* Baby numbers hit 118 year peak during crash
* Families growing despite falling incomes
* Poor jobs market prompts some women to take career break
* Growing population will help ease pension squeeze
By Conor Humphries and Lorraine Turner
DUBLIN, Nov 27 Within months of Ireland's
property bubble bursting, estate agent Grainne Bird-Thistle got
caught up in the country's next boom: babies.
The number of births in Ireland hit a 118-year high in 2009,
when the economy clocked up its worst year on record, and the
number of new arrivals has remained close to that peak despite
the struggle to emerge from financial crisis.
For some, the dark economic clouds have been a spur, as
diminished career opportunities and cheaper rents and house
prices give them more space to start families.
"During the boom you couldn't afford to have a mortgage
unless you had two jobs and worked really long hours," said
Bird-Thistle, 39, as she left an appointment at Dublin's main
maternity hospital before the birth of her second child.
"If the market is slowing down, why not raise a family? It's
a brilliant opportunity."
Along with half-finished office blocks and vast queues at
employment fairs, packed playgrounds and rows of buggies at the
entrance to cafes have become familiar signs of the post Celtic
In 2009, two years into the crisis, births hit 75,554, ten
thousand more than in 2006 when champagne cocktails still flowed
in central Dublin bars and then Prime Minister Bertie Ahern
infamously noted "The boom is getting boomier."
Despite one of the highest unemployment rates in Europe,
Ireland's birth rate has remained high, with 74,650 babies born
last year compared to an annual average of around 65,500 during
the Celtic Tiger.
The country's maternity hospitals, suffering from budget
cuts imposed under an EU-IMF bailout, often struggle to cope.
"Our biggest problem is not being able to fill vacancies,"
said Dublin midwife Sinead Cleary. "You end up stealing nurses
from other wards to bulk the numbers on the delivery suites."
"It's not as busy as 2009 but we are still very busy. In a
24 hour period we could have 18 or 20 deliveries."
In the Dublin-based national maternity hospital, every space
in the 19th century building has been gobbled up to provide more
delivery suites with some ante-natal clinics held in temporary
buildings in the car park.
NEVER ENOUGH MONEY
The birth rate is good news for Ireland, helping to
compensate for the re-emergence of emigration during the crisis
with almost 250 people, most of them in their twenties, leaving
the country every day.
The higher birth rate prompted the central statistics office
last year to forecast population growth of more than 8 percent
in five years, around four times the EU average.
The EU statistics agency last year predicted Ireland's
population would increase by almost a quarter over the next 25
years, compared to a rise of just under 5 percent in the EU as a
"It means the problem of old age dependency will rise more
slowly than previously anticipated and much more slowly than in
the rest of the EU," said John Fitzgerald, research professor at
the Economic and Social Research Institute think tank.
"A lot of concerns are about pensions and so on, those
problems are going to rise definitely in the long term but they
will rise by less."
Ireland has the highest fertility rate in the European Union
with just over two births per woman on average, in part due to a
surge in women of child-bearing age after an earlier baby boom
during the late 1970s and early 1980s, when the country was also
gripped by economic crisis.
But career breaks forced by the collapse of swathes of the
economy and lower child costs have also played a role.
"During the boom when my wife was working we were more
money focused. When you lose your job your focus changes," said
Paul Meade, 30, an insurance broker, whose wife had her first
baby after losing her job in a construction company in 2010.
"We thought about the money of course, but I don't know if
you ever have enough money for it," he said, taking his 19-month
old son for a walk while his wife had an ante-natal check up.
While Ireland has seen the largest contraction of GDP in the
euro area since the crisis began, it is the third richest
country according to EU figures -- so a contraction in living
standards has not placed as many families in poverty.
The government's monthly payment to parents has fallen to
140 euros a month from 160 euros at the height of the boom still
higher than many other parts of Europe, including the Britain.
"I went home a few weeks ago and I didn't see one baby. Here
they are everywhere," said Alice, a 32-year-old pregnant
Romanian living in Dublin. She said higher living standards of
meant families could more easily cope with falls in income.
Immigrants, most of whom arrived in the final years of the
Celtic Tiger boom, have also played a role with almost a quarter
of babies born to non-Irish nationals in 2010.
With thousands of families stuck in small apartments,
starter homes that became negative equity traps when house
prices fell, some are putting off having children until the
A survey of 700 women by Amarach research found 39 percent
saying the recession had played a role in not increasing their
But many are just planning families to fit into their more
"It's more prams but cheaper prams," said Paul Kealy, owner
of the Tony Kealys baby stores, who said the crisis had forced
retailers to cut prices on premium models. "People are having
more babies but they are spending less money."
Like other Catholic countries, Ireland has traditionally had
larger families than the European average, with families of 10
or more not uncommon in the earlier 20th century.
While they have shrunk in the decades since, they remain
among the largest in Europe.
"The middle class family with four children is a uniquely
Irish phenomenon in a European context," said Victoria White, a
Dublin-based mother of 4 and author on parenthood. "A lot of us
do equate happiness with a larger family."
If birth rates were an economic indicator, Ireland would be
roaring ahead, she said.
"The markets should be looking at it and saying, maybe the
mothers of Ireland know something."