Best of the best
Facts and information about Ireland
Ireland Ireland has had a turbulent history with wave after wave of settlers, each leaving their mark on the landscape in the shape of megaliths, monasteries, castles or great country houses. First came hunter-gatherers in about 6000BC, followed by Stone Age farmers who cleared land and cultivated the soil and left behind great stone monuments and the many dolmens and stone circles that are sprinkled around the country. With the Bronze Age, around 1500BC, came an increasing sophistication in construction – the awe-inspiring forts of Dun Aengus on Inishmore and Grianán of Aileach in Donegal date from this period. Roughly a thousand years later the Celts arrived in Ireland from Central Europe. They lived in defensive structures such as ring forts, raths and crannógs of which over thirty thousand remain. Their skill in metal-working is to be seen in the beautiful bronze pieces on show in the National Museum in Dublin. Under the Celts Ireland was divided into five provinces of which Ulster, Munster, Leinster and Connaught still survive. Each province was broken up into many small kingdoms ruled over by a chieftain, and all were, supposedly, under the rule of a High King who, according to myth, reigned from Tara in County Meath. In 432AD St Patrick arrived, other missionaries soon followed, and gradually Christianity seeped into pagan Ireland. While Europe was suffering the chaos of the Dark Ages, Ireland was becoming a centre of Christianity and scholarship. Missionaries such as St Columcille went to Europe, some to set up schools and universities. Many of Ireland’s monastic sites date from this period, the most notable were Clonmacnois on the Shannon, Glendalough in County Wicklow, and Kells, where the stunning Book of Kells may have been penned. These monasteries held great treasures – intricately worked gold shrines and, of course, illuminated manuscripts. And it was the promise of treasures such as these that lured the next wave of invaders, the Vikings, to Ireland at the end of the 8th century. Their arrival also sparked the first attempt at a unified Irish defence. At the Battle of Clontarf in 1014, Brian Boru, High King of Ireland, led an alliance of Gaelic chiefs against the Norsemen. They scored a decisive victory. Those Vikings who did not flee, married into the Irish and, for a few years at least, there was peace. Then a squabble in 1169 led the deposed Dermot MacMurrough, King of Leinster, to turn to Henry II of England for help in regaining his kingdom. In response, Henry sent Richard FitzGilbert de Clare, known as Strongbow, with his Anglo-Norman forces to Ireland and the first stages of English rule began. Strongbow married MacMurrough’s daughter Aoife and eventually became King of Leinster, establishing the Anglo-Normans firmly in power. By the 15th century, despite the best efforts of English monarchs and the passing of the Statutes of Kilkenny, forbidding intermarriage, the speaking of Irish or wearing of Irish costume, the Anglo-Normans were well-integrated into Gaelic culture and the sphere of English influence had shrunk to a tiny area around Dublin known as ‘the Pale’. It was not until the reign of Elizabeth I that the power of the Gaelic chieftains was permanently crushed. The most telling defeat was that of the Ulster earls at the Battle of Kinsale in 1601. Some years later, in what became known as ‘the Flight of the Earls’, the great Ulster chiefs O’Neill and O’Donnell left Ireland with a large retinue and sailed for the Continent, signalling the end of the Gaelic aristocracy’s rule in Ireland. The subsequent power vacuum – and the fact that large tracts of land formerly belonging to these Gaels were confiscated by the Crown – left the way open for wide-scale plantation of Ulster, mainly by Scottish Presbyterians and English settlers. When the native Catholic Irish were driven off the land to make way for the settlers, the seeds were sown for the conflict that still tears Northern Ireland apart. In the 1640s Oliver Cromwell turned his attention from the Civil War in England to an Irish rebellion which was put down with a thoroughness that was unprecedented. By the 1660s, devastated by Cromwell’s massacres, and the plague and famine that followed, only 500,000 native Irish remained. A series of acts known as the Penal Laws then completed the submission of the Irish Catholics and Dissenters, restricting religious practice, culture, property ownership and power. For the next century it would be up to the Protestant Anglo-Irish, who had been experiencing a remarkable prosperity and consequent confidence, to seek some measure of independence from colonial rule. In 1782 the Anglo-Irish ruling class achieved a virtually independent parliament in Dublin, and the worst of the Penal Laws were also repealed. However, in 1798, influenced by the French Revolution, the United Irishmen rebellion began. It was shortlived and unsuccessful. In response, the Act of Union was passed in 1800 amalgamating the Irish parliament with that at Westminster in London, and effectively ending Irish independence. The Irish peasantry then suffered another devastating blow. From 1845-1849 the potato crops failed. Two-thirds of the country survived on this staple, and its failure led to famine on an unimaginable scale, reducing the population from 8 million to 4 million by 1900 through emigration, disease and starvation. Despite the devastation, nationalist movements continued to grow in strength during the 19th century. And it was the growth of mass movements such as the Land League and the Home Rule movement – which united the various strands of nationalism to bring pressure to bear on the English government – that signalled the growth of a cohesive national identity. In 1912, against great opposition from Ulster Protestants, a Home Rule Bill was finally passed. But World War I intervened before the act could be implemented and Irishmen from both north and south enlisted in large numbers to fight for England. In 1916 another rising took place. Under Eamon de Valera a provisional government was set up in Dublin with Michael Collins heading the military wing and the War of Independence began. In 1920 the Government of Ireland Act created separate parliaments for the South, comprising the twenty-six counties of today’s Republic, and the North, containing the six counties of Antrim, Tyrone, Derry, Down, Armagh and Fermanagh. A peace treaty was negotiated with the British by Michael Collins, among others, but de Valera’s dissatisfaction with its terms led to civil war. Peace was eventually agreed, but only after bitter fighting. In 1937 de Valera presented the constitution that has safeguarded Ireland’s civil rights ever since and, in 1948, Ireland – minus the six counties – was declared a Republic. In