Why is Ireland, the land of a thousand welcomes, the loneliest country in Europe?

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An epidemic of loneliness is sweeping the western world. What is going on? And what can be done?

Over the summer, the European Parliament released a report that did not make for happy reading. A comprehensive survey conducted late last year had found that Ireland – land of a thousand welcomes, endless crack, all that – was, in fact, the loneliest country in the entire continent.

It read like a slap in the face and was made worse by an accompanying map. Britain, as punishment for Brexit, had been entirely erased so Ireland stood in splendid isolation, adrift in a sea of loneliness. The survey seemed to shatter many dearly held assumptions about our beloved, unfeasibly damp little island. More than 20 per cent of respondents in Ireland reported feeling lonely, following data collected from more than 25,000 Europeans in 27 member states. We were, it seemed lonelier than the Greeks, than the Bulgarians. We were even more lonely than Luxembourg. It was difficult to read the study without becoming resentful of those countries where the loneliness-scale didn’t even tip 10 per cent: it would seem that Austria (too rich?), Croatia (too dazzled by their beauty?) and the Netherlands (too crazy?) are all gloriously indifferent to loneliness.

It was tempting to make excuses for Ireland: that if you offer any random selection of the citizenry an opportunity to have a good moan about life, we won’t turn it down. Or perhaps the Irish respondents came from the one town and had been surveyed on that dismally wet Tuesday in November, just after the senior team had lost the county final and ESB bills to make the eyes water came floating through all local letter boxes.

But the report is just part of an increasingly bright spotlight shone on the slippery subject of loneliness and its potentially debilitating effects. A new awareness of loneliness as an issue has begun to take shape. Five years have passed since the United Kingdom appointed its first minister for loneliness. Japan followed suit during the pandemic summer of 2021. In the United States Senate this summer, Chris Murphy, a Democratic senator for Connecticut, delivered a 20-minute speech on the theme of loneliness, which he introduced as a seldom-spoken subject that everybody experiences. “I certainly have. It’s an awful feeling,” he said, before embarking on what was a powerful dissection of what he saw as the demise of the American town system, with its hollowed-out centres and the disappearance of artisan bakers, butchers and of local newspapers. Murphy posited that at a time of bitter ideological division across the US, here was a subject on which both parties could work productively. He went as far as to suggest that loneliness – and the attendant consequences of alienation – might have played its part in the scenes of civil disorder that saw demonstrators storm the Senate in 2022.


“Loneliness is one of the few issues that defies traditional political boundaries and cuts across every demographic, from teenage girls living in cities, to white men living out in rural areas, blue states to red states, unaffordable cities to left-behind manufacturing towns,” he said. “There’s a tonne of room for us to come together to combat this growing epidemic of loneliness.”

So, what is going on?

Everyone knows what we mean when we speak of loneliness. Visually and phonetically, it’s a winsome word. Little wonder it features strongly on the fiction shelves of the world – The Heart is A Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers, Eleven Kinds of Loneliness by Richard Yates, a History of Loneliness by John Boyne – on and on the titles go. It’s a hit word, too, in pop classics through the ages, from Roy Orbison’s bleak velvety ode to the lonely is, shockingly, 63 years old. The startling string opening to the Beatles’ Eleanor Rigby and the famous first line, “Ah, look at all the lonely people”, has been around since 1960. It’s an arrestingly lonely song – but then, what Beatles song doesn’t have a melancholy strain running through it? Everyone gets how loneliness feels and few modes express it more eloquently than music. But pinpointing why it happens – or even what it is – is a more complex proposition.

“I’ll start with what it is,” says Ann-Marie Creaven, a psychologist at the University of Limerick.

“One definition is that it is a feeling that comes with the perception that the quality or quantity of your social relationships are not enough. It is not the perception - it is the feeling that comes with that perception.”

Last summer, Creaven bought an electric cargo bike and discovered it to be the source of an unexpected epiphany. It was one of those “good” Irish summers, so she used it regularly. It opened up her locality to the extent that she now uses it whenever possible.

“I have two kids who hop in the back. I meet everybody! People stop me to ask about the bike. Or they wave. I meet people out walking the path, or people stop in traffic will chat. When I am in the car, none of that happens.”

It was a simple thing, but it illuminated for her a crucial infrastructural absence in Irish towns and villages. Creaven is convinced that how we move through our local, day-to-day world can be key in battling loneliness.

“An active travel plan where people can be out and meet others – a side effect of an active plan is a social connection,” she says.

“We all love our cars, but they are little metal jails in some ways. And I was taken aback by the difference using the bike made. How many people I met, how many my children got to meet. How often do kids get to meet their neighbours? We shuttle them around to coordinated activity. We don’t let them out on the street in case they get run over. We have no third place for adolescents to hang out and then we discover young people are lonely; how about that!”

