Ireland - language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion, agriculture, climate

Read about Ireland: language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion, agriculture, climate ...



Ireland (Irish Éire), country in northwestern Europe occupying most of the island of Ireland, the second largest of the British Isles. The Republic of Ireland lies to the west of Great Britain, the largest island in the archipelago. It is separated from Great Britain to the east by the North Channel and the Irish Sea, and to the southeast by Saint George’s Channel. The western and southern shores of Ireland meet the North Atlantic Ocean. Ireland’s only land border is with Northern Ireland, a province of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, to the northeast. Ireland has an area of 70,209 sq km (27,108 sq mi). The capital and largest city is Dublin.

Ireland’s vivid green landscapes have earned it the title Emerald Isle. Traditionally, most Irish people made their living farming the land. Since the 1950s, energetic industrialization policies have promoted manufacturing, which, along with services, now dominates Ireland’s economy. In 1973 Ireland was admitted into the European Community (EC), and it is now a member of the European Union (EU). Since the 1960s Ireland has undergone a period of vigorous economic growth and rapid social change.

Between the 12th and 17th centuries, England gradually extended its control over Ireland. Ireland became an integral part of the United Kingdom by the Act of Union of 1800. In the 1840s the Irish potato crop, a staple food, was destroyed by disease, leading to a great famine that killed nearly 1 million people and forced many others to leave their homeland. During the late 19th century a movement for Irish independence gathered momentum, and after a bitter war the United Kingdom agreed to partition the island. In 1921 the northeastern portion of Ireland became Northern Ireland, a province of the United Kingdom. The remainder of Ireland became self-governing in 1922 with the establishment of the Irish Free State, a dominion within the British Commonwealth of Nations.

In 1937 the Free State’s name changed to Éire (pronounced AIR-uh, a Gaelic word for Ireland) after the adoption of a new constitution by popular vote. In 1949, following passage of the Republic of Ireland Act, Ireland severed its links to the British Commonwealth and declared itself a republic. Today, the country is commonly referred to as the Republic of Ireland to set it apart from Northern Ireland. Ireland has sought to promote the eventual reunification of the island of Ireland.


Natural Regions in Ireland

Ireland consists of a central limestone plain rimmed by low, often rugged mountain ranges along the coasts. Gaps in the rim permit the plain to extend to the coast in several regions, notably along the eastern coast to the north of Dublin. Most of the central plain lies 60 to 90 m (200 to 300 ft) above sea level. It includes numerous lakes and large areas of marsh and peat bog, as well as some fertile agricultural land. Scattered ridges rise above the plain, but none reach any great height.

Among the principal mountain ranges are the Wicklow Mountains in the east, just south of Dublin, rising to more than 915 m (3,000 ft) above sea level. A number of smaller ranges, which have numerous local names, extend across the country. They include the Derryveagh Mountains and Blue Stack Mountains of Donegal in the northwest; the Maumturk Mountains and Nephin Beg Range, the latter containing Mount Nephin 719 m (2,359 ft), in the west; the Caha Mountains in the southwest, containing Mount Knockboy (707 m/2,321 ft); and the Boggeragh, Galty, and Knockmealdown mountains in the south. In the far southwest, in a range known as Macgillicuddy’s Reeks, stands Carrauntoohil, which rises to 1,041 m/3,415 ft, the highest point in Ireland.

Rivers and Lakes in Ireland

Ireland is a country of many rivers and lakes, known as loughs. The principal rivers of Ireland are the Erne and the Shannon, the longest river in the British Isles. The Shannon begins in the northwest and flows southwest before reaching the Atlantic Ocean through a wide, lengthy estuary. The Shannon, like the Erne, actually consists of a chain of lakes joined by stretches of river; half the length of the Shannon is made up of Loughs Allen, Ree, and Derg. Many of Ireland’s rivers, including the Liffey and Boyne in the east and the Lee in the southwest, are relatively short, draining mountains and hills near the sea. The southeastern part of the island is drained by a river system made up of the Suir, Nore, and Barrow and their tributaries.

Apart from the Shannon, which is navigable for most of its length, inland navigation largely depends on the remnants of a canal system built in the 18th and 19th centuries. Parts of this system have been restored, including the Royal and Grand canals that link Dublin to the Shannon. The completely rebuilt Ballinamore-Ballyconnell Canal, which originally opened in 1860, connects the Shannon and Erne.

Major loughs include Ree and Derg on the Shannon and Mask, Corrib, and Conn in the west. In the mountains of the southwest are the three small and picturesque Lakes of Killarney.

Coastline and Islands in Ireland

The eastern coast of Ireland is fairly regular with few deep indentations; the only sizable inlets are Dundalk Bay and Dublin Bay. In the south the largest harbor is Cork Harbour. Most of the western coast is extremely rugged and marked by drowned, or submerged, valleys and steep cliffs. Major inlets on the western coast include Bantry and Dingle bays in the south, Galway Bay in the center, and Donegal Bay in the north. Hundreds of small islands are scattered along the western coast. Among the largest are Achill Island and the Aran Islands.

Climate in Ireland

Ireland has a maritime temperate climate with little seasonal or regional variation due to the moderating influence of the Gulf Stream, which brings warm, moist winds from the Atlantic Ocean. The average winter temperature ranges from 4° to 7°C (40° to 45°F), approximately 14 Celsius degrees (25 Fahrenheit degrees) higher than that of most other places in the same latitude in the interior of Europe or on the eastern coast of North America. The oceanic influence is also pronounced in the summer; the average summer temperature of Ireland ranges from 15° to 17°C (59° to 62°F), or about 4 Celsius degrees (7 Fahrenheit degrees) lower than that of most other places in the same latitudes. Rainfall averages 1,000 mm (40 in) annually, although regional variation is significant, with more than twice as much rain falling in the west as in the east. The sunniest part of the country is the southeast.

Natural Resources of Ireland

Ireland’s most valuable natural resource is its lowland soils. These soils support rich grasslands, which flourish across much of Ireland and provide extensive pasture for grazing animals. The soils also support a variety of cereals and root crops. Ireland has some natural mineral resources including deposits of zinc, lead, gypsum, and alumina. Some natural gas deposits are found off the southern and western coasts. Peat from heaths and bogs has long served as an important fuel source for homes and industry, and it is also used to improve soils for cultivation.

