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Ireland’s prosperous economy owes much to forceful government intervention and enthusiastic membership of the European Union in the last decades of the 20C. The effects of new-found affluence, from a high level of car ownership to individual house-building, can be seen everywhere. Social change has been profound, but at the same time many of the characteristics of the Irish way of life, which so endear the country to its visitors, remain as pronounced as ever, and Irish identity is far from being eroded by the country’s whole-hearted entry into the mainstream of contemporary international life.


Celtic Tiger

In the 19C, Union with Britain failed for the most part to bring Ireland the benefits or indeed the problems of the Industrial Revolution. The great exception was Belfast, where the linen and food processing industries stimulated the growth of general engineering. The city joined the ranks of British industrial centres, its role confirmed in the first half of the 20C, when Harland and Wolff built liners like the Titanic andShort built famous flying boats. Between 1939–45, the North’s economy was further stimulated by the needs of war production and by the presence of British and American military bases.

By contrast, in the years following independence, the Republic concentrated on being self-sufficient rather than on modernising its economy, which remained over-reliant on farming and on the export of agricultural products to Britain. Some stimulation came from government initiatives like the Shannon hydro-electric scheme, but the high level of emigration of people of working age was a fundamental weakness. The world depression of the 1930s and a trade war with Britain further hindered progress. Ireland’s neutral stance during 1939–45 may have made political sense, but brought none of the benefits of intensified production nor of the American aid that helped restore the postwar economies of other European countries. However from the 1950s onwards, a series of measures were taken to open up the economy and stimulate growth; tax concessions and incentives encouraged export-based, modern industries and attracted foreign investment. A further boost was given when the country joined the European Economic Community in 1972. Despite intermittent setbacks, the highly qualified and largely un-unionised workforce, together with investment in research and development, brought about astonishing economic expansion; by the 1990s, the country’s growth rate was twice the European Union’s average, and modern industries like chemicals, pharmaceuticals, electronics, biotechnology, and information technology constituted 75 per cent of the total industrial output. The strength of the “Celtic Tiger‘s” economy meant that Ireland was able to join the single European currency project as one of the few countries complying with the criteria set by the Maastricht Treaty of 1992. The outward migration which had been such a negative feature of Irish life for centuries came to an end and net immigration began, many of the migrants being young professionals bringing with them expertise acquired abroad.

Northern Ireland, once in advance of the South in terms of industry and employment, has suffered like the rest of the United Kingdom from the decline in traditional heavy industries. Government sponsored initiatives have not always ended in success and the halting progress of the peace process has inhibited the inflow of investment. A mitigating factor is the exceptionally high level of employment in the public sector.

Tourism has become the Republic’s second largest indigenous industry. ­Six million overseas visitors come here every year, drawn by unspoilt landscapes, clean rivers and lakes, peace and quiet, the Celtic heritage, and the friendly welcome extended by local people. Fishing and golf remain major attractions. The once rudimentary visitor facilities are being replaced by state of the art interpretative centres while the previous somewhat carefree attitude to conservation has given way to the meticulous work of Dúchas, the government body charged with preservation of national heritage.

Modern tourism began with the spread of the railway network in the 19C. The mountain, lake and coastal scenery of the west particularly appealed to Victorian sensibilities. Today, more than half the Republic’s visitors still come from Britain, about a million from North America, and many from the over-crowded conurbations of western Europe.



The Irish are commonly thought of as being a Celtic people, but this is more of a cultural than ethnic definition. Around 8,000BC, long before the arrival of the Celts, the coastal areas and river valleys were settled by Mesolithic hunter-gatherers who had moved across the land-bridge that still connected Ireland with Scotland. The dominant Celts seem to have come in several waves during the second half of the last millennium BC, pushed to the western fringe of the continent by the expansion of the Roman Empire and pressure from Germanic tribes in Central Europe. By the time of the coming of Christianity in the 5C, the population may have amounted to a quarter of a million. Viking attacks began towards the end of the 8C but, although the Norsemen’s original objective was pillage, they later settled, founding coastal towns and eventually becoming absorbed into the local population. Subsequent immigration mostly originated from Britain, the Anglo-Norman invaders and their followers being succeeded in the 16C and 17C by a planned influx of settlers and colonists. By the beginning of the 18C, perhaps a quarter of the population of just over two million was of English, Welsh and Scottish origin. Other groups, though far less numerous, added their distinctive flavour; Huguenots in the late 17C, Jews mostly in the late 19C and early 20C. Before the last decades of the 20C, the backwardness of the economy meant that immigration from non-European countries remained statistically insignificant.

