* 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 (Reuters) - 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 Tiger Ireland.
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.
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 whole.
“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 economy improves.
A survey of 700 women by Amarach research found 39 percent saying the recession had played a role in not increasing their family size.
But many are just planning families to fit into their more limited budgets.
“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.”