Plants and Animals in Ireland

Ireland’s animal life does not differ markedly from that of England or France. Over many centuries of human settlement almost all of Ireland’s natural woodlands were cleared, and indigenous animals such as bear, wolf, wildcat, beaver, wild cattle, and the giant Irish deer (a type of fallow deer) gradually disappeared. However, the hardy and versatile Connemara pony, Ireland’s only native pony breed, has been used by Irish farmers since prehistoric times. The great auk, or garefowl, was exterminated in the 19th century.

Small rodents living in forested areas and fields remain numerous across Ireland, as do numerous species of shore and field birds, including many types of gull. Birds of prey are rare. Ireland has no snakes; in fact, the only reptile found in Ireland is a species of lizard. Sedges, rushes, ferns, and grasses provide the dominant plant cover.

Environmental Issues in Ireland

For much of the 20th century, Ireland gave environmental protection a relatively low priority as it pursued economic growth. Rapid development and rising consumption have led to major problems with disposal of waste, nearly all of which is dumped in landfills. The city of Dublin, Ireland’s largest population center, has no proper system for recycling, and several efforts to establish one have failed.

Economic growth has also contributed to the disappearance of Ireland’s once-extensive system of peat bogs, which provide a habitat for many rare plants. Although humans have exploited peat for centuries as a fuel source, recent decades have seen industrial-scale exploitation of peat for commercial power stations and gardening products. Few pristine bogs remain. At the same time, widespread drainage of wetlands for development has greatly reduced habitat for wildfowl.

Another important environmental issue is the ongoing radioactive contamination of the Irish Sea caused by discharges from a nuclear materials processing plant at Sellafield, England. All political parties in Ireland have opposed continued operation of the Sellafield facility.


Ireland’s population descends from a variety of ethnic groups and reflects intermixing over millennia by successive waves of immigrants. Ireland’s population is predominantly of Celtic origin (Celts), but ancient tribes had inhabited Ireland for thousands of years when Celtic peoples settled the island in the 4th century BC. Over the centuries Ireland absorbed significant numbers of Vikings, Normans, and English. More recently, Ireland’s membership in the European Union (EU) has increased the number of citizens of other European countries living in Ireland, and small communities of ethnic Chinese and Indian people also have been established. Since 1996 Ireland has received small numbers of refugees and asylum seekers from eastern Europe, Africa, and Asia. Ireland also has a small indigenous minority known as Travellers. Numbering approximately 25,000, Travellers move and camp across the Irish countryside in small groups or cluster in enclaves within cities.

Population Characteristics of Ireland

The population of Ireland in 2009 was estimated at 4,203,200, giving the country an overall population density of 61 persons per sq km (158 per sq mi). Some 60 percent of the population lived in urban areas in 2005. The urban share of the population has increased with each successive census since 1926; the urban population exceeded the rural population for the first time in 1971.

Ireland’s economic growth in recent decades has reversed a long historical trend of emigration. For more than a century after the Great Potato Famine of the 1840s, Ireland’s population steadily declined, despite the nation’s relatively high birth rate. This continuous decline resulted from mass emigration, initially to escape the famine and later to seek employment and better lives, mainly in the United States and in the industrialized cities of the United Kingdom. In the 1960s and 1970s emigration fell sharply and no longer offset the natural increase. By the 1980s Ireland’s population was growing at an annual rate of about 0.5 percent, and in the 1990s immigration began to exceed emigration by a small margin. In 2002 Ireland’s population grew at an annual rate of 1.12 percent, one of the highest rates in western Europe.

Political Divisions of Ireland

The island of Ireland is traditionally divided into the four provinces of Leinster, Munster, Connacht, and Ulster. Most of Ulster is now part of Northern Ireland.

For administrative purposes, the Republic of Ireland is divided into 26 counties. They are the counties of Carlow, Dublin, Kildare, Kilkenny, Laois, Longford, Louth, Meath, Offaly, Westmeath, Wexford, and Wicklow, in Leinster Province; Clare, Cork, Kerry, Limerick, Tipperary, and Waterford, in Munster Province; Galway, Leitrim, Mayo, Roscommon, and Sligo, in Connacht Province; and Cavan, Donegal, and Monaghan, in Ulster Province. Each county is governed by at least one county council. Two counties are divided into subsections administered by separate county councils, giving the country a total of 29 county councils. Tipperary county has two councils, North and South Tipperary. Dublin county has three councils, Dublin-Belgard, Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown, and Dublin-Fingal.

In addition to the county councils, there are five borough councils, five city councils, and 75 town councils. The borough councils are Clonmel, Drogheda, Kilkenny, Sligo, and Wexford. The city councils are Cork, Dublin, Galway, Limerick, and Waterford.

Principal Cities of Ireland

The capital and largest city is Dublin, with a population (2006) of 506,211. Dublin is the commercial and industrial center of Ireland and the country’s principal port. Cork is the second largest city and a major port, with a population of 123,062. Other major cities and towns include Limerick (54,023), Galway (65,832), and Waterford (44,594).

Religion in Ireland

Religious affiliation is remarkably uniform in Ireland: 85 percent of the population is Roman Catholic. However, this figure masks a steep and continuing decline in church attendance, particularly in urban areas and among young people. At the same time, the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland has experienced marked difficulties in recruiting clergy. Protestant groups include the Church of Ireland (Anglican) and the Presbyterian and Methodist denominations. Ireland’s constitution guarantees freedom of worship.

Languages spoken in Ireland

Almost all the people of Ireland speak English, and about one-fourth also claim to speak Irish, a Gaelic tongue that belongs to the family of Celtic languages. The Irish language, with its many regional variations, was once spoken by nearly all the Irish. Today, Irish is spoken on a daily basis by an estimated 30,000 people, most of whom live in the Gaeltacht (Gaelic-speaking) areas of the western seaboard. All government-subsidized schools in Ireland have taught Irish since 1922, but fewer than 10,000 pupils speak it as their first language. The constitution provides for both Irish and English as official languages, while Ulster-Scots (or Ullans), used by some members of Ireland’s Protestant community, is under consideration for special status.

Education in Ireland

Ireland has a free public school system, with compulsory attendance for all children from 6 to 15 years of age. In the 2006 school year 461,600 pupils were enrolled in 3,391 elementary schools. Secondary schools, primarily operated by religious orders and largely subsidized by the state, enrolled 313,500. Enrollment at universities and colleges totaled 186,000.

University education in Ireland began with the founding of the University of Dublin, or Trinity College, in 1592. The National University of Ireland, established in 1908 in Dublin, has constituent university colleges in Cork, Dublin, and Galway. The college in Galway, although now a secular institution, evolved from Saint Patrick’s College, founded in 1795 as Ireland’s primary Roman Catholic seminary. The university system was further extended in 1989 when the University of Limerick and Dublin City University (DCU) were accredited; both schools emphasize technical subjects. Ireland also has several state-subsidized training colleges and various technical colleges in the larger communities.

