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Date: 1996
Encyclopedia of World Cultures
From: Encyclopedia of World Cultures(Vol. 4: Europe. )
Publisher: Macmillan Reference USA
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 4
Content Level: (Level 5)

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Page 151


ETHNONYM: Eireanneach


Identification and Location. For the Irish and Ireland, identification and location are inextricably linked aspects of self-definition. Ireland, located between 51°30′ and 55°30′ N and 6°00′ and l0°30′ W, is an island 480 by 273 kilometers at its longest and widest (N-S and E-W, respectively). It is separated on the east from Great Britain by the narrow Irish Sea (17 to 192 kilometers wide). To the west is the Atlantic Ocean. The island consists mainly of low-lying land whose central lowlands support rich pastureland, agricultural Regions, and a large central peat bog. The rim is mountainous, especially in the west, but elevations are rarely higher than 900 meters. Ireland's geographical location—combining proximity to England with peripherality vis-à-vis Europe—has played the major role in defining its historical experience. This relationship has also made the definition of just who and what is Irish problematic. Centuries of British rule culminated in the division of the island in 1922 into two political entities: the Republic (Free State from 1922 to 1949) of Ireland, comprising twenty-six counties and 70,550 square kilometers, and the Province of Northern Ireland, comprising six counties and remaining part of the United Kingdom. The population of the republic is 95 percent Catholic and that segment identifies itself unambiguously as Irish. Members of the Protestant minority may choose to emphasize their English ancestry, but they typically call themselves "Irish"—or "Anglo-Irish" as they are identified by their Irish Catholic neighbors. In Northern Ireland, however, the situation is more complex. The substantial Catholic minority—whatever their political affiliation—consider themselves ethnically Irish, while the subjective and objective identification of Protestants has been far more fluctuating and context-dependent. At various points, they may identify themselves as "Irish," "Ulster," "Ulster Protestant," or "British." The merging of Religious, geographical, and ethnic labels is also applied from the outside. Irish Catholics may use a variety of such terms to identify their neighbors, and the choice of label nearly always has a political subtext.

Demography. The population of the Republic of Ireland was 3,540,643 in 1986, representing an increase of 97,238 persons since the 1981 census. The population, which began a steep decline during the late 1840s famine, has been increasing since the 1961 census and has now been restored to the level of 1889-90. However, a recent decline in the birth-rate and a leap in the emigration rate (at least 72,000 Between 1981 and 1986), makes the demographic future uncertain. The high birthrate in the sixties and seventies has made Ireland one of the youngest countries in Europe, and migration to Dublin has made the population far more urban than it had been up until recently (57 percent urban, 43 percent rural), with close to a third of the population living in Dublin County.

Linguistic Affiliation. Although Irish Gaelic is the official language of the republic, the vast majority of people on both sides of the border speak English. Irish is the daily language of only tens of thousands (disputed number) of inhabitants of scattered Gaeltacht zones mainly along the west coast. Irish Gaelic, a Celtic language, has three main dialects and is closely related to Scottish Gaelic. The Goidelic Branch of the Celtic languages also includes Manx (once spoken on the Isle of Man), while the Brythonic Branch is represented by Welsh and Breton. The language issue has played a central part in the ethnic identity issues previously mentioned. Although Irish Gaelic was by the late nineteenth century very much a minority language, proponents of Irish nationalism (Protestant and Catholic) favored the restoration of the "national language" as a critical element in the maintenance of a distinct national identity and culture. Government measures meant to ensure this restoration have gradually relaxed over the decades, however, and despite the persistence of Irish in a few enclaves and a lively Irish-language literary and cultural scene, English is clearly the de facto national language.

