Ireland is an island in the North Atlantic. It is separated from Great Britain to its east by the North Channel, the Irish Sea, and St George’s Channel. Ireland is the second-largest island of the British Isles, the third-largest in Europe, and the twentieth-largest on Earth. Geopolitically, Ireland is divided between the Republic of Ireland (officially named Ireland), which covers five-sixths of the island, and Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom.
The geography of Ireland comprises relatively low-lying mountains surrounding a central plain, with several navigable rivers extending inland. Its lush vegetation is a product of its mild but changeable climate which is free of extremes in temperature.
Because Ireland became isolated from mainland Europe by rising sea levels before the last ice age had completely finished, it has fewer land animal and plant species than Great Britain or mainland Europe. There are no snakes in Ireland, and only one species of reptile (the common lizard) is native to the island. The Irish Wolfhound is a historic sighthound dog breed from Ireland:
Instead of trying to summarize Ireland’s history, let’s watch a video about it instead. 😉
Because Ireland became isolated from mainland Europe by rising sea levels before the last ice age had completely finished, it has fewer land animal and plant species than Great Britain or mainland Europe. There are no snakes in Ireland, and only one species of reptile (the common lizard). Ireland is now one of the least forested countries in Europe.
Food and cuisine in Ireland takes its influence from the crops grown and animals farmed in the island’s temperate climate and from the social and political circumstances of Irish history. For example, whilst from the Middle Ages until the arrival of the potato in the 16th century the dominant feature of the Irish economy was the herding of cattle, the number of cattle a person owned was equated to their social standing. Thus herders would avoid slaughtering a milk-producing cow.
For this reason, pork and white meat were more common than beef, and thick fatty strips of salted bacon (known as rashers) and the eating of salted butter (i.e. a dairy product rather than beef itself) have been a central feature of the diet in Ireland since the Middle Ages. The practice of bleeding cattle and mixing the blood with milk and butter (not unlike the practice of the Maasai) was common and black pudding, made from blood, grain (usually barley) and seasoning, remains a breakfast staple in Ireland. All of these influences can be seen today in the phenomenon of the “breakfast roll”.
Northern Ireland is a place in which strong cultural forces often erupt into violence. Officially part of the United Kingdom, this small region with about 1.7 million people has developed a unique set of cultural problems. Most people consider religious differences to be the main problem in Northern Ireland. People of Irish heritage are predominately Roman Catholic, and those of Scottish and English heritages are usually Protestant Christians. But it is not so simple. If the troubles (as they are called in the United Kingdom) in Northern Ireland were based solely on religion, then we should expect to see similar violence in other regions of the United States or of Europe.
The core of the cultural problems in Northern Ireland is actually based on political affiliations. Most of the population in the region is not Irish. About 55 percent of the population is of Scottish or English descent, with only about 45 percent of Irish descent. The real problem centers on the governing of Ireland. The Irish would like to see Northern Ireland join with the Republic of Ireland, which received its independence from the British in 1921. The Irish do not want to be under the UK parliament with the Queen of England as head of state. Irish countrymen want total independence from the United Kingdom. The non-Irish population does not want to be a part of the Republic of Ireland and its Irish parliament and would rather remain under the British Crown. The people of Scottish descent would prefer total independence from all outside forces. English people definitely want to remain with the UK parliament.
Though the real problem is political, religion has become the scapegoat. Because cultural differences can be clearly witnessed between Catholics and Protestants, religion has become the identifier of the two sides. They are not necessarily fighting over religious beliefs but rather over political power and control.
The troubles of Northern Ireland have diminished its economic and employment opportunities. Underground paramilitary groups such as the Irish Republican Army (IRA) have heightened tensions between the two groups for decades, with car bombings and other terrorist acts. Hope might lie with a generational change in the population. As the younger generation seeks more opportunities and advantages, the issues that separate the two sides could diminish. The hatred that has been built up over the years can be eased with each new generation if centripetal forces work to bridge the differences and unite the social fabric. If the killing and hatred are passed down to successive generations, it will only take longer to recover.
