DUBLIN, Ireland (AP) -- Ireland's unemployment rate has hit a 9-year high of 5.9 percent, government statisticians reported Wednesday, as economists warned that layoffs were spreading quickly from construction to most parts of the economy.
The Central Statistics Office said a growing proportion of people who had lost their jobs recently were women, showing that the jobs market was suffering well beyond Ireland's male-dominated construction sites.
The rise from June's rate of 5.7 percent has put Irish unemployment at a level last reached in March 1999 -- and economists warned it was only going to get worse.
Fergal O'Brien, senior economist at the Irish Business and Employers Confederation representing 7,000 companies and firms nationwide, said Ireland's number of failed jobseekers has grown nearly 40 percent in the past year -- a pace last experienced in 1975.
"It is clear that a wide range of sectors in the economy are now being affected by the international credit crunch and the domestic housing slowdown," O'Brien said.
Alan McQuaid, senior economist at Bloxham Stockbrokers in Dublin, forecast that unemployment would reach at least 6.6 percent by the end of the year.
Leo Varadkar, employment spokesman for the main opposition Fine Gael party, called the rapid rise in joblessness shocking.
"These figures would be much worse were it not for the large number of immigrants who are leaving the country," Varadkar said, referring to anecdotal reports that thousands of Eastern Europeans -- who flooded into Ireland when the European Union expanded in 2004 -- were heading back because job opportunities were drying up.
In the latest sign of how Ireland's 1994-2006 Celtic Tiger economy has skidded off the road, one of Ireland's most prominent car dealerships, Maxwell Motors on the posh south side of Dublin, announced Tuesday it was laying off more than half its staff and dumping its BMW franchise.
Sales of new cars -- a particular status symbol in Ireland, where license plates prominently display the age of the vehicle -- have fallen by half this year after more than a decade of rapid growth.