History and Cultural Relations

The earliest inhabitants of Ireland were Mesolithic hunter-gatherers whose sites are dated as early as 8980 B.P., but it is the extensive Neolithic settlement that has left a large number of impressive megalithic constructions. The exact origin point of "Celtic culture" in Ireland and its relation to preexisting cultures and/or populations is much disputed. By the first few centuries B.C., however, a clearly Celtic culture was established all over the island, with clear connections to continental Celts. Iron Age Celtic society established a lasting economic, political, social, and cultural framework for Irish society. Unhampered by the Romanization that transformed so much of continental Europe, Ireland's cattle-based chieftaincies remained the basic social unit through the early Christian period, giving Irish Christianity a Celtic construction that would give rise to Roman consternation at various historical junctures. Celtic Ireland was notably rural, and it was the Vikings who established the major port cities that would continue to play an important role in Irish history (e.g., Dublin, Cork, Waterford, Wexford). The English Presence began with the twelfth-century Anglo-Norman expedition under the auspices of Henry II, in aid of one side in an internecine struggle in the south. The invaders settled, particularlyPage 152  |  Top of Article in the southeast, bringing with them a manorial type of settlement and economy, as well as a new language and Culture. The succeeding centuries brought much cultural borrowing between native Irish and Anglo-Norman cultures, particularly in areas distant from the capital. The Cromwellian and Williamite wars of the seventeenth century established Ireland as a fully colonial society, with political rule and most landownership in the hands of English-speaking Protestants, and with a native population of mainly Gaelic-speaking Catholics, the vast majority of whom were poor tenant farmers, seen and described by their overlords in increasingly "primitive" terms. The wars also brought the "plantation" of Northern Ireland, the importation of thousands of mainly Presbyterian Scots who took ownership of small farms and settled in areas from which Catholic Irish had been driven. There was also a very considerable influx of Protestant English into the south. For most Catholic tenants, the central issue through the eighteenth century was local land tenure, and a variety of locally based secret societies—such as the "White Boys"—were active in retaliatory guerrilla raids against landlords, agents, or collaborators. After the failure of the United Irishmen's rebellion in 1798, land tenure as well as cultural and religious identity came more and more to be linked with nationalism. The nineteenth century saw a series of attempts, armed and legislative, to win independence and/or redress land issues, culminating in the Easter Uprising of 1916 and the war of independence that followed. Ireland achieved independence as a Free State with the treaty of 1922, which left the six Protestant-majority counties of Ulster in the United Kingdom. The Free State became Eire, or the Republic of Ireland, in 1949. One faction of the Irish—represented thereafter by the Irish Republican Army (IRA)—refused to accept the legitimacy of the boundary. Within Northern Ireland most Catholics—and a few Protestants—are "nationalists" favoring a "United Ireland." The vast majority of Protestants—and very few Catholics—espouse "Unionism," seeking to remain a part of the United Kingdom. It is difficult to assess what proportion of either population supports the activities of violent paramilitary organizations, which continue to carry out assassinations and bombings. After the bloody reaction to Catholic civil rights demonstrations in Northern Ireland in 1969, the British Army began to maintain a strong and active presence that continues to this day.

In addition to the political developments already described, the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries brought tremendous economic and social upheaval to Ireland. The population increased at a tremendous rate and grew increasingly dependent on the potato for sustenance. The great potato famine of the late 1840s (numerous smaller ones occurred before and after) led to evictions and immigration that vastly increased the flow of Irish to America.

While significant numbers went to England—and, to a lesser extent, Canada and Australia—the large proportion of Irish in America has had a great and lasting impact on both the United States and Ireland. Even since 1973, when Eire joined the European Economic Community, cultural (as opposed to economic) attention has been focused on the United States, to which the current crop of emigrants have once again come.