Distribution and Structure

The country has a population of around 5.7 million, of whom 1.7 million or so live in Northern Ireland and 4 million in the Republic. This represents a substantial increase over the low point of the early 20C of about 4.5 million, the result of a falling birthrate and continuing emigration. The size of the current population is largely due to net inward migration, but it is still well short of the total of over 8 million in the period immediately preceding the Famine.

Population density compared with other western European countries is low – 52 people per sq km – and a large proportion of the population still lives in small towns or the countryside. Villages are relatively few and the isolated family farm is the most typical form of rural settlement; many places that elsewhere in Europe would be classified as villages with a total population of perhaps a few hundred, have a full range of urban functions such as a market, shops, pubs, and professional offices.

Recent rural building has confirmed the scattered nature of settlement, with new farmhouses and homes standing proudly in the middle of fields and a ribbon development of bungalows along the roads.

The larger towns are all on the coast. Greater Dublin has a disproportionate number of inhabitants, with 1,122,600 in total; Greater Belfast has some 277,391. No other regional centre in the Republic approaches the capital in population size; Cork has around 180 000 inhabitants, while the other leading cities have under 100 000. In the Republic, birth rates have fallen recently, but the population is relatively young, with more than 40 per cent under the age of 25, and 24 per cent under the age of 15.

Religious Affiliation and Minorities

In recent years, the power and authority of the Roman Catholic Church may have been sapped by recurrent scandals, but the Republic of Ireland is still a demonstratively Catholic country, with 91 per cent of the population declaring their adherence to the Roman Catholic Church. Attendance at Mass is high, though no longer universal, and much lower in inner city districts of Dublin than in rural areas. The Church’s teachings on matters such as abortion continue to command widespread respect; attempts to liberalise restrictions on termination of pregnancy have been defeated when put to referendum. Protestants, who once formed a quarter of the total population, and almost 50 per cent of the inhabitants of Dublin, have declined in number, either through emigration or intermarriage. Today they number around 3 per cent of the Republic’s population, most of them members of the Church of Ireland.

The strength of religious observance is paralleled in Northern Ireland, whose majority Protestant population is split between Presbyterians, Methodists, members of the Church of Ireland and of various minor denominations. Roman Catholics form about one third of the Northern population, a proportion that is steadily increasing.

Ethnically indistinguishable from their fellow-citizens, Travellers are perhaps the most visible minority in southern Ireland. Previously known by the now demeaning name of “tinkers”, they move their lorries and caravans from one roadside site to another and earn a living mostly from scrap-metal dealing. There are small numbers of Chinese and other Asians in both North and South. The Republic, especially its remoter western areas, has long attracted individuals from other European countries, particularly Germany.



Music plays a major role in Irish life; not only through the sessions of traditional music played in the bars in the evenings all over the country but also the dancing for which many of the tunes were written.


Most forms of sport are played enthusiastically in Ireland, none more so than those that are uniquely Irish; hurling (iománaíocht) and Gaelic football (peil), These, together with handball (liathróid láimhe) and rounders, are administered by the Gaelic Athletic Association (Cumann Lúthchleas Gael) , a largely rural movement, founded in 1884 in Thurles.

The national 80,000 spectator GAA stadium – Croke Park, Dublin – is named after the Association’s first patron, Archbishop Croke (1824–1902). The high point of the Gaelic sporting year comes in September, when both the hurling and football national finals are held at Croke Park. The history of the Association and the exploits of the hurling and football champions are excellently illustrated in the GAA Museums at Croke Park and in Thurles.

Hurling is a fast-moving and high-scoring game of great antiquity, played by two teams of fifteen using long curved hurley (camán) sticks to hit the cork and leather ball into or over the rugby-style goal. Allowing the ball to be handled under certain circumstances increases the excitement of the game, which can seem violent and chaotic to the non-initiated. Camogie is a version of hurling adapted for women participants, with a shorter playing time, teams of 12, and a smaller pitch.

Gaelic football is played with a spherical ball, uses the same pitch as hurling and has similar rules; neither game is played outside Ireland to any extent, but Australian Rules football owes much to its Gaelic ancestor.

Horse Racing

The horse plays a special role in Irish life and the great Horse Fairs still figure in the Irish calendar. Breeding and racing horses have deep roots in Irish culture; the earliest horse races were part of pre-Christian festivals. Swimming races, which ceased only recently, also had Celtic origins, in the ritual of immersion. The focal point of Ireland’s breeding, racing and training is at the Curragh in Co Kildare.

There are about 28 race courses in Ireland. At Laytown Strand, south of Drogheda, the times of races are dictated by the tide and horses are often exercised on the seashore. The first recorded prize is a plate donated in 1640 by the Trustees of the Duke of Leinster. In 1684 King James II presented the King’s Plate at Down Royal “to encourage the sport of horse racing”. The first steeplechase, a race over obstacles invented by Lord Doneraile, took place in 1752 from Buttevant Church to St Leger Church near Doneraile (4.5mi/7km). In the past, men challenged one another to pounding matches, in which the participants, accompanied by their grooms, had to follow the leader over any selected obstacle or admit defeat.

