Society

Population and demographics

As of the 2021 census, the Irish population is 5.1m people. This is the highest population level recorded since before the Great Famine (1845-52) which led to a rapid population decline through starvation and emigration. From the foundation of the state in 1922 until the early 1970s, the population remained static at around 3 million people, despite Ireland having one of the highest fertility rates in Western Europe. This apparent contradiction is explained by high levels of emigration incentivised by the relatively weak state of the Irish economy, especially in the 1950s and 1980s.

However, with the expansion of the economy in the 1960s population levels began to expand and the Celtic Tiger conditions of the 1990s and 2000s encouraged net immigration driving the population to increase at a pace not seen since before the Famine. In 2000 the population was 3.8m. The 2022 figure represents a 40% increase on this. Between 2016 and 2022 alone, the rate of increase was 7.6% (or 360,000 people). 190,000 of those were the result of net inward migration.

Despite this increase, Ireland still has a low population density  by Western European standards - 73 people per km2 in Ireland compared to 280 people per km2 in the UK and the EU average of 109 per km2. Furthermore, the population is increasingly concentrated in urban areas: the Greater Dublin area alone accounts for 40% of the total population. The metropolitan area population of Cork, the next largest city, is just over 300,000. There are just 10 towns and cities with populations in excess of 30,000 people, limiting the viability of media outlets outside the major urban centres. Furthermore the Scandinavian population density levels (i.e. sub 30 people per km2) in some areas of the midlands and west creates a strong disincentive for telecommunications infrastructure providers to expand broadband networks in these areas. The state has been forced to step in and heavily subsidise the building of these networks via the National Broadband Plan, which is implemented by National Broadband Ireland, a private company specifically established for this project.

Though the population is young by EU standards, it is also gradually growing older: those over 45 accounted for 31.5% of the population in 1971 but this rose to 40.2% by 2022. There are marked disparities in media use by age. Younger people (under 35s) watch far less linear television than their middle-aged and elderly counterparts. 

Commission for Communication Regulation figures suggest that while 100% of 18-24 year-old mobile phone users had smartphones, this figure dropped to 47% amongst the over-65s.

Languages

There are two official languages in Ireland, English and Irish.  English is more or less universally spoken. The state has expended considerable effort on reviving the Irish language, active use of which has collapsed over the course of the 19th century. Irish is a compulsory subject in primary and secondary education and there are two public service media outlets – Raidió na Gaeltachta (established in 1972) and TG4 (a television channel established in 1996) – which broadcast more or less exclusively through Irish. Despite this the 2022 census saw just 40% of the population claim to be able to speak Irish. Of these, one in four stated that they never did so. Just 1.4% identified themselves as speaking Irish outside an educational context on a daily basis. This is reflected in the low listenership/viewership figures (>2% share) recorded by Raidió na Gaeltachta and TG4.

The relatively high levels of inward migration recorded in Ireland since the 1990s has altered not only the ethnic make-up of the country but also the prevalence of other languages.

The 2016 census revealed that 13% of Irish residents spoke a language other than English or Irish at home. The most commonly spoken languages were Polish (113,225), Lithuanian (30,502) Romanian (26,645) and Portuguese (16,737).

Other than Irish, however, there is little in the way of minority-language media outlets in Ireland. The influx of Polish migrants in the early years of the 21st century saw the emergence of short-lived Polish-language print media such as the Polska Gazette, and the Polish-language supplement with the Wednesday edition of the paper of the Evening Herald in 2006 and 2007. The economic crash of 2008 inaugurated a long term decline in the size of the Polish-born population in Ireland making such outlets less viable to print. Instead many of them have moved online. Though Poles remain the single largest non-Irish nationality living in Ireland their numbers fell by 24% between 2016 and 2022.

Ethnic Groups and Religion 

Population: More and More Diverse

For most of the 20th century Ireland was characterised by high levels of external migration. As recently as the 1980s, somewhere in the region of 450,000 people left the country primarily for economic reasons. That same rationale discouraged inward migration. The situation reversed completely during the “Celtic Tiger” era (1995 - 2008): external migration largely ceased, and internal migration expanded enormously. In consequence, Ireland is moving from largely ethnically homogenous (overwhelmingly white) during the 20th century, towards an - ongoing -  increase in cultural diversity as of 2022.

