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Diarmaid Ferriter: Population milestones have always been emotive. The challenge is different now

Amid population expansion and ageing, the focus should lie on intelligent vision and policies tailored not to the electoral cycle, but to long-term societal welfare

Sixty years ago this month, US president John F Kennedy arrived in Ireland for an emotional homecoming, framed around the narrative of the return of a great grandson of the “lost generation” of Irish emigrants and a final, triumphant chapter in the Irish Famine story. The emigration theme was addressed directly by Kennedy as soon as he arrived: “No country in the world has suffered such a haemorrhage in the loss of its young people over the years. The Irish who had gone abroad had become the best of citizens, but they have kept the memories of Ireland alive.”

Kennedy was also in Ireland to extol the achievement of Irish sovereignty and paid due homage at the graves of the executed 1916 leaders. The revolutionaries of a century ago saw themselves as in the business of restoration as well as creation; attempting to forge a republic that would not only break the link with the British empire but, in taking control of economic destiny, also restore the depleted population. Arthur Griffith, the founder of Sinn Féin, was a prolific writer on economic nationalism and maintained that an Ireland freed from Britain would be self-sufficient and economically strong enough to not just recover its pre-Famine population of more than eight million, but even more: he insisted in 1917 that the country had “room and abundance” for another 16 million people.

Nothing in recent centuries is so puzzling or so challenging as the strange phenomenon being enacted before our eyes: the fading away of the once great and populous nation of Ireland

—  Theology professor John A O’Brien in 1953

The last census before that period of intense nationalism, in 1911, had recorded a population on the island of 4.4 million, with 3,139,688 of them in what became the 26 southern counties of the Free State. The first census of the Free State era, in 1926, recorded a population in the 26 counties of 2,971,992. By the 1920s, 43 per cent of Irish-born men and women were living abroad.

As is well known, the dream of economic self-sufficiency turned sour. Quite a stir was caused in 1953 with the publication of The Vanishing Irish: The Enigma of the Modern World, a book of essays edited by Notre Dame theology professor John A O’Brien. The title declared existential crisis because of the unbroken decline in the population figures since the 1840s and an unusually low marriage rate. O’Brien wrote: “Nothing in recent centuries is so puzzling or so challenging as the strange phenomenon being enacted before our eyes: the fading away of the once great and populous nation of Ireland. If the past century’s rate of decline continues for another century, the Irish will virtually disappear as a nation and will be found only as an enervated remnant in a land occupied by foreigners.”


Even though JFK communicated a message of hope, progress and economic recovery during his visit in 1963 and things were improving, there was still a rawness about how sparsely populated the Republic was. The 1961 census recorded a population in the Republic of just 2,815,000, the smallest number ever enumerated on a census. Net emigration in the decade 1951 to 1961 was estimated at over 412,000. In reacting to this census, The Irish Times editorialised: “the drain upon this country’s lifeblood is a tragedy that surpasses even the disaster of partition ... Is Ireland to become another Puerto Rico?”

Much improvement was to follow, though it was never uninterrupted, as the experiences of the 1980s attested. Understandably, considerable attention in recent years has been given to population milestones; that the population of the Republic, according to the 2022 Census, has now reached over five million and that the all-island population is just over seven million reflects an Ireland transformed. There is always an undercurrent of emotiveness in looking at such figures because of the Famine being the defining event in modern Irish history, and the awareness that the island was even more populous than now just two centuries ago.

One of the historic features of Irish emigration was that it acted as a sort of economic safety valve. American historian Kerby Miller, renowned for his expertise on the Irish exodus to America, and who did Trojan work to collect thousands of emigrant letters, quoted a Donegal parent of emigrant children who had sent money home: “Thank God, we were able to pay our debts and raise our heads.” Cuttingly, historian Joe Lee suggested, “Few people anywhere in the world have been so prepared to scatter their children around the world in order to preserve their own living standards”.

But population expansion and an ageing population, bring different challenges and that is where the focus should now lie; on intelligent vision and policies tailored not to the electoral cycle, but to long-term societal welfare. As was recognised in this newspaper at the lowest population point in 1961, the essential dilemma for Ireland was how to preserve a sense of hope and purpose in light of the reality of her population numbers. Expansion creates a different version of that challenge.