Archive for August 7th, 2011

This is a follow-up entry on Irish emigration and accompanies the entry from last week entitled “Is there any hope for the country”. That entry opened with a film reference about Irish-Americans which had a title which nicely tied into the subject at hand : “The Departed”. And this follow-up entry might as well open with a reference to a couple of movies. Two very different movies – the Polish film “Stalker” and the more popular first film in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Not for their plots or anything like that, but that both films featured landscapes in which there was evidence of past civilisations, with ruins and artefacts.

When I was a child, it was great fun to be active in the garden. Ours was a working garden in the sense it was used to grow vegetables and had the odd fruit bush. So there was a great deal of digging and planting, drills and ridges. There was something odd about the garden though, because as you’d dig you’d often find unusual stuff – clay pipes, bits of crockery, a knife or a spoon, sometimes an old coin. And you’d often find the same in fields that were sown with crops – finding such items wasn’t unusual.

As for the fields themselves, those fields adjacent to the road would generally be  marked out with ditches and hedges but sometimes with sections of stone walls. And these weren’tConnemarastone walls but cemented stone as you might have found on an old house.

Many years later, the mystery was solved when I saw a map of the area drawn in 1912. Where there were only two houses in the 1970s, there were 12 in 1912 and 10 houses had subsequently been razed to the ground save for walls adjacent to the road. And when you consider the fact that in 1912, we had a population that was half the peak in the early 1840s (the 1841 Census population presumably continued to grow until the potato crop failed in 1845), and additionally consider the trends towards urbanisation, it wouldn’t have been surprising if there had been 24 houses in the 1840s and there was probably a whole village where there were just two rural houses left in the 1970s. As as you’d dig in your garden and looked around, there was the evidence of a former civilisation that had vanished.

Now an implication from the entry last week was that population growth and success are tied together. And that is demonstrably not always true. In the bad old days of theSoviet Union, they gave you medals for bearing children and having large families.North KoreaandZimbabweare two countries whose populations are understood to be have grown strongly in the latter part of the 20th century. Yet both are generally regarded as basket-cases. So population growth doesn’t always equate with success or better social conditions or what we would generally call better countries.

But it would seem that the reverse – population decline – is generally associated with failure – disease, famine, natural catastrophe, war and economic hardship. Of course a decline can take place naturally even with a good society because the birth rate is not sufficient to offset the death rate.Japanis supposed to be experiencing that, and has been for years, though every time there’s a census there, the results have always shown growth from the previous census. In Europe, several countries have low birth rates -Germany,ItalyandPolandfor examples. But low birth rates are a relatively modern phenomenon often associated with wealth, female emancipation and equal rights and development of contraceptive methods.

So why has Ireland’s population more or less remained flat in the past two hundred years and in fact declined since 1841? We had the Famine in the 1840s – specifically after the failure of the potato crop in 1845,1846,1848 and 1849 -which led to a net reduction in population of 1.6m in a decade (1m dead, 1m emigrated offset by 0.4m births) but famine and disease was never rife to the extent of say, the Black Death or AIDS. War in Irelandwas very limited indeed, since 1800 – we’ve never really had large-scale pitched battles, trench warfare, aerial bombardment. We don’t suffer natural catastrophes like hurricanes, earthquakes and tsunamis, volcanic activity, droughts, bush-fires, blizzards, floods (yes we have limited gorse fires, the Shannonand a few other rivers do burst their banks now and again and we did have the Night of the Big Wind in 1839 which sounds more amusing than it actually was).

Even the Famine in the 1840s which was superficially due to the failure of the potato crop, but more generally due to the failure of the British administration and its local Irish executive, had come to an end at the start of the 1850s. Yet the population ofIrelanddeclined in each decade afterwards until 1921 and it then stayed flat for 40 years before beginning to rise in the 1960-1980 period. It declined again in the 1980s and then started to grow strongly in the 1990s onwards.

The reason forIreland’s flat population appears to be emigration. And the conclusion on here is that emigration was due to occupation and maladministration and lack of industrialisation in the 1800s. But why did emigration continue for 40 years after independence in 1921 and again in the 1980s and apparently now in the 2010s? Maybe there will be another entry on the subject over the next couple of months. It would be particularly interesting to establish the political positions on emigration.

It’s difficult to know where to end this entry. On a film reference? To me, the figures outlined at the top of this entry are as stark as Charlton Heston coming across the head of the Statue of Liberty at the end of the Planet of the Apes movies and recognising that as a nation we have been idiotic in managing our affairs for many, many decades. Or maybe in 150 years, some other child will be digging their garden and finding old Microsoft Zunes or discarded mobile telephones to evidence anIrelandin 2010.

[The spreadsheet of the original data from which the table at the top of this post is simplified and extracted, is here – sources for the data are shown in the comments field, data is mostly from the British Office of National Statistics (ONS) and the Irish Central Statistics Office (CSO)]

UPDATE: 12th September, 2011. The National University of Ireland in Maynooth has produced statistics and an application to examine the population of Ireland broken down by town and village from 1841 onwards and is available here.

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