Irish People and Culture

Fado, fado, Ireland was populated by people from the Eurasian landmass. Racially, the Irish are linked to Western Europe and Scandinavia. The Celtic culture came to envelop Ireland during the years of Celtic domination. Saint Patrick and Christian missionaries brought the Catholic religion to Ireland. Vikings intermarried with the Irish resulting in some genetic changes. Later, the Anglo-Normans brought a new economic structure to Ireland, changing the island's cultural composition in many ways, but changing the racial composition very little. During British colonization, there were more changes in culture, especially a move away from the Irish language to the English language. During the rise of independence, the Irish reached back to their Celtic roots and reaffirmed their Catholic faith in forming the Republic of Ireland.


One of the most common adjectives people use when describing Ireland is “rural.” Ireland, historically, has been a land of scattered farmsteads with few cities and villages. Today, the Irish Central Statistics Office reports that the greater Dublin area has a population over 1 million. Cork is the next most populous urban area, with over 400,000 people. Between 1996 and 2002, Ireland's population grew 8 percent. Each of Ireland's four provinces grew, with Leinster province (home to Dublin and several other cities) growing the most at 9.4 percent.

Several cities in Ireland experienced population increases greater than 10 percent in the last six years. The sharp gain is mainly due to Ireland's economic boom. According to Ireland's Central Statistics Office, of the eleven cities experiencing population growth of more than 10 percent, nine are located in the Leinster province. The other two are County Cork in Munster province and Galway city in Connacht province.

Geographers who study population recognize that poor, agricultural areas typically have high birth rates and high death rates. This is because the population desires large families to help work the land, but has little access to health care that could increase life expectancy. When an economy becomes more prosperous (typically more urban as well), the population grows. This is due in part to the decline in death rates resulting from better access to health care.

As the economy continues to gain wealth, the population growth slows. This is because people desire fewer children as they change jobs from agricultural to industrial and service economies. Finally, some countries reach a state of zero population growth. The death rate becomes higher than the birth rate. At the point of zero population growth, the population of a region starts to “gray,” meaning a larger proportion of the population is over retirement age. This places a burden on the smaller population of working-age people who must support the retirement of the larger, older generation. Today, Italy and Sweden are two countries with this burden.

This explanation of population change depending on birth and death rates does not account for the growing population in Ireland today. Ireland's recent population growth does not stem from a higher birth rate than usual. Rather, Ireland's birth rate has declined to 1.87 births per woman in the 1990s, from 3.96 births per woman in the 1960s. This is well below the natural replacement rate of 2.1 births per woman. The Irish Central Statistics Office attributes the recent growth in Ireland's population to in-migration rather than an increased birthrate.

Between 1996 and 2002, every single province, county, and city in Ireland received more in-migrants than out-migrants. With Ireland's high technology economy creating thousands of new jobs each year, well-educated Irish who formerly left the country are returning home to find work.

The growing computer and pharmaceutical sectors of the Irish economy are locating their companies throughout the country. This accounts for the large in-migration in every province, county, and city between 1996 and 2002. Certainly, many foreign companies chose to place their plants in the greater Dublin area. Others, such as Apple Computer, have chosen Cork, the country's second-largest city. Some foreign companies deliberately choose rural locations. They hope to appeal to the young Irish who grew up in rural counties, are educated in computers and trade, and wish to stay in their rural home areas. For example, Prudential Company set up a financial services operation in rural County Donegal in the northwest of Ireland, hoping the Irish who graduate from the county's schools will stay in Donegal.

Ireland today is a country of one major city, several small cities and towns, a multitude of villages, and numerous farms. The settlement landscape varies throughout the country. In the west, one sees hundreds of farmsteads on oddly shaped fields, reflecting the strength of farming in the region prior to the potato famine. Ruins of cottages and stone fences in the west reveal that the region was much more densely populated prior to the famine than it is now. In fact, today's population of 3,917,336 is still only about one-half of the island's 1845 population.


