By Padraic Halpin
DUBLIN (Reuters) - Ireland's population grew three times faster than the euro zone average over the last five years, according to census data released on Thursday that showed a "brain-drain" of youngsters leaving the country was offset by new arrivals.
The surprisingly high population growth of 3.7 percent could bode well for economic expansion in a country that suffered badly from a financial crisis in 2008 that forced many people, particularly young graduates, to seek work overseas.
Initial estimates had suggested that since 2011 the number of people emigrating outpaced the numbers immigrating at a rate of 20,000 per year.
That was revised down to 5,700 a year in the census which is carried out every five years. It still marked the first five-year period since the previous economic crisis of the 1980s that more people emigrated from Ireland than chose it as a home.
Emigration has been an emotive issue since the Great Famine of the 1800s when around one million people fled.
Thursday's data showed huge regional variations with poorer, rural areas accounting for much of the fall compared with a net migration into Dublin, a magnet for foreign labour.
The population stood at 4.76 million after the net outflow of 28,600 marginally offset the natural increase - the number of births minus the number of deaths - of 198,000.
Economists said that put Ireland on a healthier demographic path than most other, aging EU countries.
"These revisions paint a demographic picture that seems entirely consistent with an Irish economy that is now in solid recovery mode after a traumatic downturn," KBC Bank chief economist Austin Hughes said.
"A stronger demographic trajectory also suggests scope for a potentially faster pace of economic growth in coming years. We tentatively estimate that the potential growth rate might now be around 4 percent rather than our previous figure of just over 3 percent."
However, the faster than predicted population increase also emphasised the challenge of Ireland's chronic housing shortage, particularly in places like Dublin where a failure to build even half the 25,000 homes analysts say are needed nationwide each year is pushing living costs up sharply.
Ireland was left with a surplus of houses after 2008 and values were cut in half. But property is scarce in cities while out-of-town housing estates lie empty. The census data showed a housing vacancy rate of just 4 percent in some Dublin areas compared with 21 percent in the west of Ireland.
(Editing by Robin Pomeroy)