A Malahide man has written a fascinating new book outlining the extraordinary progress Ireland has made during its first 100 years of independence.
You may not think it when you turn on the news every day – where we are largely fed a daily diet of doom and gloom – but Ireland is one of the most successful countries in the world, driven by an unbroken democracy, a highly educated population and a deep sense of community values.
You could certainly be forgiven for believing that things in Ireland in 2021 are worse than ever. However, the reality is very different: we are living longer than ever before; we have never been healthier or better educated; we earn five times more than our grandparents did; our personal freedoms – notwithstanding Covid – exceed those of any previous generation; and the lives of women and children have been transformed for the better.
As the country emerges from a devastating global pandemic, there has never been a greater need for a positive outlook – and you’ll find this in spades in Mark Henry’s riveting new book, ‘In Fact – An Optimist’s Guide to Ireland at 100’.
“Next year is the centenary of the Irish State so birthdays are a time for reflection and celebration,” Mark explains. “This is what the book is all about. It’s a celebration of Ireland’s progress and paints a picture of a country that has come a long way.”
Mark laughs when asked if he would consider himself to be the eternal optimist. He believes our perception of how Ireland has evolved has been coloured by what he terms “progress attention deficient” and “negativity bias”.
“People’s minds are consumed with day to day living and we don’t step back and think about the longer-term improvements over the course of our own lifespan,” he says. “We are programmed to look at the short-term and the negative. The news reflects this because that’s what people are interested in.
“When negative change happens slowly, we don’t notice it – and that’s equally true of positive change.”
He also talks in the book about what he describes as “prevalence-induced concept change”.
“When poverty was all around us 100 years ago, it wasn’t exceptional and people didn’t talk about it. Now when we see a homeless person living in abject poverty on the streets, we pay far more attention to it because there is less of it.”
He says the same can be applied to the risk of dying on the roads, which has reduced by 75pc over the past 40 years.
“Now when there are deaths on the road, every one of them gets media coverage and the tragedy is explored. It leads people to believe there is more of it happening but it’s just being reported more because there’s actually less of it occurring. Don’t forget that 40 years ago, you didn’t have to wear a seatbelt, even if you were the driver.”
According to Mark, because bad things happen quickly, we are more likely to concentrate on the negative. One example he gives is the tendency to focus on news of a plane crash rather than on statistical improvements in air safety in recent decades.
A lot of time we may not even be aware of positive changes that occur over the years.
“In 1992, only one in five people in Ireland took a holiday overseas but that figure is now one in one,” he says.
Mark’s book is described as “a hopeful history” but, optimism aside, his observations are backed up by facts and stats.
For example, we have more than halved our death rate and are living 25 years longer than those who were alive in 1922. In the past 20 years alone, work-related fatalities have halved. There has also been a 25-fold improvement rate in a child surviving their first year, compared to 100 years ago, and maternal death during birth is now extremely rare.
We are also living healthier lives and eating better. Nearly all the leading diseases of 1922 have either been eliminated or completely reduced and cancer mortality rates have been declining for the past 30 years.
And despite criticism of our health service, there has been huge progress in this area too. Public health spending has increased 14-fold in the past 50 years and hospital treatments have more than doubled since the turn of the century to reach record levels.
As a nation, we have hugely increased our production of food and eat twice the amount of fruit and vegetables than we did 60 years ago.
Culturally, we are up there with the best of them, winning the Eurovision more times than any other country and, on a per capita basis, Irish actors have won more Oscars than any other nationality – but that’s only if we claim Daniel Day-Lewis as one of our own.
Mark points out that Ireland now has the second highest quality of life on the planet, according to the United Nations. He puts this down to investment in education and our strong community bonds, which have given us a good sense of equality and justice.
“Income inequality is declining in Ireland, unlike a lot of other places,” he said. “We’ve had 100 years of stable, uninterrupted democracy. We’re a very open country, which has been positive in terms of attracting investment and talent from all over the world. Equally, Irish talent has been allowed to shine on the world stage.
“My point is, all those fundamentals remain strong. As long as we continue to invest in education, invest in our strong community bonds, continue to participate in the democratic process and remain an open country, then the outlook for the second century is really positive.”
But Mark’s book also shines a light on where we fall down as nation, acknowledging that not everything is perfect – and probably never will be.
There is room to improve in a number of key areas that won’t surprise readers. For instance, Ireland is one of the world’s worst contributors to climate change and our biodiversity is in decline. It’s also the second most expensive place to live in Europe and childcare costs are unacceptably high.
Our Government debt is also among the highest in the world, third level funding has halved and fewer of us are voting.
However, despite these negatives, Mark remains optimistic.
“We have had housing crises before and huge levels of debt and we reduced it,” he said. “We can do it again if we learn from the success of the last century.”
The book has been a three-year labour of love for Mark. He admits that he couldn’t have finished it without the space and time created by lockdown, with children’s sports cancelled and no need to commute to the office every day.
Mark, who works in the tourism sector, has been telling the world what a great place Ireland is for the past 20 years.
“Now I’m trying to prove it to everyone at home by gathering all the evidence,” he adds. “In many ways, the book is a lockdown love letter to Ireland.”
‘In Fact – An Optimist’s Guide to Ireland at 100’, by Mark Henry, is published by Gill Books on October 22.