Sunday 26 January 2020

Census 16: This is Ireland, we are Ireland

The nation gathers around the kitchen table tonight to complete Census 2016, which provides not only a snapshot of who we are a century after the Easter Rising, but will help map our future too. But Ireland is made up of more than four million individual stories and we all have a different view of the place we call home. We travel the length and breadth of the country to listen to their voices.

Michelle and Michael Russell from Carrick on Suir, Co. Tipperary with their children, triplets, Ruth, Cillian and Conor who are 5 years old. Photo: Patrick Browne
Michelle and Michael Russell from Carrick on Suir, Co. Tipperary with their children, triplets, Ruth, Cillian and Conor who are 5 years old. Photo: Patrick Browne
Dublin Taxi driver Eoin Candon Photo: Mark Condren.
Emmet MacNamara
Elham Osam
Aodán Mac Gearailt and his sons.
Lily Kavanagh
Jess Kavanagh
Fisherman Pat Murphy from Castletownbere. Photo: Mark Condren
Nikki Bradley, IT client account manager.
Renuka Chintapalli at the BT Young Scientist exhibition
Declan Sweeney
Luiz Falchetto and Bella
Alison Hunt, manager, Cashel Marts.
Paul Buchanan, who runs Strandhill Surf School, relaxing between surf lessons at Strandhill, Co. Sligo. Photo: James Connolly
Cillian Flynn
Sally Millar Peterswell, Co. Galway with her Census form . Photo: Andrew Downes, xposure.
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

As families and individuals across Ireland fill out their census forms, many will ponder whether they still consider themselves Catholic, and whether they should claim to be able to speak Irish - even if they can only say "slán" and "go raibh maith agat".

Perhaps, census night is a suitable time to take stock of the State we are in, falling as it does on the precise calendar date of the centenary of the start of the Easter Rising.

The last time we had a census was on April 10, 2011. Then, we filled out the forms in a floundering nation, still languishing in the depths of recession - with unemployment at 14.4pc.

The new Taoiseach Enda Kenny and the Fine Gael/Labour administration offered some hope of economic renewal - but their main virtue seemed to be that they were not Brian Cowen and Fianna Fáil, who had stumbled unceremoniously out of office.

At the time of the last census, it was being reported that we would have to inject a further €24bn into the banks.

James Downey, the renowned Irish Independent political columnist who passed away this week, warned five years ago that it could take two terms, a whole decade, for Enda Kenny to turn the country around.

The electorate did not bestow much gratitude on Kenny at the election two months ago, and to some extent he now seems like yesterday's man, but he can boast that the economy recovered at a much faster rate than many expected.

Few would argue that the economy is not in a better state than it was at the time of the last census.

Unemployment is now at 8.6pc, its lowest level since 2008.

At the last census, the State had a population of 4,588,252, and the regional fluctuation in numbers in tomorrow's survey will reveal a lot about the country.

Emigration is a recurring theme in Irish history during periods of economic turmoil over the past 150 years, and during the most recent recession we had another upsurge.

In the past five years, an estimated 420,000 people have emigrated, while 310,000 have arrived to live here.

Since the economic collapse, we have seen the emergence of a Skype generation - grandparents communicating with children and grandchildren via computer screens, from Valentia Island to Vancouver, from Miltown Malbay to Melbourne. The scenes at airports at Christmas as families reunite and then bid their farewells remain poignant.

Despite the recession exodus, the population is still expected to show a five-year increase in tomorrow's census to more than 4.6 million.

The most recent figures from the Central Statistics Office for the year to April 2015 showed the annual rate of emigration at 80,000, but during the same period 69,000 people arrived here, either as new immigrants or Irish people returning home. Workers arriving from other states in the EU and beyond still see Ireland as a land of opportunity, even though they may now be put off by alarmingly high accommodation costs.

With a continuing high birth rate also making up for emigration losses, the population increase is now running at 25,000 per year.

A downside of our buoyant population is that it becoming ever more difficult to find a place to live, and this has contributed to the homelessness crisis.

Tomorrow's census is likely to show a more cosmopolitan population with a diverse mix of nationalities and creeds. Ireland's Islamic population has grown tenfold in two decades to more than 50,000 and this trend is likely to be confirmed.

At the last census, 3.8 million people still classified themselves as Catholic, but some commentators believe the census should ask how often they attend Mass.

There have been joking suggestions that "à la carte Catholic" should be one of the options on the census form, because so many nominal Catholics only turn up for baptisms, weddings and funerals. In modern Ireland, going to church is something many people do only when they are "hatched, matched and dispatched".

Mass attendance figures in Dublin are reckoned to be as low as 20pc, and much less in some working-class parishes. A consultants' report commissioned by the Dublin Council of Priests found that attendance has dropped by 20pc since 2008.

When it came to belief in the census of 2011, the second biggest group after Catholic were those of "no religion", some 270,000 people. That figure will again be closely watched when the results of tomorrow's census come in.

