Ireland’s secular left often seems obsessed with curtailing religious education. Yet the subject they should pay closest attention to is multiplication. The evidence shows that Irish people who are more traditionally minded are having substantially more children those of a more secular mindset.
Many seem perpetually baffled by the stubbornly high parental demand for Catholic schooling. Yet one reason for this is very simple. Catholics have more kids. And generally the more serious a Catholic you are, the more kids you have.
The numbers speak for themselves. In 2016, 69.1% of the all-Ireland population identified as Catholic on the censuses, north and south. Yet they were responsible for 76.8% of births, as evidenced by the Catholic baptism figures, north and south.
Unfortunately, the Catholic church only keeps baptism figures on an all-Ireland basis. However, a reasonable way of estimating the percentage of all births baptised Catholic in the republic is to strip out 50% of all Northern Irish births as being Protestants. This new total can be treated as broadly reflective of the likely proportion in the republic. This method suggests that in 2016, an estimated 89% percent of babies born in the republic were baptised as Catholics.
This is an incredible statistic. In 2016, just 78% of the republic’s population identified as Catholic. Yet they were producing up to 89% of the babies. This perfectly explains why parental demand supports retaining 89% of primary schools as Catholic seven years on, just as those children are entering school.
The available data suggests that, in 2016, just 54% of those aged between 16 and 29 identified as Catholic. This makes the high baptism rate all the more remarkable. It suggests that those of childbearing age who identify as Catholic are producing a truly disproportionate number of babies.
The 2017 figures similarly suggest that the 69% of the all-Ireland population identifying as Catholic was responsible for 74.45% of all births, north and south. Again, stripping out 50% for the British-identifying northern Ireland population, an estimated 86% of babies born in the republic were baptised as Catholics in 2017.
The higher birth rate amongst Catholics is also evidenced by 2019 research by Catholic education groups, which found that 78 per cent of Irish parents wanted the Catholic Church to have a role in continuing to shape the ethos of schools. However, even that high proportion is likely an underrepresentation, since a Catholic parent of five surveyed is given the same weight as a more secular-minded parent of two. Given the higher Catholic birth rates, the Catholic baptism figures are a better predictor of future school demand.
In some areas, greater school choice is needed to cater for parents of different faiths and none. However, it is remarkable how many of those who argue for the abolition of Catholic schools are atheists with no children at all. At some level, they must realise that the future is not theirs. The best long-term hope for their political project is to use the power of the state to convert Christian children to their secular ideology. This explains their vociferous insistence on undermining Catholic education, and their fervent desire to impose their own ideology on other people’s children.
Cultural and political victories like the 2018 abortion referendum give the secular left the impression of being in the ascendancy. However, it may be that these are pyrrhic victories. Perhaps permissive attitudes to issues such as abortion merely result in that political tribe reducing its own numbers. Certainly, in the US, the evidence shows that Republicans have gained a substantial fertility advantage over Democrats.
This political and cultural birth-rate disparity is largely due to the left’s values being more permissive on abortion, birth control, divorce, individualism, and a range of behaviours which ultimately lead to very little reproduction. Indeed, the sexual revolution ushers in a demographic winter wherever it is embraced. All across the west, it is increasingly revealing itself as a demographically failed revolution. The future belongs to those who reject it. In Europe, those who rebel against its diktats are often Christians, Muslims or secular people who value a more traditional way of life and family structure.
Pro-natal ideas are not an exclusively religious phenomenon. Elon Musk, who has six kids, recently called declining birth rates “one of the biggest risks to civilization”. Pro-natal values are often more a cultural phenomenon. In Ireland, those who embrace something resembling the traditional Irish way of life are having far more children than those who do not.
Many who embrace this way of life are not Catholic, or religious per se. Many are liberal in certain matters, but they value a way of life which involves lifelong marriage and a good clatter of children, embedded in a close extended family. Choosing to have a child baptised – even if largely for cultural or social reasons – is a reasonable indicator that a person places some value on the traditional Irish way of life. Ireland’s Catholic baptism statistics show that such people, along with more religiously committed Catholics, are clearly having far more babies than less traditionally-minded Irish people.
Ireland’s birth rate has crashed to 1.6. This statistic seems bizarre from my corner of rural Ireland, where most families have 3 or 4 children. The truth is that there are now two Irelands, with two separate ways of life, underpinned by two separate value systems. Traditional Ireland has been largely eradicated from the political and media landscape as an archaic irrelevancy. Yet it cannot be ignored for long, for traditional Ireland enjoys a distinct fertility advantage over modern Ireland.
Rory Fitzgerald is a journalist and lawyer.