POPULATION: 4,892,305 (2015 estimate)
LANGUAGE: English (official), Irish Gaelic (official)
RELIGION: Christianity (Roman Catholic, Protestant), Islam, others
RELATED ARTICLES: Vol. 5: English; Northern Irish; Scots; Welsh
The republic of Ireland, which consists of twenty-six counties, covers five-sixths of the island of Ireland. The remaining portion is occupied by the six counties of Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom. The division of the island into two political entities is the legacy of a long period of British rule, dating back as far as 1171, when King Henry II declared himself king of Ireland. Eventually, the English controlled most of the island. With the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century, the division between the conquering and conquered peoples took on a religious dimension, as the Protestant English began the suppression of native Irish Catholicism, further aggravating the hostility between the two. When Ireland won its independence in 1922, Northern Ireland became a separate political entity, remaining part of the United Kingdom. It was the site of violent conflict between Catholic nationalists and Protestant extremist groups until 1998, when the Good Friday Agreement was negotiated between the Irish and UK governments. Ireland became a member of the European Community (now the European Union) in January 1973. Ireland's economy began to grow rapidly in the 1990s, fueled by foreign investment: it became known as the “Celtic Tiger.” This attracted a wave of immigrants to a country where, traditionally, mass emigration was the norm.
Today, Ireland has been transformed from a largely agricultural society into a modern, high-tech economy. Bertie Ahern, elected prime minister (taoiseach) in 1997, began a record third consecutive term in office in June 2007. However, in 2006 Ahern was criticized over controversial loans he received from friends when he was finance minister in the 1990s. In March 2008, he announced he would step down. Immediately following Ahern's May 6 resignation, Brian Cowen was appointed as his successor. During Cowen's time in office, Ireland struggled through a massive economic collapse that ultimately required the country to seek a US$114 billion rescue package delivered by the European Union in 2010. Over time, economic mismanagement and government corruption sullied Cowen's reputation and caused his popularity to wane considerably. Acknowledging this, Cowen opted not to run for reelection in 2011 and was subsequently succeeded by Enda Kenny. With Kenny as prime minister, the Irish economy quickly began to stabilize and rebound. Economic conditions improved to such a degree that by 2015 Ireland was ranked (along with Germany) as the sixth most developed country in the world by the United Nations Human Development Index.
2 LOCATION AND HOMELAND
Ireland, which occupies an area smaller than the state of Maine, is bound by the Atlantic Ocean on the south, west, and northwest, and by the Irish Sea on the east. The country's two main topographic regions are a fertile central lowland and the mountain ranges that surround it. Most of the country is less than five hundred feet above sea level. Ireland's population of more than 4.8 million people is evenly distributed throughout the country. The Irish trace their ethnic origins to the various groups who inhabited and ruled their land over the course of history, including the Celts, Norsemen, French Normans, and English. The people living east of the Shannon River generally have a higher standard of living, with a more advanced level of industrialization and richer farmland. The Gaeltacht along the western coast is the nation's Gaelic-speaking region.
Irish Gaelic and English are the official languages of Ireland, but English is more widely used. Only about 38 percent of the population knows Gaelic well enough to use it in daily conversation, and only a limited number of people living in the Gaelic-speaking, or Gaeltacht, area on the west coast use it as their primary language. The use and recognition of Gaelic has been taken up as a nationalist cause since the late nineteenth century. Today, Gaelic is a compulsory subject in school, and signs throughout Ireland are written in both English and Gaelic. Irish Gaelic is a Celtic language closely related to Scottish Gaelic. Irish people speak English with an accent known as a brogue.
The Irish are master storytellers, and their tales and legends date back to Druid priests and early Celtic poets who preserved the stories of Ireland's pre-Christian heroes and heroines. There are tales about the exploits of Cuchulainn, who defended Ulster single-handedly, and tales from the era of Cormac Mac Art, Ireland's first king, including the love story of Diarmid and Grania and the exploits of Finn MacCool. Modern authors have helped keep these folk traditions alive: the poet William Butler Yeats wrote five plays based on the legendary adventures of Cuchulainn and James Joyce's final novel, Finnegans Wake—whose main character is identified with the mythic figure of Finn MacCool—is filled with Irish legends and mythology. Irish children today still learn tales about these legendary heroes, including MacCool and Saint Finnabar, who is said to have slain Ireland's last dragon.