Settlement patterns have of course varied much over time and place. The dominant Celtic pattern seems to have been scattered fort/cattle pen/households (rath). Peasant communities following a mixed-cattle, agricultural regime, at least in the west of Ireland, lived in small hamlets (clachan or clibin), using a commonly held infield for grain and vegetables and an extensive outfield "mountain" for livestock. This pattern was generally eliminated (though there are a few survivals) through landlord intervention by the middle of the nineteenth century. The demise of such traditional patterns was also accelerated by the famine and emigration. The resulting pattern was of more or less dispersed households and farms, or more concentrated but separate rows of dwellings where geography and varying land type made that form appropriate. In either case, however, the "townland" (baile fearainn), which corresponds to the common holding of the traditional cluster settlement, may continue to operate as a socially Significant "neighborhood" and its inhabitants may even continue to hold common rights to turf (for fuel) in bogs and grazing land on mountains. Elsewhere other agricultural and/or geographical factors made for other settlement types, including dispersed large farms, estate villages, or the street market towns, which mainly developed in the nineteenth Century under landlord regimes.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Agriculture, until recently the overwhelming mainstay of the Irish Economy, remains important, although a decreasing percentage of the population is engaged in such pursuits. Most arable land is devoted to pasture or hay production, and livestock and livestock products are the most important exports, sold in European and Near Eastern markets. The United States is also a major trading partner. Tourism, greatly promoted in recent decades, provides the single largest item in the country's net earnings. Since the 1960s, attractive conditions have brought many foreign-owned small factories to Ireland, and they along with Irish manufacturing and construction firms now employ around 27.5 percent of the labor force. While the city of Dublin has grown at a great rate, the lack of a large Industrial or commercial base there has meant much unemployment. Membership in the European Common Market has benefited agricultural producers through subsidies and opened up new channels for emigration for professionals, but so far has not done much to change the economic peripherality of Ireland. The relative prosperity of the sixties and seventies seems to have been based on borrowed money, leaving Ireland with one of the highest per capita foreign debts in the world. Inflation and high unemployment fueled renewed Emigration, mostly to the United States, in the late 1980s. In the west of Ireland, where most anthropological fieldwork has been carried out, small farms—where viable—continue to produce livestock and dairy products sold at marts or through local cooperatives. Much of the extreme west, including Gaeltacht zones, is characterized by underfarmed smallholdings, which support a subsistence crop of potatoes and vegetables, combined in varying degrees with sheep farming (whose economic viability depends on government subsidies). In a few areas small- or medium-scale fishing or rural factory employment adds to the income of such families orPage 153  |  Top of Article provides the total support of younger families. Government welfare and old-age pensions, however, contribute Importantly to the maintenance of many households. Where the farm is viable, it absorbs the labor of the entire family. In smaller holding areas, however, younger family members are often engaged in subsidiary income pursuits. Where available, factory jobs are sought by young men and women. Areas of large farms, such as Meath and West Meath, and the city and suburbs of Dublin exhibit different sociocultural patterns, which are only recently being studied by anthropologists.

Land Tenure. Although after the seventeenth century the mainly British landlords held proprietary rights, the Irish tenantry continued to pass on the right to these tenancies as if they were property. Land reforms in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century turned these tenants into peasant proprietors. Common rights were often retained in bogs (for peat fuel) and in extensive mountain pasturelands.

Kinship, Marriage, and Family

Kinship. Cían is an Irish word and traditionally referred to the agnatic descendants of a common ancestor (e.g., "the O'Donnells"). Such clans had a hierarchical territorial arrangement in traditional chiefdoms, wherein subgroups and individuals were linked to superiors through cattle clientship and/or tribute and service. The local kin group in this system was called a fine. In this way traditional commonage rundale (common land that is distributed among owners in such a way that an individual's holdings are scattered among those of others) was followed by divided inheritance in western Ireland, which gave way, again under landlord action, to enforced undivided inheritance. This continues to be the legal mode today, with the father naming a single son as heir to the farm. The social integrity and relative autonomy of the Household farm based on the single heir is a central concern of many influential studies of the culture. However, in some areas at least, the ethos of continuing obligation to and among all siblings makes "stem family" a misleading designation, even for the contemporary rural Irish family.