If one used race as the only indicator of diversity, Ireland would be a homogeneous island. More than 99 percent of the island's population is white. Only an estimated 20,000 people are of non-European origin. An additional 22,000 “Travelers” live in Ireland. Travelers are a people who are racially the same as the majority Irish, but are ethnically distinct.

Even though Ireland is racially homogeneous, it is ethnically diverse. Ethnicity is a difficult term to define because it envelops so much. The best way to understand ethnicity is to ask people how they would identify themselves. If all the people see themselves as part of the same group, they are of the same ethnicity. If a group of people focus on some aspect of their culture (economic or political practices, language, religion, role of family, ancestors, economic class, social hierarchy, or traditions) as being distinct from the rest of the people around them, that group of people is an ethnic group.

The Travelers of Ireland are an ethnically distinct group of Irish people. They identify themselves with the Gammon language, with genealogical linkages that show they have lived together for centuries, with a tradition of traveling to make a living, and with many traditions that set them apart from the rest of the Irish. Historically, the Traveler life has been one of movement. They travel through Ireland to make a living through the roadside sale of goods and through seasonal work.

Traditionally, Travelers have camped in rural areas of Ireland. Since the 1960s, the Irish government has encouraged Travelers to live in houses in urban areas and to use designated camps developed by the government in their travels through Ireland. In other cases, their camps can still be seen along public roadways across the land. The Travelers continue to travel from these encampments and from their homes, especially in the warmer months of the year. Travelers choose to travel for a variety of reasons.Most of all, it is what they know. Their culture and traditions stem from centuries of a traveling lifestyle.

Travelers, and many who study their ways of life, argue that it is healthier to travel than to settle and remain in one place. The Traveler lifestyle does not fit the way of life that most Irish and, in fact, most of the world's other people, know: living and working in one place. As a result, some members of the larger Irish population misunderstand the Travelers and harbor prejudices toward them. Other members of the larger Irish population work to help the Travelers uphold their traditions. Still others are unaware of the Travelers' plight in Ireland.


One common perception of Ireland is that it is a strongly Catholic country. This perception is accurate, but that faith is facing challenges as Ireland as a whole changes. The Roman Catholic Church is a powerful presence in Ireland. Almost 92 percent of the people identify themselves as Roman Catholic. Less than 3 percent of the population belongs to the Church of Ireland.

During the last 300 years of Irish history, the British colonists worked to diminish the role of the Catholic Church and Catholic identity among the Irish. This colonial policy backfired on the British, and the Irish clung more tightly to their Catholic identities as a way of distinguishing themselves from the British. During the movement for independence in the late 1800s and the early 1900s, the Catholic identity strengthened further.When the Irish gained their independence in the 1920s, they created a constitution that reflected the rights and norms of the Catholic Church in a multitude of ways. Catholicism is not the official religion of the country, but a quick study of the first laws and constitution in Ireland demonstrates that the Catholic Church influenced the laws the Irish enacted.

One can see the influence of the Catholic Church in many aspects of Ireland beyond the laws and politics. For instance, Catholic churches, cemeteries, and sacred sites can be seen throughout Ireland's cultural landscape. Geographers who study religion often start their study of a place and its religion by looking at the sites the religion holds sacred. They may also study the pilgrimages the religion's followers make to access their sacred sites. Sacred sites are places that people either revere or fear because something significant to their religion happened in that place. Someone significant may have been born or died in that place, or the uniqueness of the place may bring reverence or fear to the people.

Ireland is a land of many sacred sites. The location and type of sacred sites in Ireland differ from those on the European mainland. On the continent, people often built sacred sites by putting a relic of a saint in a town and building a church around the relic. There, sacred sites tend to be in the midst of urban areas and relatively accessible. Ireland's sacred sites tend to be located in areas of rough terrain. This is because in the Celtic tradition, sites became sacred for their unique physical geographic features. When the Catholic Church took root in Ireland, it adopted many Celtic sacred sites.