Ireland is a staunchly Catholic country. Roman Catholics account for about 84 percent of Ireland's population. Pilgrimages to shrines and holy places at home and abroad attract tens of thousands annually. Catholicism is strongly woven into the fabric of Irish life, influencing its laws, education, architecture, and daily life. Divorce only became legal in 1997. Abortion is illegal according to the Irish constitution. Catholicism is also deeply intertwined with Irish nationalism: before Irish independence, the British attempted to eradicate Catholicism from Ireland, causing the Irish to cling even more tenaciously to their faith. The non-Catholic minority is mostly Episcopalian, Methodist, Presbyterian, or Jewish.
6 MAJOR HOLIDAYS
Ireland's legal holidays are New Year's Day, St. Patrick's Day (March 17), Good Friday, Easter Sunday and Easter Monday, bank holidays on the first Mondays of June and August, Christmas, and St. Stephen's Day (December 26). In addition to these holidays, a variety of customs and celebrations are associated with various saints' days. St. John's Day (June 24), for example, is traditionally the time to dig up and eat the first new potatoes and on the night before, bonfires are lit on hilltops throughout the west of Ireland. A dish called colcannon—made from cabbage, potatoes, and milk—was traditionally served on Halloween with a ring, coin, thimble, and button inserted into it. Whoever found the ring was supposed to be married within a year, while the coin symbolized wealth, the button symbolized bachelorhood, and the thimble symbolized spinsterhood.
7 RITES OF PASSAGE
As in most west European countries, most births occur in hospitals. In Roman Catholic families, the child is baptized within a week or so of birth. First Communion and confirmation are important events for Catholic children. Marriage generally takes place in church. Weddings are festive events and in the west may still be attended by “strawboys,” uninvited guests dressed in straw disguises who crash the wedding and carouse about in good-humored fashion. Death is a solemn occasion. Although the Irish were once known for their wild wakes, these are quickly becoming a thing of the past.
8 INTERPERSONAL RELATIONS
The Irish are renowned for their hospitality, which dates back to olden times when it was believed that turning away a stranger would bring bad luck and a bad name to the household. (According to one Christian belief, a stranger might be Christ in disguise coming to test the members of the household.) The front doors of houses were commonly left open at meal times so that anyone who passed by would feel free to enter and join in the meal. While many of the old superstitions are a thing of the past, Irish warmth and hospitality toward strangers remains. Hospitality is practiced not only at home but also at the neighborhood pub, where anyone joining a group of drinkers immediately buys a round of drinks for everyone at the table. Until 2004 no one smoked a cigarette without first offering the pack to everyone present. But that year Ireland became the first country to have a nationwide ban on indoor smoking in all public spaces, including restaurants and pubs.
9 LIVING CONDITIONS
The traditional rural home was narrow and rectangular and built from a combination of stones and mortar (made from mud, lime, or whatever material was locally available), often with a thatched roof. Rural homes and those in some urban Page 251 | Top of Articleareas are commonly heated by fireplaces that burn peat (called “turf” in Ireland) instead of wood. Modern homes have replaced traditional dwellings both in the country and the city, where families generally live in brick or concrete houses or apartment buildings. The large numbers of people immigrating to Ireland's cities since the 1950s have created a great demand for new housing, and developments have gone up around most large towns and cities.
Health care in Ireland is based on a person's ability to pay for services, with low-income persons and those over the age of sixty-six receiving most services free of charge. Hospital care is free for all children through the age of sixteen, and the costs of medication are covered for people suffering from infectious or chronic illnesses. Both infant mortality (3.7 out of 1,000 live births) and average life expectancy (80.6 years) are close to the European average.
