Monday 19 September 2011

NUI Maynooth uncovers Ireland's population story

The story of Ireland’s emmigration and population through 160 years of famine, economic hardship, partition, Land Commission, emigration and Celtic Tiger boom is now available at Electoral Division level thanks to two digitised online atlases published by the National Centre for Geocomputation (NCG) based at NUI Maynooth.

The Population Change Atlas 1841-2002 charts changes in population throughout this turbulent period while The Atlas of Irish Famine Data 1841-1851 takes a detailed look at local data during the famine years, with particular reference to population decline and agricultural practices.

Director of the NCG, NUI Maynooth’s Professor Stewart Fotheringham, said that while there was a lot written on where Irish emigrants went and what became of them, the impact of mass emigration at local level has not until now been explored.

'Previously we have had only broad brushstrokes, and commonly accepted perceptions, such as the West has been hit harder than the East. What this work tells us is that the impacts of population decline are much more complex. There has been a genuinely uneven spatial imprint left behind by these population changes,' he said.

Some observations made by the NUI Maynooth team:
  • The average population loss during famine times was 20%. All Connacht counties lost 27-30% of their populations, while in Leinster there was greater variation. Westmeath, Laois and Offaly lost more than average while the fertile regions of Kildare, Meath and Wexford lost less.
  • Many local areas in the West of Ireland lost between 40% and 60% of their populations during the famine, while Carlow and south Wicklow, which have received less attention from famine scholars, also suffered higher than average population loss.
  • Areas along the Roscommon-Mayo border suffered far less population decline than the eastern side of the county which lost more than 60% of its population – perhaps linked to the actions of Major Dennis Mahon who gave assisted passage to 4,500 impoverished tenants to North America.
  • In the years following the famine, many parts of the West of Ireland (Galway, Mayo and Donegal) actually experienced population growth – perhaps linked to the continuance of labour intensive mixed farming rather than the more typical pastoral activity.
  • From the early 20th century, significant increases are seen in regions around Dublin City (including the modern commuter counties) and Belfast, Cork and Limerick. Galway City and its environs remain in decline.
  • The heavy emigration of the 1950s is evident, with Connacht and Munster counties most affected.
  • The population growth that started in the 1960s was focused on the cities, when agriculture was becoming less labour-intensive. West Cork and Kerry were particularly affected in the early part of this period while Dublin and the cities continued to grow.
The atlases also compare the current populations of counties to their maximum of 1841. Leitrim is lowest at 17%, while Dublin is greatest at 303%. It is areas of the Border Midlands West (BMW) region which have never recovered the populations once seen, with Cavan (23%), Roscommon (25%) and Mayo (29%) particular examples.

 The NCG team compiled data from the 16 censuses taken on the island of Ireland between 1841 and 2001/2, based on the relatively stable Electoral Divisions that have existed over these years, but making allowances for variations caused around the major cities and some differences to how areas are managed in Northern Ireland.
The atlases can be explored at