If you hear or read the phrase ‘the Irish Revolution’, chances are you are thinking of the period of violent upheaval that culminated in the founding of the state a hundred years ago. But perhaps we should rather think of a much more recent period of transformation.
The paradox of the national revolution of a century ago is that it changed so little of ordinary Irish life. The way we lived in the 1950s would not have looked drastically different from the way we were in the 1920s.
This was partly because the greatest social revolution – the transfer of land ownership from the Ancestry to their former tenants – had already taken place. It was also partly the result of the political marginalization of the radical feminists and socialists who had imposed themselves during the years of turmoil.
But above all, the extraordinary continuity of life was rooted in three great factors.
Massive emigration, established as a norm since the beginning of the 19th century, has remained an inescapable reality. The economy became, after partition removed the industrial powers of the North, even more agrarian, and therefore even more dependent on the British food market. And the institutional power of the Catholic Church has rather intensified.
These three forces have completely reversed over the past 30 years. Perhaps then the real Irish revolution is the one that has taken place since the early 1990s.
This year’s B&A Sign of the Times report provides a helpful reminder of how life in Ireland has changed dramatically since 1991 – and some intriguing clues as to how our mindsets may (or may not) have changed as a result.
If, like me, you are in your 60s, you can divide your life into two halves. In the first half, your parents’ world didn’t seem so far away. In the second half, the world of your own childhood started to seem really, really far away.
The greatest transformation is in (and through) education. Thirty years ago, only 14% of the population had a higher level of education. At the last census in 2016, the proportion was 42%. This year’s census will no doubt show that it is at or very close to half the population.
It is a silent and bloodless revolution, but it is transforming everyday life far more profoundly than anything that happened when the Union Flag fell and the Tricolor was raised. . Without it, the other vast changes – the rise of women as paid workers, the changed nature of the family, the emergence of a high-tech economy and the decline of religion – would be unimaginable.
Women’s access to higher education has been key to the explosion of jobs in the service economy. While industrial employment has not grown at all over the past 30 years, there are 1.5 million more jobs in services than there were in 1991.
This new female labor force changed the nature of the Irish family, with a rapid growth in two-earner households and a (rather milder) decline in the fertility rate. But (given how crucial the stay-at-home mom was to maintaining a conservative Catholic culture), it’s also a significant factor in the decline of religious practice.
While in 1991, 75% said they went to church regularly, this figure is now only 30%. The survey suggests that many more of us go to the hairdresser or the piggy bank every month than to mass.
These radical transformations have their echoes in the granular details of life. The bread and wine of the mass may have been replaced by those staples of the bourgeois table, garlic and wine. In 1991, only 17% of us ate a garlic flavored meal once a week. Now almost half of us do. And the weekly indulgence for wine has tripled over the same period. What was once foreign and exotic has now been completely domesticated.
However, the survey points to an apparent paradox: in this period of extraordinary transformation, we remain very cautious in the face of change. It’s fascinating to see that in 1991, 79% of us agreed that “I prefer things to stay stable and settled” and now the figure is, at 80%, surprisingly similar.
More strikingly, the proportion of people agreeing to say “I like to try new and different things” has actually declined since 1991. The Irish’s desire for stability itself seems very stable.
However, the underlying nature of this desire may have changed. Thirty years ago, Ireland was still a very conservative and religious society – the abortion and divorce referendums of the 1980s showed that around two-thirds of us still held to orthodox Catholic beliefs about reproductive rights and the nature of the family.
One might suspect that the desire for stability is now less about conservatism and more about anxiety. The great social revolution of the past 30 years may have made life better for most people, but it hasn’t made it any less turbulent.
Some of the fear is undoubtedly linked to the global experiences of the Covid-19 pandemic, the war in Ukraine and its growing effects on inflation, and the climate emergency. Some, however, is grown at home.
A sense of security depends on access to health care when you need it and secure, affordable housing. It is not surprising to find in this survey that the Irish are not confident on any of these points. The chances of Ireland feeling ‘stable and settled’ before the housing and healthcare systems are fixed look very small.
People also know that these local crises threaten the political and social order. Women, people over 35 and people living outside Dublin are much more likely to report having less income now than a year ago – yet one in three middle-class Dubliners say they have more of income. Middle-class Irish people are now twice as likely to say they are “living comfortably financially” than their working-class compatriots.
Less than half of us think Ireland is on track to becoming a more equal society – a remarkable figure in a state that has actually expanded educational opportunities and become far more inclusive for women and LGBT+ people.
But women have borne the brunt of the pandemic, and the experience has undoubtedly made them more skeptical of the day-to-day reality of equality. And social class, as the survey shows, remains a key determinant of our relationship to the economy and to society.
Until there is at least one compelling story about health, housing and economic equality, the second Irish revolution will not be stabilized.