Nowhere is the diminishing influence of the Catholic church more evident than in the structure of our family life.

Even 10 years ago, the possibility of same-sex marriage in Ireland seemed unthinkable, but it has been legalised by a popular vote, against the wishes of the Catholic hierarchy.

To many looking in from outside, the pictures on the television of thousands celebrating the marriage-equality referendum victory on a sunny day outside Dublin Castle must have seemed surprising.

Five years ago, Panti Bliss was a little-known drag queen. Now she is an iconic Irish figure, whose image was flashed around the world.

Not so long ago, a question about gender on a census form would have seemed simple and straightforward, but now even that seems fluid and controversial.

In tomorrow's census, for reasons of cost, the questions are the same as those used in 2011, with the exception of the question on marital status, which now includes a category for same-sex civil partnership.

In tomorrow's census, the sex category has just male and female, but transgender is likely to be included in the 2021 survey.

In some respects, family life in Ireland remains quite stable in 2016. We still have one of the highest birth rates in Europe, with mothers having an average of two children.

Traditionalists may have feared that the introduction of divorce would lead to marriage falling apart as an institution.

The great slogan of the scaremongers in the 1990s was "Hello Divorce… Bye bye Daddy", but the figures show that Ireland has the lowest divorce rate in Europe.

Divorce may be low but a remarkable number of Irish fathers and mothers are now unmarried when they have children.

A third of children are born outside marriage, but often the couple stays together and gets married.

The typical bride and groom now get hitched at the altar or in a registry office almost a decade later than the couples of the mid-1970s. The average bride glides up the aisle at 33, while the groom is 35.

Tony Fahey, Professor of Social Policy at UCD, has observed that Irish couples now do things in a different sequence to their parents and grandparents.

"Marriage is no longer the important transition that it once was. Now it is common for couples to live together first, then have children and then get married."

Ever since the foundation of the State, the revival of the Irish language has been a cherished national aim.

In the census of 2011, when asked if they spoke the Irish language, 1.77 million answered Yes.

That was a remarkable claim, given that you could spend a whole year in Dublin and many other towns in the country without hearing a word uttered as Gaeilge on the street.

Those looking for a mate of the opposite sex will be keen to monitor the balance between men and women in tomorrow's survey.

The last census showed that were more females than males in the country, with 981 males for every 1,000 females. On a regional basis, Dublin men were able to be more choosy with only 949 men for every 1,000 women in the capital. The Midland region was the only area where men outnumbered women.

While the national population continues to grow, economists and statisticians will be taking a close look at the fluctuation in population in the regions.

At the last census, Cork city and Limerick city were the only two administrative counties in the State to show a fall in population during the 2006-2011 period.

During the recent election campaign, there was a perception that Fine Gael's "Keep the Recovery Going" campaign fell flat in the West because there has only been a meagre recovery beyond the Pale.

The Census will show the effect of the prolonged recession on the population in counties such as Mayo and Roscommon, where many local people feel there has only been a modest uplift.

Extra reporting by Graham Clifford, Kathy Donaghy, Deirdre Reynolds, John Meagher and Darragh McManus

We've a great little country and I am so proud of it

Michelle Russell, 35, mum to triplets Ruth, Conor and Cillian, who has special needs. Carrick-On-Suir, Co Tipperary

'He's a rogue, you know, and a bit of a troublemaker. I might be telling off Ruth or Conor for something they did and he'll be laughing away in the background - that's just the way Cillian is, he's a really outgoing little fella and always loves having the craic.

He's quadriplegic with cerebral palsy and epilepsy and it's the seizures which are the biggest worry. He's completely immobile but, all in all, his condition is well-controlled at the moment. He can get a lot of chest infections but we tackle them as they come.

The help we received from neighbours, friends and even complete strangers has been amazing. You know something, we have a great little country here and I'm so proud of it and to be Irish.

Last September, the triplets started school, which was heartbreaking for us. My husband, Michael, and I always hoped the three children would be starting school together, but Ruth and Connor had their first day at Creghana national school near where we live and then we had to bring Cillian to Scoil Aonghosa in Cashel, a 45-minute drive away. He loves it there and the staff really get his personality.

Just this week a bus started to bring him to and from school. Before that, I'd been driving for three hours a day with him. My parents and in-laws have been an incredible help to us, just incredible. Without them, I don't know how we would have coped.

Last year, I ran the Dublin City Marathon. A local committee suggested we raise funds for a wheelchair-accessible car for Cillian, which really was needed as he got bigger. We also donated money to the Clonmel respite centre, local charities, the paediatrics ward at South Tipperary General Hospital and Cillian's pre-school.

The long runs are a tonic, I find, and are so vital for my mental well-being. If I've had a particularly difficult day, I can run it off on the road.