Bars and Pubs

More varied and more interesting than its derivatives, which have been such a marketing success world-wide, the Irish pub or bar remains the centre of much social life, particularly in the countryside and in small towns, where some still double as general stores. Big-city pubs in both Belfast and Dublin can be places of almost Baroque splendour, redolent with literary or political associations. Drinking and conversation remain the patrons’ principal preoccupations, but more and more pubs serve good food and very few remain an exclusively male preserve. Strangers seeking company are unlikely to remain lonely for long, and the pub is the best place to enjoy fun and good talk, the famous craic, as well as music, traditional or contemporary.

Irish Diaspora

Forty million people of Irish descent live in the USA, 5 million in Canada, 5 million in Australia and innumerable millions in Great Britain. Estimates suggest that over 60 million people in the world are of Irish origin. The influence of Irish people worldwide is immeasurable in comparison to the country’s size.

The imposition of the Anglican Reformation in the reign of Elizabeth I caused many to leave Munster for Spain and Portugal. The conquest of 1603 caused more departures to Spain and Brittany. Cromwell transported whole regiments, possibly 34 000 men, to Spain and Portugal, while many civilians were shipped to the West Indies, where they could be sold as slaves. The Treaty of Limerick in 1691 was followed by the flight of the so-called Wild Geese , military men who, together with their wives and children, emigrated to France, where they served in the French army until 1697; some of them moved on to Spain, where three Irish regiments were formed. The most famous name among the merchants who settled on the western coast of Europe is that of Richard Hennessy, from Cork, who started the Cognac company.

The first transatlantic emigrants were mostly Presbyterians, the Ulster-Scots (known in the USA as Scots-Irish or Scotch-Irish), descendants of lowland Scots who had settled in Ulster in the 17C. Whole families emigrated early in the 18C owing to religious strictures and rising rents. The Roman Catholic Irish tended to emigrate as single young adults, both men and women.

The Scotch-Irish have enjoyed great influence in America despite their limited numbers, particularly in the War of Independence and in education. The heartland of Ulster settlement was in the Appalachian back country; the name hillbilly derives from King William III. Many of the settlers were involved in pushing the frontier westwards and building the American railways. Over a quarter of the Presidents of the USA are descended from Scotch-Irish settlers. This Irish-American connection is traced in detail at the Ulster-American Folk Park and Andrew Jackson Centre , as well as several other family homesteads. Allied military leaders in the Second World War who were of Ulster stock include Alanbrooke, Alexander, Auchinleck, Dill and Montgomery.

Following the Napoleonic Wars emigration recommenced and during the next 25 years over a million Irish men and women emigrated to Great Britain and the USA. Emigration reached its peak during the Great Famine when Ireland lost 4 million people through death and emigration. During the worst years about 1 million fled and another ­2.5 million emigrated in the following decade. The great wave of 19C emigrants was largely composed of Roman Catholics from Donegal, Connaught, Munster and Leinster; counties that until then had not seen much emigration. Many landed first in Canada then later crossed the frontier into the USA to escape from British rule. Their descendants include John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Ronald Reagan and William Jefferson Clinton.

The numbers who emigrated to Australia and New Zealand were smaller and included some who were transported to the penal colonies.

The flow of immigrants into Great Britain has waxed and waned since the Irish established colonies in Wales and Scotland in the 5C. Many, particularly those who left Ireland during the Famine in the hope of reaching America but were too weak or penniless to continue, settled in Liverpool and Glasgow. London has a flourishing Irish community, particularly north of the river. Margaret Thatcher, ex-Prime Minister of the UK (1978–91), is descended from Catherine Sullivan, who emigrated in 1811 from Kenmare and became a washerwoman in England.

Many Irishmen who went to work in Britain on the canals or in agriculture and the building trade In the 18C and 19C, returned home for the winter. Those who went to America or Australasia seldom returned to the mother country. Despite their rural origins, most Irish emigrants settled in the big cities rather than on the land of their adopted countries.

Irish emigrants in the late 20C and early 21C are highly qualified young men and women seeking employment not only in English-speaking countries like the UK and the USA, but also throughout the European Union. In recent years emigration has declined and immigration has increased. In 1997 there was a net inflow of 15 000 people, the highest such figure since the 1970s. Many of these people are former emigrants, returning to a higher standard of living and a culturally revitalised society.

