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Last Updated: Wednesday, 31 December, 2003, 15:08 GMT
Ireland passes population milestone

By James Helm
BBC Dublin correspondent

The population of the Irish Republic has reached four million, according to the results of the latest census published this month, the highest level in 130 years.

In the 1840s, Ireland's largely rural population, living under British rule, stood at around eight million. From then on, the country's demographic story is one of decline.

St Patrick's Day Dublin
Many Irish families are returning to Ireland
A catastrophic famine in Ireland followed, as did mass emigration, as citizens tried to escape the conditions at home.

From Ireland's shores, boatloads of families sailed to America, Australia and elsewhere, searching for a better life and building communities, many of which still retain very strong Irish links today.

As the Irish diaspora grew, so the population at home fell. By 1961, the population of the by now independent Republic of Ireland was down to its lowest level on record of 2.6 million .

Now, that trend has changed.

Economic migrants

Experts at University College Dublin say a number of factors are involved.

"There are large numbers of Irish people who would have gone abroad in the 1970s who are now coming back to raise their families," said Joe Brady, an urban geographer.

"There are people of Irish ethnic origin who are coming back... attracted by the kind of jobs, the high wage economy that it is.

"And then we are experiencing something which we never experienced before - we are getting large numbers of economic migrants, people who are coming from poorer countries."

Ireland's population has now grown by more than a third in the last 30 years. The country's economy experienced rapid growth in the 1990s, what was known as the Celtic Tiger phenomenon.

The latest census figures have been hailed as a milestone here, the growth - beyond four million - put down to the mix of returning Irish people plus new migrants from Africa, Asia or Eastern Europe.

However, commentators warn that there is no guarantee that Ireland's population growth will continue.

Country profile: Ireland
10 Sep 03  |  Country profiles

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