Dan O'Brien: Rural Ireland is not dying – and it’s time we came to our census

Dublin accounted for 28pc of the republic’s population at the last census in 2016. That was identical to the 1966 census.
Dublin accounted for 28pc of the republic’s population at the last census in 2016. That was identical to the 1966 census.

Dan O’Brien

In an age of so much readily available information, it is astounding so many people believe things that are completely untrue.

It is even more astounding that myths are allowed to persist for so long without being punctured by available facts and evidence. 

In this country, a widely held view is that rural Ireland is dying as its inhabitants leave the countryside in droves. This is bunkum.

Cold, hard, incontrovertible facts show the rural population has been on the up for almost half a century. People who say otherwise – and they will be queueing up to do so in the coming days – should not be allowed to get away with it.

Let’s start with what we actually know about rural population and why rural depopulation is a myth.

Every five years, tens of millions of euros of taxpayers’ money is spent carrying out a countrywide census. As readers will know, a form is delivered to every home in the State. We are all obliged to fill it out. As anyone who doesn’t can be prosecuted, nearly everyone complies.

As such, the census gives us massive amounts of important and very accurate data on many aspects of life and society. The information gleaned is the basis for decisions taken by individuals, businesses, organisations and government.

Census figures are foundational for the infrastructure and spatial plans to be unveiled tomorrow, because where the State invests €115bn of taxpayers’ money in the years ahead will be based to a very large extent on where people live.

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What we know from the census is that the number of people living in rural areas, defined as a place outside a conurbation of at least 1,500 people, has increased by more than a quarter of a million over the past 20 years.

That is worth repeating: 1.75 million people live in rural areas, up from 1.5 million in just 20 years. In 1971, rural Ireland’s nadir, the population living in the countryside, villages and small towns was 1.4 million (see graphic).

From available European data, no other country across the continent has experienced the rates of rural population growth Ireland has registered in recent years. Many countries have recorded rural depopulation.

Perhaps the reason the tale of woe is so readily believed is because of what happened before the 1970s.

All the way back to the Famine, rural Ireland’s population had been shrinking. Such a long period – 130 years – probably burned its way into the collective consciousness, making us a nation of pessimists when it comes to rural Ireland and its prospects.

If that is the case, we need to move on. Rural population decline stopped in the early 1970s. Apart from a period before the Celtic Tiger era when it dipped a little, the country population has been growing for almost half a century.

What’s more, the revival of country living is happening nationwide. Every single county in the republic has seen its number of rural dwellers rise over the past two decades.

It is also the case that urban populations in every county grew more rapidly, so none of this is to deny Ireland is gradually becoming more urban.

As of the last census, more than 37pc of people lived in rural areas. But that still means Ireland remains one of the most rural countries in western Europe.

The corollary of that is we are among the least urbanised. That brings us to another part of the demographic myth that is also worth puncturing.

Dublin is not becoming ever more dominant. Nor is it the case that everyone is moving eastwards and piling into the counties around the capital while those elsewhere are denuded of inhabitants.

Dublin accounted for 28pc of the republic’s population at the last census in 2016. That was identical to the 1966 census.

Over the past 50 years, the capital’s relative demographic has been remarkably stable, always hovering just below 30pc.

Now consider Leinster as a whole. While it is true the counties around Dublin have grown more than others, the difference has not been transformative.

The census of 1971 showed the country’s most populous province accounted for half of the total population for the time.

Over four decades it has inched up, reaching 55pc in 2016. If the country is lopsidedly populated on its eastern flank, that has been the case for many decades.

Trying to run a country without the sort of information provided in the census (and other figures) would be akin to driving a car with both the dashboard and the windscreen blacked out.

Despite this, some people, especially some rural politicians, seem hell-bent on ignoring the hard facts in favour of fictional assertions worthy of the current inhabitant of the White House.

Rural Ireland is not dying. The falsehood that it is must be challenged. If there is criticism of the long-term development plans to be unveiled tomorrow, let it not be based on false claims about the state of rural Ireland.


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