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  • The Changing Social Environment of Modern Ireland:Immigration and the Issues of Politics, Economics, and Security
  • Benjamin Kline (bio)

There were some interesting and unique features about the Republic of Ireland as it entered the second millennium. Economic changes as a result of the growth of the software industry had transformed Ireland into the so-called Celtic Tiger during the 1990s, making it one of the fastest growing economies in Europe, bringing with it prosperity and a demand for labor. Ireland's economic boom attracted labor from around the world as immigrants, legal and illegal, made their way to the Emerald Isle, changing a once homogenous society into an emerging multicultural society. These new arrivals were attracted not only to the promise of economic improvement but also to Ireland's friendly reputation and generous social welfare programs. The significance of the country's changing social environment was acknowledged in 2003 by Mary McAleese, the president of the Irish Republic. In the foreword of Multiculturalism: The View from the Two Irelands, by Edna Longley and Declan Kiberd, President McAleese stated, "We are gradually moving away from the homogeneity and old certainties which have traditionally been the hallmarks of Irish life. We are rapidly becoming one of the wealthier states in the world, as well as a multicultural society."1

For over 150 years Ireland had been famous as much for the Irish diaspora as for its Catholicism and homogeneity. However, as the population increased [End Page 186] during the 1990s, Ireland's need to deal with this novel immigration issue became essential. As Mary Corcoran of the Department of Sociology at St. Patrick's College, Maynouth, cautioned in 1997, "Immigration is a big issue for Europe, and we can expect it to become more and more of an issue for Ireland as the numbers rise." By August 2001, Gerry O'Hanlon, a director of Ireland's Central Statistics Office (CSO), while commenting on the latest census pronounced, "We are no longer an emigrant country."2 He further predicted that the Irish population would break the 4 million barrier by 2005-6 and reach 4.6 million by 2031. In a country that had not seen such population numbers since 1871, this was indeed a remarkable phenomenon. Even such predictions, however, were soon being surpassed by actual statistics—Ireland's population surpassed the 4 million mark in December 2003.3

Historical Survey: Ireland's Population from 1926 to 2002

The overall population level, which remained stable at just under 3 million between 1926 and 1951, declined to reach a low point of 2.8 million in 1961. The stability of the population level from 1926 to 1951 resulted from gains due to the natural increase being counterbalanced by losses due to net emigration. The 1960s, 1970s, and the first half of the 1980s witnessed a resurgence in population, culminating in a population total in excess of 3.5 million in 1986. Population levels began to rise during the 1960s mainly as a result of the decline in net outward migration. The reversal in net migration from outward to inward during the 1970s alongside an increase in births led to an overall population increase of just over 465,000 between 1971 and 1981. Net outward migration resumed again during the early 1980s and, coupled with a decline in births, resulted in a moderation in the rate of overall population increase. The sharp increase in net outward migration in the second half of the 1980s, along with a continued fall in the number of births, resulted in a small population loss between 1986 and 1991. From 1991 to 1996 there was a further decline in the average annual natural increase due [End Page 187] to the declining birth rate. However, there was a change once again in the pattern of migration, with a small net inflow recorded.4

The 2002 census in Ireland confirmed what many observers had been predicting for years: Ireland's social environment and demographics had changed dramatically. Irish society was more urban and ethnically diverse than at any time in its history. The population was also getting older and producing fewer children, according to the Principal Demographic Statistics published by...


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pp. 186-202
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Archived 2019
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