Ireland earned a reputation as an education and cultural center in the early Middle Ages. From the 6th to the 8th century, when western Europe was largely illiterate, nearly 1,000 Irish missionaries traveled to England and to continental Europe to teach Christianity. Irish missionaries founded monasteries that achieved extensive cultural influence; the monastery at Sankt Gallen (Saint-Gall), Switzerland, established in the early 7th century, is especially well known for its contributions to education and literature. Classical studies flowered in ancient Ireland. Distinctive also at the time were the bardic schools of writers and other intellectuals who traveled from town to town, teaching their arts to students. The bardic schools, an important part of Irish education, were suppressed in the 16th century by Henry VIII, king of England.

Way of Life in Ireland

Ireland, for centuries a predominantly rural, agricultural society, changed dramatically with economic development after World War II (1939-1945). The emergence of diversified manufacturing and service sectors has made the country more urbanized and middle class. Consumption of consumer goods has expanded rapidly, and material comforts—including automobiles, cellular telephones and other electronic goods, and fashionable clothing—have become important symbols of social status.

In cities and towns, most Irish people live in houses, although apartments are growing in popularity as urban densities increase. In the countryside, traditional farmhouses constructed of stone or dried peat and covered with thatched roofs have been largely replaced by modern dwellings. Today, most homes are made from concrete, brick, or mortared stone and have tile roofs. In rural areas peat is still cut and dried for use as fuel for cooking and heating.

Ireland is a strongly Roman Catholic country by tradition. However, the late 20th and early 21st centuries were marked by increasing secularization in Irish society. Many Irish have questioned, and even rejected, the role of the Roman Catholic Church as the chief arbiter of social and family values. At the same time, women have energetically challenged the country’s traditional patriarchal social values. Despite these changes, political life in Ireland is still largely dominated by men, and women typically earn far less than their male counterparts. Ireland’s abortion laws are among the strictest in Europe.

The Irish tend to eat simple, hearty fare. Ireland’s rich pastures produce high-quality beef and lamb, and the country is renowned for its butter, cream, and cheeses. Potatoes grow well in Ireland’s cool, damp climate and are a national food staple. They may be roasted, boiled, or baked, and eaten alone or served in famous dishes such as Irish stew or colcannon (a dish made from mashed potatoes, cabbage, and onions). The Irish are famous for their many varieties of breads, including soda bread and potato bread. Oysters and other shellfish are popular, and smoked salmon is considered an Irish specialty. Many Irish enjoy socializing in local pubs, where people gather to talk with friends, relax, listen to music, and have a drink. Beer is much beloved in Ireland, especially the dark stout varieties. Renowned local stouts include Guinness, Beamish, and Murphy’s. Irish whiskey is also a popular alcoholic beverage.

The national sports are hurling, a strenuous game similar to field hockey, and Gaelic football, which resembles soccer. Soccer has become more popular in recent years, partly because of television coverage of matches in the United Kingdom, and also due to the relative success of Ireland’s national team in European and World Cup soccer competitions. Horse racing is a highly popular spectator sport, and Irish breeders have produced some of the world’s finest thoroughbreds. Professional cycling, a difficult endurance sport, also draws a wide following. Saint Patrick’s Day (March 17), which honors the patron saint of Ireland, is the most important national holiday.


Ireland’s rich cultural heritage has ancient roots. Human habitation in Ireland dates back almost 10,000 years, when Mesolithic-era hunter-fishers occupied the island. They were followed by Neolithic peoples who used flint tools, then by people from the Mediterranean region, known in legend as the Firbolgs, who used bronze implements. Later came the Picts, also an immigrant people of the Bronze Age.

The arrival of Celts during the Iron Age, about 350 BC, introduced a new culture to Ireland, one that would have a lasting historical influence. Ireland was Christianized by Saint Patrick in the 5th century AD. However, many Celtic converts retained aspects of their Druidic religious practices, and Ireland became the center of a distinctive form of Celtic Christianity (see Druidism). Later, the arrival of Vikings in the 8th and 9th centuries and of Anglo-Normans in the 12th century brought other cultural influences to Ireland. Systematic colonization of Ireland by England began in the 17th century, and under English rule, use of the Irish language steadily declined.

By the 18th century many Irish-born authors wrote in the English language. However, literature in the Irish language survived, and it continued to have a powerful influence on Ireland’s cultural identity. In the late 19th century Irish nationalists sought to bring about a revival of Celtic culture, including the Irish language and traditional forms of music and dance. This cultural revival stimulated much new literary and artistic work, and it helped inspire Ireland’s struggle for independence in the early 20th century.

Literature in Ireland

Ireland has an outstanding literary heritage in both Irish (Gaelic) and English (see Gaelic Literature; Irish Literature). The earliest manuscripts date from the 6th and 7th centuries, although they document older tales. This early literature is organized into four great groups of stories, called cycles. One of these, the Ulster Cycle, is a collection of heroic tales about the Ulaid people of the northern kingdom of Ulster and their conflicts with the people of Connacht in the west. The Táin Bó Cuailnge, which tells of the legendary leader of the Ulaid, Cú Chulainn, is the most famous of these tales. Another group of stories, the Fenian Cycle, centers on the exploits of the legendary hero Fionn mac Cumhaill (Finn MacCool) and his warriors, the Fianna. The Fenian Cycle developed in Munster and Leinster and may represent a literary counterbalance to the Ulster Cycle.

Although writing in Irish continues to the present day, Ireland’s literature has also included works in Latin, Norman-French, Scottish, and above all, English. Among Ireland’s renowned English-language writers are Jonathan Swift, Oliver Goldsmith, Maria Edgeworth, and George Bernard Shaw. William Butler Yeats and Sean O’Casey were perhaps the dominant literary figures in the early years of independent Ireland. Two of Ireland’s most influential writers, James Joyce, author of Ulysses (1922) and a formative influence on much subsequent 20th-century European literature, and Samuel Beckett, famously left Ireland for self-imposed exile.