the North, after Partition, power had remained largely in Protestant hands, and discrimination against Catholics was widespread, particularly in jobs and housing. In 1968 civil rights marchers took to the streets demanding equal rights. The marchers were attacked by loyalist mobs, and riots broke out. The British army was sent in initially to defend the Catholic minority, but events escalated – in 1971 a policy of internment without trial was introduced, in 1972, in what became known as Bloody Sunday, British paratroopers shot and killed thirteen unarmed civil rights marchers. The Provisional IRA launched a bombing campaign killing and maiming many hundreds. In response loyalist paramilitary organisations carried out killings. In recent times, hope of a settlement has appeared – a ceasefire in 1994 brought ‘talks about talks’ between the British and Irish government and the various parties involved. While that ceasefire ended with an IRA bomb in London, a new ceasefire came into being in 1997 and hope still exists that a settlement may eventually be agreed. In 1991 with the election of constitutional lawyer Mary Robinson to President, the Republic of Ireland seemed to come of age. One of the by-products was a renewed interest in Irish culture and language. Another was a new spirit of liberalism which led to the legalisation of divorce in 1996 and a referendum that removed a ban on information about abortion services – though abortion remains illegal. This liberalising attitude is partly the result of the economic boom which means young people no longer have to emigrate in search of work and, consequently, have a voice in running the country. It may also be partly due to an increasing integration into Western Europe. Whatever the reasons, the results are clear – a rapidly changing society, driven by a strong economy and a highly-trained young workforce. Some things don’t change, however. Ireland is still a country with a rich and unique culture, best expressed in music and storytelling and, most of all, the art of conversation.
Everyone in Ireland speaks English but many people also speak Irish Gaellige. The Irish are always hospitable and love to talk over a drink or two.
Best travel time
The Republic of Ireland is affectionately called the emerald isle because it is so green. It is so green because it rains so much. In the winter, the cold is moderated by the Gulf Stream and in the summer the heat is moderated by the sea breezes and regular cloud cover. Summer, winter, autumn or spring – take an umbrella because it will rain. Irish weather changes constantly, and it is quite normal to experience many different climates in one day. The warm currents of the Gulf Stream and prevailing westerly winds blowing in from the Atlantic, however, guarantee mild winters and cool summers, with lots of rain and wind and an average temperature of 9°-10.5°C. And since Ireland sits in the middle latitudes with only four degrees difference between north and south it lacks extremes of weather. Even so it is possible to distinguish slight differences between regions – the northwest is windier and wetter than, for example, the southeast, which boasts the most hours of sunshine. The topography too is one of contrasts and provides a range of habitats for flora. In the west the limestone plateau of the Burren yields rare species of plant more often found in Mediterranean and Alpine-Arctic conditions. The coastline is sprinkled with sand dunes, particularly in Wexford, Donegal, Kerry and Mayo, which come alive in summer with wild flowers such as orchid and bird’s foot trefoil. Inland, the abundance of rain and poor drainage has led to marshes and wetlands filled with reeds, fen violet, water germander, stone bramble and dewberry, while tracts of bogland in the midlands produce heather, bog cotton, bog myrtle and a variety of grasses.
The telecoms industry has really helped to move Ireland forward and now cell phones can be used in most parts of the country.
Country and People
Traditions and Culture
Irish dancing is very popular and thanks to Michael Flatley it is now a global phenomenon. Irish music, especially the fiddle, is often played in pubs together with songs about Ireland’s many battles with the British invader. It is said that every Irishman is a poet and it is true that the Irish really do love the magic of words. Ireland is a small country with a big neighbour and for many years its traditions were seemingly overpowered by the British influence or by a reputation for violence thanks to the emergence in the 20th Century of the Irish Republican Army. Today, Ireland has re-established its tradition for seeing life in a positive light, for impromptu parties, for valuing culture more than money, and is once again looking at what makes Ireland distinctive to Great Britain. For many decades, Ireland was Europe and Great Britain’s very poor neighbour but in the last twenty years the country has really progressed. It’s been burdened by its past and the corrupting influence of the terrorist group, the IRA, but it has emerged as a nation of gifted people who love art and culture, dance and music, and a few pints of their local brew, Guinness. Most importantly, the Irish have an infectious charm and a wonderful way with words.
Roman Catholicism has played a dominant role in poor Irish society but membership of the European Union and the exposure of crimes perpetrated by Catholic clergy have reduced the Church’s influence. There are a few protestants in Ireland but not many.
There are good bus services in all the towns and limited buses connecting the outlying villages. The British built a train network and touring Ireland by train is one of the best ways to enjoy the magnificent coastline and countryside.
Ireland has a total of nine airports and three international airports – Dublin, Shannon and Cork. It is also possible to fly to Belfast airport and enter the Republic of Ireland from the north by car. It is usually quite easy to rent a car in Ireland but it is a small country in terms of population and so it is advisable to book in advance. The roads have been improved thanks to investment from the EU but Ireland is very rural with vast areas of open countryside crisscrossed by narrow roads.
Discover and Enjoy
Ireland’s scenery is as changeable as its weather. To the north is the world famous heritage site, the Giant’s Causeway; to the south east, the graceful Wicklow Mountains; and in the capital, Dublin, there is the majestic Trinity College, home to the phenomenal Book of Kells, which dates back over a thousand years.
Ireland offers a mix of traditional Irish dishes often based on the potato, complemented by Continental cooking. Classic Irish menus will include salmon and trout, and a variety of fried foods including fried cheese, duck and chicken.