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Out with the Old

Maurice Earls writes: It has often struck me that greater prominence could usefully be given to Ireland’s extraordinary demographic history. The post-Famine collapse of the population continued until the late twentieth century and was a phenomenon so profound it must have affected every last corner and pocket within society.

In 1841 the population of Ireland was recorded as 8.175 million, and the true figure might well have been quite a lot higher. In 1851 it was just over 6.5 million. By 1881 it had fallen further to just over 5 million and by 1901 declined again to under 4.5 million. In 1931(Free State) it was 2.9 million and by 1961 the population of the Republic had fallen to 2.8 million. This, by any standards was a dramatic decline. It is hardly surprising that in the 1950s there was speculation that the Irish might disappear altogether.


In the 1960s the population began to rise slowly. The census of 1971 is the first which showed an increase since the pre-Famine era. The recovery has picked up in recent decades and by 2018 the population of the Republic had climbed to 4.83 million. The circumstances around the decline and eventual recovery in Irish population levels have shaped, in both direct and indirect ways, social, cultural and political life in Ireland since the early nineteenth century. These circumstances also gave rise to a debate, now almost two centuries old, concerning which measures would best prevent and arrest decline.

During the century 1840-1940, the population of Scotland roughly doubled, and during the nineteenth century the populations of both Wales and England each increased by around 400 per cent. Population growth, industrialisation and urbanisation were interlinked phenomena in these countries. Ireland ‑ or more particularly the area which was to become the Republic ‑ alone of the nations and peoples which formed the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland did not have an industrial revolution.

Ireland’s population decline was unique in western Europe. Countries such as Austria-Hungary, France, Germany, Norway, Sweden, Spain, The Netherlands, Denmark, Italy, Belgium and Portugal all achieved impressive levels of population growth in the nineteenth century. Not all of them experienced rapid industrialisation, but none saw the demographics of their agricultural economy radically and permanently altered over a very short time span. In Ireland the new low-labour agriculture and the absence of industrial development meant that the country could accommodate only a fraction of its early nineteenth century population. Politics was to become preoccupied with responding to this demographic and economic failure.

From the mid-nineteenth century demographics became the overarching cage within which modern Ireland struggled to come into being. That struggle helps explain many puzzling and sometimes contradictory cultural phenomena. The extensive social power enjoyed by the Catholic church and the morbid sexual obsessions of that church – existing at a level which distinguished it within European Catholicism ‑ only begin to make sense in the context of the weakened social fabric and straitened agricultural economy of post-Famine Ireland. The church could not, however, change underlying cultural dynamics and sometimes found itself at odds with the popular mood. The church, for example, typically advocated a conservative view of the world, as it did throughout Europe, but society in Ireland did not feel it had much worth conserving. At a popular level the impulse was always one of approval for modernisation and change, including at times when the opportunities for change were very limited.

 Demographics help explain many cultural phenomena found in Ireland, such the viciousness with which dependent marginal groups were sometimes treated (consumption of scarce resources), late marriage (necessity to keep low-profit farms in tact), the absence, virtually unique in Europe, of a far-right populist movement (demographic boosts welcome, change welcome). It similarly helps explain the generally positive attitude towards the arrival of European Jews escaping persecution in the late nineteenth century. It also helps explain the willingness to knock down Georgian Dublin (why be sentimental about the relics of a misgoverning elite?) and the lack of affection for vernacular architecture in the countryside (symbols of poverty, bring on the bungalows). For similar reasons, it helps explain the great ditch and switch in the area of language, another unique-in-Europe badge. It explains the eighty-year obsessive commitment to political independence, the deep-seated attachment to democratic practice, prevailing political consensus, and why Ireland did not succumb to the lures of fascism. It also explains the recent dramatic withdrawal of the church’s social power (population revival and the late twentieth-century advent of a self-confident middle-class). There is also the matter of the beginnings of an improvement in the prospects of the Irish language (ditto). The list is long. Literature, commerce, art, economics, the social, the cultural, the personal and the political all drew a particular hue from the threat, experience, legacy and recovery from precipitous population decline. It is a colouring quite different from the European norm.

While there is nothing exceptional about the Irish as people, the Irish experience was exceptional in Europe and this exceptionalism has rendered it difficult for some in Europe to “read” the Irish. The Irish experience does not reflect the standard architecture of European ideology. A term such as nationalism, for example, in Irish culture and history involves meanings quite different from those dominant in European discourse.

One result is the occasional influx of European journalists perplexed at some event in Ireland such as the result of the same-sex marriage referendum or the absence of mass civil disobedience during the economic crash or the absence of a substantial far-right movement. These journalists naturally never stay long enough to find substantial answers to their questions. Ireland is simply not important enough to merit the necessary work. After all, European discourse has struggled to make sense of England, the main part of the second largest economy in the EU. Being an exception is one thing but being an exception and a minnow is a recipe for generating continuing surprise and incomprehension from the outside. This should not particularly worry the Irish who, it could be argued, have learned to use this dynamic to their advantage in the EU. There is, however, a case to be made that it is in the interests of Ireland itself to understand powerful cultural forces underlying its past and present.