Today, Ireland has a dynamic literary life and is home to many notable poets and authors—some of whom were born or live in Northern Ireland. Among the most famous of Ireland’s contemporary writers is poet Seamus Heaney, recipient of the 1995 Nobel Prize in literature. Other poets, such as Paul Durcan and John Montague, have helped redefine the meaning of Ireland and Irishness. Novelists, too, have embraced the new Ireland as the country has evolved from a rural society to a more prosperous and urban society, albeit one marked by greater social inequality. Among many authors, Edna O’Brien, John McGahern, Roddy Doyle, Dermot Bolger, Colm Tóibín, and Éilís Ni Dhuibhne have written of the rapidly changing values and attitudes of Irish society. These authors have also explored the darker undercurrents of organized crime, intolerance, and patriarchal attitudes.

Architecture in Ireland

Ireland’s ancient inhabitants left many traces in the form of stone monuments, including menhirs (large upright stones), dolmens (prehistoric chambers formed by stone slabs), and cromlechs (circles of standing stones), as well as stone forts. Most of these remains date from 2000 to 1000 BC. One of the most impressive engineering feats of Irish prehistory is the famous Newgrange chamber tomb in eastern Ireland. The Neolithic-era site includes a large circle of standing stones, similar to the Stonehenge monument in England, and probably dates from about the same era, about 3000 BC.

Ireland’s modern architectural heritage is rooted in broader European trends, but it also reflects unique local adaptations. The medieval Romanesque style, imported from England and continental Europe, influenced Irish religious architecture, although its effect was muted. It reached its greatest elaboration in Cormac’s Chapel on the Rock of Cashel in County Tipperary, erected in the early 12th century. The Anglo-Normans, who controlled much of Ireland by the late 12th century, brought the architecture of great Norman stone castles to Ireland, and numerous examples survive to the present day. The Anglo-Normans also built in the Gothic style of northern Europe, an influence that is especially notable in the cathedrals of Saint Patrick’s and Christchurch, both in Dublin. Owing to political unrest and the need for domestic defense, many Irish homes built between the 15th and 17th centuries were fortified. Standing from three to six stories in height, these tower houses can still be seen across the island. In the countryside the traditional architecture of the Irish cottage was closely related to the raw materials of the land and to the demands of the damp, windy climate. These cottages were typically small, humble structures, often whitewashed, with small windows and thatched roofs.

During the 18th and early 19th centuries the rising Anglo-Irish aristocracy built many large homes, most unfortified, and vigorous urban planning changed the face of most towns and cities. Despite Ireland’s rapid development in the late 20th century, this legacy is still apparent in Ireland’s urban architecture, most notably in Dublin’s magnificent public buildings and squares, and in almost every town and village throughout Ireland. With Ireland’s newfound prosperity, however, much of the traditional architecture of the countryside has been swept away, replaced by an increasingly homogenous landscape of low-rise housing, most of which is painted white.

Visual Arts in Ireland

From the 5th century to the 9th century, monks in Irish and Scottish monasteries produced artworks of world renown, primarily in the form of illuminated manuscripts. The greatest such work is the Book of Kells, which contains some of the most beautiful calligraphy of the Middle Ages (see Celts: Art). The crafting of illuminated manuscripts continued into the age of printing.

A number of Irish painters achieved international prominence after the 17th century. They include 18th-century artists James Barry, George Barret, and Nathaniel Hone. Barret and Hone, together with English painter Sir Joshua Reynolds, were cofounders of the Royal Academy of Arts in 1768. James Arthur O’Connor was a noted landscape artist of his period, and Daniel Maclise painted the magnificent frescoes in the Royal Gallery of the House of Lords in London between 1859 and 1864. Other notable Irish painters of the 19th century were Nathaniel Hone, Jr., and Walter F. Osborne. More recently, expressionist painter Jack Butler Yeats, landscape artist Paul Henry, cubist painter Mainie Jellett, and stained-glass artist Evie Hone have won widespread recognition and acclaim for their work. Today, Ireland’s art scene is flourishing, with frequent exhibitions that display the work of established and rising artists.

Music and Dance in Ireland

Ireland has a rich and varied musical tradition. Among the oldest musical instruments of Ireland are the bodhran (goatskin drum) and the Irish harp, a type of frame harp that dates from the 9th century. Irish harpers were known throughout Europe from as early as the 12th century. The most celebrated of these was the blind harper Torlogh O’Carolan, or Carolan, who composed some 200 songs on varied themes, many of which were published in Dublin in the early 18th century. Other instruments have subsequently joined the vernacular (traditional) repertoire, including the uilleann pipe (Irish union pipe, or Irish bagpipes), fiddle, and Irish banjo, a four-string version of an instrument imported from the United States in the 19th century.

Ireland’s traditional forms of music were long viewed as culturally distinct from classical forms, which were popular among the British. Pianist John Field was the first Irish classical composer to win international renown, especially for his nocturnes, in the early 19th century. Michael William Balfe wrote a number of operas including The Bohemian Girl (1843), while John McCormack achieved fame as an operatic and concert tenor. Traditional Irish music became politically important during the late-19th-century nationalist revival of Celtic culture. For much of the 20th century, traditional Irish music served as a symbol of national identity, and as a result, international trends in music were somewhat neglected.

In recent decades Irish music has undergone a renaissance as musicians have embraced broader cultural influences. The link between traditional music and nationalism is weaker today, and contemporary artists freely blend folk and rock and explore the many regional variations in traditional forms and instruments. The work of musicians such as the Chieftains and Liam O’Flynn interpret traditional Irish music in a larger international context that reflects a wide range of European cultural influences. Ireland has produced many internationally famous rock and pop artists, most notably U2, Sinéad O’Connor, Hot House Flowers, the Cranberries, and the Corrs.

Traditional Irish dancing has also attracted a wide contemporary audience, in Ireland and around the world. Stage productions such as Riverdance and its offshoot Lord of the Dance have helped popularize and transform Irish dancing.

Theater and Film in Ireland

Dublin is the heart of theater in Ireland. Dublin’s famed Abbey Theatre, also known as the Irish National Theatre, was cofounded in 1899 by poet and dramatist William Butler Yeats, a leader of the Irish cultural revival. Among its earliest productions were the works of John Millington Synge, another dominant figure of the Irish renaissance. The theater has since been a platform for the productions of playwrights such as Brian Friel and Tom Murphy, whose works explore the internal contradictions of Irish identity. Dublin’s other famous theater, the Gate, was cofounded in 1930 by actor and writer Michael Mac Liammoir.

Irish film has achieved considerable recent success with works such as My Left Foot (1989), The Crying Game (1992), Michael Collins (1996), and The General (1998). Prominent Irish directors include Neil Jordan and Jim Sheridan. A dominant theme of contemporary Irish film—as in literature and theater—is the wider debate in Ireland about changing national identity. In some ways, too, recent Irish films can be seen as a response to the simplified ways in which Ireland and the Irish are routinely portrayed in Hollywood movies.

