A population explosion in all but name


Irish women have long had more children than their sisters anywhere else in Europe. That trend has proved to be remarkably recession-proof

THE POPULATION of the Irish State is now higher than at any time since the immediate aftermath of the Great Hunger in the 1850s. According to last year’s census, the number of people living in Ireland surged in the five years since last count in 2006, continuing a trend that, since the mid-1990s, has seen Ireland experiencing something approaching a population explosion.

At the time of the 1996 census, 3.6 million people lived in the 26 counties. By last year, when the most recent census was taken, the population had risen by one million. For a developed economy that is an extraordinary change, as the experiences of our neighbours attest.

Among the EU 27, Ireland topped the population growth league over the period by a considerable distance. While the number of inhabitants in the bloc as a whole increased by just 5 per cent in the decade and a half to 2011, the increase in Ireland was five times bigger.

The most recent census shows that the population grew at a slightly slower clip in the five years to 2011 than in the period between the 2002 and 2006 censuses. But that masks a big shift between the two main population dynamics – migration and “natural” change (the difference between births and deaths).

In 2002-2006, net immigration was running at 48,000 people annually. It accounted for two-thirds of the total increase in the population in that period.

Yesterday’s census figures show an almost exact reversal, with net migration accounting for one-third of the growth in the 2006-11 period and natural increase making up the rest.

That natural increase has been driven by a continued baby boom. Irish women have long had more children than their sisters anywhere else in Europe. And that trend has proved to be remarkably recession-proof.

The fertility rate – the number of babies born in a year per 1,000 women of child-bearing age – stood at 2.1 last year and remains broadly unchanged over the past decade.

Other things being equal, a fertility rate of 1.9 per cent keeps a population stable. In Europe only France and the Nordic countries are hitting the “replacement rate”. Most countries are now well below it and depend on immigrants to keep their populations from contracting.

Ireland’s high birth rate has marked it out among its peers since the 1960s,when the huge changes of that time, including birth control and greater equality between the sexes, began sharply to lower fertility.

As the graphic below illustrates, this State’s population hit rock bottom in 1961, after undergoing an uninterrupted 120-year decline.

Over the past half century – and despite a renewed bout of emigration in the 1980s – Ireland’s high fertility rate has meant it registered the joint highest rate of population growth (along with Luxembourg) among the EU 27 countries since 1961.

While Ireland continues to experience strong population growth, some European countries, most notably former communist states, are suffering depopulation. In part, this is because the inhabitants continue to leave and move from east to west.

The accession of eastern and central Europe countries to the EU in mid-2004 has been among the biggest drivers of demographic change on this island. As those countries prepared to join the bloc, only Ireland, along with Britain and Sweden, chose to open its labour market and welcome workers from the new members. Ireland’s then-booming economy proved irresistible to many. Poles and their neighbours and Roman Catholic coreligionists in Lithuania found Ireland particularly alluring.

At the time of the 2002 census, about 4,000 people born in those two countries were resident in Ireland. By 2006 that had jumped to 90,000. Despite the recession, yesterday’s 2011 census figures show that last year more than 150,000 Poles and Lithuanians were living here. The big increase in Polish residents is particularly surprising given that their economy has been the best performing in the EU since the 2008 financial crisis, while Ireland’s has been among the worst. Going from a boom to a bust seems hard to fathom.

More widely, and despite the economic crash, the multi-ethnicisation of the Republic continued over census period, with more people of almost every nationality taking up residence. As of last year, more than one in six people resident in Ireland was born elsewhere, up from one in seven in 2006 and about one in 20 in 1991.

By continent, Europeans accounted for the lion’s share of net immigration in the 2006-2011 period, followed by Asians in distant second place. A small increase in people from Africa and the Americas residing in Ireland was also recorded. Curiously, only the Antipodeans have upped sticks in numbers – Australian and Kiwi residents declined by more than one-quarter in the five years to 2011.

By comparative standards, the 17 per cent of residents hailing from countries outside the Republic is well above the EU average of 6.5 per cent. Only Luxembourg and Latvia have bigger foreign-born populations.

Yesterday’s figures also revise earlier estimates of the number of people arriving to live in Ireland over the previous year. In the 12 months to April last, almost 20,000 Irish nationals resettled here (previously statisticians put the number at 17,000), while 34,000 foreigners came to live (up on the 25,000 estimate).

As the census measures only those resident in the country, yesterday’s figures cast no new light on how many people are emigrating, and it will take some time before the number crunchers at the Central Statistics Office get around to upgrading their estimates of the numbers involved in that phenomenon.

Ireland’s demographic history over the past half century has been different from peer countries in Europe in that its birth rate has been much higher and been far less stable – thanks to huge migration flows in the 1980s and since the mid-1990s (in most developed countries, population change tends to happen much more gradually).

But if the demographics of the past half century are unusual, the previous 120-year period was utterly without parallel anywhere else in the world.

According to the estimates of the historian Angus Maddison, every other country in the world (for which population data or estimates exist) experienced huge population increases in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Among the 30 largest western European countries he estimated that their aggregate population more than doubled between 1841 and 1961. In the 26 counties of the Irish Republic the number of inhabitants more than halved. The shape of the graphic below is thus utterly unique.

It is often said that too much is made of the Great Famine in discussion of this island’s past. That is simply not possible. There is no single event that changed the course of Irish history more and made this island more different than it would otherwise have been than the Famine. If the number of deaths from hunger and disease did not make the Famine a unique event, the sustained exodus that it caused did. There is no inflection point that is more significant in the history of this island. Had the Famine not triggered the globally unique population decline and had Ireland followed the average demographic pattern of the rest of western Europe since 1841, 17 million people would now be living in this State, not 4.6 million.

It is almost unimaginable to think how different things would be.