10 FAMILY LIFE
The Irish have such a strong allegiance to family that their constitution even recognizes it as “the natural primary and fundamental unit group of Society, and as a moral institution possessing inalienable…rights” and guarantees to protect it as “indispensible to the welfare of the Nation.” While the nuclear family is the primary family unit, it expands to include elderly relatives when they become infirm and may also include an unmarried aunt or uncle. Young people have traditionally lived at home with their parents until they married, often after the age of twenty-five or even thirty. Bonds between siblings are unusually strong, especially in the western part of the country, and unmarried siblings often live together, sometimes joined by a widowed sibling later in life. While women are playing an increasingly active role in the workforce, traditional gender roles still predominate at home, with the women doing most of the household chores and child-rearing, and the men fulfilling the traditional role of breadwinner. Before 1972 married women could not be hired for professional positions in the public sector.
People in Ireland wear modern Western-style clothing, with an eye to durability, comfort, and protection from the often-wet weather. The Irish have been known for their fine cotton lace-making since the early 1800s. Hand-knitted sweaters are another famous Irish product, especially those made on the Aran Islands, with their high-quality yarn and distinctive patterns. Tweed—a thick cloth of woven wool used for pants, skirts, jackets, and hats—is another type of textile for which the Irish are known. The Irish have adorned (and fastened) their clothing with bronze and silver brooches since the third century CE, and traditional designs have included detailed engravings, animal designs, and enamel inlays.
The Irish have hearty appetites. Potatoes are the main staple and, together with cabbage, the most popular vegetables in Ireland. Many rural dwellers grow their own potatoes and use them in their meals on a daily basis. Dairy products are a favorite, and milk and butter consumption are both heavy. Irish stew, one of the most common traditional dishes, consists of lamb or mutton, potatoes, onions, herbs, and stock. The main meals of the day are breakfast and lunch. The traditional Irish breakfast (which many have abandoned in favor of lighter fare) includes sausages, bacon, eggs, tomatoes, pudding, other meat dishes (such as liver or chops), and bread, all washed down by plentiful servings of tea. A typical lunch might include a hearty soup, a serving of chicken or beef, and vegetables. Supper usually consists of sandwiches, cold meats, or fish. Soda bread, made with baking soda and buttermilk, accompanies many meals, and popular desserts (called “sweets”) include scones, tarts, and cakes.
Adult literacy is nearly universal in Ireland. All children must attend school between the ages of six and fifteen, and most go to single-sex rather than coeducational schools. Both English and Gaelic are taught in primary school (called National School). Secondary school students receive an Intermediate Certificate at the age of fifteen or sixteen and, following an optional two more years of study, a Leaving Certificate, which is required for admission to one of Ireland's universities. Ireland's oldest university is Trinity College, also known as the University of Dublin, which was founded in 1591.
14 CULTURAL HERITAGE
The value that the Irish place on the arts can be seen in Ireland's policy of exempting its writers, composers, painters, and sculptors from paying income taxes as long as their work is recognized as having “artistic or cultural merit.” Ireland's greatest contribution has been in the field of literature. The late greats of Irish literature include satirist Jonathan Swift, the playwrights Oliver Goldsmith and Oscar Wilde, and twentieth-century legends like playwright George Bernard Shaw, poet William Butler Yeats, and novelist James Joyce. Although Joyce left his native land as a young man, Ireland and its people play a central role in all his works, which include the short story collection Dubliners and the novels A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses, which traces the activities of its characters during the span of one day in early twentieth-century Dublin. Yeats won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923, as did playwright and fellow Irishman Samuel Beckett in 1969. Contemporary Irish writers include poets Seamus Deane and the late Seamus Heaney—who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995—and novelist Roddy Doyle, winner of the Booker Prize in 1993. Brian O'Nolan (Flann O'Brien) was an Irish novelist and satirist who wrote many satirical columns in the Irish Times under the name Myles na gCopaleen. There has also been a considerable amount of modern literature written in Irish Gaelic, including works by poets Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill and the late Máirtín Ó Direáin.
