Ireland: Introduction

Perception is a key to understanding the geography of Ireland. Images or perceptions can be created from pictures and stories about Ireland or from family, television, books, and newspapers.

For many people, Ireland is perceived as a land of eloquent poets, renowned writers and playwrights, lyrical musicians, and creative dancers.Among these many talented literary and artistic geniuses are poets Oscar Wilde and William Butler Yeats, writers Padraic Pearse and James Joyce, musicians the Chieftains and U2, and Irish dancers such as those in Riverdance.

If students and teachers in your school were to be asked for their perceptions when they hear the word “Ireland,” answers may include: the Emerald Isle, forty shades of green, leprechauns, potatoes, the Great Famine, stone fences, very narrow roads, where grandpa was born, or The Troubles (civil strife, primarily in Northern Ireland). The quote at the beginning of this chapter reflects many of the common perceptions people have of Ireland, its geography, and its history.

Geographers study places, and it is clear that the way a place is perceived will change when that place is experienced. If students or teachers in your school who have recently visited Ireland were asked what they think of when they hear the word “Ireland,” they would have completely different perceptions. They would talk about motor coaches everywhere, new highways, big new homes in every community, the Irish language, lots of jobs, new factories across the countryside, the euro (currency of the European Union), software companies, golf courses, and thousands and thousands of tourists.

Today's Ireland is a land of rapid change. The purpose of this book is to help you understand the rapid changes that are occurring in Ireland and to consider the future impact on the land and the people. Places change over time in numerous ways. When an economy changes from agricultural to high technology, it changes the landscape—new buildings go up, and farms turn into suburban subdivisions.

Understanding the numerous, and sometimes conflicting, perceptions of Ireland requires critical thought. Geographic theories and concepts will be used as the bases of this analysis of Ireland. While reading the book, try to ask why things are located where they are in Ireland both historically and today.

To become a good geographer, one needs to know what geographers do and how the world and individual countries within it, such as Ireland, are studied. The basic belief of geography is that all features (whether physical or cultural) are organized rationally on Earth's surface. Geography explains why hills, rivers, and even gale-force winds are where they are.

Geography also explains why Celtic sacred sites, the Catholic religion, and Irish dancers are where they are. The physical processes of erosion, such as wind and water, help to explain why a mountain or river exists. The human and cultural processes of change, such as diffusion and migration, help explain why a language is lost or reborn.

Geography is an exciting field because the earth is constantly changing. Over centuries, people build towns, change the courses of rivers, and create new economic systems. These human changes reflect each people's culture—their way of life—including their customs, values, material objects, and their unique place in the world. At the same time, changing physical processes such as mountain building, erosion, and deposition affect humans and their cultures. Humans and environments interact in a reciprocal relationship. Humans must adapt to environments, they also depend upon natural resources within the environment and, in countless ways, people change the environment.


The island of Ireland (Eire) is located at the western limit of the continent of Europe. The Irish Sea separates Ireland from the British Isles to the east and northeast. The Atlantic Ocean surrounds Ireland on the northwest, west, and south. Because of its rugged coastline, no place in Ireland is more than 70 miles (113 kilometers) from the sea.

From north to south, Ireland stretches 302 miles (486 kilometers), located roughly between 52 and 56 degrees north latitude (approximately equivalent to Canada's Lake Winnipeg). From east to west, Ireland reaches 171 miles (275 kilometers), between approximately 6 and 11 degrees west longitude. The island has an area of 32,589 square miles (84,405 square kilometers), about the size of Maine. However, the island of Ireland is divided into two political units: the Republic of Ireland (Ireland) and Northern Ireland. Ireland is an independent country of 27,136 square miles (70,282 square kilometers), slightly larger than West Virginia. Northern Ireland is an Administrative Division of the United Kingdom and covers 5,453 square miles (14,123 square kilometers), slightly larger than Connecticut.


Although Ireland is an island off the coast of Europe, its history is tied closely to the European region. Long occupied by the Celtic people who ranged from Ireland to Italy, Ireland still traces much of its heritage to its Celtic roots.

Over the last 2,000 years, Ireland has experienced what many of the poorest countries in the world have been through in the last two hundred years. Although Ireland was never part of the Roman Empire, it was influenced by the Romans, who brought Catholicism. Ireland was later colonized by the Vikings and then by the British. More recently, Ireland suffered the great potato famine, resulting in at least two million migrants leaving Ireland and relocating in North America, Australia, and New Zealand. With that great migration went many Irish speakers, and then Ireland's language started to decline.

The effect of immigration from Ireland is seen in the United States today, where over 50 million people (about 22 percent of the population) claim to be of Irish descent. The island of Ireland still experiences the lingering effects of colonialism in its division into two political units: the Republic of Ireland (an independent country since 1921) and Northern Ireland (still part of the United Kingdom). The political instability in Northern Ireland is a constant reminder to the Irish of the lasting changes that come from colonization.

The poorest countries of the world struggle to find a way to build businesses that will bring jobs, sustainable development, and stable governments. Even following political independence, the economy of former colonies is tied to the colonizer and other wealthy countries. No matter what a country produces, the biggest consumers of its products live in the wealthiest countries of the world, because they have the money to purchase goods and resources. Today, the wealthiest 20 percent of the world controls 83 percent of the world's wealth.

In the last 25 years, Ireland has gone from one of the poorest countries in Western Europe to one of the world's fastestgrowing economies. The roles the European Union, the Irish government, and foreign investors have played in creating this economic miracle will be examined in this book. Such a rapid change in a country's economy is uncommon, and why it has happened at this time in Ireland will also be analyzed.

The story of Ireland's economic change is just one of the many stories in this book. A unique part of Irish culture is the numerous tales, myths, legends, and folklore passed down orally through storytelling. Perhaps the most famous are the stories of Cuchulainn the warrior and the children of Lir who were turned into swans by their mother. Hundreds of other Irish legends, such as the earth-shapers, Saint Brigid's cloak, and MacDatho's boar, can fill one's mind with perceptions of Ireland. These fascinating legends, however, are not the focus of this book.

Each chapter provides a different story about Ireland. Each story will also change many perceptions of that place. The massive changes that occurred in Ireland over the last century are reflected in its physical and cultural landscapes. Ireland has a fascinating physical geography. Its cultural geography is a microcosm reflecting many of the changes that are happening today throughout much of the world. This book's goal is to use stories about how Ireland has changed over time and to present a new story that describes the Ireland of today and tomorrow.

When countries change, the people often struggle over whether to remain traditional or to fully embrace the new. At the end of this book, some perceptions of Ireland will remain, and some valuable new perceptions will have developed.

As the story of Ireland's geography commences, the lead of the great Irish storytellers will be followed, beginning with the Irish words, “fado . . . fado . . . ,” meaning, “long, long ago.”