Visitors come to Ireland for many reasons: to meet the friendly and convivial people and explore their Celtic heritage; for the folk music and the Guinness; or to visit the western-most edge of the European continent; but, the country’s greatest draw is the wonderful scenery. The “Emerald Isle” is wondrously green, variegated by its bare mountains and strange rock formations, stark cliffs and sandy strands, flower-rich boglands and tree canopied desmesnes.
Lay of the Land
Unlike the archetypal island, which is supposed to rise from coastal lowlands to a mountain core, Ireland‘s heartland is mostly low-lying country, enclosed by highland ramparts. Only from Dublin northwards is there an extensive opening of the land to the sea, a fifty-mile doorway of fertile land, through which successive waves of invaders have entered the country. Overlooking Dublin from the south, the Wicklow Mountains rise to a peak of 3 035ft/925m at Lugnaquilla, but the country’s highest point and the most dramatic mountain scenery are to be found in the far southwest, where Carantuohill (3414ft/1038m) and Macgillycuddy’s Reeks preside over the glories of the Killarney lakelands and the Iveragh Peninsula. This peninsula is one of several and part of a much wider set of parallel mountain folds running roughly east–west, which were violently folded in Hercynian times, and which include the granites of Brittany and the Harz massif in Germany. In Ireland they also include a whole series of ranges dividing the Midlands from the island’s southern coastline. Their equivalents in the north are the northeast–southwest pointing ranges, folded in the Caledonian period and crossing the Atlantic edge in Donegal and Connaught and the narrow strait separating Ulster from Scotland.
Bounded by these ancient mountain systems, the central regions of the country are largely underlaid by a much-eroded foundation of carboniferous limestone: the basis of the rich pasturelands for which Ireland is famous, it is far from monotonous, producing such dramatic features as the great escarpment of Benbulben, glowering over Sligo, and the eerie moonscapes of The Burren in Co Clare.
Much of the Midlands landscape is profoundly marked by the impact of the Ice Ages. The retreating glaciers left unconsolidated deposits of clay, sand and gravel, great tracts of which remain badly drained today, though the worm-like, winding ridges of sandy gravel called eskers – deposited by streams running beneath the glaciers – have always provided dry areas in an otherwise almost impenetrable land. The ice sheets also moulded great swarms of drumlins, low egg-shaped mounds, most clearly visible when partially submerged as in Clew Bay and Strangford Lough. In the north, a broad band of drumlins extends right across the island, the waterlogged land around them forming a barrier to communication which may well have helped establish Ulster’s distinctive identity in ancient times.
One of the most intriguing features of the Irish landscape is its peat bogs, the most extensive in Europe, occupying something like a sixth of the land surface, and playing an important role in the country’s history, economy, and collective memory.
There are two types of bogs in Ireland although the peat in both is formed in water-logged conditions by the accumulation of dead and incompletely decomposed plant material. Blanket bog occurs in areas of high rainfall and humidity, mostly in the mountains of the western seaboard, and comprises dead grass and sedge. It is usually shallower (6ft/2m to 20ft/6m) than raised bog, which is more of a lowland phenomenon, occurring where there is less rainfall, growing above the ground-water level, and formed by dome-shaped bog moss (sphagnum). This type of peat-bog, up to 19ft/12m deep, is scattered over much of the Midlands, where it forms a distinctive, open and natural-seeming landscape in contrast to the farmland beyond. Raised bogs have developed over time without appreciable human interference, whereas the blanket bog has been fashioned by burning and the clearance of scrub and woodland for grazing. The history of the land is preserved by the peat layers, revealing the nature of forests and of Neolithic fields beneath the blanket bogs of the west.
In more recent times, the Irish bogs have provided places of refuge for rebels and outlaws, while their inaccessibility and unfamiliarity have made it difficult for invaders to extend their control over the whole country.
The early disappearance of tree cover and scarcity of coal deposits meant that peat – known locally as turf – became the most important source of fuel. The turfs are traditionally cut with a slane, a narrow spade with a side blade set at a right angle, and laid out to dry. When thoroughly dry, they are stacked into clamps near the house. In a fine summer, a family can harvest enough fuel for several years. The cuts sliced deep into the bog and the stacks of drying peat make distinctive patterns in the landscape that appear quite alien to visitors from abroad, while the sight, sound and smell of the turf fire glowing in the corner of living room or pub evokes strong emotions in every Irish heart.
Since the mid-20C peat has been harvested on an industrial scale to provide the country with electric power as well as yielding moss peat for horticultural purposes. The mechanical harvesters of the Bord na Móna (Peat Development Authority) are an impressive sight as they scrape huge quantities of sun-dried milled peat from a bog that has been drained for a period of five to seven years. The harvested peat is made into briquettes for domestic use or burned in one of five electricity generating stations.
Confronting the Atlantic as it does, Ireland has an oceanic climate, tempered by the influence of the warm waters of the Gulf Stream flowing northwards along its western shores. Successive weather systems blow in from the southwest, bringing abundant precipitation and ever-changing cloudscapes. The temperature range is limited; it is rarely very hot nor very cold. In the coolest months of January and February temperatures vary between 4˚ and 7˚ Celsius, in the warmest months of July and August between 14˚ and 16˚. Snowfalls are uncommon except on the highest mountains, where the total annual precipitation can exceed 2.4m. The southwest is the wettest part of the country and the east the driest, but it is not so much the amount of rainfall, rather its persistence that is characteristic. However, although there may not be many days without rain or a touch of drizzle, it should always be remembered that its occurrence is in no small part responsible for the freshness of the atmosphere and the luminous look of the landscape.