Of course, in the future, as Cillian gets bigger, the issue of carrying him will have to be looked at - but that's for another day. I'm very proud of how caring Ruth and Conor are with him, too. To them, his disability is normal, no big deal and just the way it's always been. As a result, when they're out and about they'll say hello to someone with a disability without thinking.

We're so proud of the three of them and looking forward to their sixth birthdays in just a few weeks' time."

Too many of us can't handle our drink, it has a real impact on everyone else...

Eoin Candon, 47, taxi driver, East Wall, Dublin

'I've been driving a taxi for 15 years and you see the good, bad and ugly of life in this job. I remember during the height of the boom years, a guy got into the back of the cab and started snorting a line of cocaine. Just like that. He offered me a line, not for one moment stopping to think if it would be sensible to be driven about by someone who had just taken a drug. Needless to say, I didn't accept.

There was a lot of obnoxiousness during the Celtic Tiger - people acting like they had it made and happy to belittle others if they could. I remember someone trying to show me up about economics in front of his girlfriend, but I was well able for him. Generally speaking, people are a bit more respectful now.

I used to do nights up to two years ago but stopped because it's too messy. You see the worst stuff in the early hours of the morning - fights, people arguing, getting sick on the side of the road, urinating without a thought for those around them. So much of that is down to our relationship with alcohol. Too many of us simply can't handle our drink and it has a real impact on everyone else.

There's a lot to be proud of when it comes to Irishness. It's great to see how multi-cultural the place has become.

When I moved to work in England in the late 1980s, it felt like going to Mars because Dublin had been so white. Now, there are days where most of the people in my taxi are foreign nationals - but they're not here on a holiday. They're living and working here and they are adding to the richness of the country. It's great to see."

We're hypocrites when it comes to looking after children of the State and abortion

Emmet MacNamara, 44, IT engineer project manager for Oil & Gas Sector in Aberdeen/North Sea, Lisdoonvarna, Co Clare

'I feel happy about being Irish in 2016, but a bit  despondent about the management of our country. Historically, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael -  particularly Fianna Fáil - have been a weak, lily-livered shower. Because of their narrow-mindedness, we ended up in the mess we were in.

They just don't do things right. Their attitude is corrosive, and that's leaked into most aspects of life. I'm a proud Irishman, and a lot of good things come out of our nation - but that's in spite of how things are run. I'm optimistic about the future, though. I think this election will force change; people are fed-up.

Irishness is important to me, although it's got less important. I've come to realise, as I've got older, that values like fairness and honesty have been eroded. We don't stand up for people as well as we should. For example, it annoys me that that young Halawa lad in Egypt isn't being treated fairly by the Irish state. I'm proud of the fact that we brought in the first smoking ban and tax on plastic bags, and voted for equality last year. But we're hypocrites when it comes to looking after the children of the state, and about abortion. Abortions have to happen, but we've exported the problem, which isn't right. We're kind of half-good, but don't seem able to go the whole way.

I've been Irish in different countries; it's more acceptable in some than others. In Scotland, it's always been very easy. I've worked there for 21 years; it's a fantastic country. It doesn't feel like being abroad anymore, say if I'm over for a week; it's just what I do now. It feels near, geographically and psychologically.

The best thing about living here in 2016 is that you know your neighbours. Everyone around here is pushing in the one direction. Nobody I know expects hand-outs. One of the worst things is that local authorities, and the State in general, seem to think their job is to make our lives as difficult as possible. We pay so much tax, and get so few services for it. And as a self-employed person, you're on your own.

I've asked myself, 'Why would you live here?' It's because I won't be forced out of my own country by people who don't know what they're doing."

Nothing's being done for the homeless... I crave a happy life like others

Tomas Rice, 56, unemployed, homeless, Dublin

'When I broke up with my wife, I was in a hostel in Dublin. Myself and my ex-partner was not getting on well so I decided just to leave the situation. I went to Belfast for 15 months and when I came back last November, I had been taken off the housing list. Now I have to start all over again after three-and-a-half years.

It's night by night, so I really don't know where I'm staying. I'm left on the streets all day from 8.30 in the morning till half five at night. There's some quite friendly people and compassionate people. You might be walking round the streets for six hours and you'll eventually meet someone. Like last night, I was talking to a Brazilian couple - just someone to talk to.

I miss my companionship. I miss my stability. I have no stability in life now and I'm getting too old for this. To be honest with you, I have an addiction. My addiction is alcohol, so mostly during the day I walk around the streets looking for a drink because I've nothing else to do. You ring the [Emergency Shelter] freephone number at 12.30am. Most nights you ring, they'll say there's no beds available. I was sleeping outside a church from the new year for six weeks. I got a sleeping bag, but that's all they can offer you.

At the moment, I can't see a future. I'm afraid to cross a bridge in Dublin because I get inclinations to just jump. I need help, obviously, but I can't find it. And this is supposed to be a prosperous country again? Where is it? Please tell me.