Cultural Institutions in Ireland

The most important Irish libraries and museums are located in Dublin. The National Library of Ireland, with more than 500,000 volumes, is the largest public library in the country. Trinity College Library, founded in 1601, contains about 2.8 million volumes, including the Book of Kells. Most cities and towns have public libraries and museums, and a variety of heritage centers across the countryside document local history.

The National Museum in Dublin is known for its exhibits in the fields of art, industry, and natural history, and it maintains representative collections of Irish silver, glass, textiles, and lace. The museum also holds outstanding specimens of the remarkable metal craftsmanship of the early Christian period in Ireland, including the Tara Brooch, the Ardagh Chalice, and the Moylough Bell Shrine (all dating from the 8th century), as well as the Lismore Crozier and the Cross of Cong (both 12th century). Dublin’s National Gallery has an admirable collection of paintings that encompass many schools of Irish and European art.



The economy of Ireland was traditionally based on agriculture and the processing of agricultural products. Since the 1950s, however, the country’s industrial base has expanded and diversified, as has the services sector. The gross domestic product (GDP) in 2007 was $259 billion. Services accounted for 60 percent of GDP and industry accounted for 37 percent, although manufactured goods were responsible for 84 percent of Ireland’s export income. Agriculture contributed only 3 percent to GDP. Ireland has a mixed economy of private and public ownership. Private enterprise is favored by the constitution and operates in most sectors of the economy.

Until the mid-20th century, industrialization in Ireland was handicapped by the comparative absence of raw materials and sources of energy. Heavy dependence on agriculture and lack of economic opportunity led to a high rate of emigration, which contributed to a long-term decrease in Ireland’s population. At the same time, Ireland was highly dependent on the United Kingdom as the primary market for its agricultural exports. These economic problems were aggravated by the partition of Ireland in the early 1920s into the Irish Free State (as the Republic of Ireland was then called) and Northern Ireland, which remained part of the United Kingdom. The economy of the republic was suddenly cut off from almost all the manufacturing that had developed in the 19th century in the north, notably the linen and shipbuilding industries. For a time the republic’s dependence on agriculture and the British market became even greater than before.

After 1922 Ireland’s economic policies sought to increase opportunities for employment. Programs were implemented to expand markets for agricultural goods and protective tariffs were introduced to shield emerging industries from foreign competition. However, these policies could not overcome the difficulties of the world economic depression in the 1930s or the disruptions of World War II (1939-1945). In 1959, following a period of economic stagnation and rising unemployment, Ireland pursued a new program of economic expansion. The government relaxed protective tariffs, backed efforts to increase agricultural and industrial production, and worked to enhance tourism. Ireland’s economic policies were also designed to prepare the country for membership in the European Community (EC), which became the European Union (EU) in 1993.

Ireland’s membership in the EC was postponed following the failure of the United Kingdom to secure admission in 1963, but both countries gained admission in 1973. Irish goods soon found their way into other European markets, a development that reduced Ireland’s heavy reliance on the United Kingdom. At the same time, Ireland benefited from increased foreign investment. The establishment of a single market within the EC during the 1980s—a process that required the removal of a wide range of lingering trade barriers—forced many enterprises in Ireland to reorganize to become more competitive. During the 1990s Ireland received substantial economic assistance from the EU to restructure agriculture, educate and train workers, and develop the nation’s infrastructure. By the mid-1990s Ireland’s economy was growing at a rate of more than double the EU average. In 1999 Ireland was among the first group of EU countries to meet the qualifying criteria to adopt the euro, the EU’s new single currency.

Labor in Ireland

In 2007 the total labor force was 2.2 million. Approximately 6 percent of the workers were engaged in agriculture, forestry, and fishing; 28 percent in manufacturing, mining, and construction; and 66 percent in services. Some 750,000 workers in both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland are members of unions affiliated with the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. In the republic, 44 percent of all union members are women.

Economic Sectors in Ireland

Agriculture, Forestry, and Fishing

About 18 percent of the total area of Ireland is cultivated, and much of the rest is devoted to pasture. Raising livestock is the chief agricultural activity, and meat and meat products are among the most important agricultural exports. The trade in live animals, notably horses, and dairy products is also important. The principal field crops are wheat, barley, oats, and potatoes. Among other important crops are hay, turnips, and sugar beets. The most fertile farmlands are found in the east and southeast.

Ireland has little productive timberland. As a result, the government has implemented reforestation programs in an effort to reduce the country’s dependence on timber imports and to provide raw material for new paper mills and related industries. In 2005 forests occupied 10 percent of Ireland’s total land area; the output of timber was 2.7 million cubic meters (96 million cubic feet).

The fishing industry, long an underdeveloped enterprise in Ireland, expanded in the late 20th century. However, the waters around Ireland and much of Europe have been heavily overfished, and annual fish catches are now subject to quotas established by the EU. Ireland’s catch in 2007 was 293,732 metric tons. Deep-sea catches include herring, cod, mackerel, whiting, and plaice. Crustaceans, particularly lobsters, crayfish, and prawns, and mollusks such as oysters and periwinkles are plentiful in coastal waters and form the bulk of the country’s seafood exports. Inland rivers and lakes provide excellent fishing for salmon, trout, eel, and several varieties of coarse fish such as perch and pike. Fish farming, both in freshwater and saltwater environments, is becoming more important as natural catches drop.


Discoveries of new mineral deposits in Ireland in the late 20th century have led to a considerable expansion of mining, although it still plays a relatively minor role in the Irish economy. Mineral output in 2006 included 425,700 metric tons of zinc and 62,000 metric tons of lead. Ireland is one of the leading exporters of lead and zinc in Europe. Natural gas is extracted off the southwestern coast; yearly output in 2003 was 673 million cubic meters (23.8 billion cubic feet). Peat is dug in large quantities for domestic and industrial fuel and also for horticultural purposes.


Ireland has a diversified industrial base. One of the most important manufacturing sectors is food processing, which includes meat-packing, brewing and distilling alcoholic beverages, grain milling, sugar refining, and the manufacture of dairy products.

The other major manufacturing sectors are chemicals and pharmaceuticals, and electrical and optical equipment. The latter category includes the production of computer hardware and software. By the early 2000s more than 20,000 people in Ireland were employed in the software industry; 90 percent of all software produced is exported. Most computer hardware and software production is controlled by multinational corporations, which use Ireland as a European base for manufacturing and localization (translation) operations.


