The island of Ireland (Éire in Irish, Airlann in Ulster Scots) is the third-largest island in Europe. It lies on the west side of the Irish Sea, close to the island of Great Britain. It is composed of the Republic of Ireland in the south and Northern Ireland, a region of the United Kingdom. The population of the island is about 5.6 million people. The population of the Republic of Ireland recently passed 4 million for the first time since 1871, due to immigration and increased birth rate.
Some physical features of Ireland are shown on this map. See also this larger version with more details.
The island of Ireland is located in northwest Europe in the north Atlantic Ocean, west of Great Britain. It is approximately 53° north of the equator and 8° west of the Greenwich meridian. It has a total area of 84,116 km² (32,477 mi²). Ireland is separated from Britain by the Irish Sea and from mainland Europe by the Celtic Sea.
A ring of coastal mountains surrounds low central plains. The highest peak is Carrauntuohill (Irish: Corrán Tuathail), which is 1041 m (3414 feet). The island is bisected by the River Shannon, at 113 km (70 mi) the longest river in either Britain or Ireland, which flows south from northwest County Cavan to meet the Atlantic just south of Limerick. There are a large number of lakes, of which Lough Neagh is the largest. The island's lush vegetation earns it the sobriquet "Emerald Isle."
Politically, the island of Ireland is divided into:
This partition has existed since 1922, when the Irish Free State came into being as an independent state. Prior to that, the entire island was united politically under the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. Prior to the Act of Union in 1800, it also had an all-Ireland parliament. See Irish States (1171-present).
In a number of areas, the island operates officially as a single entity, for example, in sport. The major religions, the Roman Catholic Church, the Church of Ireland and the Presbyterian Church of Ireland, are organised on an all-island basis. 92% of the population of the Republic of Ireland are Roman Catholic, and 40% in Northern Ireland. Some trades unions are also organised on an all-Irish basis and associated with the Irish Congress of Trades Unions (ICTU) in Dublin, while others in Northern Ireland are affiliated with the Trades Union Congress (TUC) in the United Kingdom. The island also has a shared culture across the divide in many other ways. Traditional Irish music, for example, though showing some variance in all geographical areas, is broadly speaking the same on both sides of the divide.
The island is often referred to as being part of the British Isles. However, many people, especially those from the Republic, take exception to this name, which seems to suggest that the whole island belongs to Britain. For this reason, "Britain and Ireland" is commonly used as a more neutral alternative. Another suggestion, although used much less, is the Islands of the North Atlantic (IONA).
The division of the island into "Northern" and "Republic" is a relatively recent development, only coming about in 1920 after hundreds of years of violent repression, penal laws and various failed rebellions against English occupation. The island itself has been inhabited for about 9,000 years. Not much is known of pre-Christian Ireland, the only references are a few Roman writings, Irish poetry and myth, and archaeology. Stone age inhabitants arrived sometime after 8000 BC, with the culture progressing from Mesolithic to high Neolithic over the course of three or four millennia. This saw the appearance of huge stone monuments, many of them astronomically aligned. The Bronze Age, which began around 2500 BC, saw the production of elaborate gold and bronze ornaments and weapons. See the Early history of Ireland for a fuller treatment of this period of Irish history. The Iron Age in Ireland is associated with the Celts, who colonised Ireland in a series of waves between the 8th and 1st centuries BC. The Gael, the last wave of Celts, conquered the island and divided it into five or more kingdoms. The Romans referred to Ireland as Hibernia. Ptolemy in AD 100 accurately records Ireland's geography and tribes. The exact relationship between Rome and the tribes of Hibernia is unclear.
Tradition maintains that in AD 432, St. Patrick arrived on the island and, in the years that followed, worked to convert the Irish to Christianity. The druid tradition collapsed in the face of the spread of the new faith. Irish scholars excelled in the study of Latin learning and Christian theology in the monasteries that flourished, preserving Latin learning during the Dark Ages. The arts of manuscript illumination, metalworking, and sculpture flourished and produced such treasures as the Book of Kells, ornate jewelry, and the many carved stone crosses that dot the island. Sites dating to this period include clochans, ringforts and promontory forts. This golden age was interrupted in the 9th century by 200 years of intermittent warfare with waves of Viking raiders who plundered monasteries and towns. The Vikings eventually founded many seacoast towns in Ireland.
In 1172, King Henry II of England gained Irish lands, and from the 13th century, English law began to be introduced. English rule was largely limited to the area around Dublin known as the Pale initially, but this began to expand in the 16th century with the final collapse of the Gaelic social and political superstructure at the end of the 17th century due to manipulation by the British government. In the middle of the 1800's the country suffered a huge potato famine. The ruling local elite's laissez-faire approach to this catastrophe meant that millions were starving, spurring emigration waves to Britain, North America and Australia. The result was that, between deaths and emigration, the population dropped from over 8 million before the Famine to 4.4 million in 1911. From that time, English influence and expansion grew, and with it spread the English language. Over time there grew a movement to shake off British rule, and for Ireland to become independent.
An attempt was made to gain independence for Ireland with the 1916 Easter Rising, an insurrection largely confined to Dublin. Though support for the insurgents was not entirely widespread, the suppression of the rebellion, and subsequent executions by the British government galvanised support for independence. A war of independence, or the Anglo-Irish War raged from 1919 to 1921, resulting in the creation of Southern Ireland (becoming the Irish Free State) and Northern Ireland (which remained in the Union).
