Ireland at 100: 12 reasons to feel great about being Irish

As the Irish State prepares to mark its centenary, author Mark Henry has crunched the numbers and come up with some statistics to show why we should be more optimistic

Ireland will mark 100 years as an independent nation next year

Mark Henry

Aren’t birthdays the perfect occasions for reflection, for celebrating all that we have achieved, and for looking forward optimistically to the times ahead? Ireland has a big birthday next year: it will mark 100 years as an independent nation. I have surveyed every domain of Irish life for my new book, In Fact: An Optimist’s Guide to Ireland at 100, and my conclusion is that we have an awful lot to celebrate. Our economic advances have been stellar, as has our progress in health, education, strengthening our society, our engagement with the world, and the lives of our women and children. Some of our progress may surprise you, however. Here are some of the under-appreciated achievements of which we should be proud.

1. We live 25 years longer than those alive in 1922

We each live 25 years longer, on average, than those who were alive when the State won its independence. In fact, we have added a whole generation.

Those living in the early 1920s had a life expectancy of just 57 years. Significant gains were made as infant deaths and maternal mortality tumbled in the 1940s and 1950s, as coronary heart disease was tackled in the 1980s and 1990s, and as cancer mortality was reduced in the 2000s.

Today, you can expect to live to 82 years of age. The Irish are now the 16th longest-living people in the world. That’s only two years less than those with the greatest longevity: the Japanese.

2. We eat 116kg more food per year

Our food intake has grown substantially over the past 60 years. As our wealth has increased, food has become more affordable, and choice and convenience has sky-rocketed. We are better nourished than those that came before us.

The average Irish person today consumes 260kg of food per year, an increase of 116kg since the early 1960s. The good news is that fruit and vegetables account for practically all of that increase.

Our meat consumption rose for a few decades but, in recent years, it has been declining as we all become more health conscious. As a vegetarian for the last 30 years, I’m just happy the rest of you are finally coming around to my way of thinking.

3. We are working fewer hours

It may or may not feel like it to you, but we are working 20pc fewer hours than the last generation. The average number worked by each employee has dropped from 50 hours a week at the start of the 1970s to less than 40 today.

Growth in part-time working is a contributor. The number of people working two or three days a week has doubled over the past two decades, and the number working four-day weeks has tripled.

But it is not that the five-day week is becoming any less popular; it is the proportion who work more than 45 hours a week that has dropped. A critical factor was the implementation of the EU’s Working Time Directive in 1997 that prohibited a working week exceeding 48 hours — which was precisely how long the average employee worked in the mid-1970s.

4. We have grown taller — by more than 11cm

The fact that we are eating more food and are increasingly health-conscious has had very visible benefits. We are significantly taller than our ancestors.

Women are an average of 11cm taller than they were 100 years ago. In fact, women are only about 1cm shorter than men were back then. Men have gained 12.5cm over the century, thereby increasing their height advantage over women. They are nearly 14cm taller than women nowadays.

Believe it or not, height is a predictor of life success. Taller people have higher education, higher earnings and live longer. Let’s hope our collective gains in stature contribute to continued economic success and health improvements.

5. We’ve had a female head of state for longer than most other countries

We elected Mary Robinson as the first female President in 1990 for a seven-year term, followed by Mary McAleese for two terms.

Those 21 years with a female head of state are remarkable in an international context. Only Bangladesh and Iceland can claim to have had female presidents or prime ministers for longer.

While we have much further to go to secure gender balance in Dáil Éireann, the introduction of gender quotas for general elections since 2016, and their increased level for the next election, is putting us on the right path to equality.

6. Our actors have won more Oscars per capita than any other nation

Our cultural talent is deep. The five Academy Award wins for acting clocked up by Brenda Fricker, Daniel Day-Lewis and Barry Fitzgerald mean that Irish actors have won more Oscars than those from any other country.

Okay,, so there are two important caveats to this. Firstly, this is relative to population size. More Americans can point to an Oscar over their mantlepiece, of course, but we can lay claim to a relatively greater share of the world’s talent.

