In this post, we’ll discuss all things Ireland as we attempt to answer the following questions: What is Ireland in the first place? Is Ireland a country? What is the history of Ireland? And just where is Ireland located on a map?
What Is Ireland? Is Ireland a Country?
First, the basics – Ireland is an island in the North Atlantic Ocean. It has an area of about 32,595 sq mi (84,421 km2) and a total population of about 6.6 million, making it the second-most populous island in Europe after Great Britain. So is Ireland a country? Yes! However, politically, the island is actually split between two separate entities.
When most people say “Ireland”, they a referring to the Republic of Ireland, which is the westernmost country in the British Isles (and the subject of this post).
However, Ireland, the sovereign nation, is not to be confused with Northern Ireland. Located in the northeast corner of island, Northern Ireland takes up about one-sixth of the island and has a population of 1.8 million. Northern Ireland is NOT a sovereign country, but is instead part of the United Kingdom (for further clarification, check out our What is the United Kingdom? post).
Where Is Ireland? Finding Ireland on a Map
Ireland is located in the north-west of Europe. It is separated from Great Britain by the Irish Sea and the North Channel. In fact, at its closest point, Ireland is only about 14 miles (23km) from the island of Great Britain. To the west of Ireland is the North Atlantic, and to the south is the Celtic Sea. Ireland and Great Britain, together with many nearby smaller islands, are known collectively as the British Isles, though the term “British Isles” is controversial in parts of Ireland because of the territorial claims implied within it.
The island of Ireland is made up of low-lying mountains that surround a central plain. Many rivers extend inland. Ireland has a fairly mild, though often unpredictable, climate. While it is largely free from temperature extremes, the influence of the Atlantic Ocean can make the weather change quickly. Rain and cloud cover are common, but by and large, the climate of Ireland is quite moderate.
Ireland’s mild climate and frequent rainfall has resulted in the island being covered with lush vegetation, helping Ireland earn the nickname, the Emerald Isle.
The Early History of Ireland
Ireland was first settled by humans around 10,000 BC, shortly after a covering of ice had receded from the island. Around 4,000 BC, the first evidence of farming begins to crop up. And in the 2nd and 3rd centuries BC, we see the rise of Gaelic Ireland. Gaelic society traditionally centred around the clan, each with its own territory and king. The Gaels, who were believed to have sailed from Iberia to Ireland, would go on to form many of the traditions and myths that endure in Ireland to this day.
Gaelic rule continued more or less uninterrupted until the late 8th century AD and the arrival of the Vikings. Viking raids and settlement would lead to a lot of cultural interchange. The Vikings introduced new innovations and technologies, and many of Ireland’s towns were founded during this time. It was not until the Battle of Clontarf in 1014 that the Irish were able to decisively defeat the Vikings.
The next invaders to come to Ireland were the Anglo-Normans in the 12th century. This medieval ruling class from England would bring a new permanence to the island, building castles, churches, and walled cities. They also had a major impact on commerce and agriculture on the island. But perhaps most significantly, the Norman invasion began what would be more than 800 years of English political and military involvement in Ireland.
Ireland Is Christianised
Early inhabitants of Ireland practiced Celtic polytheism, also commonly known as Celtic paganism. However, beginning around the 4th century AD, Catholicism gradually began to subsume or replace paganism. Saint Patrick, today the patron saint of Ireland, is traditionally credited with introducing Christianity to the island. In less than 30 years, Patrick was able to bring thousands into the Church. He ordained priests, and built schools and monasteries. It should be noted, however, that there were actually a smattering of Christians already in Ireland before his arrival (for more about Saint Patrick, check out this post on Saint Patrick Facts and Myths).
In the Middle Ages, Ireland got caught up in the Protestant-Catholic divide tearing apart Britain. The 17th century was brutal and bloody, with Irish Catholics being harshly repressed with regard to religion, education, and land ownership by the English Protestants. By the end of the 18th century, Catholics owned just 5% of the land in Ireland. This suppression of power paved the way for the Act of Union 1800, which united Ireland and England politically.
The Great Famine and Beyond
When the Great Famine hit Ireland in 1845, the Irish population was roughly 8 million. Three years of potato blight and detrimental British export minimums led to widespread starvation and the estimated death of around a million people. Another million emigrated, and the Irish population has never again regained that level.
In the early 20th century, a series of bloody battles and rebellions eventually led to the Government of Ireland Act of 1920 that divided the country into the independent Irish Free State and Northern Island, the latter remaining part of the United Kingdom.
Ireland remained at odds with the United Kingdom throughout the 20th century. This included a stark religious/ethnic divide between the predominantly Catholic Republic of Ireland and the predominantly Protestant Northern Ireland. This divide would lead to a period of conflict known as The Troubles that began in the 1960s and lasted until the turn of the century.
While not solely a religious conflict, there was undoubtedly a religious and ethnic undertone to the dispute. Unionists, who were mostly Protestants, wanted Northern Ireland to remain with the United Kingdom. Irish Republicans, who were mostly Catholics, wanted Northern Ireland to leave the UK and join a united Ireland. Thousands on both sides would die, and relations between the two entities remain strained to this day, although in recent years an encouraging spirit of communication has begun to take hold.
However, with Britain now voluntarily removing themselves from the European Union while the Republic of Ireland remains a member, additional economic differences have been added to the long history of disputes between the two.
Conflict aside, Ireland today is a popular tourist destination, renowned for its incredible scenery, great food and drink, and fun and welcoming people. Irish culture continues to influence other cultures around this world to this day.
If you’d rather test your geography knowledge, click here to start playing some fun geography quizzes today. Or, test your luck in the quiz below.
And did you know that Sporcle has a nifty Irish badge you can earn? It’s called Dublin Up, and all you need to do to earn it is get 50% or better on The Ireland Quiz, Counties of Ireland, and Top 30 Cities of Ireland on a Map.