In 2011 about 76 percent of Ireland's labor force was employed in service sector jobs, 19 percent worked in industry, and 5 percent were in agriculture, forestry, and fishing. Primary industries include meat, dairy, and grain processing, electronics, machinery, beer, shoes, and glassware. Since the 1960s, many small foreign-owned factories have opened in Ireland. Farming takes place on both small subsistence farms, where families raise just enough to support themselves, and on large sophisticated commercial farms that produce food for export. Tourism is a mainstay of the service sector, providing restaurant, hotel, and retail jobs and expanding the range of government employment. In 2015 the national unemployment rate dropped to 9.4 percent, down from 11.3 percent just one year earlier.
Ireland's most popular sports are hurling and Gaelic football. Hurling, which is similar to field hockey, is played by two teams of fifteen players who attempt to knock a leather ball through their opponents' goalposts with long sticks called hurleys or camans. The All-Ireland Hurling Championship, held in Dublin every September, is the Irish equivalent of the World Series in the United States. The women's version of hurling is called camogie. Gaelic football combines elements of soccer and rugby and also culminates in an All-Ireland match in the nation's capital. Another popular traditional Irish sport is road bowling (played mostly in County Cork); its object is to advance a metal ball, called a bullet, over a two- or three-mile course in as few throws as possible. Other widely played sports include football (American soccer), rugby, cricket, boxing, and track and field. Horse racing is a favorite national pastime, and Ireland's famous races include the Irish Derby and the Grand National (the race featured in the movie National Velvet). One of the most recognizable Irish athletes is Katie Taylor, who became the first Irish woman to win an Olympic gold medal in boxing with her victory at the 2012 Summer Games in London, England.
17 ENTERTAINMENT AND RECREATION
The Irish enjoy spending time in pubs, drinking beer or ale, playing darts, and socializing with friends. However, a typical rainy evening also finds many Irish people at home reading or watching television. Both broadcast television and satellite and cable television services are available. Numerous radio stations also exist. Pubs are also the scene of traditional music sessions, which are associated with craic (pronounced “crack”), an allaround term for having a good time that can include playing and/or listening to music, joking around, or flirting with members of the opposite sex. “The craic was mighty” means that someone had a good time. Other popular leisure-time pursuits include chess, bingo, and bridge. Many Irish people also turn to the Internet for entertainment. In 2015 Ireland boasted an estimated 3.92 million active Internet users.
18 FOLK ARTS, CRAFTS, AND HOBBIES
Traditional crafts include tweed and linen weaving, wool knitting, glassblowing, and wood carving. Belleek china and Waterford crystal are especially famous, and Rathborne, which has been producing candles for more than 450 years, is Europe's oldest candle maker. The women of the Aran Islands are known for their distinctive woolen sweaters. (At one time, every family on the islands had its own sweater pattern, which aided in identifying drowned sailors.) Ireland has a rich folk music tradition, and age-old jigs and reels can be heard at local festivals and Page 253 | Top of Articleinformal performances at neighborhood pubs. Since the 1960s, groups like the Chieftains and Planxty have not only revived national interest in traditional tunes and instruments, they have also gained an international audience for Irish music. Traditional instruments include the fiddle, flute, Celtic harp, accordion, bodhran (a handheld drum), and uilleann pipes (a bagpipe-like instrument powered by a bellows).
19 SOCIAL ISSUES
Ever since the great potato famine of 1845, Ireland has lost a large percentage of its population to emigration, as people left in search of better opportunities abroad. At one point in the nineteenth century, the nation's population fell from eight to three million within the span of a single generation. After a period of relative prosperity in the 1960s and 1970s, the worst economic crisis since independence led to a new wave of emigration beginning in the late 1980s, with most people leaving for the United States. More than one hundred thousand of Ireland's young people left the country. In addition to inflation, high unemployment, and the highest taxes in Europe, the nation had to deal with one of the largest per capita foreign debts in the world. However, fueled by foreign investment, Ireland made a major turnaround in the 1990s and was dubbed the “Celtic Tiger” for its fast growing economy. The net migration rate was estimated at 4.09 migrants per 1,000 persons in 2015, indicating an excess of persons entering the country. Nevertheless, increased immigration presented its own set of problems. According to a 2015 human rights report from the United States Department of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, discrimination against immigrants is a pressing social issue in Ireland.