Tellingly, early Irish censuses did not even include a question relating to ethnicity, asking instead where individuals were born. In 1991, although 6% of Irish residents had been born outside the state, just 0.7% had been born outside Europe (including Ireland) or the United States. By the 2002 census, however, 0.6% of the population was born in “Africa” and a further 0.6% in “Asia”. Flash forward to 2022: while 87% of the population is classified as “white” 3.3% are Asian and 1.5% Black. 20% of the population was born outside. In consequence there has been a distinct shift in ethnic make-up of the population evident in the greater variety of languages and accents heard in Irish towns and cities.

In 2016, there were 535,000 non-Irish nationals living in the country. With 12 nations accounting for three-quarters of these; America, Brazil, France, Germany, India, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Spain and the UK. Poles represent the largest group (123,000 people) followed by UK nationals (103,000) and Lithuanians (37,000). By 2022, the number of non-Irish nationals residents had risen to 631,785 (equivalent to 12% of the population). Individuals born in Poland remain the largest group of non-nationals.

Media: Not so Diverse

This increasingly diverse population is not widely reflected in media personnel or representations. Although institutions such as RTE and the Media Commission have begun to develop Diversity and Inclusion policies, these remain nascent. It is noticeable that the single most significant piece of “official” (that is, regulator-commissioned) research on the subject of diversity in Irish media mainly addresses the question of how to establish the scale of the discrepancy between the presence of particular groups in the population as a whole and their prominence in Irish media. For now, however, the print and broadcast journalism sectors remain overwhelmingly constituted by individuals from a White Irish background. It should also be acknowledged that Community Radio stations sometimes include some element of foreign language programming addressing diasporic communities living in Ireland.

Catholicism remains the most prominent religion as of 2022 with 69% professing to be a member of this church. It is followed by Protestantism (3.6%). However, this reflects an ongoing decline in adherence to both faiths. As recently as 2011, 84.6% of the population identifies as Catholic and 4.1% as Protestant. Orthodox religions now account for 2% of the population, up from 1% in 20211. Islam accounts for 1.6% (up from 1.1% in 2011) and Hinduism for 0.6% (0.2% in 2011). Indeed, the most dramatic shift is in the numbers professing adherence to no faith at all. In 2011 7.3% of the population described themselves as atheists, non-believers or stated no religion. By 2022 this nearly trebled to  21.1%.

The impact of religious change on media consumption is less than significant given the small number of specifically religious publications in Ireland. “The Word”, a periodical published by Divine Word Missionaries from 1936 (and in Ireland from 1953) enjoyed peak sales of 270,000 copies in the late 1960s but this had fallen to 17,000 by 2007 and publication ceased in 2008. The Irish Catholic, a privately-owned newspaper remains the best-selling religious-themed print publication with a claimed audience of 90,000 readers per week. Gript.ie, though not specifically identifying as a religious outlet, is nonetheless clearly associated with a traditional Catholic worldview through its editorial content and ownership.

First in Class

According to Eurostat Ireland ranks at the top of the EU table as the country with the highest levels of educational attainment. As of 2020, 49.9% of the population aged 25 - 64 have achieved high levels of education attainment (i,e. third level) against an EU average of 32.8%.

Despite this, the National Adult Literacy Agency (NALA) suggests that 1 in 6 Irish adults are at or below a level at which an individual may be unable to understand basic written information. Similarly NALA suggests that 1 in 4 Irish adults may struggle with doing simple maths calculations and 42% of Irish adults score at or below level 1 on using technology to solve problems and accomplish tasks. (It should be acknowledged that these statistics are based on a 2012 application of the OECD’s Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) and may no longer describe the situation in Ireland as of 2023. Results of an update of the PIAAC are expected in 2024.)

According to Eurostat, 70% of the Irish population had basic or above basic digital literacy as of 2021 (as compared with an EU average of 56% in 2019).