The country’s rock foundation is most dramatically exposed at the interface of land and ocean, particularly in the west, where mountainous peninsulas frequently end in bold headlands, while sea inlets and fjords penetrate far inland. The northern shore of Co Antrim boasts what is surely Ireland’s most famous natural wonder, the countless clustered columns of the Giant’s Causeway, formed 60 million years ago by violent volcanic disturbances. Few natural ramparts are as spectacular as the bands of shale and sandstone making up the 5mi/8km stretch of the Cliffs of Moher, rising 200m over the Atlantic breakers on the edge of the Burren in Co Clare. The limestones of The Burren leap seaward to form the Aran Islands, where the abrupt cliffs of Inishmore, though less high, are equally awe-inspiring. The discontinuous archipelago along the western coast offers other equally extraordinary sights, none more so than the drowned mountain-top of Skellig Michael, a rocky refuge for a hardy monastic community in the days of Early Christianity. The tallest cliffs are those of the Slieve League peninsula, where a great bastion of quartzite stands some 1 972ft/601m above the waves.
In the east of the country, coasts are characterised by splendid natural harbours formed by drowned valleys, low limestone cliffs and glorious beach.
Fields and Farms
Despite recent economic trends, Ireland is still very much an agricultural country, with more than 80 per cent of the land used for farming. Most of this is pasture; it is estimated that Ireland has around 95 per cent of the best grassland in the whole European Union, but arable farming prospers in the drier east, notably in the Ards Peninsular in Ulster and in Co Wexford, where barley is grown on a large scale.
As elsewhere in Atlantic Europe, farmland is enclosed rather than open, with a variety of field patterns reflecting a complex historical development. The typical field boundary is a hedgebank topped with native shrubs and trees, often allowed to grow spontaneously rather than laid to make them stockproof. It is these leafy banks that make up for the country’s lack of woodland, transforming the rolling landscape into picturesque scenery. In the rocky peninsulas of the west and elsewhere, stone is used to form boundary walls: most notably in the Aran Islands, where tiny enclosures are bounded by drystone walls built to be permeable to strong local winds. In areas of poor soil and high rainfall, ‘lazy beds’ were made. These were cultivation ridges, created by laying a strip of manure and inverting sods over it from both sides. The raised bed drained easily into the trenches on either side and its soil was warmed by the sun from the side as well as the top, highly advantageous characteristics in a cool, wet country. Lazy beds came into their own with the widespread cultivation of the potato in the pre-Famine years, and whole landscapes are marked by the wrinkled pattern of the subsequently abandoned ridges, sometimes at an elevation where cultivation of any crop would seem doomed to failure.
Most of the country was originally covered in trees, particularly forests of sessile oak. Clearance for agriculture began in Neolithic times and continued until virtually no natural or even semi-natural woodlands were left. One of the last assaults on the native forest was made by the British in the 17C and 18C, on the one hand for building materials and for smelting, on the other to deny refuge to the rebellious Irish. Remnants of natural forest can be found in the southern Wicklow Mountains and around Killarney, where there are also marvellous specimens of the arbutus or strawberry tree. In the 18C considerable replanting efforts were made by many owners of demesnes eager to landscape their estates in the English manner. Exotic trees like Scots pine, beech, sweet chestnut, monkey puzzle and cedar of Lebandon were introduced to supplement the native species. As some six per cent of the land surface was held in demesnes, the landscape impact was considerable, though it was much reduced subsequently through the break-up and parcelling-out of many estates. The fate of the Anglo-Irish so-called Big House is well known; less familiar is the felling of its heritage of trees and ornamental woodland and their conversion into ordinary farmland or conifer plantations. Nevertheless a number of demesnes have survived, some in the form of Forest Parks in public ownership, others in the hands of the National Trust in Northern Ireland.
Generations of gardeners have exploited the country’s favourable, frost-free environment to create gardens famous for their broad spectrum of plants, notably in areas sheltered from the wind. Several sub-tropical paradise gardens such as Garinish Island in Glengarriff Harbour, manage to have flowers in bloom all year round. Conditions favoured by rhododendrons and fucshias account for why these shrubs grow in woodlands and hedgerows. Botanically speaking, Ireland’s most fascinating landscape is perhaps The Burren, where a profusion of acid and lime-loving plants grow in harmonious co-existence.
Rivers and Lakes
Not surprisingly, water is ever-present in the Irish landscape. The country’s rivers have a total length of 16,530mi/ 26,000km and lakes/loughs cover an area of 560sq mi/1,450sq km. Ireland’s low population density and the relative lack of polluting industries means that most of this water is unpolluted and well-stocked with fish and other wildlife.
The watercourses rising on the seaward side of mountains tend to be short and steep, draining straight into the sea. Those that rise inland form slow-moving lowland streams, lined by water-meadows and often widening out into lakes. The Shannon, the country’s longest river (230mi/370km) behaves in this way, winding sluggishly through the Midlands countryside and forming the great expanses of Lough Ree and Lough Derg, before discharging into its immensely long estuary below Limerick. In Ulster, Lough Neagh is far more impressive than the River Bann, which flows through it – though shallow, it is Ireland’s largest body of water, covering an area of 153sq m/400sq km, and teeming with eels. The country’s loveliest lakeland is that which has developed along the course of the Erne, comprising countless lesser lakes as well as island-studded Upper and Lower Lough Erne themselves.
In the south, rivers rising far inland have cut their way through upland chains to reach the sea; the valleys thus formed by the Blackwater, Nore, Suir, Barrow and Slaney are often of great beauty.