Europe's Coolest Cities: Dublin's Second Coming


EU subsidies laid the foundations for an economic miracle on the banks of the Liffey. Low corporate taxes drew massive foreign investment in the form of technology companies that moved to Dublin, transforming the city from "Dirty Old Town" to "Celtic Tiger."

The old library at Dublin's Trinity College: Ireland has gone from being one of the poorest countries in Europe to enjoying the second-highest per capita income in the EU.

The old library at Dublin's Trinity College: Ireland has gone from being one of the poorest countries in Europe to enjoying the second-highest per capita income in the EU.

Chris Horn, vice chairman of Iona Technologies, doesn’t feel the need for a plush office; all he has in his are a smooth, light-colored desk and a few books. Just one photo on the wall gives away the fact that his career took off a long time ago -- a picture of a B-29. “It was from one of those planes that the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima in 1945,” he says. Boeing is one of Iona Technologies' clients, and a few years ago he flew the plane over Seattle.

Horn’s company produces modules that integrate software made by other manufacturers, allowing the different components to communicate. He has 370 employees around the globe, with 120 working in the firm’s Dublin headquarters; revenues for last year were $77.8 million. The company’s other illustrious clients include Motorola, Nokia and AT&T, Air France, Reuters and Lufthansa.

Horn, 50, with his blond hair, unbuttoned shirt collar and sunny nature, is a nonchalant representative of the creative class. The son of an English tennis teacher, he moved to Dublin as a young boy. Today, one of the things he loves most about Dublin is that wherever he is, he can always hear the cries of the gulls endlessly circling Dublin Bay.

Iona Technologies is one of the many success stories in a country that has seen lightning modernization in just 20 years. In a single generation, Ireland has gone from being one of the poorest countries in Europe to enjoying the second-highest per capita income in the European Union. No wonder the “Celtic Tiger” has been held up as a model of progress, particularly for the new EU member states in Eastern Europe.

Dublin is at the heart of this modern Ireland and nowhere is this more evident than on a visit to the capital city’s port. Just 30 years ago, the country’s main export, cattle, was still herded onto ships here; now, the glass and steel palaces of high-tech business jostle for space.

Dublin, once the epitome of the "Dirty Old Town", has had a makeover, turning it into a European metropolis with its mixture of scrubbed-up, newly restored brick buildings and modern architecture. Even the Liffey, the river running through Dublin, is being rediscovered. Reviled since the times of James Joyce as a liquid garbage dump, as the "sniffy Liffey," today fashionable restaurants and expensive hotels, like The Clarence, the hotel bought by the band U2, all want a spot near the mythical river. The cheapest room costs €230 ($316) and bookings are as plentiful as ever.

This new wealth has become etched into the cityscape, with huge limos and designer boutiques. The new Ireland has almost as many millionaires per capita as the center of capitalism, the United States, and Chris Horn is one of them.

Graphic: Dublin's Creative Class

Graphic: Dublin's Creative Class

This unaccustomed prosperity came from the billions that flooded into Dublin and its surroundings when Ireland joined the European Community in 1973, helped by canny governments that used the flow of subsidies cleverly and handed money out prudently. Moreover 20 years ago, in 1987, the government signed a social pact with trade unions and employers, agreeing to tax cuts and limited wage rises. This type of corporatism was to prove a keystone of the economic miracle, enabling the state-run Industrial Development Agency to lure primarily high-tech companies into the country. Major IT firms from the US like Intel, Microsoft, IBM and Dell took up residence around Dublin. Attracted by low corporate taxes and the English language, many companies saw the Irish capital as a gateway to their European markets.

There are around 1,100 foreign companies in Dublin and 45,000 foreigners work in greater Dublin (population: 1.2 million). They are employed on construction sites and in call centers; as doctors and engineers; and as gardeners and plumbers. In few other countries has the globalization process triggered as great a transformation as in an Ireland that was crying out for change. With over 250,000 new jobs created in 10 years, Ireland stands out among the industrialized countries for its high growth rate. After Singapore and Belgium, it is the third largest exporter per capita in the world. To make sure it stays that way, the government is continuing the campaign to improve education that began decades ago. Around 90 percent of Irish high school students go on to higher education, compared with a figure of just 37 percent for Germany.

As a result, companies in Dublin can handpick their staff from highly motivated young people who are studying at one of the capital city's five universities and who at present still find pretty good jobs, pretty quickly.

Chris Horn was one of them. After graduating from high school, he studied at Trinity College, where he majored in computer science. “The computers were generally at least two years old,” describes Horn, “but companies were continuously giving us gifts of new ones.” The professors were in their late twenties or early thirties, says Horn. “Everyone knew everyone else.”

So when the EU announced a research project aimed at developing an integrated software architecture for Europe, Horn found his life's vocation. Major companies like Olivetti and Siemens showed little interest. With his partners Sean Baker and Annrai O'Toole, Horn founded Iona in 1991. The company's starting equity was a mere €3,600, with the 3 young entrepreneurs investing almost all their savings.

For a year they went from bank to investor to financial backer looking for someone who would give people like them the startup capital they needed, but nobody saw any prospects for the three. “After 40 meetings, we gave up,” explains Horn. They changed tack and became a consultancy firm for the time being. Using the profits from that venture, they launched their first product: Orbix, an integration module, or middleware, for third-party software.

Then came the meteoric rise followed by the catastrophic fall that would affect so many technology companies. In 1997 when Iona went public, shares cost $18 apiece; 2 years later they were worth $105, and 3 years after that they were selling at $1.50.

By that time, Chris Horn had retired from the business with a fortune worth $250 million.

Nonetheless he told his wife: “I’m going to try and save the company. Hopefully in two or three years I'll get another chance to retire.”

Today, he feels business is back on track, with a market capitalization of $138 million, a share price of $3 and major offices in St. John’s in Canada, in Beijing and in Boston. The Dublin headquarters are crowded with a well-trained workforce from many different countries: Moldova, Latvia, the Netherlands and France are just a few examples. It’s like an international version of the creative class, in miniature.

Horn's employees enjoy living in the young city with its countless pubs, bars and restaurants, and their presence contributes to the liberal air that is gradually getting the country's traditionally conservative Catholicism to relax a bit. And vice chairman Horn can still find plenty he likes about his native city. Business is booming again, he has saved the firm and could now actually start thinking about his second retirement.

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