There's thousands of people homeless in Dublin. They're sleeping in shop doorways. Nothing has been done. It doesn't matter if they have an addiction or not. I'm walking by people on Henry Street living the happy life and I'm craving that. I am literally craving that life that they have and it's horrible.

I couldn't vote in the General Election because I had no address. I'd love to be included on the Census, but one [form] is not going to make much difference, is it?"

Review was unable to locate Tomas for a photograph after the interview in time for publication

I was the first Muslim in my school...

Elham Osman, 23, Google sub-contractor, Tallaght, Co Dublin

'I spent my early years in Egypt, but moved with my family to Dublin when I was eight. I'm here 15 years now and I feel proud to be Irish, or Egyptian-Irish to be exact. I really like the Irish sense of humour and the Irish language, too - I could have got an exemption for it when I started school, but I didn't want to. I studied it right up to Leaving Cert level. I think it's sad that Irish isn't used more in daily life.

When I came here in 2001, I think I was the first Muslim in my school, but that's all changed. It really feels as though there are a lot of us in Ireland now. And yet, there's a lot of misunderstanding - a lot of people don't understand us. And you do encounter hostility - stuff like 'you're taking our jobs'. Well, unless you can speak and write Arabic fluently, you can't say I took your job.

I wear the hijab every day and people feel they can comment about it. Even those who supposedly mean well can sometimes say stupid things, like 'why don't you shave your hair off if nobody can see it?' And, I remember in school, one teacher asked me if I could hear her when I was wearing it. Of course I could hear her, it's made of light material.

I loved college life in DCU. There was so much integration. It gave me a real sense of how multicultural Ireland is now. But there are aspects of Irish life that I've no interest in, such as pub culture - I just stay away from them. Some people drink an awful lot and they can find themselves in all kinds of trouble. You don't need to drink alcohol to have a good time."

I'm fiercely proud of my home place

Aodán Mac Gearailt, 37, school principal, Castlegregory, Co Kerry

'I became principal at Mean Scoil Nua an Leith Triúigh in Castlegregory when I was 32, which made me one of the youngest in the country. Prior to returning to west Kerry, I worked for a decade in Cork, which I really enjoyed initially but I became frustrated and bored in my job and I felt is was time for a new challenge.

Our school has 140 students and the numbers are growing steadily. When I first arrived in Castlegregory, I made a point of listening to the students, parents and teachers to find out what they expected of me and what they felt was needed for our school. I'm extremely fortunate that our students are respectful and appreciative and we don't have any major disciplinary issues, which allows me time to do other things - including teaching, which I really enjoy.

For me, listening, observing and communicating effectively are crucial aspects in my job, and identifying areas that need attention and then putting a plan in place.

It became evident from my first winter in west Kerry that there was a lack of facilities for young people and this was something that affected many in terms of their mental health. We devised after-school clubs in areas such as art, computer programming and coding, GAA, athletics, debating and a fitness club. I feel providing these activities is hugely important in such a rural area and gives students positive recreational and educational options throughout the year.

Being a former Kerry footballer has opened many doors for me. Playing with Kerry and winning All-Irelands in front of huge crowds certainly builds character and has given me confidence as a person. It's still a huge part of my life... and coaching also allows me to interact with students outside the classroom, which I find very beneficial for both them and me.

I'm fiercely proud of my home place, heritage, language and culture and I feel it's something we should always protect, while simultaneously welcoming those of different cultures and learning from them, too.

My wife Janette and I are blessed to have two sons, Lúc (6) and Aodán Óg (4), who keep us in check. It's a busy and full life but it's very rewarding and I wouldn't have it any other way."

Census won't get a real picture at all

Lily Kavanagh, 55, health worker with Offaly Traveller movement, Offaly

'I'd say I was six when we stopped travelling. I would have went to school just for Communion or whatever. The nuns would give you a pencil and a copy and you were sent to the back of the class. They had no intentions of educating you whatsoever. It was only in my early thirties that I went back and got the Junior Cert. Every one of my three sons went to Leaving Cert level. One son went on to get a diploma in Athlone Institute of Technology.

From day one, I knew how important education was. There was no chance of saying, 'Mammy, I'm leaving after Junior Cert' - conversation closed.

Settled people would say I am settled because I live in a house. You are born a Traveller - it doesn't matter if you're in a house or not.

Discrimination against Travellers is still huge. I don't know if it's ignorance or fear. You could go into a supermarket and the security guard is nearly sitting upon your shoulders. Now it's against the law to camp on the side of the road - illegal camping or whatever - so our way of life, the ones that want to do it, is being taken off [us], particularly the elderly. Traveller women, we die 10 years younger than the settled ones. The men, the lifespan would be 12 years [less than] the settled, which is an awful gap.

In 2016, we would still have Travellers who are living on the roadside without any facilities - water, electricity, toilets, rubbish collection. The last time the census was done, the enumerators hadn't a clue even where Travellers were so there definitely wasn't an accurate count of Travellers in Offaly.

