You can ask Town Manager James McKenna what he did on his summer vacation, and he’ll chuckle and tell you it wasn’t a vacation, but what better place to spend a few summer days than in Donegal, Ireland.
Actually, McKenna spent five days in Donegal in July to help bolster economic development in the region. His journey began last year while taking a course at Harvard. There he met Michael Heaney, director of services for the Donegal County Council. He was born in Boston but raised in Ireland.
“It was a mid-year professional certification class. It brings people in from all over the world,” McKenna said. “We shared kindred spirits.”
The town of Donegal (population 2,600) is in County Donegal (population 161,137), the northwest part of Ireland not far from the North Ireland border. English is spoken, but so is Gaelic. Both men are also working with Derry (also known as Londonderry) in a collaborative effort to create jobs.
McKenna, whose roots are in County Mayo and County Monaghan, said the similarities between Winthrop and Donegal are uncanny. Winthrop is on a forgotten harbor of Boston and Donegal is having the same struggle to define itself. The appeal of Donegal is a new economy, innovative ideas and the bio-tech industry creating a lasting job base.
“The more we talked the more similar issues we had,” McKenna said, adding that in the 1990s Winthrop lost jobs and became more of a bedroom community with a regional lift and an increase in property values.
In Donegal you’ll find the traditional woolen industry, Irish crafts and musical instrument making. The appeal to work in Donegal is the Celtic emergence that has been happening for the past 20 years.
“They are redefining their efforts toward innovations in bio-tech and creating innovation centers,” McKenna said. “They have an amazing young labor force that’s been bypassed.”
McKenna said the tax environment in Ireland is friendly, relatively young work force eager to work in smart industries.
Donegal is also reaching out to people who are from the region. McKenna said Heaney is expected to come to a Boston conference in October. McKenna has also reached out to former Sen. Therese Murray, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh and UMass President Marty Meehan.
“I felt a need to help provide ongoing dialog and support,” McKenna said. “We have worked with some of the same Boston contacts.”
McKenna said a culture has to be created for bio-tech to be able to reach out to the younger population in the Irish labor force.
“Ireland can’t be just a nice place to live, there has to be a structure for business,” McKenna said.