Galway has changed. Ireland has changed. To the backdrop of the global finance meltdown this city has not escaped the unprecedented downturn that ravages our country day after day.
If five years ago anyone had suggested as much we would have laughed. But now we hover above the abyss. Today Galway, a city that has thrived on the sandy foundations of our economic boom, wakes up daily to more job losses, more closures, reduced working hours.
Galway has changed. At the beginning of 2007 this city looked forward to its future. Work was there for those who wanted it. But over the past two years, businesses have closed, and their men and women have been forced out of work.
Daily the dole queues lengthen, to such an extent that our social welfare office now seems to be the only one hiring.
This city’s biggest construction firms are on their knees. Firms that employed hundreds to build houses for thousands are dying. Some are already dead.
Men who only three years ago could not but find a job now spend their days wondering when they’ll work again.
Galway has changed. And here we are: Christmas. A time of hope. But for many this Christmas has been tainted by concerns about their jobs. Thousands will ask, will my job still be there in January? And for thousands the answer is ‘No’.
As Jeff Randal wrote in The Daily Telegraph this boom was based largely “on illusion: the suspension of too much spending above insufficient income on elastic bands of debt.”
Irresponsible spending, and a decidedly Irish hubris, combined with the worldwide conditions now means 2009 will be one of the toughest ever for Galway.
In December 2007 the first signs of major recession revealed themselves with the closure of Abbott Ireland with the loss of 500 jobs. At the time the company blamed significant improvements in manufacturing efficiency and current market conditions.
Current market conditions. Tellingly only a month previously Boston Scientific announced plans to cut its workforce by 100. The warning signs were there.
At the beginning of this year the realisation started to dawn on the country that it was not insulated from the worldwide economic conditions. We finally recognised the decadence of these past years, a spendthrift and wasteful Government; we realised things were going to get worse before they got better.
As the year progressed the city enjoyed a fantastic Arts Festival but remained tetchy. The Races saw a slowdown. The Fianna Fáil tent was gone.
Developers laid off staff in dribs and drabs and the dole queues got longer. Galway was changing.
Then in November our Mayor Padraig Conneely described the loss of 110 jobs at Thermo King as a devastating blow to the city.
The multi-national later put its staff on three day weeks.
But there is still hope. Ours is an economy that runs in cycles and this downturn can be seen as an opportunity, one that informs us of the inefficiency of our systems. The country stands on a precipice but it can change. It can now act to protect itself against future recessions. It can grow. It can recover. It will not be easy and we’ll all have to sacrifice.
In 2009 the Volvo Ocean Race comes to Galway. It will be the premier event of the year. Galway’s harbour can be beautiful. It should be. The Motor Rally arrives in January. And the Galway Arts Festival remains one of Europe’s premier events. The Galway Races remains an institution not only in this city but throughout the country.
This city has changed but it remains strong. Galway has long been called the graveyard of ambition. But it is not. Galway, despite these past years, remains a city of opportunity, a city of intelligence, a city of endeavour, and above all a city of growth.
But it’s up to us. Galway has changed. Now it’s up to us to change it back for the better.