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Ireland used to be known as the Celtic Tiger. Its economy was roaring in the late '90s. All that seemed a distant memory during Europe's recent debt crisis, which hit Ireland especially hard.
Over the weekend, a milestone: Ireland became the first country to formally exit the bailout program funded by the European Union and IMF.
There's been a lot of progress, but as NPR's Jim Zarroli reports, the country is still a long way from its Celtic Tiger heyday.
JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: These days, it isn't hard to find signs of improvement in Ireland of an economy coming back from the dead. Just ask Conor Mulhall, a 41-year-old father of three.
CONOR MULHALL: Don't get me wrong, it's been bad in a lot of ways, but, you know, there's a silver lining to every cloud, you know.
ZARROLI: Mulhall used to be in construction management. After the collapse of the Irish economy, he moved to England. But recently, he moved back to take a job managing another business.
MULHALL: It brings you to new stages in your life. I'm now involved in the organic food business, so I never would have been if the construction thing had kept going. And there's a lot of people like me.
ZARROLI: Mulhall is working at a food fair near Dublin's financial district. These days, people like him are beginning to find work again. Ireland's unemployment rate has fallen from more than 15 percent to 12-and-a-half percent. The economy is growing again, albeit slowly.
Michael Noonan is the country's finance minister.
MICHAEL NOONAN: We're still below where we were at the top of our inflated boom, so we need 10 years of solid growth. But we'll do it year by year.
ZARROLI: Noonan notes that big foreign companies - including a lot of U.S. tech firms like Google - are once again investing in Ireland. And the government can also borrow at a rate not much higher than countries like England and Belgium. Tourism and agriculture are rebounding.
Noonan says the exit from the European bailout program this weekend is one more step forward. The program forced the country to undergo steep budget cuts and tax increases in exchange for loans.
NOONAN: Leaving the program means that we control our own affairs again, and an Irish government elected by the Irish people can make all future decisions concerning our country.
ZARROLI: But there's little joy in Ireland over the exit, perhaps because the country still has a long way to go. The economic crisis was caused by a property bubble that popped around 2008, and the severe budget cuts that followed left the government with few of the resources it needed to help.
Robin Hanan directs the Irish branch of the European Anti-Poverty Network.
ROBIN HANAN: If you walk around the main streets of our cities, there are people sleeping on the streets because the homeless shelters are already overcrowded. A lot of people lost their jobs and their houses.
ZARROLI: Even though things are getting better, economist Colm McCarthy of University College Dublin says the recovery is tentative.
COLM MCCARTHY: It's very, very fragile, and the economy is very dependent on external demand. It's a very small country. It exports a lot of what's produced here. A lot of what's consumed is imported.
ZARROLI: McCarthy says Ireland's fate is very much tied to its export markets - mainly England, the United States and continental Europe - and none of them are thriving. And there are other problems.
For a long time, Ireland was able to draw foreign investment because wages were so low. But now it has to compete with countries like Spain and Greece, where pay has also fallen. McCarthy says there's still an army of unemployed construction workers in Ireland, and they're not likely to find work at Google.
Jimmy Burke came back to Ireland from Australia at the height of the recession. Jobs were scarce.
JIMMY BURKE: So I got bar work when I came back. You know, there's always going to be - people are always going to drink. But manufacturing and stuff, there was no jobs left in that anymore.
ZARROLI: Today, he's studying at the University of Limerick. Like generations before him, he'll probably leave Ireland once he graduates.
BURKE: If you go to Scandinavia or maybe Canada, there's better prospects to get more experience, rather than just a job in the first place.
ZARROLI: Ireland needs to have a serious discussion about how to address unemployment and other problems, says Robin Hanan. If nothing else, he says, the exit from the bailout program will allow that to happen.
HANAN: Now we can have that debate openly with people who maybe disagree with us, who have other priorities, without anyone saying, well, I'm sorry you can't do that, because the people lending us the money won't let us.
ZARROLI: In that sense, he hopes what happened over the weekend could usher in an era of real change in Ireland.
Jim Zarroli, NPR News.
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