Making sense of the census

The preliminary results from Census 2016 were published earlier this month by the Central Statistics Office and they make for interesting yet perhaps also nervous reading for Mayo folk. The latest survey of the Republic’s population, which was taken on April 24 last, was definitely comprehensive, asking detailed questions ranging from religion to the type of fuel we use. But what is Census 2016 telling us and is it worth knowing?

Ireland has been part of many censuses since first being included in the British census in 1821. Sadly, only fragments of those decennial censuses survive for County Mayo. The first dependable island wide census for Ireland was taken in 1901. Together with the succeeding catalogue of 1911, valuable details of that particular generation can be gleaned. Due to the political instability of the early 1920s, the next census did not take place until 1926 by which time the Irish Free State had been established. A further 16 censuses have been taken since then, though the Statistics Act, 1993 placed a 100 year embargo on the publication of all recorded data. Thankfully, redacted versions of these censuses can tell us about one of the most important factors determining national government policy, that is, local population levels.

In 1851 a 30 per cent decrease in the population of Mayo was recorded from an all-time high 10 years earlier of 388,887. The effects of the Great Famine had lasting consequences. The county's population decreased steadily for the next 130 years until a meagre reversal in 1979. Since then, the county's population has ebbed and flowed, but by no more than 15,000. The 2016 census indicates that Mayo was one of just three counties to experience a fall in population since the last census in 2011. Districts in west Mayo were again more prone to a decrease. The fall in population, albeit small (0.2 per cent ), may be influencing the county’s vacant dwelling rate. That rate currently stands at 24 per cent of Mayo’s total housing stock. There were population rises of 10 per cent or more, but only in five of the county’s 150 electoral districts; Claremorris, Caraun, Knock North, Kilmaclasser, and Bundorragha. These figures may point to a new migratory lifestyle necessitated by the demand for employment. Mayo records the fourth highest net migration by county between 2011 and 2016. A 63 per cent decrease in the number of farms in our rural county over the past 100 years would certainly support that lifestyle change is occurring.

So, is this information worth knowing? After all, population decreases, big or small, are never healthy advertisements. There are two schools of thought on the importance of embracing these uncomfortable statistics. One believes they provide the Government of the day with ammunition so it can concentrate resources where most of the nation live, in order to service most of the nation. The other believes that highlighting areas of decreasing population should hone government policy so that it addresses the trend and ultimately reverses it. In 1916, the startling figure of 6,471 deaths were caused by tuberculosis (TB ). Some 266 were recorded in Mayo. By the 1970s, and with Government intervention, the disease was all but eradicated in Ireland. Challenging reversals are possible.

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