Overall in Ireland, there's not a hope in hell they're going to get the real picture [this time either]. We wanted to become enumerators ourselves. If you mentioned some name to me, I could tell you exactly where they are, who's in the family, how many's school-going. Everything that's being done now is being done by settled [people]. It's totally wrong.

Despite all the hardships, I can't see myself living in any other country than Ireland. I'm very proud to be Irish. There is beautiful people out there and good people. It's the ones at the top that have an awful lot to answer for. As I always say, the Travellers were here since God was a gasun. Sure Jesus was a traveller himself!"

It's troubling some young people may not go to college because they can't afford it

Jess Kavanagh, 30, singer, Artane, Dublin

'It's when you're living away from Ireland that you truly see the things that are good about us - like the friendliness, which really is different here. I missed that when I lived in London for a year: you wouldn't get your neighbour calling out to you across the road about the weather. We're great communicators in Ireland, and we've got that dark sense of humour that a lot of people just don't get.

My mother was half-Nigerian, so as a light-skinned, mixed-race person in Ireland I would have been pretty attuned to how people respond to different races. We talk about how multicultural the country is now, but you still don't see politicians of colour or leading figures in the media who are of different ethnicities. Even when it comes to music, there's not enough awareness about the diversity of the backgrounds of those making really interesting music today. Hopefully, that will change soon because there are people like Loah and Rusangano Family making wonderful music.

I feel very fortunate to be able to make a living out of singing, but so many people my age are having it hard. Many had to emigrate because there weren't jobs here and others are finding it hard to make ends meet because they are being underpaid. You hear about unpaid internships and short-term contracts. Previously, there was a feeling of meritocracy, that if you worked hard enough you would be fine, but it's harder to achieve financial security now.

It's also troubling that some people may not be able to go to college because they can't afford it. You look at working-class people like David Bowie and Alan Rickman who got to art school, but that may not be possible for today's generation - and future generations. That's a sad indictment of how Ireland values its young."

It's a different world now

Pat Murphy, 87,  fisherman, Castletownbere, Co Cork

Fisherman Pat Murphy from Castletownbere. Photo: Mark Condren

'If there was one bit of advice I could give to younger generations, it's to try and understand the importance of working together. It's so, so important but sadly seems forgotten about as a principle in modern-day Ireland. No matter what walk of life you're in, you need to consult and work with others.

Around here in Castletownbere, all the fishermen worked together, we needed to for safety, but that level of co-operation seems lost. And you have to know how to steer the boat in bad weather, no book will teach you how to do that.

Also, it's so vital to value experience. Older people need to be listened to and not forgotten about. They have seen it all before and have worked down through the years to overcome hurdles.

Looking back, many of my generation worked in hard conditions and long hours to make ends meet, they had hard, hard lives. Sometimes I wonder if young people could do it nowadays if they had to. It's a different world now and Ireland is a different country.

My father, Willie, who was the youngest of 13, was a fisherman before me - so I suppose that's where the love of the sea came from. Sure so many of the men around here at the time made their living from the sea, long before all these rules and regulations kicked in.

I still get out on the boat as much as I can. I had an operation on my knee a few months back but I've the boat moored there at the back of the house and hope to do more fishing once I can move a bit more freely.

There's nothing quite like being out on the water fishing for pollock and mackerel, looking for scallops and crabs. It's so good for the head and the body -it's hard work, of course, sometimes in big swells and bad conditions, but you just get on with it and learn from experience."

We're not perfect but we're good people... we care

Nikki Bradley, 30, IT client account manager, Letterkenny, Co Donegal

Nikki Bradley, IT client account manager.

'My family moved from Dublin to ­Letterkenny when I was 12 and ­Donegal is home now, although I fought against it for a while. Everybody important to me is here. I work as a client account manager from Monday to Friday, 9am to 2pm. My job is to ensure the client is happy and I enjoy the interaction.

In 2002, when I was 16, I was diagnosed with Ewing's sarcoma - a bone cancer - and straight away my path changed. I had a tumour in my pelvis and part of my hip bone had to be removed. I had chemotherapy and radiotherapy and invasive surgery. The radiotherapy caused a lot of damage. In 2003, I was told I'd need crutches for ever. Since then, it's got worse and the options available to me now are very limited - I may be facing amputation of my leg. It's on borrowed time and I'm fairly confident that will be a horrific time, but the rest of my body is strong and I'm happy enough to get by for now.

Even though I'd no choice about how my life went, I'm happier now than I have been in years. I'm doing great things because of my experience. Sharing my experience and giving talks and advice is helping others and I find that very fulfilling.

I love doing challenges and I wanted my campaign to raise awareness about Ewing's to be fun. The challenges started off as a one-off. I climbed Muckish mountain in Donegal in 2013 and I learned so much about myself. I could do so much more than I gave myself credit for. Since then, I've been rally driving, diving, climbed glaciers in Iceland and abseiled into a 45ft-deep cave. I'm hoping to break the Guinness World Record for fastest 5km on crutches for a female.

