AN ISLAND OFF THE COAST OF AN ISLAND

DEMOGRAPHICS

When the new president of the Irish Republic, Mary Robinson, made a post-election visit to her native County Mayo, on the west coast of Ireland, she told the crowd that she ``would always have a candle'' lit in the presidential residence for those who have had to leave the country to find work. It was a telling detail. Emigrants are continually mentioned like this, as a family would remember an absent soldier son who has had to miss a wedding or a graduation. It is a kind of Irish diaspora.

The problem has been birthrates well ahead of the economy's capacity to produce jobs. But birthrates have fallen dramatically in the past 10 years, says J. J. Sexton, a demographer at the Economic and Social Research Institute here in Dublin, as a result of changing attitudes toward contraception, and also of the effects of the long, hard recession of the early 1980s.

``We're converging on European norms,'' he says. For years, Ireland had a fairly constant rate of 22 births per 1,000 inhabitants, as compared with a more typical European rate of 12 or 13. But the Irish rate tumbled to 16.6 births by 1987, ``and has fallen further since then.''

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