Creaven has a personal stake in this subject through her work. She completed her doctorate on the concept of social support and over the years, her research deepened her interest in the collective “needing to belong and to have a social connection - to alleviate loneliness”.

“I think there has been a shift everywhere in terms of the recognition of loneliness. We often discuss it as an individual problem. But it is fundamentally an issue of trying to connect with other people. I would love to see policy-making that supports communities to foster connections. I don’t think we need to try and cure loneliness. I think we should promote connected communities.”

Creaven grew up in Galway and lives outside Limerick city, so she is familiar with both the Irish city and country experience. Irish towns and villages still revolve around a 19th century model of civic design. Meeting places revolve around set-piece fixtures. Throughout the last century, the church gate was a natural meeting place, but that has declined sharply. The closure of so many local pubs has reduced another traditional meeting spot. GAA clubs remain the solar system around which many Irish towns and villages thrive. But those three traditional pillars are incidental meeting places. There has been little thought or design put into the facilities that would encourage people to move around more without their cars. An obvious disadvantage is the pronounced lack of public shelters in a country notorious for its frequent heavy rainfall. Even basic facilities, like bus stops, are sadly lacking in adequate protection for waiting passengers. So, the idea of providing shelters in places like playgrounds seems a long way off. Creaven argues that it shouldn’t be this way.

“There has been an erosion of what are called third spaces across western society. This is a place where you can go to meet with others. A pub could be described as that. But it costs money to sit in a pub, and therefore it isn’t really a third space, or isn’t ideal. There need to be many more parks, located near playgrounds that people can get to. Teenagers, for instance, have no third spaces. Anytime you see them hanging around a corner – they have nowhere else they are allowed to be. We need more physical places that are weather-resistant. Go to any playground, and you will never see a shelter there. I feel strongly about this, because I naively thought during Covid that I would see rain shelters in playgrounds to keep people out and about, in the fresh air, for people to gather and for somewhere to bring children. There is nothing.”

Ireland’s rainy seasons – all four of them – don’t help when it comes to facilitating the concept of connected communities. But the loneliness problem has swept the western world.

In July 2019, Prof Fay Bound Alberti told a gathering at a Ted Talk that the world was “in the midst of an epidemic of loneliness – or so it seems”. Alberti is a professor of modern history at King’s College London and in her book, A Biography of Loneliness, convincingly sets the loneliness phenomenon against the sweeping, lightning societal changes that occurred with the industrial revolution, driving people en masse into towns and cities and instantly flipping the emphasis from the welfare of the collective to the individual.

She points out that before 1800, there was no word for loneliness in the English language; the closest relative was the word “oneness”. Contemporary loneliness, she told her audience, is tricky in that it is at least a source of a “mental health crisis linked to depression and anxiety”. But it is also an inevitable part of the human condition. And worst of all, it’s almost impossible to define, because it isn’t any one emotion but rather a cluster of feelings, including anger, grief and sorrow – which everyone experiences differently. So over two quick centuries, the daily lived experience was utterly transformed.

One person described it like a temporary depression – when they reflected on it, they were able to see it as something positive in terms of resilience

—  Emma Kirwan

“This is the context in which early 20th century existential philosophers agonised about the meaning of life,” she said.

“If traditional communities had gone, where did we get meaning from? If there was no god, what was our future? If, in the words of Jean Paul Sartre, the illusion of being immortal was not there, what else was left? So, this is the context in which loneliness has emerged as a language and an experience. Because at the same time as these changes were taking place, which redefined the notion of the individual and the notion of society and the obligations of each, the word loneliness came into plays, poems and literature and medical writings for the first time to describe that terrible sense of emotional lack. Loneliness denotes a change in social, political and economic structures as well as the existential angst of being human. So, what do we do with this? And how do we do use this history to inform our modern understanding of loneliness? Part of it is about understanding community and determining what matters.”

The pandemic magnified and distorted the collective understanding and experience of loneliness. The enforced periods of isolation and social distancing were so extreme and miserable that they were of little use in comparison to the loneliness battles running through everyday society. But the Covid restrictions did make obvious the fact that loneliness can afflict every age group.

Emma Kirwan, a psychology student at the University of Limerick, is working on her doctorate, funded by the Irish Research Council, on the subject of loneliness among young people. She had noticed that while studies of loneliness had become more common, they tended to concentrate on older age groups and were often linked to issues like widowhood or the challenges of living alone. Part of her study involved interviews with a group of young people between the ages of 18 and 25, who answered basic questions: what does loneliness mean to you; how would you describe it?

They weren’t required to speak about their personal experiences, but many did, partly because it was the clearest way of explaining how they felt. Out of almost 30 respondents, not one claimed to never have endured bouts of loneliness. Still, this was not a subject they were accustomed to and the idea of a stigma associated with being lonely was something that came up during the interviews.