In their 2017 assessment of Media Literacy policies across Europe, Del Mar Grandio et al locate Ireland as amongst five countries at an "advanced stage" of media and information literacy policy implementation (i.e. ahead of some of the nascent efforts in the Baltic nations but behind the far more established media literacy traditions of the Nordic countries). O'Neill (2019) describes media literacy as a "core element" of the Irish education curriculum but acknowledges that the subject "is not always formally assessed and much depends on the individual teachers and principals in promoting the area within their own schools." In practice, the presence of media literacy varies according to the level of education. At a primary level the new primary curriculum introduced in 2000 specifically provided for Media Education as a strand of the Science and Social Personal and Health (SPHE) element of the curriculum. However, as O'Rourke, Miller and Dunne (2019) note the "extent to which any strand is addressed in a primary school is at the behest of individual school policy." They further argue that "the substantive focus of media literacy education in Ireland is on safe practices when using the internet and social media" describing this as the "minimum amount of media literacy education a primary school pupil is currently exposed to." In other words,  at primary level at least there are no guarantees that students will be exposed to wider conceptions of media literacy at present.

The 2009 Broadcasting Act offers a definition of media literacy and identifies the promotion of media literacy as one of the ancillary functions of the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland. Section 26(2)(g) (g) states that the BAI should "encourage and foster research, measures and activities which are directed towards the promotion of media literacy, including co-operation with broadcasters, educationalists and other relevant persons."

The public face of media literacy activities in Ireland is represented by Media Literacy Ireland which was established in 2018 as an  alliance of organisations and individuals working to promote media literacy in Ireland. Facilitated and supported by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, the 240-plus MLI members are drawn from media, communications, academia, online platforms, libraries and civil society backgrounds.  Pre-pandemic, MLI's activities arguably had a low public profile. MLI became actively engaged in media literacy as a means of countering disinformation in the lead up to the 2019 European elections This was manifested in the creation of a national Be Media Smart campaign which was considerably amplified in 2020 to focus on accurate and reliable information about Covid-19 and again, in 2021 the initiative focusing the need to make informed choices about the Covid-19 vaccination based on accurate and reliable information. This saw the reach of the  Be Media Smart campaign extended to include delivery across TV, radio, online and the press, bolstered by access to free air-time, editorial, online ad-credit, social media activity and events from a very wide range of MLI members. The two PSMs, RTÉ, TG4, along with Webwise made particularly significant contributions in the development stage. Subsequently  Virgin Media, Sky Ireland, Learning Waves and the commercial radio sector, the community media sector, Newsbrands Ireland, the Library Association of Ireland and the online platforms also made key strategic contributions. 

Low Trust in News Online

According to Eurobarometer 66% of the Irish population express medium to high levels of trust in the media as a whole, just above the EU average of 61%. Frequency use of media does not correlate with trust in different media forms. Thus although just 44% of people identify radio as their most used source of news, it is identified as the most trusted medium in Ireland: 65% of news audiences “tend to trust” the medium (as opposed to 56% in the rest of the EU). Television comes in second with 59%. Despite low levels of use, 52% of news consumers tend to trust the printed press.

Irish news consumers tend to be more sceptical than most with regard to online news sources: just 26% of the population tend to trust internet news sources (as compared with 35% in the rest of the EU), a figure which falls to 17% for social networks. 37% of Irish news consumers express the belief that they have “often” or “very often” been exposed to disinformation in the previous seven days (as compared with 28% in the rest of the EU). However, Irish news consumers also express more confidence in their capacity to recognise disinformation than any other EU citizens. Fully 81% state that they are “somewhat” or “very” confident of their ability to distinguish between real and fake news.

A Rather Safe Place to Live and Report

Generally speaking Ireland is a relatively safe country to live in. Irish crime statistics generally place the country at or below the EU average for the incidence of crimes of violence or theft. Furthermore, the EU as a region is considered to be safe relative to prevailing global standards. The UN’s 2019 Global Study on Homicide established that the global level of homicide deaths was 6.1 per 100,000. The EU figure was 1 per 100,000 and 0.9 per 100,000 for Ireland. Furthermore homicide rates in Ireland  have fallen consistently since the 2010s, dropping to as low as 0.4 per 100,000 in 2021. There are exceptions to this general trend: for example, there were 58 incidents of sexual violence reported per 100,000 of the Irish population in 2021, as compared with an EU average of 46.2.

