Ireland, at the moment, feels like one of those trick houses they used to have at fun fairs, where the space and the furniture are arranged so that you feel small in one room, huge in the next. The country messes with our spatial awareness because it manages to be both half-empty and overcrowded, both capacious and claustrophobic.
On the one hand, even though the population is growing rapidly, Ireland remains one of the least densely populated countries in Europe. Think of Ukraine and what comes to mind, apart from the obvious horrors, is wide open spaces, the endless steppe, the wheat fields stretching to the horizon. Ukraine has a mere 75 people per square kilometre.
But Ireland has even fewer: 73. This is half the density of Denmark, a third that of Germany, a quarter that of Britain.
We all know why — Ireland is still recovering demographically from the Great Hunger and from generations of mass emigration. In so many parts of the island, you are still reminded by ghostly ruins and remnants that there used to be an awful lot more of us around.
But the optical illusion is that Ireland is simultaneously congested, as if the infamous excuse for emigration given by the Fianna Fáil minister Brian Lenihan in the 1980s — “We can’t all live on a small island” — has somehow become true. Our trick house manages to feel both underpopulated and jammed to capacity.
This contradiction is, in some respects, a product of dizzying success. Last week’s figures from the Central Statistics Office (CSO) told us that there are now 2.6 million people in paid employment in Ireland.
That’s 400,000 more than were at work in the same period just two years ago. It’s 800,000 more than a decade ago.
The dark side of this positive story is that successive governments have failed to keep up with this expansion of both population and the economy
This growth has not been smooth or even. But I find it remarkable to reflect that, if I live a normal lifespan, the population of the State I die in will be twice that of the country I was born in.
The dark side of this positive story is that successive governments have failed to keep up with this expansion of both population and the economy. Public infrastructure and public services have not expanded fast enough — in some crucial cases, like the building of social housing, they have actually shrunk.
The irony of the recent commemorations of the deaths of Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith is that those men thought they were founding a state whose population would be vastly greater than the one we have a century later. Griffith was convinced that “Ireland out of her own riches could support 20 million of a population”. Here we are, with riches far beyond anything he could have imagined, yet struggling to support a population a quarter that size.
Hence the sense of overcrowding: homes still full of adults who can’t afford to move out, pokey apartments shared by too many people, overstuffed buses and trains on commuter routes, overfull doctors’ waiting rooms, 10,000 patients a month left waiting on trolleys in teeming hospitals, up to 40 children packed into some primary school classrooms.
Hence too the strangeness of a place that has lots of space but little room. The country (relative to the size even of the population) is big. But the State is way too small.
What does this doubleness mean for Irish politics? Aptly, it has two contradictory implications.
One of them is progressive. The State simply can’t be run from the right. It has to expand, even to be able to service a booming capitalist economy. A growing private sector needs to be supported by a growing public sector.
Right now the conservative doctrine of shrinking the State would look mad even to a US multinational corporation investing here. The centre ground of Irish politics has to be social democratic.
The increasingly chaotic efforts of the State to house both Ukrainian refugees and asylum seekers from other countries feed the toxic lie of a country too cramped to contain all these people
The neo-Thatcherism to which our neighbours across the Irish Sea are about to subject themselves has no purchase here. Even Fine Gael could not dream of it.
But that encouraging truth exists on the level of rational politics. There is another, much darker and more dangerous implication.
The State’s failures make Ireland feel like it’s bursting at the seams, even though it isn’t. They make plausible, through daily experience, the false notion that Ireland just has too many people.
This is, of course, the trope of the far right across much of Europe and the US. Donald Trump says “our country is full up”. (The US is the 146th most densely populated country on earth.) Hungary is “overrun” by immigrants, says Viktor Orbán. We’re being “swamped” say the neo-fascists everywhere.
The far right is still very small in Ireland but in recent weeks asylum seekers have had to be moved from accommodation in Finglas and in Kinnegad because of threats and orchestrated smears. The increasingly chaotic efforts of the State to house both Ukrainian refugees and asylum seekers from other countries feed the toxic lie of a country too cramped to contain all these people.
The risk for Ireland is that the very thing the State (and I think the nation) has long desired — a return to something like a normal population level — can be twisted into a threat.