After being hit hard by the GFC and the bursting of a massive property bubble, you would think that the Irish would be pessimistic about the future. But if population trends are anything to go by, the latest census figures for the Irish republic show that the Irish are still extremely confident about the future – so confident that they are prepared to bring more and more Irish babies into the world and into that future.
According to the Irish times, the Irish population is now greater than at any time since the immediate aftermath of the devastating famine of the 1850s which saw hundreds of thousands starve and hundreds of thousands more leave for other countries (to England, Scotland, the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand). As of 2011, there are now 4.6 million people living in the 26 southern counties – up from 3.6 million in 1996. This reflects a growth rate five times larger than the EU bloc as a whole during that same period.
A more detailed analysis of the census is available from the Irish Central Statistics Office here (warning, the pdf file is rather large for those on slower internet connections!) The rate of growth was 8.2% overall over the last five years (2006-2011) which is slightly slower than the 8.2% overall growth over the four years before that. While the rate has decreased, the main driver of that growth has changed significantly. From 2002-2006, two-thirds of the population increase was made up of migration (192,000 people), one-third was natural increase (babies). In the period 2006-2011, the two growth drivers swapped position. Natural increase now accounts for two-thirds of the population growth and migration for one-third (225,000 via natural increase, 125,000 for net migration).
Ireland’s birth rate remains relatively high for the EU (2.1 children per woman) and is one of the few in Europe (along with France and the Nordic countries) to be hitting the replacement rate. (NB: the Irish Times reports the replacement rate of 1.9 children per woman, everything else I have read mentions 2.1 as the figure.) This birth rate has been high for the EU since the 1960s. In fact, since 1961, Ireland and Luxembourg have been the countries with the joint highest growth rates in the EU.
Despite this high birth rate, the Irish population has also aged slightly – the average age is now 36.1 years old, up 0.5 years from 2006. This seems to be because the Irish are living longer – there has been an 18% increase in the number of people aged 65 years and older, while the numbers of people aged 85 years and older has increased 22%.
Aside from relatively high birth rates, Ireland has also attracted many immigrants in recent times – particularly from Lithuania and Poland. In 2002, there were 4,000 people from these two Eastern European countries in Ireland. In 2006 that number had grown to 90,000. By 2011 that number had jumped again to 150,000. Immigrants now make up a substantial proportion of Irish residents – as at 2011, one in six Irish residents were born elsewhere (or around 750,000 people). Interestingly while the number of immigrants has increased, the number of Australian and New Zealand born residents in Ireland declined by 25% in the past five years. (The lure of Downunder is too strong obviously!!)
While Ireland continues to grow, many view this as a correction to the massive population loss that Ireland suffered in the middle of the nineteenth century. According to the Irish Times, if Ireland had followed the average Western European demographic pattern instead of being diverted down its own disastrous trajectory, Ireland would now be a country of 17 million people, not 4.6 million. Whether or not this is a “correction”, we can see that the austerity and misery of the last few years has not convinced Irish women to stop having babies – although they may have less money, perhaps children provide something that money can’t buy? (And no, the answer is not a dinosaur…)