Remember I have done thee worthy service,William Shakespeare (Ariel, the Tempest, Act 1, Sc. 2, L. 247-9.)
Told thee no lies, made no mistakings, served
Without grudge or grumblings.
The Sound of Shrieking
The 1990s were a wholly remarkable decade for Ireland.
During it, we moved from being a comparatively poorly developed country, not greatly distinct from the Ireland of a decade before, to being the economic powerhouse of the world – unrecognisable to returning immigrants as the stereotypically backward and insular country of only a few years ago.See, for example, this essay and a host of other materials from the NTMA or the ESRI prior to 2007. Although economic statistics are often quoted on a percentage-per-year basis, this can create the illusion of stability whereas in fact a 4% growth rate at the start of the decade where we were catching up to the rest of Europe was vastly different from the 4% growth rate we had at the end of it. We had amazing numbers partially because we were coming forward from such a retarded base. Note also that 4% per annum is 48% total growth over a decade. An insane number.
At the time of writing, those days are beginning to creep back again, in an admittedly limited and fragile fashion, perhaps because like Melanesian islanders, our hanging around the runways cutting taxes just in case something helpful happens has not been as relevant as we might think. Despite our recent difficulties, however, the economic miracle of the 1990s had somewhere in it something that was real, and it seems clear that the phenomenal growth of Internet-related companies over that timeFor example, the IEDR doubling every ten months or even quicker for much of the 1990s: more later. is a sign that they were either a strong driver of growth, or a facilitator of it, or perhaps both. At the core of sustainable Irish economic performance was the high-tech industry, and at the core of that in turn, during the 1990s, were the ISPs - the Internet Service Providers - who were, before the ubiquity of smartphones, the gatekeepers of the Internet for most of us. Indeed, they occupied this prime position despite their seeming inability to translate mindshare into actual money, oddly reminiscent of writer Michael Lewis’s experience of 1980s London, where “the most extraordinary anti-commercial attitudes could be found, in places that existed for no purpose other than commerce.”His 2013 article in the New York Review of Books.
The ISP industry then was not dull, but the most interesting thing about it in this period was how few of those ISPs actually wanted to be in that self-same industry. Inexorably, those who really wanted to do something else - and in the main, that something else was to be a content business – found themselves sucked in to the low-margin, high-overhead business of being an ISP. This was certainly the case for Ireland On-Line and Club Internet.Later known as Via Networks, Netsource, and Magnet Entertainment. For the others, the structure of the telecommunications network, and in particular the actions (or inactions) of Telecom Éireann,Now “Eir”, previously “Eircom”. On the topic of that name, a persistent rumour is that the rebranding of Telecom Éireann prior to its flotation on the stockmarket was driven primarily by the supposed tendency of American stockbrokers to pronounce it as Telecom Eye-ran, which would obviously attract less capitalist fervour. a corporate exemplification of Newton’s Third Law, dictated most of what ended up happening, despite the energetic efforts of many a startup in this dirty, complicated war.
For it was a war, and I was a foot soldier in it. I myself saw action on the front lines with Club Internet, Ireland On-Line, Esat Net and others. What is mostly forgotten today in the relatively mature market we have ended up with, is the intense competitive rivalry between companies over what might seem today the smallest of stakes. But I remember it. I vividly remember meeting a college friend for lunch who happened to be working in a rival ISP, and although neither of us was greatly inclined towards the tribal, the air of mutual suspicion that descended upon what was intended to be a simple, companionable meal was palpable, and bizarre. That was just on a personal level –- on an organisational level, the antics were sometimes sharper and even more bizarre. And on that topic, an appropriate moment, I think, to discuss Internet Éireann.