A visit to Ireland's most important sacred sites would include Knock Shrine in County Mayo where Catholics believe the Virgin Mary and others appeared in 1879. Among other sacred sites are Croagh Patrick, Ireland's holy mountain, and Clonmacnoise Monastery.

While some scholars say that the new economy of Ireland has lessened the role of the Catholic Church, it continues to operate most schools and many medical facilities, and to provide many social and cultural services. Historically, the Church has provided for many of Ireland's most destitute through its many charities.

Western Europe has experienced a large decline in church attendance over the last century, as societies have become more secular. Observers point to many changes in Ireland's laws in the last decade, including the legalization of divorce, as evidence that the influence of the Catholic Church is waning. There is no doubt that Europe has become more secular and that the role of the Catholic Church in Europe has declined in the last century. It is too soon, however, to say the same for Ireland. Polls show some decline in church attendance among the Irish, but they also show the Irish people retain strong beliefs in the teachings of the Catholic Church. Ireland's Catholic identity is not official. Rather, it is tied into Ireland's independence movement, its culture of music, dance, and literature, its education system, and its everyday life.

Ireland's distinct Celtic language, called Irish, is another cultural attribute that distinguishes Ireland from the rest of the European region. In the constitution, the country recognizes the Irish language as the national and first official language. The constitution recognizes English as the second official language.


Celts brought the Irish language to the island, and the British brought English during the colonial period. During the colonial era, the British tried to suppress the Irish language. Many Irish learned English so they could work in the businesses the British brought to the island, or so they could do seasonal work in the United Kingdom. Since the British focused their colonization of Ireland on the Pale, the area around Dublin, the west of Ireland became the stronghold of the Irish language.

The potato famine of the mid-1800s threatened the Irish language. Many people in western Ireland died in the famine and many others from that region migrated to North America. Diffusion (spread) of the English language into the island and the deaths of thousands of Irish speakers combined to threaten the Irish language. The 1891 census reported that 85 percent of the people spoke only English.

Once Ireland gained its independence and set up its government, the country started to support the Irish language through its schools and its hiring policies. Teachers taught the Irish language to students, and the government required its employees to be proficient in Irish. However, people continued to speak English at home and in the workplace.

The government changed its policies and began to focus on the Irish-speaking areas of the island, defining them as the Gaeltacht areas, including Donegal,Mayo, Galway, Kerry, Cork, and Waterford. In the 1980s and 1990s, the Irish government encouraged companies to invest or even locate in the Gaeltacht areas. The government hoped new businesses there would keep people in the counties and keep the Irish language alive. The government successfully encouraged families in the west to house children from other regions during the summer months, so the children could be exposed to the Irish language in a home setting. Irish grammar schools also help to promote the Irish language. All subjects are taught in Irish, and the children's parents are encouraged to learn the Irish language and speak it at home.

For visitors to Ireland today, one of the first exposures to the Irish language would be through television. In the 1990s, the government started funding a television station that broadcasts programs in the Irish language. On average, over two million people a month watch the Irish language station. Many follow the popular Irish language soap operas, learning the language through television. Despite these efforts to restore the Irish language, only 5 percent of the people actually use Irish as their primary language today.

Most Americans perceive Ireland to be a homogeneous culture. This is due, in large part, to the media through which Ireland is portrayed. The stories seen or heard of Ireland in movies, television, and books are commonly rags-to-riches stories of immigrants who had a tough go, but somehow found their way. The Irish are one of the most popular immigrant groups in America, even among those with little or no Irish ancestry. The numerous Saint Patrick's Day parades throughout the United States, from Boston and New York to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, attest to America's fascination with Irish culture.