Tracing Ancestors

Many visitors, particularly from Australia, New Zealand and the USA, hope to trace their ancestors who left Ireland and settled abroad. This task is more difficult than it might have been, due to the destruction during the Civil War of the national archives, whose records went back to 1174. In the latter years of the 20C a great project was set in motion to collect all the information available from parish records, tombstones and other sources throughout Ireland. Access to these computer records and assistance in tracing ancestors can be obtained through the many regional Genealogical Centres that are listed in the Address Books of the appropriate chapters in the Discovering Ireland sections. If you have no idea where in Ireland your ancestors came from, it is best to consult one of the national organisations in Dublin. A good way of exchanging news or meeting long-lost relatives, is to attend one of the annual clan gatherings, held on ancestral sites by some of the 243 Irish clans.

Food and Drink

There are two Irish culinary traditions: the elaborate meals served in town and country mansions, and the simple dishes of earlier centuries.

Irish Cuisine

The gourmet festival of Kinsale celebrates Irish cuisine, based on first-class local produce, from the renowned Dublin Bay prawn and succulent Galway oyster to the humble potato.


The traditional Irish Fry , known in the north as an “Ulster Fry”, consists of fried egg, sausage, bacon, black pudding, potato farls, mushrooms, tomatoes and sometimes soda bread. The Irish, English, Scottish and Welsh each have their own version of the ‘fry-up’, though the Scottish and Welsh fry ups are the most unique, with the addition of unusual specialities, such as haggis or laverbread (fried seaweed and oatmeal patties).

Fish and Meat

The king of the freshwater fish is the salmon , wild or farmed; as a main dish it is usually poached or grilled. Irish smoked salmon is traditionally cured with oak wood. The other most frequently served freshwater fish is trout , farmed or wild. Shellfish , such as crab, lobster, scallops, mussels and Dublin Bay prawns (also known as langoustines or scampi) are usually available near the coast, particularly in the southwest.

The Irish fishing grounds produce Dover sole (known locally as Black sole), lemon sole, plaice, monkfish, turbot, brill, John Dory, cod, hake, haddock, mackerel and herring.

Prime beef is raised on the lush pastures in the east and south of Ireland; lamb comes from the uplands. Pork is presented in many ways: as joints and chops; as ham or bacon; as pigs’ trotters (crúibíní) , known in English as crubeens; in white puddings; in black puddings (drisheen) flavoured with tansy and eaten for breakfast. The most popular game is rabbit but hare and pheasant are also served.

Traditional Dishes

There is no official recipe for Irish stew , which consists of neck of mutton layered in a pot with potatoes, onions and herbs. Colcannon is a Harvest or Hallowe’en dish of mashed potatoes, onions, parsnips and white cabbage, mixed with butter and cream. Champ is a simpler dish of potatoes mashed with butter, to which are added chopped chives or other green vegetables such as parsley, spring onions (scallions), chopped shallots, nettles, peas, cabbage or even carrots (cooked in milk that is added to the purée). Nettles are also made into soup. To make ­ coddle , a forehock of bacon, pork sausages, potatoes and onions are stewed in layers. Collar and cabbage is composed of a collar of bacon, which has been boiled, coated in breadcrumbs and brown sugar, baked, then served with cabbage cooked in the bacon stock.

Various sorts of seaweed , a highly nutritious source of vitamins and minerals, were traditionally used to thicken soups and stews. Carrageen is still used to make a dessert with a delicate flavour. Dulse is made into a sweet.

Dairy Products

Irish cookery makes liberal use of butter and cream. Ice-cream is particularly popular as a dessert. In recent years many hand-made cheeses have appeared on the market, such as: Cashel Blue (a soft, creamy, blue-veined cheese made from cow’s milk in Tipperary; milder than Stilton), Cooleeny (a Camembert-type cheese from Thurles in Co Tipperary), Milleens (a distinctive spicy cheese from West Cork) and Gubbeen (a soft surface-ripening cheese from Skull in Co Cork).


A wide variety of breads and cakes is baked for breakfast and tea. The best-known is soda bread , made of white or brown flour and buttermilk. Barm Brack is a rich fruit cake made with yeast ( báirín breac – speckled cake).


Stout made by Guinness or Murphys is the traditional thirst-quencher in Ireland, but the drinking of ales (bitter) and lagers is not uncommon. Black Velvet is a mixture of stout and champagne.

Although there are now only three whiskey distilleries in Ireland – Bushmills in Co Antrim, which produces the only malt, and Midleton in Co Cork, both owned by the same company, and Cooley in Dundalk – there are many different brands of whiskey. Their distinctive flavours arise from subtle variations in the production process.

The Flag is a patriotic drink that mixes crème de menthe, tequila and Southern Comfort—the green, white and orange of the Republican tricolor.

Irish Coffee , a delicious creation, consists of a measure of whiskey, brown sugar and very hot black coffee mixed in a heated glass and topped with a layer of fresh cream.

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