Marriage. Sibling solidarity before and after marriage is a striking feature of daily life. In the west, in particular, Individuals still marry close to home and tend to keep up frequent visiting patterns with siblings. In the extreme case men and women may even remain with their natal households after marriage. Unmarried siblings will very often live together and will frequently be joined by a widowed sibling late in life.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Although an increasing share of the population lives in Dublin, rural culture enjoys a disproportionate importance, and many urban dwellers retain ties to the countryside. While an egalitarian ethos prevails in most rural areas, there are large differences in the "objective" class situation of farmers, ranging from large numbers of very small farmers cultivating less than 6 hectares, mainly in the west, to graziers farming hundreds of hectares in the east. The class structure of the cities resembles that of other urban areas in western Europe.

Political Organization. Eire is a parliamentary democracy with a nonexecutive president elected by direct vote. The Parliament (Oireachtas) consists of a lower house (An Dail Eireann) elected through proportional representation by a single transferable vote, and an upper house (An Seanad Eireann). The government is headed by a prime minister (An Taoiseach) chosen by An Dail. The two principal political parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, are both centrist in European terms and owe their origins to respective positions on the border question seventy years ago. There are a variety of other parties holding few seats, including the Labor Party and Sinn Fein (the political wing of the IRA). Local government is through the "county council," but recent changes in the structure of taxation have left that body with little real resources and hence little power, making Eire's political system an increasingly centralized one.

Social Control. In rural areas, the local community and kin groups continue to play the most obvious role in daily Social control. The Catholic church, especially in the person of the parish priest, typically continues to exercise considerable authority, especially in the rural areas. In these same areas the "legitimacy" of the state to interfere with local practice may be more often questioned.

Conflict. Irish nationalists tend to sum up Ireland's History as "800 years of British oppression and Irish resistance." Academic histories currently debate whether the local uprisings and guerrilla activity of the eighteenth century, the 1798 rebellion, the Fenians of the nineteenth century, and the ongoing "troubles" can best be understood in terms of class, nationalism, or local interests. From any point of view, however, conflict continues to define the Irish experience, historically and currently.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs and Practices. By any measure, Ireland is a profoundly Catholic country and culture. Weekly mass attendance continues at nearly 90 percent of the population, and the influence of the clergy on all social as well as narrowly religious questions is enormous. Ireland, alone with Malta in Europe, has no legal divorce, and abortion—never legal—has recently been made unconstitutional. The central tenets of the Catholic church are mainly accepted, but various local heterodox usages continue in some areas. Notably, holy well cults are still an important aspect of local practice. There are more than three thousand holy wells listed for Ireland, most of them associated with a Roman Catholic saint and with beliefs about curing, indulgences, honor, prayer, etc. Major pilgrimage points within Ireland (Knock, Croagh Patrick, Station Island, Lady's Island) attract tens of thousands annually, and the Irish are disproportionately represented at Lourdes.

Arts. Language remains perhaps the most important form of expressive culture: from the oral narrative that still characterizes much local Irish life to one of the most vibrant literary traditions in Europe. Although less well-known, there is a lively visual art scene in the urban centers. Music, always important in the folk tradition, has made a great resurgence in recent decades with much creative interaction between folk and rock forms.

Medicine. Although most Irish avail themselves of whatever modern medical facilities are available, many will combine such treatments with propitiation of saints and/or pilgrimages to the above sites.

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Death and the Afterlife. For the vast majority of Irish, the rites of the Catholic church are followed scrupulously on the occasion of death. Wakes held in the home of the deceased for two or three days, however, continue to provide a central communal focus to the event in many areas. Appropriation of the powerful act and rites of death has characterized Irish Political activity, especially in the twentieth century.


Arensberg, Conrad (1937). The Irish Countryman. New York: Macmillan.

Arensberg, Conrad, and Solon Kimball (1968). Family and Community in Rural Ireland. 2nd ed. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Curtin, C., and T. Wilson (1989). Ireland from Below: Social Change and Local Communities. Galway: University College Galway Press.

Fox, Robin (1978). The Tory Islanders: A People of the Celtic Fringe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

O'Kelly, Michael P. (1989). Early Ireland. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Taylor, Lawrence J. (1989). "Bás InÉirinn: Cultural Constructions of Death in Ireland." Anthropological Quarterly 62:175-187.


Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3458000666