According to Reporters Without Borders annual Press Freedom Index 2023, Ireland is the one of the healthiest environments for journalists to operate: only Norway ranks higher.  Physical attacks on journalists are rare. The last murder of a journalist related to their profession occurred in 1996 (with the killing of Sunday Independent journalist Veronica Guerin by figures associated with Dublin gangland). Crime journalists continue to report being subject to constant threats from the criminal subjects of their writing. Such journalists typically receive security protection in their homes, receive training in counter-surveillance and regularly liaise with the Police for updates on potential threats. In 2016 Index on Censorship's Mapping Media Freedom project noted that Irish police had warned Irish journalists involved in covering a (still ongoing) feud in Dublin's gangland that their physical safety has been threatened.

The 2021 Future of Media Commission report noted that the Council of Europe’s "The Platform to Promote the Protection of Journalism and Safety of Journalists", had recorded 749 alerts in 40 countries. However, Ireland was one of only two Council of Europe countries not to have featured on the platform at all (the other being Portugal).

Despite this there is some evidence of increases in what might be termed “harassment” of journalists offline and, in particular online. Protests relating to Covid-19 vaccine programmes and Irish immigration policy appear to be associated with such harassment. The European Centre for Press and Media Freedom's Mapping Media Freedom project noted the physical and verbal abuse of an RTÉ camera operator working outside the Four Courts in Dublin's city centre in September 2022 by anti-vaccine protesters. In August 2020 and again in February 2023, a group of 200 protesters picketed the RTÉ campus in Donnybrook, accusing the broadcaster of misleading the Irish public about the Covid-19 virus and immigration policy. As a consequence RTÉ has introduced new security measures including physical barriers around the Television Centre According to the Mapping Media Freedom project "RTÉ has said it was in “ongoing contact” with the gardaí, the national police service of Ireland, over the RTÉ’ staff safety... following a trend of abuse that is becoming more regular".

Research on online harassment suggests that while Irish journalists feel professionally obligated to be active via social media, the experience of female journalists in particular has led them to partially disengage with such platforms since 2018. While male journalists are not free of online attacks, there is a particularly gendered nature to attacks directed at their female counterparts “related to their appearance, attempts to discredit their expertise or professionalism, or comments that included outrightly sexual undertones”.

Sources

Census 2022: Ireland's population hits record levels, BBC (2022), Accessed on 7 October 2023.

Television viewing by 15-34s plunged almost 18% in first half of year, The Irish Times (2022), Accessed on 7 October 2023.

Padraic Kerrigan, Susan Liddy and Anne O’Brien’s 2021 research “Auditing Gender and Diversity Change in Irish Media Sectors” commissioned by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland.

Literacy and numeracy statistics, National Adult Literacy Agency (2013), Accessed on 7 October 2023.

How many citizens had basic digital skills in 2021?, Eurostat (2022), Accessed on 7 October 2023.

"Legal Frameworks for media and information literacy." In Public Policies in Media and Information Literacy in Europe: Cross-Country Comparisons edited by Divina Frau-Meigs, Irma Velez, Julieta Flores Michel (2017).

"Media Literacy in Ireland", Chapter from Renee Hobbs and Paul Mihailidis (Eds) The International Encyclopaedia of Media Literacy, Source Brian O’Neill (2019).

Increasing the Advertising Literacy of Primary School Children in Ireland: Findings from a Pilot RCT - V. O’Rourke, S.J. Miller, L. Dunne (2019).

Broadcasting Act 2009, Irish Statue Book.

Flash Eurobarometer (2022) News and Media Survey 2022. EBU Media Intelligence Service (2022) Trust in Media 2022 Public Version.

Eurostat Crime Database, Eurostat (2023), Accessed on 7 October 2023.

Country Report Ireland, Reporters Without Borders (2023), Accessed on 7 October 2023.

Report of the Future of Media Commission, The Future of the Media Commission (2022), Accessed on 7 October 2023.

The European Centre for Press and Media Freedom “Mapping Media Freedom”.

“Social media and online hostility: Experiences of women in Irish journalism”, Dawn Wheatley (2023), Dublin City University.

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