Any country experiencing a rapid decline in population through mass abandonment would be likely to take on an eerie feel and to have something of the mausoleum about it. The works of Joyce and many others capture the mood of decline and failure. Mid-twentieth century visitors to Dublin savoured and even celebrated its strangely sweet decay. But even in the face of decline and failure, humanity will always be capable of joy, love and enthusiasm. The work of Jack B Yeats and many others testify to the truth of this in declining Ireland. At a political level and within intellectual discourse, optimism, creativity and hope were never eliminated. Defeat was never widely conceded and the long nineteenth century of political struggle ensured that in Ireland democratic politics were not, unlike many other European countries, replaced by authoritarianism.

If there is today an insufficient emphasis on demographic history, this was not always the case. By the late nineteenth century, it had become clear that the Famine-related decline of the mid-nineteenth century had developed into something almost as bad, if not worse than, the disaster of the 1840s. It became clear that the fall in population had not ceased, that it was continuing and showing no sign of reversing. On May 25th, 1901 the Kerry Weekly Reporter characterised the continuing decline as “the gradual draining away of the people of Ireland”.

Nine years earlier, on August 17th, 1892, following the publication of the 1891 census report, which showed a population decline of 9.08 per cent over ten years, the Freeman’s Journal commented:

The story that the Commissioners have to tell is the old story of decay. A dwindling population, an increased area of waste country, industries at a standstill or declining, hardly any advance visible except in the number of cattle, lunatics, and public-houses ...

The census conducted ten years later showed a further drop in the population, provoking on May 5th, 1901 a response and analysis from the Dundalk Democrat:

[A] decrease of nearly a quarter of a million, or over five per cent in the entire population of Ireland is shewn; and this decrease affects not alone the rural districts, but the majority of the cities and towns as well … How are the people to be kept at home? It will not do to point out to the young man or woman, for whom there is no adequate opportunity to make a decent livelihood in this country, that by emigrating they are depriving the nation of so much of its vitality. If work is not to be had here, and if there is no prospect of advancement before the young man or woman of brains and energy, then the present drain of emigration is bound to go on. Clearly the way to stop it is to offer the people inducements to stop at home. The people don’t emigrate from choice, in most instances … It is stern necessity that drives them over the seas.

The Democrat’s solution to the demographic crisis was the well-worn and simplistic one of a “buy Irish” campaign, which it imagined capable of transforming the prospects of the country:

The tide of emigration will be stopped. The drain of money from a poor country will be checked. The general prosperity at home will overflow the towns and centres of industry into the country districts. The shopkeeper will benefit, the farmer will benefit, the labourer and artizan will benefit ‑ in short the whole population, irrespective of class or creed, stand to gain by supporting Irish manufacture.

Various campaigns to support native manufacture flared throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. None succeeded in their worthy ambitions. In the 1830s Samuel Ferguson saw the political and economic limits of consumer power and the necessity of technology-driven industrialisation, leading to the development of an exporting economy:

Our exports are the exports of a nation half civilized. We send over to England cows, calves and pigs, bacon, pork and butter, eggs and wheat and barley ... but where are our calicoes and silks ... where our cutlery and pottery ... have we a Birmingham, a Manchester, a Leeds, a Sheffield, a Glasgow, to develop the ingenuity and give employment to our people? No! our very agriculture is half a century behind … We wish well to the society for the encouraging the consumption of home manufactured goods, and for aiding the decayed manufacturers of Ireland – but must candidly give it as our conviction … that while the machinery of England is at work, and while the ports of the two islands are open, the efforts of such a society, however patriotic, will be but as a feather held up to break the violence of the blast. Nothing will avail but the employment of similar machinery. (For further details see http://www.drb.ie/essays/a-penny-for-their-thoughts)

A writer in the Freeman’s Journal of May 21st, 1901 argued that the population decrease was due to “gross misgovernment” and referred to John Stuart Mill’s opinion that if people left a country because its government had not made it a fit place to live then that government is “ipso facto tried and condemned”.

It asked “what are Irishmen to think? What are Irishmen to do?” The over-riding issue, the author maintained was the need to stop emigration and preserve the population. Increasing education was no good if there was no one left to educate. In the last half-century every country in Europe had seen a rise in population except Ireland. At the rate of decline under way the author pointed out that in fifty years the population of Ireland would fall to three million. (The decline was not quite that drastic. The population of the Republic did however decline to 2,836,000 by the early 1960s.)

On July 6th the Drogheda Independent addressed the subject and after laying out the figures declared:

There is no need to moralise over the condition of national decay which the Census tables reveal. Every intelligent person in the community is able to draw the natural conclusion which even a cursory glance at the figures must needs force home upon his mind. It would not be difficult to become eloquent over the ruined homes, the desert places of a most fertile land, the vanished population, which the misgovernment of this Country by England has served to bring about. But no eloquence could be so convincing as the figures themselves. They tell their own sad tale, convey their own striking lesson. They afront every Irishman calling himself a Nationalist, and ask him with silent insistence – “For how long?”