Politically, the difficulties in Northern Ireland led to violence that claimed nearly two thousand civilian lives and injured some forty thousand among the competing Protestant and Catholic factions. However, in 1998 the Good Friday Agreement was signed, which sought to address relationships within Northern Ireland; between Northern Ireland and the Irish republic; and between both parts of Ireland and England, Scotland, and Wales. In referenda, 71.2 percent of people in Northern Ireland and 94.39 percent in the Irish republic voted” to accepting the agreement. An assembly was elected in “yes” to accepting the agreement. An assembly was elected in September that year, and an executive composed of a first minister, deputy first minister, and ten additional ministers was formed.
As noted in the 2015 human rights report from the United States Department of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, other important social issues in Ireland include overly delayed asylum determinations, poor prison conditions, and domestic violence.
20 GENDER ISSUES
With abortion illegal and divorce only becoming legal under certain circumstances in 1997, the lives of Irish women in many respects are circumscribed. The Roman Catholic Church plays a major role in social and family relations. Irish law prohibits discrimination against women in the workplace and provides for protection and redress against discrimination based on gender and marital status. However, inequalities persist regarding pay and promotions.
Same-sex activity was decriminalized in Ireland in 1993, and discrimination based on sexual orientation is now outlawed. Ireland also prohibits incitement to hatred based on sexual orientation. Northern Ireland, as part of the United Kingdom, began recognizing same-sex civil partnerships in 2005. Ireland subsequently legalized same-sex marriage in November 2015.
“About Ireland.” Embassy of Ireland, USA. https://www.dfa.ie/irish-embassy/usa/our-role/about-ireland/# (accessed August 10, 2016).
Bew, Paul. Ireland: The Politics of Enmity, 1789–2006. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.
Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. “Ireland 2015 Human Rights Report.” US Department of State, 2015. https://www.justice.gov/sites/default/files/pages/attachments/2016/04/20/dos-hrr_2015_ireland.pdf (accessed August 10, 2016).
“Country Profiles: Ireland.” United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Institute for Statistics. http://www.uis.unesco.org/DataCentre/Pages/country-profile.aspx?code=IRL®ioncode=40500 (accessed August 10, 2016).
“Culture & Society.” Living in Ireland. http://www.livinginireland.ie/en/culture_society/culture_society/ (accessed August 30, 2016).
Flanagan, William G. Ireland Now: Tales of Change from the Global Island. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007.
“Ireland.” Amnesty International Report 2015/16: The State of the World's Human Rights. London: Amnesty International, 2016. https://www.justice.gov/sites/default/files/pages/attachments/2016/02/25/amnesty-international_2015_full-report.pdf (accessed August 10, 2016).
“Ireland.” The World Factbook. US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). https://www.cia.gov/Library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/ei.html (accessed August 10, 2016).
“Ireland in Brief: A General Overview of Ireland's Political, Economic and Cultural Life.” Department of Foreign Affairs, 2014. https://www.dfa.ie/news-and-media/publications/publicationarchive/2013/may/ireland-in-brief/ (accessed August 30, 2016).
Lansford, Tom, ed. “Ireland.” In Political Handbook of the World 2014, 680–689. Los Angeles: SAGE, 2014.
O'Donnell, Catherine. Fianna Faÿil, Irish Republicanism and the Northern Ireland Troubles, 1968–2005. Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2007.
United Nations Statistics Division. “Ireland.” World Statistics Pocketbook, UN Data. http://data.un.org/CountryProfile.aspx?crName=Ireland (accessed August 10, 2016).