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Fintan O’Toole: The real Irish revolution has been occurring since the 1990s

This year’s B&A Sign of the Times report provides a useful reminder of how radically altered Irish life has been since 1991

If you hear or read the phrase “the Irish revolution”, the chances are that you will think of the period of violent upheaval that culminated in the foundation of the State a hundred years ago. But perhaps we should be thinking instead of a much more recent period of transformation.

The paradox of the national revolution a century ago is that it changed so little in ordinary Irish life. The way we lived in the 1950s would not have seemed dramatically different to the way we were in the 1920s.

This was partly because the biggest social revolution – the transfer of land ownership from the Ascendancy to their former tenants – had already happened. It was partly, too, a result of the political marginalisation of the feminist and socialist radicals who had come to the fore in the years of turmoil.

But mostly, the extraordinary continuity of life was rooted in three big factors.

Mass emigration, established as a norm since the early 19th century, remained as an overwhelming fact of life. The economy became, after partition removed the Northern industrial powerhouses, even more agrarian, and therefore even more dependent on the British food market. And the institutional power of the Catholic church was, if anything, intensified.

All three of these forces have been completely reversed over the last 30 years. Perhaps, then, the real Irish revolution is the one that has taken place since the early 1990s.

This year’s B&A Sign of the Times report provides a useful reminder of how radically altered Irish life has been since 1991 – and some intriguing hints as to how our mentalities may (or may not) have shifted as a result.

If, like me, you are in your 60s, you can divide your life into two halves. In the first half, the world of your parents did not seem all that remote. In the second half, the world of your own childhood began to seem very remote indeed.

Education

The single biggest transformation is in (and through) education. Thirty years ago, just 14 per cent of the population had a third-level education. At the time of the last census in 2016, the proportion was 42 per cent. This year’s census will undoubtedly show that it is at or very close to half the population.

This is a quiet, bloodless revolution, but it is much more profoundly transformative of everyday life than anything that happened when the Union flag came down and the Tricolour went up. Without it, the other vast changes – the rise of women as paid workers, the altered nature of the family, the emergence of a high-tech economy and the decline of religion – would be unimaginable.

Female access to higher education has been critical to the explosion of jobs in the service economy. While industrial employment has not grown at all over the last 30 years, there are 1.5 million more jobs in services than there were in 1991.

This new female workforce has changed the nature of the Irish family, with a rapid growth of two-income households and a (rather more gentle) decline in the fertility rate. But (given how crucial the mother in the home was to the maintenance of a conservative Catholic culture) it is also a big factor in the decline of religious practice.

Whereas in 1991, 75 per cent reported going to church regularly, the figure is now just 30 per cent. A lot more of us, the survey suggests, go to the hairdressers or the bottle bank every month than to Mass.

These sweeping transformations have their echoes in the granular details of life. The bread and wine of the Mass have perhaps been replaced by those staples of the middle-class table, garlic and wine. In 1991, just 17 per cent of us ate a garlic-flavoured meal once a week. Now almost half of us do. And weekly indulgence in wine has tripled over the same period. What was once foreign and exotic has now been thoroughly domesticated.

Yet the survey points to an apparent paradox – in this period of extraordinary transformation, we remain very cautious about change. It is intriguing to see that, in 1991, 79 per cent of us agreed that “I prefer things to stay stable and settled” and now the figure is, at 80 per cent, strikingly similar.

Even more starkly, the proportion agreeing that “I like to try new and different things” has actually declined since 1991. The Irish desire for stability seems itself very stable.

It may be, however, that the underlying nature of that desire has altered. Thirty years ago, Ireland was still a very conservative and religious society – the abortion and divorce referendums of the 1980s had shown that about two-thirds of us still held to orthodox Catholic beliefs about reproductive rights and the nature of the family.

Anxiety

One might suspect that the desire for stability now is less about conservatism and more about anxiety. The great social revolution of the last 30 years may have made life better for most people, but it has not made it less fretful.

Some of the fear is undoubtedly related to the global experiences of the Covid-19 pandemic, the war in Ukraine and its growing effects on inflation, and the climate emergency. Some of it, though, is home grown.

A sense of security depends on access to healthcare when you need it and on having a fixed and affordable place to live. It is no surprise to find in this survey that Irish people are confident about neither of these things. The chances of Ireland feeling “stable and settled” before the housing and health systems are fixed seem very low.

People know, too, that these home-grown crises threaten the political and social order. Women, people over 35 and those living outside Dublin are much more likely to report having less income now than a year ago – yet one in three middle-class Dubliners say they have more income. Middle-class Irish people are now twice as likely to say they are “living comfortably financially” than their working-class compatriots.

Fewer than half of us think that Ireland is on the right track to becoming a more equal society – a remarkable figure in a State that has in fact expanded educational opportunity and become much more inclusive for women and LGBT+ people.

But women bore the brunt of the pandemic, and that experience has undoubtedly made them more sceptical about the day-to-day reality of equality. And social class, as the survey shows, remains a key determinant of our relationships to the economy and society.

Until there is at least a convincing story about health, housing and economic equality, the second Irish revolution will not be stabilised.