I love the way we look after one another in this country. When I go through my day, the amount of help that's offered to me is amazing. I'm constantly grateful. I don't think you'd get that in other countries. I wouldn't want to be any other nationality. We're not perfect but we are good people. For me, being Irish is the best thing ever - we care about each other and we look out for each other.

The biggest challenge I face on a daily basis is making sure I can get wherever I want to go. Public transport is bad compared to other countries and especially in Donegal. We don't have any train service, which is ridiculous."

We've the right mindset to pave the way for a brighter future

Renuka Chintapalli, 16, fifth-year pupil, Lusk, Co Dublin

Renuka Chintapalli at the BT Young Scientist exhibition

'I live in Lusk in Co Dublin. This year I am in fifth year at Loreto Secondary School Balbriggan and I was individual runner-up in the BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition for my work on the biology of oesophageal cancer. I have always been interested in science, and I first competed in the competition when I was in second year.

I moved here from India with my parents when I was five. I feel Irish, but I also like to keep up with my Indian heritage and we go back there often.

I see Ireland as a place where the opportunities are endless, because it is a hub of so many of the major companies like Facebook. The fact that there are so many incredible figures who came from Ireland is also a source of inspiration to me - scientists, writers, artists and musicians.

I feel Ireland is a place where you can do anything and achieve whatever you want. I like the education system, because young people are given encouragement.

I am hopeful for the future of the country, despite what happened during the recession. We have the right mindset to propel ourselves forward, and pave the way for a brighter future.

I see science as a way to improve yourself and make a contribution to the world. There are so many amazing Irish scientists.

When I leave school, I want to study medicine, because it has always been a dream of mine. I want to become a consultant oncologist who deals with cancer patients.

My brother is studying medicine in Trinity College, and I would love to study there, and I also like UCD and the Royal College of Surgeons.

I believe we should encourage students more in science. The children and teenagers of Ireland are its future. If we encourage them, then Ireland can make a huge contribution to the world in terms of research. We need to have more emphasis on science and technology in schools, and improve digital literacy.

I am a member of the Digital Youth Council of Ireland, and our main goal is to teach kids how to take part in digital media and learn skills such as how to code.

Irish society is now very open and tolerant, and there are so many different cultures and a diversity of people. That makes it special."

There's a real sense of belonging to a place here - and your home is much more than just a house

Declan Sweeney 36, business owner, Kiltyclogher, Co Leitrim

Declan Sweeney

'My wife Nessa and our six month-old son Callum uprooted from London and returned to Kiltyclogher in Co Leitrim, where we are both from, in 2014. Nessa and I met in Manchester when I worked there  - I knew her before as I was in school with her brother. We got married in 2012 and I suppose it was always on our radar to come home and we were looking for an opportunity to come back.

I had originally left home in 1999 to go to Galway/Mayo IT. I lived in Warsaw for 18 months, did some travelling and spent a year in Australia teaching English. Then I moved to Manchester, did a degree in linguistics before moving to London in 2008.

Nessa had applied for a job with the HSE and in November 2014 she got a call to say a permanent post in occupational therapy had come up in Letterkenny. We had to make a decision quickly so I handed in my notice. I had been working for the University of Bedfordshire as a lecturer but it was hard to find a work/life balance in London but it wasn't an easy move professionally.

I decided to set up a business, StudyBundles with my business partners we developed an app that universities and colleges use to connect with applicants. We pitched the idea to the University of Limerick and Maynooth University and they now use the app.

We’re living in Kiltyclogher now and our second baby Sadie was born last November. Our home is a couple of hundred yards from the farm where I grew up and my parents. My wife’s family is ten miles away and the support from both our families is great.

I work from the Sligo Innovation Centre and it’s about 30 minutes from home. Our lives are 100 times better. I don’t leave until 8.30 in the morning so I have from 6.30 to 8.30 every morning with the kids. In London I was gone at 8 am. I’m not as tired anymore and weekends are great – it’s really family-centred.

There’s a real sense of belonging to a place here – your home is much more than just a house. It’s very much the whole area where you grow up and that connection with this place is strong. I think there’s a magnetism to that. Going away and coming back opens your eyes a little bit.

Setting up a business outside of Dublin was a challenge. We had to show that we could compete and punch above our weight. People would have said you can’t possibly do that and sometimes there was a negativity when you explained to people what you were trying to do. That mindset is hard to shake. We are capable of doing things – you just need the self-belief'

Irish people are very welcoming, I've never felt I don't belong

Luiz Falchetto, 30, Personal trainer,  Glasnevin, Co Dublin

Luiz Falchetto and Bella

'I originally came to Ireland back in 2006. Basically, my mum is Italian and moved back to Italy. Once she got her passport, my brothers and I came over too. Mum had friends here [in Ireland] so we decided to come and see what it was like. I really liked it and stayed. I've been here ever since.

