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Ireland at 100: Colonization, Self-Determination and What the Census Tells Us

After the Easter Rising in 1916, the War of Independence, British-imposed partition and a peace treaty in 1921, Ireland gained her independence 100 years ago.

It was a long road from the time when Norman invaders seized Dublin in 1170. The Normans might have been absorbed into Irish society, were it not for the brutal second conquest by the Tudors in the 16th century. After defeat in the wars of religion in the 17th century, the Catholic population lived under the thumb of a Protestant Anglo-Irish Ascendancy.

Yet like the Normans before them, in the 18th century the Ascendancy developed an Irish identity, proudly manifest in their Parliament in Dublin — the first purpose-built bicameral one in the world. They lobbied London successfully for Irish economic interests. Dublin boomed and the population recovered from the devastation of war. The penal laws against the Catholics withered away, save for the right to vote.

The French Revolution inspired both Irish Protestant and Catholic leaders to imagine a new, democratic Ireland where religion was secondary to citizenship. This put the fear of God into Britain’s political leadership. Encouraged by the French, the Rising of 1798 in Ireland confirmed the worst. The prime minister, William Pitt, decided that the Irish Parliament had to go. It was bullied and bribed out of existence in 1800.

The economic decline in Ireland was almost immediate. The development of Dublin stalled and never recovered. Agriculture declined, but the population, burgeoning to eight million, paid handsome rents to absent landlords even as desperate poverty proliferated. When the potato crop failed between 1845 and 1851, one million died, and one million emigrated. Emigration created a great diaspora but reduced the population by half.

In Black ’47, the worst year of the Great Famine, some 200,000 famine refugees fled, with half coming to Canada — mass graves dot the St. Lawrence to this day. Almost 40,000 arrived in Toronto to a resident population half that. It is to the city’s eternal honour that its doctors and nurses looked after them, often at a cost to their own lives.

If population is a measure of society’s well-being, colonialism in Ireland was a demonstrable failure. As the population in Western Europe doubled, Ireland continued its decline. Even today, the U.K. ranks eighth in population density, Ireland 36th.

How did independent Ireland fare? Shorn of our industrial base by partition, we struggled to develop; emigration continued for most of the 20th century. However, in the 1950s Ireland decided to look for investment internationally and started on a journey that would, by the 1990s, create the economic boom of the Celtic Tiger, ending involuntary emigration.

Thanks to foreign direct investment, membership in the EU, globalization and a well-educated workforce, Ireland’s strengths in pharmaceuticals, medtech, information and communication technologies, and digital and financial services have produced a robust economy that withstood the global financial crash and the pandemic.

Our focus on innovation, infrastructure and talent ensures our future. We have taken our place among the nations of the world. But what about our population?

By 2011, Ireland had the highest rate of fertility within the EU. Ten years later, in April 2021, the Central Statistics Office of Ireland reported the country’s population had reached 5.1 million. Combined with the population of Northern Ireland of 1.89 million, this put the population on the island at nearly seven million.

Just about a million to go, then, to restore the population we had over 170 years ago. We may still have not reached the pre-Famine population of over eight million, but we have established a strong upward trend that will get us there.

The rise in Ireland’s population demonstrates our success as a nation-state over the last 100 years. Self-determination beats colonialism.

The next Irish census happens in April, delayed by the pandemic but coincidentally falling on our 100th anniversary. We can fill in the form with a sense of achievement and national pride. This is us — we survived and prospered. Here are the statistics.

This blog appeared originally as an Op Ed in the Toronto Star on 17 March 2022 under the title ‘St. Patrick’s Day: What a century of Irish independence tells us.’

Eamonn McKee

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