Currency and Banking

The monetary unit of Ireland is the single currency of the European Union (EU), the euro (0.70 euros equal U.S.$1; 2007 average). Ireland was among the first group of EU member states to adopt the euro. The euro was introduced on January 1, 1999, for electronic transfers and accounting purposes only, and Ireland’s national currency, the Irish pound, was used for other purposes. On January 1, 2002, euro-denominated coins and bills went into circulation, and the Irish pound ceased to be legal tender.

As a participant in the single currency, Ireland must follow economic policies established by the European Central Bank (ECB). The ECB is located in Frankfurt, Germany, and is responsible for all EU monetary policies, which include setting interest rates and regulating the money supply. On January 1, 1999, control over Irish monetary policy was transferred from the Central Bank of Ireland to the ECB. After the transfer, the Central Bank of Ireland joined the national banks of the other EU countries that adopted the euro as part of the European System of Central Banks (ESCB).

Commerce and Trade

Dublin and Cork are the manufacturing, financial, and commercial centers of Ireland. Dublin is the most important seaport. Other significant ports include Arklow, Cork, Dún Laoghaire, Drogheda, Foynes, Limerick, New Ross, Rosslare, and Waterford.

Ireland’s imports in 2007 totaled $81.7 billion, and exports, including reexports, $120.5 billion. Ireland’s principal trading partners for imports, in order of trade volume, are the United Kingdom, United States, Germany, France, and Japan. Ireland’s principal trading partners for exports are the United Kingdom, United States, Germany, France, and The Netherlands. The most important exports include chemicals and pharmaceuticals, computers and other electrical and electronic equipment, and livestock, meat, and dairy products. Imports primarily include data-processing equipment, other machinery, chemicals, transportation equipment, cereals and foodstuffs, petroleum and petroleum products, textiles, and iron and steel.


The Irish government actively promotes the tourism industry, which has grown increasingly important to the economy. Following the signing of the 1998 Good Friday (or Belfast) Agreement—a peace agreement for Northern Ireland—the entire island of Ireland has been marketed internationally by a cross-border agency, Tourism Ireland. Dublin, in particular, has become an important tourist destination, in part because of the rapid growth of low-cost air services linking the city to the United Kingdom and mainland Europe. However, the most popular destination for tourists is the rugged west coast, where numerous peninsulas and bluff cliffs provide a dramatic contrast to the rain-hazed loughs of the interior. Many visitors choose to explore the countryside on foot. Horseback riding, cycling, golfing, and boating along Ireland’s rivers and loughs are also popular tourist activities.



Almost 95 percent of Ireland’s electricity is generated from fossil fuels, principally oil, followed by peat. Electricity generated from waterpower is the only other significant source of power. Some investment is being made in other renewable sources of energy, notably wind energy captured by turbines.


Ireland has 1,919 km (1,192 mi) of railway track, all operated by the state-owned Iarnród Éireann (Irish Transport Company) and linking Cork, Limerick, Galway, and a number of other points to Dublin. In addition, the Irish Peat Board operates more than 1,300 km (more than 800 mi) of narrow-gauge railway in the countryside. The Dublin area is served by the Dublin Area Rapid Transit (DART) system; in addition, a street-level light-rail system was scheduled to begin operation in 2003.

The road system in Ireland totals about 96,602 km (about 60,026 mi), 100 percent of which is paved. Navigable inland waterways total about 435 km (about 270 mi), although these are used almost entirely by recreational watercraft.

The main international airports are in Dublin, Cork, and Shannon. Regularly scheduled air services to various other points on the island, mostly in the west, are facilitated by a number of smaller airports at Carrickfin, Sligo, Knock, Galway, Kerry, and Waterford. The principal airlines are the state-owned Aer Lingus and the low-cost carrier Ryanair. Air services are dominated by routes to the United Kingdom, mainland Europe, and North America.


All postal, telegraph, telephone, and broadcasting services are operated by government agencies or statutory bodies. In addition to Ireland’s 1.5 million main telephone lines, an estimated 2 million cellular phones are in use. Ireland’s sophisticated telecommunications network is an important factor in promoting the growth of the computer industry. Radio Telefís Éireann, the public broadcasting authority, operates three radio channels and four television channels, one of which broadcasts in the Irish (Gaelic) language.


Ireland is governed under a constitution adopted in 1937 that provides for a president, a prime minister, and a bicameral (two-chamber) national parliament. Ireland remained a member of the British Commonwealth of Nations until 1949, when it severed its ties to the organization and proclaimed itself a republic.

Executive of Ireland

As in other parliamentary democracies, executive power in Ireland is vested in a cabinet of ministers who are approved by the legislature. The chief executive is the prime minister, or taoiseach (pronounced TEE-shock), who serves as head of government. Under the Irish constitution, the prime minister is nominated by the lower house of the national legislature and forms a cabinet, generally referred to as the government. The government must have at least 7, and not more than 15, members. Members of the government lead the administrative departments, or ministries. Although selected by the prime minister, the cabinet must be approved by the lower house, which can dissolve the government by a vote of no confidence. The prime minister and other members of the government are officially appointed by the president.

The president of Ireland is the head of state and is elected by direct popular vote for a seven-year term. The president has little executive power, but he or she represents Ireland at official state functions. In addition, the president signs and promulgates all laws passed by the legislature. Under certain circumstances, the president can submit a legislative bill to the people in a referendum or ask the Irish supreme court to rule on the constitutionality of a bill.

Legislature of Ireland

Ireland has a two-chamber legislature called the Oireachtas. The lower house, or Dáil Éireann, has 166 members, popularly elected by proportional representation. The upper house, or Seanad Éireann, has 60 members, of whom 11 are appointed by the prime minister, 6 are elected by graduates of the University of Dublin and the National University of Ireland, and 43 are chosen by an electoral college of some 900 representatives from local governments and the Dáil. The slate of candidates represents labor, agriculture and fisheries, public administration and social services, commerce and industry, and national culture.

The upper house enjoys fewer powers than the lower house. It cannot amend a taxing or spending bill, but it can reject or amend other bills submitted to it by the lower house, and it may introduce legislation. The lower house, in contrast, has the sole power to support or bring down governments in the parliamentary tradition.

Judiciary in Ireland

Judicial authority in Ireland is vested in a supreme court, a high court, a court of criminal appeal, a central criminal court, circuit courts, and district courts. The supreme court is the court of final appeal and may also determine the constitutionality of bills submitted to it by the president. Judges are appointed by the president on the recommendation of the government.