Ireland, especially back then, was a great place to live - and it is still is. I think that it is a land of ­opportunity.

I felt like I had a chance to do what I wanted and be happy. Although I consider Ireland to be my home now, I try to go back to Brazil every year. Just over a month ago, my partner Rebecca and I brought our two-and-a half-year-old daughter Isabella there for the first time.

At home, I tend to only speak Portuguese to Isabella, and Rebecca, who was born in Germany, speaks German to her. She will also learn Irish once she starts school. For us, it's important that she knows where she comes from, as well as being Irish.

I think Irish people are very welcoming. I never felt like I didn't belong here. Having a European passport really opened doors for me here. I don't think I would have been able to achieve what I have achieved with a Brazilian passport.

As human beings, we're never happy with what we've got. I started from the bottom and built my way up. That's how it's supposed to be. What I really miss [about Brazil] is my family. I know I have family here, but I miss my grandparents and mum, who's since moved back. But I don't regret coming to Ireland."

There's a lot of hardship in rural Ireland

Alison De Vere Hunt, 33, Farmer/Mart Manager,  Cashel, Co Tipperary

Alison Hunt, manager, Cashel Marts.

'Irish people know how to have the craic. And we've a really good sense of humour. You really see that when you're abroad - people like us, although I did notice that relations were strained a bit when I was in Australia. Some Irish misbehaved over there and gave the rest of us a bad name.

Many of us made big sacrifices during the recession. It was a really tough time and while urban areas might feel as though they're seeing the fruits of the economy, much of the rest of the country is not. Rural Ireland has been hit particularly hard - I see it every single day. There's a lot of hardship.

You hear about farmers who find themselves in a lot of debt and feel there's no hope. It's one of the fall-outs of the recession. My father took his own life because he was under an awful lot of financial pressure. It was a really hard time, but people were really great - they rallied around. They were there for us - it's that strong community feeling that we have in Ireland and can't lose.

Agriculture is very male-dominated. When I'm in the mart, I'm often the only female there. We'd be outnumbered by about 100 to one. But you see more and more women getting involved in the area and there's less of the sexism you might have seen before.

Farming is a vocation, and not just a job, but it's becoming harder to make a good living from it. Many farmers are not getting fair prices for their produce and some consumers have come to expect food to be very cheap. It would be great if there was more awareness of where our food came from and an acceptance that it costs money to produce really good food.

As a nation, we really need to look at our ­relationship with food. There's an obesity ­epidemic out there and it's predominately down to our diets."

I'm happy to have a job and to live in a nice place

Paul Buchanan, 44,  Surfer school owner, Strandhill, Co Sligo

Paul Buchanan, who runs Strandhill Surf School, relaxing between surf lessons at Strandhill, Co. Sligo. Photo: James Connolly

'I first came to Ireland 15 years ago. Because I've been here so long, I carry both an Irish and a New Zealand passport. I met my partner Medb 12 years ago and our son Braeden is three months old.

I initially came for the surf - 15 years ago Ireland wasn't so much on the surfing map. It was really quiet and I loved that. I stayed and set up my business, Strandhill Surf School, and live 100 metres up the beach. I don't need transport to get to work, I just walk up the beach.

I go back to New Zealand - I'm from Raglan on the North Island - every winter because there's no business for me here in winter and it's too cold and stormy. It's the weather I miss - there's also more activity in New Zealand. I'm into hunting, fishing and diving - there's more outdoor life and barbecues and I miss that in Ireland. I like to socialise outside with barbecues. I'm not a big drinker and I'm not into pubs, so I enjoy going round to people's houses, having some food, maybe catching some game and cooking it when I go home.

All my family is in New Zealand and my parents are getting old. I like to get back and see them. Even though I go every year, even nine months feels like a long way to go. They've come over here, too. Coming back after the winter I'm quite happy. I love Strandhill. I'm not a city boy and when I get to Strandhill by the beach, it's perfect.

Irish people are great. They've got a good sense of humour - they're quite similar to New Zealanders. The Irish are also really helpful and they go out of their way to be helpful. I don't take anything for granted but I'm easily pleased. I'm happy to have a job and to live in a nice place. As long as you have a nice place to live and you can work, it's all good. I take every day that comes.

For my son, as long as he's happy doing whatever he wants to do, that's all I need. I don't have any massive hopes other than that."

Many gay people still feel they can't come out

Cillian Flynn , 34, Administrator with GOSHH (Gender, Orientation, Sexual Health, HIV), Limerick City

Cillian Flynn

'The last few years have been something of a whirlwind for me and, I suppose, so many Irish people within the LGBT community. It all started in 2012 when a friend and I decided to enter Limerick into the bidding for the 2018 Gay Games.

Our campaign gathered momentum and received amazing backing from the gay and straight communities across our region. As we approached decision day in Cleveland, Ohio, rumours abounded that we were going to be awarded the games having fought off the challenge of cities such as Amsterdam, Orlando and Rio to make the final shortlist.