“This sense of: ‘I have friends and I am in college and doing what I supposed to do, but I still have this feeling’,” Kirwan explains. “It can lead to a feeling that you don’t fit in. But hopefully, there is a conversation opening up about loneliness now, so it may improve.”

The rites of passage of young adulthood – moving from home to college, moving from school into the work environment, moving abroad for work or life experience – invariably place people in unsettling environments.

“But one thing that was of interest to us and that might surprise, is that some people mentioned that while the feeling was unpleasant – one person described it like a temporary depression – when they reflected on it, they were able to see it as something positive in terms of resilience and saying: okay that was a tough experience but look how far I’ve come. It gave them a chance to motivate themselves and reflect and ask themselves what it is they might want from future relationships. And when you look at wider research, while loneliness is a negative experience, people do identify positives within it.”

Not so long ago, the President of Ireland, Michael D Higgins was visited by podcaster and author Blindboy Boatclub for an interview conducted in Áras an Uachtaráin. They set aside the gold chains and plastic bags of pomp and ceremony and soon settled into a casual, roaming conversation between two Limerick thoroughbreds that moved from the Civil War through to the contemporary national housing crisis. Towards the end of the conversation, the President made a striking observation.

“One of the reasons I’m interested in talking to you as well is that I think we have totally underestimated the degree of loneliness in our society,” the President said.

“What I mean is what strikes the bow, what resonates, is in fact a desperate anxiety to be connected. It is a terrible feeling to be disconnected – the feeling of alienation and loneliness. Having a safe shelter, having a home, is a crucial part of being connected to those with whom you have a physical relationship, with those in your community and your society.”

This was delivered as an aside. But in any conversation about loneliness, the word “connected” appears as a key to unlocking it.

So, has Ireland become an inherently lonely place, as that EU survey suggests? Roger O’Sullivan, the Director of Aging Research at the Institute of Public Health, believes the trend is more nuanced. He agrees the fact that so many Irish people reported chronic loneliness is worrying. Prior to the pandemic, loneliness levels were quite normal. The abrupt disruption of social and work patterns has played a part in changing that. Still, given the spirit of volunteerism and social engagement running throughout Irish communities, the findings of the EU survey are surprising.

Collective connectedness can be promoted by becoming part of something bigger than yourselves

—   John Cacioppo

“It could also be that in Ireland we have higher expectations of social connections due to historical reasons than some of our European counterparts,” he says.

In other words, the Irish participants were responding to emotions and experiences that were the result of the disruptions caused by the pandemic to their established social patterns. That’s not to say things will settle down. Asked about how he sees the issue of loneliness defining Irish life over the coming decades, O’Sullivan says:

“Well, we have an opportunity now to value social connections, recognise loneliness as an issue, and treat that seriously. To recognise that, actually, our social connections matter. Our social health is important. If we can ensure that we make it easier to connect and recognise the value of volunteering, of being physically and socially connected in our community, that’s important. If expectation goes down, loneliness may not increase. But that has negative health implications.”

That’s because reduced expectations imply an acceptance that loneliness is simply one’s lot – which is the opposite of what pioneers in the field have been arguing.

The late John Cacioppo, a professor of University of Chicago and a founder of the field of social neuroscience, dedicated much of his professional life to studying the effects of loneliness. He presented the “feeling” of loneliness as primal, much the same as those of hunger, thirst or danger. His work was fundamental in dismantling the myths associated with loneliness – that it was an affliction associated with shyness or with depression or inherent “loner-ism” associated with fictive characters like Boo Radley; that loneliness was a consequence of a lack of social skills. None of this, he argued, was true. Loneliness was a consequence of changing social structures in society.

A 1940 survey found that just 15 per cent of people lived in one-person homes in the United States. By 2000, that had risen to 25 per cent. Another survey found that 40 per cent of respondents felt lonely at a given time. Yet the stigma of loneliness – the sense that to feel it was to in some way be a loser, prompted many to just ignore it. And doing nothing – just living with loneliness – is, he argued, killing people.

Ten years ago, Cacioppo presented the figure of a meta-analysis of 100,000 respondents which showed that living with loneliness increased the odds of premature death by 45 per cent. His call to arms was that people recognise the feelings of loneliness – to then understand it as a natural occurrence and, crucially, respond to it. His words apply to the world’s biggest cities and smallest villages.

“Collective connectedness can be promoted by becoming part of something bigger than yourselves,” he said.

“If the obstacles to connection seem insurmountable, consider volunteering for something you enjoy. Sharing good times is one of the keys to connection. And don’t wait. The next time you feel alienated, isolated, or excluded, respond to that aversive signal as you would hunger, thirst or pain. And get connected.”

Keith Duggan

Keith Duggan

Keith Duggan is Washington Correspondent of The Irish Times