More diverse Ireland struggles to educate its population. Economic boom attracts legions of immigrantsBy Kevin Sullivan, Washington Post | November 4, 2007BALBRIGGAN, Ireland – Happy little learners filed out of school at midday, smiling in their furry jackets and clutching a parent’s hand. It could have been anywhere in Ireland, except that almost every child had immigrant parents – the vast majority of them black – from places as distant as Angola, Congo, and Zimbabwe.Bracken Educate Together National School was opened last month as an emergency measure after education officials realized they had no school places for scores of local children, almost all of them Irish-born children of immigrants.The opening of Ireland’s first predominantly black school, in this suburban town just north of Dublin, illustrates the pressures facing once-sleepy Ireland as its population and economy boom. Once almost entirely white and Catholic, the country is struggling to integrate hundreds of thousands of new immigrants and to provide them with education, health, welfare, and transportation services as fast as they arrive.”This is the front line in all this,” said Gerry McKevitt, an administrator at the Balbriggan school, looking around its temporary home in a summer retreat house for urban children. “This is where the problems are emerging. This is where integration is going to happen or not.”After 150 years of population decline as native Irish fled dire economic conditions, Ireland is now one of Europe’s fastest-growing and most prosperous nations. The white-hot “Celtic Tiger” economy of recent years has leveled off, but Ireland continues to be a magnet for immigrants.The nation’s population is just over 4.1 million, its highest level since before the famine years of the mid-19th century. Much of the growth has been fueled by immigration: According to the 2006 census, more than 600,000 Irish residents, about 1 in 7, were born abroad – including returning children of Irish emigrants.Government officials say they believe the true figure could be much higher, citing the difficulty of counting newcomers living in crowded group houses. The Polish immigrant population is officially about 62,000, but Conor Lenihan, Ireland’s integration minister, said that the actual number of Poles here could be closer to 200,000.”Ireland has been subject to something that no other country in history has ever been subject to: sudden-onset migration,” said Lenihan, whose post was created this year. “We have seen our non-Irish population go from zero to about 15 percent in 10 years.”At the same time, in less than a decade, nearly 600,000 new houses or apartments have been added, according to government figures. Suburbs such as Lucan, west of Dublin, and Balbriggan, to the north, are now filled with almost identical pastel-colored townhouses on fields where cows and sheep used to graze.Critics say that construction of schools, hospitals, and train lines and provision of other public and social services have not kept pace with the growth.Public education in Ireland is paid for by the government but administered almost exclusively by the Catholic Church, which operates 92 percent of primary schools. The other 8 percent are run by Protestant churches or groups such as Educate Together, a private organization that operates 44 multi-denominational schools across the country.On the main train line between Dublin and Belfast, near Dublin airport and nestled next to the sea, Balbriggan is a magnet for young Irish families looking for reasonably priced housing. It is also attracting a swelling wave of immigrants from Africa, the Middle East, and the mostly Eastern European nations that joined the European Union in 2004.In August, education officials realized that Balbriggan’s six schools, including one Educate Together school, were oversubscribed. Scores of children, many of them 4- and 5-year-olds just starting school, had nowhere to go.Officials appealed to Educate Together to quickly set up an emergency school to handle the overflow. Within a month, the company established a new school near the seashore.Paul Rowe, chief executive of Educate Together, said the school now has 86 students from at least a dozen countries. He said 90 percent have immigrant parents.