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The Slow Failure

Population Decline and Independent Ireland, 1920–1973

Mary E. Daly

Publication Year: 2006

    Today Ireland’s population is rising, immigration outpaces emigration, most families have two or at most three children, and full-time farmers are in steady decline. But the opposite was true for more than a century, from the great famine of the 1840s until the 1960s. Between 1922 and 1966—most of the first fifty years after independence—the population of Ireland was falling, in the 1950s as rapidly as in the 1880s. Mary Daly’s The Slow Failure examines not just the reasons for the decline, but the responses to it by politicians, academics, journalists, churchmen, and others who publicly agonized over their nation’s “slow failure.” Eager to reverse population decline but fearful that economic development would undermine Irish national identity, they fashioned statistical evidence to support ultimately fruitless policies to encourage large, rural farm families. Focusing on both Irish government and society, Daly places Ireland’s population history in the mainstream history of independent Ireland.
    Daly’s research reveals how pastoral visions of an ideal Ireland made it virtually impossible to reverse the fall in population. Promoting large families, for example, contributed to late marriages, actually slowing population growth further. The crucial issue of emigration failed to attract serious government attention except during World War II; successive Irish governments refused to provide welfare services for emigrants, leaving that role to the Catholic Church. Daly takes these and other elements of an often-sad story, weaving them into essential reading for understanding modern Irish history

Published by: University of Wisconsin Press

Series: History of Ireland and the Irish Diaspora

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. vii-viii

List of Tables

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pp. ix-x


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pp. xi-xii

List of Abbreviations

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pp. xiii-2

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1. The Pathology of Irish Demographic History

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pp. 3-20

In 2004 the population of the Republic of Ireland was in excess of four million for the first time since 1871.1 The population of the island of Ireland is now at approximately the same figure as in the mid-1860s. Ireland2 is the only country in the developed world whose population is below the level of the mid-nineteenth century and the only country where reports on the census returns draw comparisons...

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2. Saving Rural Ireland: 1920–1960

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pp. 21-74

The overwhelming majority of the “vanishing Irish” vanished from the countryside, and for this reason most studies of the Irish population since the famine have concentrated on rural Ireland.1 Yet most emigrants from Ireland settled in cities and towns in Britain and the United States, taking jobs in factories, on construction sites, or as service workers in hospitals, hotels, and private...

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3. Marriages, Births, and Fertility: The Irish Family

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pp. 75-137

According to Tim Guinnane a discussion of Irish marriage patterns as they evolved after the famine, “forms a common starting point for exceptionalist views of Irish history.”1 In 1935 Roy Geary summarized the position as follows: “With the lowest marriage rate in the world and one of the higher fertility rates (births per marriage) the Saorstát2 achieves a more or less average birth...

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4. The Irish State and Its Emigrants: 1922–1954

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pp. 138-182

Emigration prompted a variety of responses in independent Ireland. Politicians, churchmen, and some citizens gloried in Ireland’s large expatriate community, which gave the new state a degree of international recognition that was utterly disproportionate to its size,1 although the greatest affection was often reserved for second- or third-generation expatriates. It provided a...

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5. The Vanishing Irish: 1954 –1961

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pp. 183-221

Only two European countries experienced a fall in population during the 1950s: Ireland and East Germany. Their common fate was noted in August 1961 when the preliminary results of the 1961 Irish census were published, just days after the East German government sealed off the crossings between East and West Berlin and began to erect the Berlin Wall to prevent the flow of...

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6. 1961–1971: “A Worthy Homeland for the Irish People”?

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pp. 222-255

Many Irish people remember the 1960s as “the best of decades.”1 Economic growth brought higher living standards—new cars, better-equipped homes, even foreign holidays. Couples married in their early and mid-twenties rather than their late twenties and early thirties; there was a sharp rise in the number of marriages, and during the second half of the...

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7. “A Ticket to London Is a Ticket to Hell”: Emigrants, Emigrant Welfare, and Images of Ireland

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pp. 256-328

Ireland’s relationship with the Irish community overseas was, and is, a complex matter. On the one hand, the Irish state and its people took pride in the large number of men and women of Irish birth or descent scattered throughout the world; it was widely believed that they enhanced Ireland’s international standing, and they were a valuable source of funds and influence for political...

Statistical Appendix

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pp. 329-330


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pp. 331-394


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pp. 395-416


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pp. 417-438

Further Reading, Back Cover

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E-ISBN-13: 9780299212933
Print-ISBN-13: 9780299212902

Page Count: 454
Publication Year: 2006

Series Title: History of Ireland and the Irish Diaspora