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Ireland has been inhabited since Stone Age times. For more than five thousand years peoples moving westwards across the European continent have settled in the country and each new group of immigrants, Celts, Vikings, Normans, English, has contributed to its present population.In 1841, shortly before the Great Famine, the area comprising the present Irish State had a population of over 6.5 million. The next census (1851) showed a massive decline to 5.1 million for the same area, due to deaths from starvation and disease and large-scale emigration.
The outflow thus begun became a dominant feature of the population pattern over the succeeding years. By 1961 the population of the State stood at 2.8 million, the lowest census figure on record. From 1961 onwards the pattern changed. A combination of natural increase and the commencement of inward net migration resulting from increased prosperity produced an average annual rise in population of 0.6% in the period 1981 to 1986. Between 1986 and 1991, largely as a result of the resumption of emigration, an average annual fall in population of 0.1% was recorded. At the 1991 census the total population of the State was 3,525,719. In 1994 the population was estimated at 3.571 million.
The major centres of population are Dublin (915,000), Cork (174,000), Limerick (75,000), Galway (51,000), Waterford (42,000), and Dundalk (30,000). 59% of the population live in cities and towns of 1,000 people or more. Overall population density is 51 persons per square kilometre with large variations between the east and south, where densities are highest, and the less populous west of the country.
A high proportion of the population is concentrated in the younger age-groups. Approximately 43% of the population is under 25 and approximately 27% is under 15.In 1993 for the first time on record the birth rate fell below the minimum population replacement rate of 2.1 births per woman during child-rearing age, to 1.93 births per woman. Total births in 1993 were 49,456 and, if present trends continue, the annual number of births could fall below 40,000 by the year 2007. This compares with a peak of 74,064 births recorded in 1980.