Hard-Up Irish Seek Solace in Sporting Success; after Years of Being Described as the Celtic Tiger for Its Miraculous Economic Growth, Ireland's More Recent History Has Been Blighted by Deep Recession and International Bailouts. but, Writes Simon Gaskell, Sport Has Offered the Nation Some Respite from an Economy in Turmoil

Article excerpt

WHEN Jamie Heaslip, Declan Kidney and co are welcomed to the Millennium Stadium for the Six Nations opener tomorrow, for 80 minutes a nation will park its worries and forget itself in its national obsession. The description may just as well apply to Wales.

But it is Ireland which has taken most solace from its rugby heroes, and other sporting stars, since 2008.

Five years ago the country began to bear the brunt of a modern, global financial crash frequently described as the worst economic crisis since the 1930s depression.

What had been 24 years of continuous growth in the country was followed by a deep slump which began five years ago and which was brought about by the burst of property bubble.

At one point, Ireland's four-and-a-half million people had the highest level of household debt relative to disposable income in the developed world.

By 2010, the IMF and EU nations agreed on a three-year PS77.3bn rescue package mainly earmarked to rescue its debt-ridden banks.

And in December, Ireland endured its sixth hairshirt budget accompanied by PS2bn more cuts - the continuation of painful austerity measures by the Fine Gael-Labour coalition.

In all of it, while the country has struggled in the face of job cuts and slashed child benefit and other household incomes, there has been one bright spot.

John Scally, a professor at Trinity College, Dublin, told the Western Mail: "Sport is one of the few good news stories left in Ireland. Last year, when Katie Taylor won the gold medal at the Olympics it was absolutely the highlight of the year for most people.

"And in 2009, when we were just coming to terms with the scale of the economic crisis that we were in, the Grand Slam was absolutely huge for the country, particularly the manner in which they played."

That style of play was said to be similar to the old Welsh tradition of "attack, attack, attack".

But, off the pitch, people felt that they were coming under attack as less than 100,000 out-of-work turned into more than 400,000 and salary and take-home pay slumped by 20% with uncertainty as Ireland no longer held control of its own economic sovereignty.

But rising out of the gloom, built sturdily as a fragile economy around it collapsed was the Aviva Stadium - the new home of Irish rugby.

It is there over the course of the next few weeks that England and France will visit to more than likely sold-out crowds and that Leinster play many of their higher-profile Heineken Cup matches.

And the 51,700-seater venture - a joint enterprise between the Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU) and the Football Association of Ireland (FAI) - looks likely to be a profitable one.

A report from the Smurfit Business School showed that the impact of an RBS Six Nations weekend can be worth as much as 90m euros for the Irish economy.

The impact can be felt on the employment front as well with international weekends contributing to an estimated 800 full-time jobs and a further 1,700 part-time jobs on a match weekend. IRFU commercial and marketing director Padraig Power said: "Add to that the spend by Irish rugby supporters and the activity of sponsors of the IRFU.

"You only have to look at the papers or billboards or online to see how our sponsors spend heavily on advertising around our games to see that Irish rugby has a vital role to play in the economic health of the nation. …