Secondly, I’m claiming Day-Lewis for Ireland. His father was Irish, he has Irish citizenship, and his home is in Co Wicklow. But even if he is excluded, our two other wins are enough to put us in third place for acting Oscars, behind only the USA and the UK on a per capita basis.

7. Strikes are at an all-time low

The number of strikes by workers is at an all-time low. The 1970s and 1980s were bad times for industrial relations. Ireland experienced its greatest number in 1974, when 219 strikes took place. Nearly 1.5 million working days were lost through industrial action in 1979.

The number of strikes has since plummeted to just ten a year in recent times. It’s a notable achievement that signifies improved pay and conditions for workers, and improved worker and employer relations. Employees are treated far more valuably now that the number in high-skilled jobs has mushroomed.

8. Our teenagers are physically healthier

Teenagers are healthier today than their parents were at the same age. They are eating better, exercising more, and consuming fewer harmful substances.

Back in 1995, practically every child had consumed alcohol at some point before they were 15 or 16 years of age. Today, that figure is down to seven in 10. Still very high, but the trajectory is positive.

Three-quarters of mid-teenagers had tried smoking 25 years ago. That figure has plummeted to less than a third. Even the small proportion that has experimented with cannabis has halved.

We have made it much harder for teenagers to access harmful drugs, but children’s attitudes have changed too as PE in schools has morphed into social, physical and health education, and preoccupation with personal health is on the rise.

9. Most of us now go on a foreign holiday

Our leisure time may have been increasing, yet as recently as 1992, the vast majority of us did not take a foreign holiday. Fewer than one in five were able to afford such a luxury.

This changed rapidly in the 1990s as our wealth increased, our horizons broadened, and our air connectivity expanded. In 2007, for the first time, there were more overseas holidays taken by Irish residents then there were Irish residents. Everyone in Ireland took an overseas break.

Needless to say, some people took three or four breaks a year, while others took none. But we are now among the greatest travellers in Europe. Despite living on an island, we spend twice as many nights abroad each year as the average European.

10. More pupils than ever are being taught through Irish

Attempts to inculcate the Irish language in the population of the Free State were a failure. Before the country was even technically independent, the incoming government decreed that every primary school pupil should only be taught through the medium of Irish. Fine in theory — but most teachers couldn’t speak the language.

Decades later, many of us remain stubbornly immune to attaining a passable degree of competence in the language. But there has, nevertheless, been persistent growth in the number of national school pupils being taught in Irish over the past 40 years. The number has tripled, in fact. And all of that growth has come outside of traditional Gaeltacht areas. We are taking greater pride in our indigenous culture.

11. We are the most generous people in Europe

It is a commonly held belief that we are more generous than other people. Well, it turns out to be true. Data gathered from 126 countries ranks Ireland as the fifth most generous on the planet and the most generous in Europe.

Nearly seven in 10 of us say we have donated money to charity in the past month, more than six in 10 say we have helped a stranger, and nearly four in 10 have volunteered their time for an organisation.

The beautiful thing about generosity is it spreads health and happiness. Acts of generosity build trust and cooperation, thereby boosting our sense of personal wellbeing and of community. That strengthens our society and helps make this a great place to live.

12. Our quality of life is the second-highest in the world

Our quality of life is now second to none. Or rather, it’s second only to Norway.

According to the United Nations’ measure of human development, we are the second-best country to live in today. Our citizens achieve a long and healthy life, a high level of education and a very decent standard of living.

Thirty years ago, we were outside of the top 20. It is not our economic growth that has contributed most to our rise over the decades, in fact, but the greater amount of education that each of us now receives.

We are now unequivocally in the top tier of the world’s most developed nations.

So, in her first century, Ireland has not only taken her place among the nations of the world, she has taken her place among the leading nations of the world.

Of course, we need to address an array of challenges as we enter our second. However, the fundamentals of life in Ireland today are the strongest they ever have been.

We should be nothing but optimistic about our future prospects.

Mark Henry is the author of In Fact: An Optimist’s Guide to Ireland at 100, published by Gill Books, available now