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The Celtic Invasion: why the arrival of hundreds of Irish construction workers benefits Toronto’s building boom

The Celtic Invasion

Sean and James McQuillan left Ireland for Toronto in 2010

In the mid-1990s, companies such as Microsoft, Intel and Apple, attracted by Ireland’s well-educated workforce, tax incentives, minimal regulations and low wages, opened offices in Dublin with a speed that surprised even the gravest doubter. By the time the Celtic Tiger, as the exploding Irish economy was dubbed, had fully deployed its claws, the unemployment rate had dropped to just under five per cent, one of the lowest in the developed world. Ireland’s GDP grew to one of the highest in Europe, exports doubled in just five years, and the average income was climbing seven per cent a year, almost triple the
eurozone average.

Irish lenders, confident the good times could not fail, began loaning money to virtually anyone who asked for it. With this temptation, it’s not surprising the Irish began stockpiling property whether they could afford it or not; soon, dank little row houses in Dublin were selling for €1.5 million. Developers, spending money extracted from the Irish banking system, started building with a lunatic zeal.

At the same time, the Irish government made the spectacularly unwise decision to continue offering tax incentives to developers, further inflating the housing bubble. When Ireland’s inflation zoomed to twice that of its European neighbours, people covered their costs by borrowing even more money. The cost of houses just kept going up and up—until, of course, it began to do otherwise. By 2001, the banks had noticed a slight upswing in mortgage defaults, and by 2005, this trickle had turned into a river, with developers beginning to default on bank loans as well. By 2008 it was all over, the country mired in debt, the housing market in free fall, unemployment rates back up to almost 15 per cent, the pubs empty on a Friday night. Half-built Irish subdivisions were left to turn mouldy in the drizzly climate, and Ireland’s credit rating, which had soared to triple-A during the Tiger, was downgraded to just above
junk-bond status.

James and Sean McQuillan, two brothers in their mid-20s, worked as carpenters during Dublin’s raging construction boom. One day, the McQuillans’ boss gathered his workers and told them there would be no more work for the next little while, and that he could only keep a skeleton crew. James and Sean were among those who stayed, their boss apologizing every time he had to cut their paycheques. A pall had settled over all of Dublin, the papers reporting on nothing but the country’s latest economic woes. “You just don’t know how depressing it is,” James says, “to be on a work site, and it’s cold and raining, and you’re barely getting paid, and the only thing anyone can talk about is how bad things are.”

Their friends started leaving for Australia and Canada. While neither James nor Sean can remember a specific moment when they decided they’d had enough, James does recall a phone call he got from one friend who’d recently decamped to Australia. “He was so happy. In two weeks, he told me, he hadn’t heard the word recession once. That pretty much summed it all up for me.”

In the latter part of 2010, the McQuillan brothers applied for International Experience Canada visas, which allow foreigners from select countries to work here for a year. More than 4,000 Irish came to Canada on IEC visas that year. To be considered, each brother had to prove that he had the equivalent of $3,000 in the bank.

There were a few hurdles—Sean’s application was delayed for three months when his name was inadvertently misspelled on his police check—but on June 25 last year, the brothers finally flew to Toronto and checked into the Delta Chelsea at Yonge and Gerrard. There, they met a young man named Caolan Quinn from a small town in Northern Ireland, who, it turned out, had come over on the same day as the McQuillan brothers. Within a week, they all rented a three-bedroom apartment together near Keele and Dundas, for just $1,400 a month. They decorated it with used sofas—they placed three in the living room alone—and a long green Carlsberg pub banner. They pitched in on a flat-screen TV and put a beer fridge in the living room.

  • June

    Wonderful. I wish them all the best and hope they make a good life for themselves here in Canada.

  • Deb OConnor

    A good reminder that we are a nation of immigrants, always were and always will be to keep this vast country humming. Sure hope these young men will be allowed to stay, we need them as our native born population is aging so quickly. Somebody has to build our homes and cities and seniors won’t be the ones doing it. Remember that.

  • Ted

    Are those standard regulation work boots?

  • Den

    ‘Even if the economy improved back in Ireland, they wouldn’t trust it to stay that way; in Canada there’s a sense that they can make plans for the future and actually see them through.’ ….. ok I think that’s a bit harsh. I’ve just moved over and I’m delighted to be here in Canada. But I’m staying here for a year or two and then I’m going home…. I have full faith in the Irish people to turn around the mess that was created by previous governments, bankers and developers.

  • BettyBoop

    While I think its nice that these guys have decent, well paying jobs, I have to wonder how come there’s no effort made to train First Nations people from remote areas for these jobs.

