Sunday 26 January 2020

Colum Kenny: Travellers thrive but cupla focal in decline

Census shows Islam is our second faith while Ireland is a good place for single straight guys, writes Colum Kenny

Despite the recession, and despite renewed emigration, more than 4.5 million people now live in the Republic of Ireland. That is up 348,000 since 2006, and up more than 600,000 people in just 10 years. Only 2.8 million lived in the Republic in 1961.

Some facts thrown up last week by the Census are striking. The health of Travellers has improved as many more settled. For one in three children, compulsory Irish classes are a complete waste of time. Catholicism is the slowest growing of nine belief-systems measured in Ireland.

The Census is a bag of numbers that can back up contending arguments. If politicians use statistics like drunks use lamp-posts, more for support than for illumination, then the census data released last week can also be seen in various ways.

No doubt "Ireland remains a predominantly Catholic country", as the official Census report itself proclaims. But there is no effort to define what "Catholic" means in practice. Neither church attendance nor belief in basic doctrines are measured.

Ireland's population rose by 348,000 since 2006, but the number of Catholics rose by just 180,000. And among Irish nationals it is growing slower than the other Christian denominations listed. The number of people saying that they have no religion went up from 186,000 to 270,000.

The Census shows that the total number of people who say that they can speak Irish increased by seven per cent. But that is statistically insignificant when the general increase in Ireland's population is taken into account.

What is truly shocking is that almost one in three people aged 10 to 19 say that they cannot speak the Irish language. Given the time and money spent on it at school, if this is not a measure of the continuing failure of the compulsory Irish curriculum, then what would be?

And the figure for the population as a whole who "cannot or never speak Irish" is even greater. Among those who do purport to speak it, only 77,185 said they speak Irish daily outside the education system. Given that there are 120,000 people speaking Polish at home in Ireland daily, perhaps these should be given their own TV station here.

The good news for straight men is that there are now 42,854 more females than males in the country. The Census does not ask a question about sexual orientation.

But it does have data on same-sex couples, of which there are just 4,000 in the State. Only 166 of these couples are married. Some 230 of them have children, with the vast majority of couples with children being female. Compare such small numbers with 215,000 families headed by lone parents, of whom almost nine out of 10 are lone mothers, and it puts the phenomenon of gay couples into perspective.

The good news for Irish Travellers is that their numbers have increased significantly from 22,435 to 29,573, with all counties apart from Limerick and Waterford showing increases larger than the increase in the general population. Better living conditions presumably account for better mortality rates.

There has been a big fall in the numbers living in mobile homes, down from one in four five years ago to under one in eight now. But while nearly every Traveller in Cavan is in housing, about one in every three in Co Limerick is not.

The Census paints a broad picture of an Ireland that has evolved. Islam is now this State's second religion, although most Irish people have never been inside a mosque or even sat down to dinner with a Muslim.

People are still migrating to Ireland, even while many young Irish people leave.

But the Census warns that many immigrants to Ireland do not speak English well; this is no doubt exacerbated by the fact that satellite television allows them to view so much media in their own languages. Ireland may be multilingual overall, but that does not mean that most of us speak many languages.

One change that economists and estate agents will welcome, but that Irish parents may regard as a sign of hard times for their children, is the surge in rented accommodation. In just five years this has gone from 300,000 units to 475,000 units.

Difficulties in getting bank loans, uncertainty about the future and a drop in house prices are all factors here, although it must be noted that average weekly rents fell just one per cent since 2006 despite the recession. Yet we have long liked to own our own place and many still believe that paying for a mortgage makes better sense than handing rent to a landlord.

Recent emigrants may scratch their head as they read reports of the Census, wondering how come our population is growing when so many people are leaving. Coming on top of Minister for Finance Michael Noonan's comments about the positive side of emigration, these figures may further encourage his Government to discount the needs of emigrants who grew up here and who are now fending for themselves abroad.

The two reasons for the increase in population are a very high birth rate combined with falling deaths. Total births from 2006 to 2011 were 365,000. And deaths were 140,000, leading to a natural increase in the population of 225,000. This is the highest increase ever recorded between two Censuses.

The upside for Ireland is that more people may mean more economic activity, and more young people means that the proportion of older people depending on those at work to care and to pay for them will eventually be lower than what it might have been.

But until new babies start to earn, the economic downside is that the State needs to invest more in schooling, health and social services -- or else spread the existing expenditure even thinner at a time of other cutbacks.

Sunday Independent

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