The author of this article believed that land reform and dividing up the large grazing farms would assist in reversing population decline. Others looked at the larger picture and saw that being locked into free trade with Britain was the problem.

In the Freeman’s Journal of August 6th, 1901 T Galloway Rigg argued that British laws which allowed the free importation of agricultural produce which undermined Irish agriculture were a significant cause and implied that protectionism was the answer.

 ... can anybody believe that if the inhabitants of Amsterdam, Copenhagen or Brussels were in a position to get their butter, eggs, bacon and other farm produce cheaper from Cork and Limerick than from their own agriculturalists that their respective governments would allow the produce free entry?

There was a feeling that the nation’s life blood was draining away and that efforts had to be made to discourage emigration. In the first years of the twentieth century The Anti- Emigration Society, based on D’Olier Street in Dublin, campaigned to highlight the often grim conditions which awaited Irish emigrants in the US. It also campaigned against emigration agents and on at least one occasion complained to the Commissioners of National Education that, notwithstanding a prohibition from the Board of Education, a schoolteacher was engaging in such work. It also objected to the activities of Canadian emigration agents who were distributing leaflets encouraging emigration to Canada at fairs and in schools and wrote to the Canadian government on the subject. In response a Canadian government official wrote that the “Government of Canada would be very sorry to take any action which would injuriously affect Ireland and her population”. The society was not satisfied by this response and determined to correspond further.

Implicit, and frequently explicit, in public commentary and in the solutions suggested was that self-government was the key to arresting population decline, that self-government could address the problem of employment, could encourage tillage, could address land reform, the protection of indigenous industry and so on.

Certainly, it is demonstrably accurate that self-government was crucial to the eventual reversal of Irish population decline. However, the problem did not disappear with the advent of self-government. Population decline only ceased fifty years after independence. It transpired that there was more involved than simply pressing the self-government button.

It also transpired, with the arrival of independence, that popular and widely credited remedies did not work. Efforts were made to encourage labour-intensive tillage, but market demand and the natural advantages of the climate for cattle-rearing prevailed. Concerted efforts were made to encourage industrial development and to protect nascent industries against sophisticated foreign competition. The sizeable pre-Famine population might have supported a state-protected industrial revolution, and indeed that was the ultimate logic of O’Connell’s repeal movement in the 1840s, but with a population of three million and with the industrialised northeast excluded, efforts at stimulating industrial development had limited results. The scale of the internal market in independent Ireland was simply too small to allow new enterprises the possibility of developing into successful exporting industries. It is worth recalling that the population of Ireland in the mid-1840s was probably around nine million, not that much smaller than that of England, which at the time was around thirteen million.

Most academic and general commentary in recent years argues there was poor governance in independent Ireland and implies that much more positive outcomes were possible. Ultimately such commentary is unconvincing, the continuation of a pre-independence trope. A hard look at the facts https://www.drb.ie/essays/not-so-verydifferent reveals that Ireland’s experience from the 1920s to the 1960s was not very different from that of other small peripheral European countries. The opportunities for small standalone European countries were decidedly limited. At best the Irish could have abandoned protectionism five years or so before they did. But even then the results were modest prior to joining the EEC in 1973.

It has been clearly demonstrated that serious growth only occurred in the wake of that membership and it is also clear that Irish governance and culture was capable of responding positively to many of the opportunities which arose as a result. The scale of public support for joining the EEC also exposes the claimed conservativism of Irish society as something of a shibboleth and highlights, once more, the general openness to change and modernisation.

The views of Samuel Ferguson expressed 150 years earlier were still valid in the 1960s. The core problem of industrialisation remained and after fifty years of independence there were very few industries developed to export level. One suggestion in the 1970s was that the indigenous Irish economy should choose an industrial area and specialise in it to become an international leader. This possibility, however, did not proceed much beyond the drawing board, possibly due to the politically unrealistic level of central planning which would have been required.

An ingenious solution, however, was found to exist in plain sight. Instead of sending people abroad to find work, the state became expert and very successful in importing jobs. This strategy more than any other has been responsible for reversing population decline. The insouciance involved in allowing 90 per cent of national exports fall to foreign direct investment companies is yet another example of a non-conservative mentality.

But a question remains. In terms of continuing demographic health, how secure are these imported jobs? Other countries are capable of copying this strategy and recently there have been warnings of intense competition from eastern Europe. The international geo-political weather might also change to Ireland’s disadvantage. The hope, and in the short term it is a reasonable hope, is that there will be no dramatic fall-off in imported jobs. There is also the optimistic view that if imported jobs decline gradually, a spin-off culture of indigenous export industry will have developed under the wing of the multinationals and that this sector will pick up the slack.

The long-term validity, or otherwise, of these suppositions remains to be seen. In the meantime, it is worth remembering that stuff happens and history does not end.

23/1/2020