    Moving from a fly in reserve to a major city is no less of a culture shock than moving from Africa to Toronto. Most immigrants are met by a several church group volunteers and state helpers, someone helps them find an apartment and a job. The First Nations “immigrant” would be lucky if someone met them at the bus depot. Most have never had a bank account, have no idea how to make a resume or where to apply for a job. So why are we importing people from China to mine in BC and helping them get going but ignoring our own people?

  • Adrian

    Good luck with that Den. I wouldn’t hold my breath if I were you.

    I’ve been in Toronto just over 3 years now and I can say it’s the best move I ever made. I secured a permanent job almost immediately and I have been living in the same apartment since almost day one. This city has so much to offer and, if you have the right attitude, you can make a great life here. Unlike Ireland, there is a “can do” attitude here and I have noticed that I am a hell of a lot less cynical than I was when living in Ireland. Den, if I were you I would not be waiting for Ireland to turn it around. It may be hard being away from family and friends but you should try to make the most of the opportunities Canada has to offer and make a life here for yourself. This country has a lot going for it.

  • burns1

    I really wish these guys well. We need more hard working guys this like this in this country. There’s too many people here in this country who just think things should be handed to them. You have to work for it, exactly like what these young men are doing.

  • Trevor

    The guys at home in Ireland in their 40′s, 50′s & 60′s who have lost their jobs, careers & companies is also very sad. Kids in school or college. Mortgage, loans etc … with very little prospects. Canada and Canadians very welcoming which is great. Good article. Go n’eiri an bothar leat. T

  • Dizzy

    “Ok I think that’s a bit harsh. I’ve just moved over and I’m delighted to be here in Canada. But I’m staying here for a year or two and then I’m going home…”

    Famous last words Den! I’m one of a bunch of Irish/British friends, colleagues and peers who moved out around 99 and 2000. We all said the same thing and most of us are still here, with marriages and houses and RRSPs and the like twelve years later. No harm in going home of course, and I’m back in Dublin every year, but don’t fight setting down more permanent roots if it feels right.

  • Ali

    Adrian, it’s all very well and good to tell someone to make the best of it and to make a life for themselves, but for some people the idea of living away from their friends and family on permanent basis is really difficult. Recessions dont last forever, and while I’m eternally greatful for all the opportunities Canada has given me in my three years here, I have no doubt in my mind that I will be back home one day… because for me Ireland is home and always will be.

  • Chalbe

    Judging from the 3 Irish guys sharing an apartment in my triplex it’s also great for beer and smokes sales to have these guys here!

  • Laurie

    I think that there are a lot of people in this country who could learn a thing or two from these hard working folks. I am happy when I hear about people coming to this country and working hard to create a better life for themselves, and contribute to our country in such a positive way.

  • Adrian

    Ali, all I am saying is not to dwell on the thoughts of going home. We only have one short life and we have to make the most of it. I miss my family and friends as much as anyone but, to be honest, I don’t miss Ireland. I just believe that you have to get on with things and build a life wherever you are. If the economy in Ireland improves to a stage where people can return and have a decent life then that’s all the better. I for one am not counting on that and not waiting for it to happen any time soon. I’m trying to make the most of my time in a country where I can make a good living and enjoy, what I consider to be, a better standard of living. I honestly believe (and this is only my opinion) that there is a much better attitude to life in Canada and a lot less cynicism than back home. I just don’t want to see young Irish people come here thinking that they will work hard and have their fun with the expectation of going home in a few short years and everything will be fine. I know a lot of people who thought they would do that and they are still living and working abroad. I know others who did go back and really regret it. A lot of us see Ireland through rose tinted glasses when we’re living abroad, only to return and realize it was not all that we had built it up to be. I’m not saying we should forget where were from or what makes us the great people we are. Anyway, best of luck to the guys in the article and to all the Irish who have had to emigrate over the last few years.

  • johnny h

    Not an ounce of muscle between them at 50 dollars an hour? and no regulation workboots?

  • Dizzy

    I can’t believe people feel the photo is the thing most worth commenting on. The two guys are sitting outside the site, and probably were interviewed in a coffee shop after it closed for the day or something. Considering they have hard hats and hi-vis I’m sure they wear boots when they’re doing their job. Not everyone wears steel toes home (I don’t).

  • Shane Wixted

    I too arrived over here recently and work in construction. However, I work in construction out of necessity rather than choice. Many Irish have no intention of working in construction when they arrive in Toronto. I have a degree in property appraisal & management and find it quite hard to find work in my field. I am grateful of the opportunity construction has lent me, but it simply isn’t the career path I had envisioned when I stepped off the plane in August.

  • Rob123

    Too many Irish here in Australia, we all talking about Commonwealth have to go..