Ireland’s legal system is based on the English common law tradition, in which judges rely on precedents (previous court decisions) to help resolve cases. Statutes passed by the Irish parliament also have the force of law, as do statutes passed by the British Parliament before 1921, unless they have been repealed or declared unconstitutional.

Local Government of Ireland

Counties, boroughs, cities, and towns each elect local councils to administer local services and levy local taxes. Services include public health and sanitation, housing, water supply, and schools. Local officials are popularly elected, usually for five-year terms. Local executives, who advise elected officials and function as managers of local authorities, are selected by the central ministry after competitive examinations.

Political Parties of Ireland

The principal political parties in Ireland include Fine Gael (Irish Gaelic for “Tribe of the Gaels”), Fianna Fáil (“Soldiers of Destiny”), and the Labour Party. Fine Gael, a successor of the Cumann na nGaedheal Party, was founded in support of the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 that established the Irish Free State as a British dominion. It has a moderate center-left orientation. Fianna Fáil, originally a wing of Sinn Fein, opposed the treaty and boycotted the Dáil until 1927. It has a moderate center-right orientation and supports peaceful reunification of the island. The Labour Party was originally a part of Ireland’s Trades Union Congress; it became a separate political wing in 1930 and has a moderate center-left orientation.

Smaller parties include the liberal Progressive Democratic Party, which backs free enterprise, strong separation between church and state, and a peaceful resolution to the problems in Northern Ireland; Sinn Fein (“Ourselves Alone”), an Irish nationalist party dedicated to the creation of a unified Irish state; and the environmentalist Green Party.

Social Services in Ireland

Most health services are provided free of charge for low-income groups and at moderate charges for others. These are administered through local and national agencies under the supervision of the department of health. A nonprofit, contributory voluntary health insurance scheme is administered by an independent statutory agency. Public insurance and assistance programs are administered by the department of social welfare and include pensions for the aged, widows, and orphans; children’s allowances; unemployment benefits; and other social security payments.

Defense of Ireland

The active military forces of Ireland—army, navy, and air force—totaled 10,470 members in 2006. There is no compulsory military service in Ireland; all of the forces are volunteers. Irish troops have served with United Nations (UN) forces in various places around the world, including the Middle East, Africa, and Cyprus.

International Relations in Ireland

Ireland’s relations with the United Kingdom have generally improved since the end of World War II. The issue of Northern Ireland’s sovereignty has dominated the relationship since the early 1970s. Ireland attaches special importance to its relations with the United States and Australia, where people of Irish descent are numerous. Ireland’s relations with its European neighbors have become increasingly important as a result of its membership in the European Union (EU).

Ireland is a staunch defender of the United Nations (UN), an organization it joined in 1955. Ireland is also a member of a wide array of other international organizations, including the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and the Council of Europe. However, unlike most western European states, Ireland is not a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Ireland, which is not part of any military alliance, strives to maintain a neutral position in world affairs.


For the history of Ireland prior to 1916, see Ireland (island): History.

Three eras have defined Ireland’s history since 1916. First is the period of 1916 to 1923, a time of rebellion, civil war, and the partition of Ireland. A treaty of independence for Ireland, which recognized Northern Ireland as a part of the United Kingdom, was deeply divisive and had a profound influence on the nation’s political and cultural life for much of the 20th century. Second is the long era of internal closure that ensued after Ireland’s independence. Marked by isolationism, protectionist economic policies, and cultural nationalism, this inward-looking period lasted until the 1950s. Third is the post-1950s period of economic expansion. During this time Ireland emerged as an outward-looking and markedly more prosperous country.

Struggle for Independence

Resentment in Ireland over British rule mounted in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and a movement for home rule (self-government on domestic matters) gathered force. By 1893 the British Parliament in London had debated and defeated two bills providing home rule for Ireland. Calls for home rule alarmed Irish Protestants in the north who wished to preserve the union with the United Kingdom, and they organized the unionist movement to oppose home rule. The Catholic nationalist movement, which backed greater independence for Ireland, was split between moderate forces and more radical revolutionary elements. This latter group included Sinn Fein, a political party founded in 1905 by Dublin journalist Arthur Griffith.

In 1912 the British government introduced a third home rule bill in Parliament. The bill polarized Irish society. Unionists in the northern province of Ulster soon founded a paramilitary army called the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) to shield the province from home rule. In response, nationalists organized the paramilitary Irish Volunteers to press for Irish self-government. The threat of civil war intensified.

The crisis was temporarily averted by the outbreak of World War I (1914-1918), and unionists and nationalists alike fought in the United Kingdom’s war effort against Germany. Indeed, members of the UVF and Irish Volunteers became core units of the British army on the war’s western front. However, one splinter group of Irish Volunteers—a forerunner of the Irish Republican Army (IRA)—refused to join the war effort. Instead, on Easter Monday in 1916, they organized the Easter Rebellion and declared the independence of Ireland. The rebellion, largely confined to Dublin, was suppressed, and the British government executed 15 Irish nationalist leaders and imprisoned many others.

The executions and imprisonments outraged the Irish population and set the stage for the emergence of Sinn Fein as the country’s dominant political party. Sinn Fein now firmly rejected home rule, which would have preserved the Irish-British union under the monarchy, and demanded the complete separation of Ireland from the United Kingdom. In the national election of 1918 Sinn Fein won 73 of 105 seats allotted to Ireland in the British Parliament. Sinn Fein’s dramatic electoral victory swept aside moderate home rule nationalists, who had held sway in Ireland prior to the outbreak of World War I.

In January 1919 Sinn Fein’s successful candidates, who had refused to take their seats in Parliament, met in Dublin and established their own revolutionary congress, the Dáil Éireann (Gaelic for “Assembly of Ireland”). They proclaimed Ireland’s independence and formed a government with Sinn Fein leader Eamon de Valera as president. On the day the Dáil first met, a group of Irish Volunteers launched an attack on the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC), a British police force. (In August 1919 these insurgents would proclaim themselves the Irish Republican Army.) A campaign of guerrilla warfare against the British administration in Ireland ensued. The British soon brought in auxiliary English police recruits, known from their uniforms as the Black and Tans, who mounted ruthless reprisals.

