A YEAR ago, our Taoiseach landed himself in a spot of bother with one of those off-piste, throwaway remarks he makes — the type which must make his PR team face-palm in horror.
As we faced into another winter of discontent in our health service, Leo Varadkar suggested consultants and nurses should avoid the temptation to take holidays in the first two weeks of January, when hospitals were often at breaking point.
Cue outrage from frontline staff, who work every hour god sends... and the rest!
Perhaps, if Leo’s feeling brave, he might venture to make a similar point this month in relation to midwives.
Because, for our hard-pushed (pun intended) maternity hospitals, September is baby boom time — the busiest month of the year, when all hands need to be on deck.
To find the reason for this, which is a truism across the western world, simply do the math. September minus nine months is December — Christmas! All that mulled wine, all that bonhomie, all those beatific infant dolls in cribs, looking so cherubic, not wailing, needing a nappy change or waking you at 2am (that comes nine months later...)
Yes, December is bonk time and September is baby boom time!
However, this Christmas, an amorous couple may well get a bit more than they bargained for: For some time, possibly next autumn, possibly in September, 2020, when midwives are rushed off their feet, a rather special child will be born: Our five millionth citizen.
Nobody will know exactly when, nobody will know exactly who — there are on average 24 babies born every day in Dublin’s Rotunda alone, that’s one every half hour — but, in the blink of an eye, and in the first breath of a back-slapped child, our population will cross a significant threshold.
The last time there were five million people in the area of the Republic of Ireland was around 1853, soon after the 1851 Census, when the population was in serious decline due to famine and emigration.
The number living here crashed from a high of around 8 million pre-famine to a low of 2.82 million in 1961, but has steadily climbed back since.
Generally, rising populations are seen as a good thing: a thriving economy, more people born than dying, citizens living longer...
However, in recent years, this once universal truth has been turned on its head.
As headline predictions around climate change become more and more scary, many people point to the expanding populations in the western world as a bad thing.
Recently, in the UK, new dad Prince Harry revealed that he and his wife Meghan would only have one more child, to do their bit to offset population growth. It was a controversial statement, but he is far from alone.
Recently, I read about a movement of women known as BirthStrikers, who have decided not to have children in response to what they fear is an imminent “climate breakdown and civilisation collapse”. Some of these women feel that less people on the planet will lead to a better spread of the earth’s natural resources, while others are so alarmed by some of the predictions that they don’t want to bring offspring into a cruel Armageddon-style future.
The Birthstrike movement received the political seal of approval in the U.S. recently, when congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez stated: “It does lead young people to have a legitimate question: is it OK still to have children?”
Hundreds of women have since signed up to this movement.
Which leaves our forthcoming ‘five millionth citizen’ landmark looking a bit awkward.
After all, we have a Taoiseach who often comes across as being as ‘woke’ as the likes of Prince Harry and the BirthStrikers when it comes to the environment — especially when that means pointing the finger of blame at Brazil’s burning rainforest instead of addressing Ireland’s abject record on emission targets.
However, Leo has signalled his delight that Ireland’s demographic is about to burst through another glass ceiling. He recently tweeted: “Ireland’s population now approaching five million. More people living, working and raising families in Ireland than at any point since independence. Our people are our greatest strength.”
Rousing stuff, although cynics might reckon that Leo was thinking of five million potential voters when he made that remark — but, you know something, I’m actually with him on this.
This country’s rising population is a tribute to a lot of people working together towards a better quality of life, with the health service making childbirth safer at one end, and helping the elderly live longer at the other.
A high birth rate, as Ireland has had for a number of years compared to neighbouring countries, also means that we are a relatively ‘young’ nation — even if most of the next generation now sit silently attached to smartphones instead of kicking footballs against windows in the street.
The rising population is also testament to Ireland becoming a more welcoming country for immigrants who want to live and work here and enrich our culture.
Moreover, there is something terribly sad and depressing about getting yourself so worked up about the environment that you boycott the very idea of having children.
Of course, anyone is free to choose to not have a child, for whatever reason they like, but to deny yourself the joy and love of a family on environmental grounds seems to be almost surrendering to the doom-mongers.
We all hear the shrill warnings, but a mood of optimism that humanity will work it out is surely a handy tool to have?
No, I for one will join Leo in celebrating the birth of our five millionth citizen next year — and here’s to the six millionth some time in the not too distant future.
For those among you worried that there isn’t room for another few million people on this small island, let me share a story I wrote in this paper 16 years ago.
I had been to Sri Lanka on my honeymoon and marvelled at how an area smaller than Ireland could accommodate 19.2 million people. At the time, Ireland’s population was approaching four million.
Today, as Ireland nears its five millionth, Sri Lanka’s population has grown to 21.3 million.
There’s surely room for a few more million here.
Time to stock up on those moody candles for Christmas... your country needs YOU!