Three popular aspects of Irish culture that have diffused beyond Ireland and captured the interest of many Americans are music, dance, and literature. These three aspects of Irish culture offer people outside of Ireland other opportunities to learn about the country and to create their own perceptions of its land and people. Irish music carries a strong Celtic influence. In recent decades, however, major music producers have helped transform Irish folk music into popular music with listeners around the world. Traditional instruments include the bodhran (drum), harp, tin whistle, flute, and uillean pipes. These are supplemented today by guitar, bass, and synthesizer. The Chieftains are the most well-known Irish music group outside of Ireland. Other popular acts whose roots are in the Celtic music tradition are Gael Linn, Clannad, and the Corrs. Celtic music has a spirituality to it that attracts many listeners and is especially popular among people of Irish ancestry in North America.

On any Saturday night in Ireland, at many a local pub, one can see Irish dancers perform. Outside of Ireland, the 300-year old tradition of Irish dance is gaining in popularity and can be seen in productions such as Riverdance or Lord of the Dance, in local Irish festivals, and at Saint Patrick's Day celebrations. Irish dance can be performed solo or in figures (groups). The dances include jigs and reels, hornpipes, and the set dance. During the independence movement in Ireland in the late 1800s and early 1900s, Irish dance became more popular in Ireland. The Irish embraced Irish dance then as another way to distinguish themselves from the British. It helped them take pride in their Irish culture. In the early 1900s, Irish dance diffused and became a popular way for people of Irish ancestry to reconnect with
their roots.

The Irish cultural tradition with the widest global influence is Irish literature. Irish poets, playwrights, and novelists have a long history of followers throughout the English-speaking world. Among Ireland's most famous poets are Oscar Wilde, Samuel Beckett, Seamus Heaney, and William Butler Yeats. Among Ireland's most famous writers are Padraic Pearse, James Joyce, Sean O'Casey, Lady Isabella Augusta Gregory, and Brendan Behan. Many of these famous Irish writers lived and wrote in the late 1800s and early 1900s with their popularity and prolific writing tied to Ireland's movement for independence. The stories of their day can be read in many of their poems, plays, and novels.


Race, ethnicity, religion, language, and cultural practices like music, dance, and literature are common ways of identifying a culture. Geography recognizes that cultures change over time, and in Ireland over the last 30 years, a new identity has started to develop. Some people in Ireland (and the European Union) are starting to see themselves as European. In a recent poll by Eurobarometer, 72 percent of the Irish people surveyed said Ireland's membership in the European Union was a good thing. Among the 15 European Union countries, 48 percent of the people also said membership was a good thing. Ireland and Luxembourg tied as the countries offering greatest support for the European Union.

This strong support among the Irish is founded in the benefits the Irish have received from their membership in the European Union. Among the member countries, the Irish had the highest positive response to the question of whether or not their country has benefited from membership in the European Union. Fully 83 percent of the Irish polled believed that Ireland has benefited.

As the Irish continue to benefit from their membership in the European Union, they may increasingly see themselves as European first and Irish second. In fall 2001, 38 percent of the Irish who responded to the Eurobarometer poll said that in the near future they may see themselves as being both Irish and European. Three percent said European first and then Irish, and 2 percent said European only. The largest proportion, 55 percent, saw themselves as Irish only. What all of this means is that the Irish are still trying to figure out what being members of the European Union means to them. They are still wrestling with who they are and where they “fit” in terms of being citizens of Ireland, Europe, and the world.

Studying Ireland's cultural geography reveals the many ways its interactions with the Celts, Christian missionaries, Vikings, Normans, the British, descendants of Irish migrants, and the European Union have affected the traditions and practices of the Irish people. The racial and ethnic composition of Ireland reflects the presence of all these peoples over the last 2,000 years. Ireland's religious traditions reflect the influence of the Celtic religion, the Catholic Church, and the British policies against the Catholic Church. The language reflects the presence of the Celts and the British, as well as ramifications of the potato famine, the great migration, and the policies of an independent government.

The cultural practices of music, dance, and literature reflect the Celtic tradition. They also are traits of a people seeking to become independent and the desire of people outside of Ireland to retain their Irish roots. Finally, the role of the European Union in Ireland promises to lead to changes in the cultural geography of Ireland's future.