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Grass Is Greener

[whitespace] Ireland proves a fertile recruiting ground for high-tech companies that crave the Cranberries generation for their edge

By Will Harper

Before 33-year-old Peter Grennan left Ireland in 1994, he set up a couple of interviews with Silicon Valley high-tech companies. He arrived in the States on a Tuesday. He had his first interview that Friday. By the next week the college- educated Irishman had a job.

Thirty-year-old software designer Martin O'Leary sold everything he owned--"It wasn't much"--two years ago to come and find a job in Silicon Valley. "Because I'm an engineer," O'Leary says, "I always wanted to end up in Silicon Valley." Within weeks of his arrival from the city of Cork, O'Leary had multiple job offers.

If Ellis Island is the gateway to the land of opportunity, Silicon Valley today is what lies on the other side of the rainbow for educated immigrants with high-tech backgrounds. With their much-hyped labor shortage, valley companies are looking abroad--Stephen Keeney says that of the 20 people in his team at Intel, only three are American-born--to hire computer geeks to fill their cubicles.

Ireland, as it turns out, is a favored training ground for aspiring techies. An estimated 2,500 Irish work for high-tech companies in the valley.

According to the Ireland Industrial Development Agency, an organization that tries to lure high-tech companies to the country, one-third of all the personal computers sold in Europe are made in Ireland. Tech companies like Apple, Hewlett-Packard, Seagate, Oracle and Sun Microsystems have opened up shop there.

Those companies have an educated labor pool to tap now. The U2 and Cranberries generation Irish are far better educated than their parents, thanks in part to free higher education in Ireland. (Keeney, a device engineer for Intel who came to the valley five years ago from Donegal, says that his parents dropped out of school when they were 14 years old.)

A better-educated population does more than enhance career opportunities--it also transforms the culture, argues 65-year-old local Irish businessman Ray O'Flaherty. The way O'Flaherty sees it, Ireland's 20-somethings and 30-somethings are more open-minded than people of his generation. So O'Leary, a Catholic, dates a Protestant (though not an Irish Protestant). Grennan pals around with Englishmen.

"I firmly believe that education gives people more understanding and respect for different cultural traditions," O'Flaherty says.

In contrast to their counterparts in San Francisco and Boston, where bars filled with IRA sympathizers are easily found, the valley's Irish come across as a less political lot. That's not to say they're apolitical. Put it this way: The valley's yuppie Irish may still argue over a united Ireland, but they're likely to have the debate on the ride over to the ski slopes.

"We have good jobs and we can live anywhere we want," O'Leary says. "Not everyone has that choice."

Silicon Valley's Irish community is close-knit. O'Leary and Keeney say most of their friends here are other Irish transplants. Groups like the Irish Social Club and the Irish Network allow new immigrants to bond with other Irish.

Americans, especially Californians, puzzle Keeney. In Ireland, friendships are built over a lifetime; there's little small talk between real pals. Here, relationships strike the young Irish as more transient and superficial. "Here in California, a guy will know you three weeks, but act like they've known you all your life. And the next year, he may be gone from your life."

There are other cultural distinctions. O'Leary says that the Irish tend to veg out a lot, watch TV or go to the pub--especially in the winter when there are only eight hours of daylight. But for Americans, spending a sunny Saturday in San Jose watching the tube is tantamount to heresy.

"When you have leisure time here, you actually do something," observes Mairtini NiDhomhnaill, an accountant for the Irish-owned Santa Clara firm Murdock & Associates. "You'd feel guilty if you sat home and did nothing here. When I went home for Christmas, one day I asked my brother what he was doing and he said, 'What do you mean what am I doing? I'm doing it.' "

NiDhomhnaill, O'Leary and Keeney regularly go back to Ireland and visit their families. Unlike a lot of Irish now, however, they buy round-trip tickets. With Ireland's economy booming, many Irish who left the country in the depressed '80s are returning. For the first time, more people are moving to Ireland than leaving.

For now, O'Leary and Keeney are staying put. So is Peter Grennan, a software group manager at Connect in Mountain View. "I'm not planning on leaving," he says. "There's a difference."

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From the March 12-18, 1998 issue of Metro.

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