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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.