'VANISHING IRISH' IS ONLY AN ILLUSION
By Prof. DENIS GWYNN,
who says that the trouble is the aftermath of long misgovernment, lack of employment and a positive revolt against primitive conditions of life.
ASTORM of controversy was provoked by some of the essays in The Vanishing Irish* when it was published in America last year. Those who may now read this English edition will wonder why it was taken so seriously.
Fr. O'Brien, who has edited several extremely popular books of Catholic apologetics, is the grandson of Irish emigrants, and has retained a romantic attachment to Ireland. Being appalled by the shrinkage of Ireland's population during the past century and by the abnormally low marriage rate in Ireland, he advances the curious theory that Irish Catholics have acquired an instinctive repugnance towards marriage.
He even attempts to show that the descendants of Irish emigrants in America and in other countries share an unnatural tendency to race suicide.
WOUR of the 18 chapters in
this collection of essays are written by Fr. O'Brien himself, always with a fervent affection and admiration for Ireland. Hence it would be absurd to regard the book as an anti-clerical outburst; though some of his contributors, responding to his request to write freely, do argue that the Church has discouraged marriage by its puritanism in Ireland and its constant interference with dances and other forms of amusement which bring young men and women together.
Mr. Sean O'Faolain's lively essay has been widely denounced in that sense; but in fact he attributes the problem much more to changing standards of living than to parental or clerical interference.
Sir Shane Leslie, however, blames the Church strongly for "frowning on romance," and he makes some extraordinary statements. "Sunday in all other Catholic countries," he writes, "is courting time. In Ireland, however, the men and women are kept carefully on different sides of the church."
There is no relation to facts in that assertion, unless he may have some dim recollection of such a practice in remote country parishes during his childhood. He might as well say that Irish men and women are not allowed to walk down the same side of the street.
Fr. O'Brien's impressions have perhaps been partly derived from such fantastic assertions.
WITH the aid of graphs and diagrams, which produce a startling effect by distorting the general proportions, Fr. O'Brien convinces himself that "Ireland as a nation has been vanishing for more than a century from the face of the earth."
In one of these diagrams, three contrasting figures are placed side by side. One enormous figure represents the Irish population of 1846; the next, less than half the size, represents 1945; and a tiny figure suggests his prophecy for 2040. Ile declares sadly that the Irish population has "dwindled to less than half, instead of tripling in the course of a century as the other nations of Europe did."
Such statements show a strange lack of perspective. France, for instance, has by no means tripled its population since 1845, but has been threatened with real decline through family limitation. And the catastrophic decline in Ireland between 1845 and 1860 was caused by an appalling three years of
famine and its aftermath. The Irish famine was an abnormal event, like the first World War in France, but with far more devastating results at the time.
fielERIOUS comparison is Ipossible only if we start at some later date, such as 1881 or 1901, when the direct results of famine had passed. In this more recent period, of several generations, the Irish figures on the whole have not been very different from the average. The marriage rate has been the lowest in Europe but large families have kept up the average of births; whereas more numerous marriages elsewhere have shown a steady decline in births.
If Irish emigration had been less persistent, there would in most years have been an increase, from the surplus of births over deaths. Emigration to America has long ceased to be a major problem; but emigration to England has grown rapidly, especially during and after the two World Wars.
But this recent emigration is very different in character from the tragic exodus of earlier years. Many of the temporary emigrants, or their children, return to Ireland; and their wider experience is in many ways a great advantage, on Social and economic grounds, though the effect on faith and morals is a constant problem.
Moreover, there is large compensation in the wide diffusion of Irish influence and sympathies in Great Britain and in many other countries.
LIR. O'BRIEN'S chief concern arises from his strange belief that young Irish men and women have acquired a morbid distaste for marriage. Yet the desire for opportunities to marry is one of the chief reasons why young people emigrate.
He quotes terrifying statistics to show that in various districts (which he describes as "typical" or -famous") both the young and the old are mostly unmarried. But he is usually dealing with bleak and infertile counties where young people can no longer be induced to remain if there are any means of escape to more promising places.
Fr. O'Brien's most convincing witness is Bishop Lucey of Cork. who made a memorable speech during Confirmation in west Cork soon after he had succeeded to the see.
Dr. 1.ucey had spent years in Maynooth, and he had then been studying a greatly changed diocese at close quarters. He declared then that "the rural population is vanishing, and with it is vanishing the Irish race itself. Rural Ireland is stricken and dying, and the will to marry on the land is almost gone."
Hut even Bishop Lueey's impressive assertion concerned only the bleak western part of his large diocese, where many of the smallholdings can scarcely provide a meagre living without supplementary earnings by seasonal labour elsewhere.
Here, as in all such districts, the young have been seeking outlets by emigration, either to Dublin or the Irish towns, or to urban employment in England.
THE main problem is lack 1. of employment in Ireland, and of prospects comparable with the conditions that can be got elsewhere. From these infertile lands, generations of Irish Catholics have had to extract a living since they were huddled there as "displaced persons" after the good lands had been confiscated.
Much can still be done to retain the dwindling population in these areas; but it is no sign of national decadence if the young people seek more promising conditions elsewhere.
An American priest, Fr. Murray, who has been studying conditions closely in Ireland, contributes a very sensible essay which insists upon the need for capital—and confidence—to develop Irish land, and especially the neglected and unprofitable areas.
There are very hopeful essays also by Canon Hayes, the founder and head of the Muintir na Tire movement, which aims at reviving country life, and by John F. Sheridan, who writes with discrimination and wide knowledge.
THE most serious danger to 1° Ireland's small population
is the now real tendency towards smaller families. Fr. O'Brien's pro
paganda for earlier marriages would be of little value for his purpose, if they show result in deliberate restriction of families by one means or another.
As things stand, the Irish population is certainly not vanishing. It is actually showing a small in crease each year, in spite of persistent emigration. Actually, the main loss of population during the past 20 years has been due to the deliberate exodus of non-Catho
lics; while the Catholic population has shown a slight, but perceptible, increase,
But emigration will always continue, and must surely be regarded as a sign of racial vitality rather
than decay. It arises partly from the desire for adventure; partly from present lack of employment at home; and partly from positive revolt against the primitive conditions of the poorer districts.
Some of the counties, around Dublin particularly, which were
bled white by emigration during
the past century are now reviving rapidly. There are many healthy
signs of economic progress centred around such progressive cities as Cork or Limerick or Sligo or Athlone, which restore vitality to all the surrounding districts.
Aa LL this talk Of repugnance 4.W towards marriage and towards family life must seem remote to anyone who knows the eager desire of young people to find opportunity to live their own lives in new surroundings.
Lack of capital and the neglect of native resources during centuries of misgovernment under a rapacious system of landowning have made rural life in Ireland a dreary business in many areas. The young escape as soon as they can to more attractive and promising conditions.
But all countries provide a similar problem, and few have the same scope for rapid development if assistance is forthcoming.
A tradition of deep attachment to the homeland and the possession of great natural resources, in a wonderfully favoured position at the edge of the Atlantic, together provide the basis for a vigorous revival and expansion.
Fr O'Brien's fears about the "Vanishing Irish" will convince nobody in Ireland; and it will surarise many of those who have beeorne constantly aware, in other countries. of the continual expansion of Irish colonisation abroad. * THE VANISHING IRISH, Edited by
Fr. John A. O'Brien (Allen, 12s. 6d.).