In the end, we were pipped at the post by Paris. It was invigorating as it opened up the eyes of the rest of Ireland to the reality that Limerick, as a city, embraced all those who live here and we were one.

Though I'm from Tipperary originally, and always shout for them in the hurling, I've been living in Limerick now for 13 years and so consider it home. So to see the city coming together, to see cafés and bars supporting the gay community and the local council putting rainbow flags on the bridges around the city was inspiring and a very proud moment. Limerick has a reputation it doesn't deserve - and this clearly proved that.

And since that bid, over 100 Gay Games delegates came to Limerick for their annual general meeting - so we've made our mark.

Then, of course, we had the Marriage Equality referendum last year. I worked on the Yes Equality group campaign and was on a working group for Limerick so there was lots of campaigning. The result was fantastic, a milestone for Ireland to be the first country to pass marriage equality through the ballot box. That said, there are still many gay people in Ireland who don't feel they can come out for one reason or another and elements of homophobia still exist.

In the days after the Yes vote, I went for a break to San Francisco with my partner Patrick to recover after a few hectic weeks of campaigning. And overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge he proposed to me! We're hoping to get married next year - never a dull moment.

There are fantastic things about Ireland 2016... I feel optimistic

Sally Millar, 60, Midwifery lecturer at NUIG, Peterswell, Co Galway

Sally Millar Peterswell, Co. Galway with her Census form . Photo: Andrew Downes, xposure.

'What does being Irish mean" is a mixed question for me, because I was born in England and only got Irish citizenship last year. But I've lived longer here than in the UK. Becoming Irish has been a gradual thing; my identity has emerged slowly, without being fully conscious of it. I don't particularly think of myself as being anything, but I identify strongly with  Ireland; I feel a growing affinity with the place.

When I first moved here, I read English papers and listened to English radio; now I'm much more focused on what's happening to us, and by 'us' I mean the Irish. I think of the UK as a different country; maybe the transition is nearly complete.

There are some fantastic things about Ireland in 2016, and we're at an interesting point. I feel optimistic about the possibility of change. But we have huge problems with homelessness, health, lack of equal opportunity - ironic when you look at the Proclamation.

Most of my work here has been in midwifery. I've worked in the margins of the healthcare system; my focus has been on home births. They never completely disappeared, but few people were flying the flag in the 1990s, when I started working in this part of the country. It wouldn't be wrong to call them pioneers.

Breastfeeding, which you'd think would be central to the healthcare system, is also at the edges. It's an odd culture in that sense - we're very challenged by breastfeeding. I'd like to think it's getting better, but we have to make it normal for a woman to breastfeed in public.

I miss Irish things when I go abroad, especially the weather. I love that freshness and greenness, and always love coming back. Even though, as soon as you do, you start complaining! When you travel in rain-poor places, you realise how lucky we are. I didn't get involved in the Rising commemorations but I think it was good, to mark a moment in history that was really important. I find some aspects of nationalism are not that positive. To be a State in our own right is more important than how we got there. Open-heartedness and friendliness encapsulate Irishness in 2016. It's definitely still there. You only have to return from abroad to realise it."

I've been here 15 years... Ireland's been good to us

Eileen Cremin, 57, Church of Ireland Reverend, Fermoy, Co Cork


'It's hard to believe it, but I've been in Ireland now for 15 years and love it here, the pace of life and the people… but it took some getting used to.

You see, I grew up in East London and worked throughout the city. Going from the busy and bustling high street in Hackney to the dairy-farming community of north Cork wasn't so easy a transition at first, but I got there.

My parents came from Antigua to London in 1956. I was ordained a deacon in the Church of England in 1988, then in 1994, while working as an assistant chaplain at hospitals in East London, became one of the first female priests in the Church of England to be ordained. It was a huge deal at the time and the ceremony took place in St Paul's Cathedral. Of course, women in the Church of Ireland had already been allowed to become priests by then and later, when I moved here, I actually found that a great help in integrating into Irish society as a female member of the clergy.

In 1997, I married Tom from Rochestown in Cork, who I'd met while working in Hackney. The marriage took place in Cricklewood and we had around 400 at the wedding! One day I spotted an advert in the Church Times for a curate's assistant in Douglas, just outside Cork city, which was the parish where Tom grew up and his mother was still living there, so we decided we'd give it a go.

One of the first things I noticed was how it took so long to do everything. In London, you could get so much done in one day but here the distances between members of the congregation can be huge. My area in North East Cork, which I moved to in 2006, includes five different churches and stretches from Mitchelstown in the north of the county to Watergrasshill nearer the city and right up to the borders with Limerick and Waterford.

I feel people have accepted me here and I don't think I'll ever go back to London to live. It would be too hectic for me now. At weekends Tom and I love to go for drives up around Mount Melleray in Waterford, and we're surrounded by beautiful countryside.

Ireland has been good to us... and I think that I'm here to stay. "

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