Microsoft has discontinued support for Internet Explorer, which means it doesn't use modern web technologies, and some pages won't display correctly.
We recommend using Google Chrome for the best viewing experience.

Understanding trends of population loss across Irish Electoral Divisions since 1986

RSA Blog
RSA Blog Europe Ireland

This blog was written for the RSA Blog Student Summer Series that will highlight graduate student success in regional studies across the globe throughout the summer. 


Population loss in regions has gained attention internationally. This phenomenon is referred to as regional shrinkage in academic literature. A European Parliament report defined shrinking regions as regions which are losing a significant proportion of their population over a period greater than or equal to one generation (20-30 years). This blog maps and identifies patterns of population loss in Irish Electoral Divisions (EDs), using data from the Irish Census of Population between 1986 and 2016 which is conducted every 4-6 years. EDs are the smallest legally defined administrative areas in Ireland. In total, there are 3,440 EDs. For confidentiality and consistency across censuses, some EDs are merged, leaving 3,384 EDs.

Figure 1 shows 30% of EDs (1,022) lost population between 1986-2016 across Ireland. It is most prominent in the midlands and west of Ireland. However, some urban areas have also experienced population loss during this period. Most strikingly, there is a ring formation of population loss at ED level around Dublin’s city core. This is despite county Dublin’s population rising between 1986-2016.


Figure 1 – Population Change in Irish EDs (1986-2016)

Source: CSO and ISSDA, 1986-2016. Map by author.


Figure 1 measures population change in one year (1986) compared to another year (2016). It conceptualises shrinkage as either shrinking or not shrinking. However, it is beneficial to conceptualise shrinkage in a more complex manner. Each ED that lost population during the overall 30-year period did not necessarily experience continuous decline between 1986 to 2016. EDs may have experienced population loss in early periods and subsequently recovered. Others only recently experienced population loss, while others consistently lost population.

Previous research suggested regions which experience repeated population loss are likely worse off compared to regions that only experience population loss in one period. Regions can face problems such as ageing populations, and falls in labour force participation.

To conceptualise different shrinkage trajectories, EDs were divided into categories based on population loss patterns:

Category Description Frequency Percentage
No population loss EDs that lost no population during any period 327 9.66
Occasional 2 or 3 periods of loss 947 27.98
Recent Recent population loss, includes EDs that lost population in 86-91 327 9.66
Early Only Early period population loss (Discontinued) 950 28.07
Consistent 4 or more periods of loss 833 24.62


Figure 2: Population Loss Patterns in Irish EDs (1986-2016)

Source: CSO and ISSDA, 1986-2016. Map by author.


The yellow regions in Figure 2 represents EDs that have experienced consistent population loss (4 or more periods). Population loss has become commonplace in these EDs. These are EDs of particular interest as the effects of population loss should be most evident within them. Understanding what drives consistent population loss is important for ensuring evidence-based policymaking. While these EDs are predominately in the west and midlands, or more rural areas, there are EDs circling Dublin’s urban centre which also experience consistent population loss. This captures how consistent shrinkage is a regional issue, not just a rural or urban issue.

Light green represents EDs with early shrinkage. These EDs declined in earlier periods but the loss is discontinued. They are now on a growth trajectory. Ireland faced an almost unprecedented recession and high levels of outwards migration during the 80s and 90s. Estimated net migration figures for 1981-1986 and 1986-1991 are -71,883 and -134,170 respectively. The annual average unemployment rate fell from 17.1% to 14.7% during 1986-1991. The population loss patterns may stem from individuals migrating internally within Ireland or abroad for employment. 1986 was the peak of unemployment during the 30-year period. These could be the factors driving early period population loss.

Dark green represents EDs which experienced recent population loss. This pattern may be due to the global recession. The estimated net migration figures for 2011-2016 are -28,558. Unemployment sharply rose from 4.8% in 2007, peaking at 15% in 2012. Once again, individuals may have migrated internally within Ireland or abroad for employment.

Dark blue represents occasional periods of population loss. These EDs fluctuated between periods of population growth and loss. Less of a connection to migration figures can be drawn here. More work is necessary to understand the factors that drive the change in these EDs.

Purple represents no population loss. These EDs have been resilient against population loss and shrinkage. They tend to be urban EDs, close to cities (e.g., Dublin and Cork). Some EDs in the west and midlands are also blue. More work is needed to assess what separates them from other western and midland EDs.

This project has thus far conceptualised shrinkage patterns in Ireland since 1986. More work must be done to determine what is driving this population loss/shrinkage across Irish Electoral Divisions. There could be a variety of causes including economic, sociodemographic, or locational factors. As my research progresses, I will empirically identify what the drivers of population loss are across Irish Electoral Divisions.



Josh O’Driscoll (Twitter: @Josh_O_Driscoll, LinkedIn) is a first-year PhD student in the Spatial and Regional Economics Research Centre (SRERC), Department of Economics and Department of Food Business & Development in Cork University Business School, University College Cork. His research interest includes population loss, regional shrinkage, and shrinking regions.


Are you currently involved with regional research, policy, and development? The Regional Studies Association is accepting articles for their online blog. For more information, contact the Blog Editor at

We use cookies to improve your website experience. To learn about our use of cookies and how you can manage your cookie settings, please see our Cookie Policy. By closing this message, you are consenting to our use of cookies.