In 1998, after a series of terrorist acts that were condemned on all sides, a movement took place to create the Northern Ireland Assembly with members of both sides of the division. Obstacles continue to surface to disrupt this calming process, but there is hope that in the future solutions such as this assembly can work toward producing a lasting peace. The devolutionary forces active in Wales and Scotland may act to create a more separate Northern Ireland. The Northern Ireland Assembly was only one step. Progress in Northern Ireland is an uphill battle with high unemployment, a poor resource base, and few economic opportunities. Only by working together will Northern Ireland become a stable, peaceful part of the British Isles.
The Republic of Ireland
The whole island of Ireland was under the control of the British Crown for centuries. In 1921 independence was gained from the British for all but Northern Ireland. This bitterly fought conflict has become well entrenched in Irish culture and literature. As an independent country separate from the United Kingdom, the Republic of Ireland has ascended the economic ladder to become a part of the global economic community. Because the climate is type C, there is adequate rainfall for crops and vegetation, and the green landscape gives it the title, “The Emerald Isle.”
The island has few other natural resources. There are trees but no large forest reserves for commercial exploitation. Peat, which is an early version of coal, is cut from the bogs and burned as fuel. A form of biomass energy, this source of heat is still widely used in rural areas. However, because of the ecological importance of peatlands in storing carbon and their rarity, the EU is attempting to protect this habitat by fining Ireland for digging up peat. In cities, heat is generally supplied by natural gas or heating oil, although some urban suppliers distribute sods of turf as “smokeless fuel” for domestic use.
Ireland is not a large country. It is just a bit larger than the US state of West Virginia, with a population of about four million. There are no tall mountain ranges in Ireland. The soils are traditionally rocky with few nutrients. Before colonial times, the traditional food crops included such turnips and rutabagas. When the potato was imported from the Americas, it was well-received in Ireland. The potato plant grew well and replaced traditional root crops as the main food source.
In the early 1800s, the population of the whole of Ireland (including what is now Northern Ireland) was as high as eight million. Starting in the 1840s, blight and rot destroyed much of the potato crop year after year, causing a serious famine in Ireland. More than a million people died, and another two million people left the island. The potato famine caused losses reminiscent of the Black Death, which had ravaged Europe centuries earlier. The history of the Black Death may have led to the term Black Irish, which referred to people who fled Ireland during the potato famine and immigrated to the United States. They were often regarded as lower-class citizens and were discriminated against. Well-established Irish families having immigrated to the United States before the 1840s were not considered Black Irish and assimilated into mainstream American society more easily.
The lack of natural resources and the lack of opportunities and advantages held back the Republic of Ireland from developing a strong economy. It wasn’t until the 1990s that conditions improved. The economic growth in Ireland earned it the title Celtic Tiger to indicate its growing economic power.
However, the rapidly expanding economic conditions of the 1990s have not extended into the twenty-first century. Since 2007, the global depression has taken its toll on the Irish economy. Starting in 2008, the country witnessed a sharp increase in unemployment that coincided with serious banking scandals. Overall, Ireland is working to reposition itself for future economic growth. The country wants to maintain itself as an important link in the EU’s relationship with the United States. Ireland is bracing itself for a sluggish economic road ahead.
The two official languages of the Republic of Ireland are Irish and English. Irish is taught in mainstream Irish schools as a compulsory subject. Less than 10% of the population of the Republic of Ireland today speak Irish regularly outside of the education system.
✎ Ireland is divided between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom.
✎ People of Irish heritage are predominately Roman Catholic.
✎ Peat is cut from bogs and used as fuel.
✎ Northern Ireland has a violent past.
✎ The Republic of Ireland is known as the “Emerald Isle.” It suffered from a potato blight in the 1800’s.
Next: 6.2: Western Europe
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Image and additional information credits:
Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland
By Chmee2 – Own workThis file was uploaded with Commonist., CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9103972
CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=769758
CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3461854
Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21322
By Ben Brooksbank, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22402546
By Humphrey Bolton, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9331267
By Alexbrn – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22946303
Irish breakfast roll
By Charlesolivercork – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=61262614
By VegaTeam – Colcannon, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=84663750
Irish soda bread
By © O’Dea at Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25825738
Irish blaa photo © Jennifer Guest