on the charge: the country has never been more wealthy or more confident. Instead of old vans and clapped out volvos, the roads around Dublin and Co. Wicklow (where we stayed) were full of new 4x4s and sleek sports cars. Village high streets now boast Italian brasseries, designer boutiques and trendy dellies. Clearly the new Ireland's a great place to live if you can capitalise on the boom.

What's most apparent is the new class of service workers brought in to fill the breach as Ireland's upwardly mobile have moved....upwards.

From the airport car hire desk to the hotel reception and dining room, in every restaurant and nearly every shop we met the new grafters of the Irish economy - largeely young, probably very well educated....and eastern European to a man and woman.

As young Irish folk have taken the new jobs in management and the burdgeoning finance, insurance and other high-powered service industries that are feeding the tiger, their places in the slightly less well paid service sectors are being taken by a wave of new immigrants from the Baltic Republics, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

After centuries of net emigration, Ireland's seeing its first wave of net immigration and the impact is startling. The eager new imigrants are bringing great efficiency to most roles they touch. But what's not there - at least not yet - is the special Irish warmth that has characterised the nation for so long.

I'll give you an example. A while ago, Jac and I flew into Shannon and made our way to the Dromoland Castle hotel. We were met at the door by Michael, a young lad who took our bags, told us about the hotel, showed us into the lounge and chatted away as if we were old friends. Within five minutes of arriving, we felt at home. Over the next few days we were probably 'upsold' on more than a few occasions, buying the extra round of sandwiches, being nudged up the wine list and ordering that extra pint of Guinness - but it never felt like upselling because everyone in the service chain took an interest, and had a natural way with the people they were serving.

Last Friday night we got back to Dublin airport after a week in a hotel in Co. Wicklow where everyone was efficient, but where there had been no warmth to the service - a disappointment as we'd stayed in the same hotel several times in the past.

We checked in our bags and headed to the food hall to find half of it closed off, and two of the food service area unmanned - and this at peak time on a Friday evening. People were milling around looking for tables while others snaked through the service area in the queue to the one staffed food service outlet.

Jac and I had the three kids with us and it was infuriating to see so many tables with chairs staked on them at a really busy time for travelling. Jac asked the one person clearing tables if she could sit at one of the tables with stacked chairs. 'No' was the curt and eastern-European accented reply. 'Hang on,' Jac replied. 'You've closed off more than half the seating area and have people queuing out the door. There are five of us, and no free tables in the area you have open.' 'Not my problem' came the reply.

Now, was she having a bad day? Did she hate her job? Was she hugely overqualified and underpaid for the task she was being paid to do? I don't know and I don't care. However, she was the sole representative of the food court at Dublin Airport out on the floor dealing with customers. So it was her problem.

But it sums up Ireland's current teething problems. It's easy for the likes of me to be won over by charm and the feeling that someone's genuinely out to help me. But when I'm faced with an army of indifference and a distancing from the old culture of natural good service, it gets my back up - big time.

It's high time that Ireland became less insular and I truly welcome the influx of bright young people from other countries. But it's smug, complacent and potentially dangerous for the Irish to put new immigrants into key customer service roles without engaging those incomers into the culture of warmth, friendliness and genuine helpfulness that previously was a byword for Ireland.

For the first time, I found Ireland losing its Irishness.

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