The new Irish Free State struggled throughout its early years. Unemployment and emigration were high. In 1937, a new constitution proclaimed the state of Éire (or Ireland), followed by its becoming a republic in 1949. The neutrality of the state throughout World War II saved it from the horrors of the war, but it was hit badly by rationing of food, and coal in particular (peat production became a priority during this time). Even until the 1980s, Ireland continued to be a "backward" country, struggling to modernise and thrive. The 1990s saw the emergence of a period of rapid economic growth, modernisation, and a turnaround for the state.
The parliament of Northern Ireland, based in Stormont, was Unionist-dominated. In the 1960s, a civil rights movement for Catholics in the North gathered pace. Tensions came to a head with the events of Bloody Sunday, and the worst years (early 1970s) of what became known as The Troubles resulted. Three decades of conflict followed, with the violence spilling across to Great Britain in the 1980s.
More recently, the Good Friday Agreement of April 10, 1998 has brought a degree of powersharing to Northern Ireland, giving both unionists, who favour it remaining a part of the United Kingdom, and nationalists, who favour it becoming part of the Irish state, a hand in running its affairs. However, the power conferred by the agreement is limited, and the agreement has come close to breaking down on a number of occasions. The political future of Northern Ireland remains unclear once again.
The Irish rugby team includes players from the north and the south, and the Irish Rugby Football Union governs the sport on both sides of the border. Gaelic football is the most popular form of football and is played and organised on an All-Ireland basis; Hurling, a faster, more violent precursor of field hockey, is another popular traditional Irish sport, with teams from all 32 counties north and south competing - both these sports are governed by the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA). Boxing is also an All-Ireland sport governed by the Irish Amateur Boxing Association. However, when Ireland was partitioned, organisation of football (soccer) in the Republic was transferred from the Irish Football Association (IFA) to the new Football Association of Ireland (FAI). The IFA remained in charge of the game in Northern Ireland.
Literature and the arts
For a comparatively small country, Ireland has made a disproportionate contribution to world literature in all its branches. Poetry in Irish represents the oldest vernacular poetry in Europe with the earliest examples dating from the 6th century. In more recent times, Ireland has produced four winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature; George Bernard Shaw, William Butler Yeats, Samuel Beckett and Seamus Heaney.
The early history of Irish visual art is generally considered to begin with early carvings found at sites such as Newgrange and is traced through Bronze age artefacts, particularly ornamental gold objects, and the religious carvings and illuminated manuscripts of the medieval period. During the course of the 19th and 20th centuries, a strong indigenous tradition of painting emerged, including such figures as John Butler Yeats, William Orpen, Jack Yeats and Louis le Brocquy.
Music and dance
The Irish tradition of folk music and dance is also widely known. In the middle years of the 20th century, as Irish society was attempting to modernise, traditional music tended to fall out of favour, especially in urban areas. During the 1960s, and inspired by the American folk music movement, there was a revival of interest in the Irish tradition. This revival was led by such groups as The Dubliners, The Chieftans, the Clancy Brothers and Sweeney's Men and individuals like Sean O'Riada.
Before long, groups and musicians including Horslips, Van Morrison and even Thin Lizzy were incorporating elements of traditional music into a rock idiom to form a unique new sound. During the 1970s and 1980s, the distinction between traditional and rock musicians became blurred, with many individuals regularly crossing over between these styles of playing as a matter of course. This trend can be seen more recently in the work of bands like U2 and The Corrs.
There are many small airports throughout Ireland, the three most important international airports in the Republic are Cork Airport, Shannon Airport and Dublin Airport. In Northern Ireland there are three main airports. Belfast International provides routes to Ireland and Britain as well as many international services the most recent of which is Belfast-New York (Newark). The City of Derry Airport and Belfast City often provide few flights to locations outside of the United Kingdom; there are also several small airports in the Republic that limit their services to Ireland and the United Kingdom.
The rail network in Ireland was developed by various private companies with the help of British Government funding throughout the late 19th century, reaching its greatest extent around the 1920s. The standard gauge of 1600 mm (5 ft 3 in) was standardised upon thoughout the island, although there were narrow gauge (3 ft) railways also. Ireland also has one of the largest freight railways in Europe, operated by Bord na Móna, this company has a narrow gauge railway of 1200 miles.
The island of Ireland has a quite extensive road network, despite the low quality of many of these until recently. Northern Ireland has historically had better main roads, while the Republic of Ireland has an increasing motorway network, focused on Dublin.
For much of their existence electricity networks in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland were entirely separate. Both networks were designed and constructed independently, but are now connected with three interlinks and also connected by Northern Ireland Electricity (NIE) though Great Britain to mainland Europe. The Electricity Supply Board (ESB) in the Republic drove a rural electrification programme in the 1940s until the 1970s.
Ireland, north and south has faced difficulties in providing continuous power at peak load. Especially during the winter, power outages have been forced due to inadequate power generation. The situation in Northern Ireland is complicated by the issue of private companies not supplying NIE with enough power, while in the Republic, the government has failed to modernise power plants owned by ESB. In the latter case, availability of power plants has averaged 66% recently, one of the worst such figures in Western Europe.
There have been recent efforts in Ireland to use renewable energy such as wind energy with large wind farms being constructed in coastal counties such as Mayo and County Antrim. These constructions have in some cases been delayed by opposition from locals, some of whom consider the wind turbines to be unsightly. Another issue in the Republic of Ireland is the failure of the aging network to cope with the varying availability of power from such installations. Turlough Hill is the only energy storage mechanism in Ireland.