The bitter violence served to unite much of Ireland against British rule. With a guerrilla war raging, the British government attempted to impose a settlement in December 1920 with the passage of the Government of Ireland Bill. The legislation divided Ireland into two self-governing areas. It provided one parliament for the six counties of the predominantly Protestant north (Northern Ireland) and another for the remaining 26 counties in the overwhelmingly Catholic south. The people of Northern Ireland accepted this limited home rule and elected a separate parliament in May 1921. Efforts to implement the new government in the other 26 counties, however, served only to solidify Sinn Fein’s demand for a fully independent Irish republic.

By 1921 hundreds of people had died in the ugly war of attacks and reprisals. Facing the prospect of a prolonged and bloody conflict, the British government issued a call for peace talks. The fighting ended with a truce in July 1921. Peace negotiations between representatives of the Dáil and the British government of Prime Minister David Lloyd George produced the Anglo-Irish Treaty, signed in December. Under the treaty, the 26 southern counties would become the Irish Free State as a dominion within the British Commonwealth of Nations. Ireland would have a status equal to the other Commonwealth dominions of Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. Like these other dominions, Ireland would be required to pledge an oath of allegiance to the British monarch. The United Kingdom would retain certain naval bases, but the Free State government would control its own police and armed forces. At the head of the new government there would be a governor-general representing the British king, but appointed on recommendation of the Free State government.

After heated debate the Dáil ratified the treaty on January 15, 1922, by a vote of 64 to 57, thus ending what has come to be known as the Irish Revolution. Sinn Fein, however, split over the issue of ratification into pro- and anti-treaty factions, as did the IRA. Few saw the treaty as a victory. De Valera and his followers vigorously opposed the requirement of an oath of allegiance to the British crown. Pro-treaty forces, led by Arthur Griffith and Sinn Fein leader Michael Collins, regarded the agreement as merely an interim step toward full independence. They believed that further concessions from the British were not attainable and that rejection of the treaty would result in renewed fighting and probable defeat at the hands of the British. De Valera resigned as president of the Dáil following the treaty’s ratification. Griffith replaced de Valera as president, and Collins became chairman of the provisional government.

The Irish Free State (1923-1937)

Civil War

Elections for a provisional Dáil were held in June 1922, and candidates supporting the Anglo-Irish Treaty won a majority of seats. Anti-treaty forces, however, refused to recognize the authority of the new Dáil. Instead, they proclaimed a rival government, led by de Valera, and called for a resumption of the struggle against the United Kingdom. Hostilities between pro- and anti-treaty forces finally broke out on June 28, initiating the Irish Civil War (1922-1923). In the ensuing conflict, hundreds were killed on both sides, including Michael Collins, who died in an ambush.

As the fighting continued, the Dáil, headed now by treaty supporter William Thomas Cosgrave, drafted a new constitution that provided for a bicameral (two-chamber) legislature composed of the Dáil and the Seanad, or senate. The constitution was adopted in October 1922, approved by the British Parliament, and went into effect in December. The official government of the Irish Free State was instituted at once. Cosgrave, leader of the party Cumann na nGaedheal (later a part of Fine Gael), assumed office as the first president of the executive council (prime minister) of the Irish Free State.

Restoration of Order

The Free State army soon grew in number and improved in effectiveness. The Roman Catholic Church declared itself opposed to the violence of the anti-treaty forces, and by September 1922 the Free State government felt strong enough to secure passage of a law authorizing the death penalty against anyone found under arms against the government. By early 1923 the Free State army had gained the advantage in the conflict. In April the anti-treaty group, on de Valera’s recommendation, disarmed. This action brought an end to the Irish Civil War.

In the national elections of August 1923, neither pro- nor anti-treaty factions secured a majority. De Valera led his followers in a boycott of the Dáil, and Cosgrave, who commanded a majority among those in attendance, retained power. Despite the dire economic disruptions caused by the civil war, Cosgrave established a viable government, in part because of the absence of an effective opposition party. The new government rebuilt and expanded the civil service, enlarged the army and police forces, and reorganized the judiciary. In addition, the government worked to strengthen the economy by improving agricultural efficiency and by constructing a large hydroelectric facility on the Shannon River.

Cosgrave’s government also sought to improve relations with the United Kingdom, whose trade was of utmost importance to Ireland’s economic revival following the civil war. In 1925 agreements were reached on several mutual problems. A permanent boundary between the Irish Free State and Northern Ireland was accepted by all parties and ratified. The United Kingdom refused the Free State’s request to annex Tyrone and Fermanagh, the two counties in Northern Ireland with Catholic majorities. However, the United Kingdom agreed to take over the Free State’s share of the national debt.

Rising Nationalism

The Irish Free State had joined the League of Nations in 1923, and the following year it set a precedent for members of the Commonwealth by sending its own ambassador to the United States. At the Imperial Conference of 1926, the Free State joined with the other Commonwealth dominions to obtain an agreement restructuring relations with the United Kingdom. The agreement, summarized in the Balfour Report, stated that the British government would no longer legislate for the dominions or nullify acts passed by their own legislatures. Once the British Parliament confirmed this agreement by the Statute of Westminster in 1931, Ireland had the power to legislate away its remaining ties to the United Kingdom.

De Valera and anti-treaty Sinn Feiners ended their boycott of the Irish legislature following the national election in 1927. They entered the Dáil as members of the opposition in the newly founded Fianna Fáil Party. Fianna Fáil gained control of the Dáil in the 1932 national election, partly as a result of the Cosgrave government’s inability to cope with economic problems brought on by the world economic downturn of the early 1930s. De Valera became president of the executive council (prime minister) of the Irish Free State and would remain a powerful force in government for decades. Under de Valera’s leadership, Ireland would become a more nationalist, isolationist, and inward-looking society.

Once in office, de Valera embarked on a systematic program to eliminate British influence in Irish affairs. His government revoked the oath of allegiance to the British crown and ignored the governor-general in Ireland. De Valera also backed legislation to suspend payments of land annuities owed to the United Kingdom, sparking a tariff war between the two countries that would last until 1938.

Although high tariffs levied by Ireland on British goods were largely retaliatory, they were also part of a broader set of measures supported by de Valera to shield domestic industry from international competition and give Ireland a self-sufficient economy. Other steps taken included the establishment of high income taxes on the wealthy and strict controls on foreign capital invested in Ireland. Economic nationalism was matched by a policy of cultural nationalism, which placed the Roman Catholic religion, the Irish (Gaelic) language, and Gaelic sport at the center of Irish identity.

In 1936, following the abdication of British king Edward VIII, de Valera’s government successfully abolished the office of governor-general and deleted all references to the British monarch from the constitution of the Irish Free State. The External Relations Act of 1936, passed at the same time, limited the Free State’s association with the Commonwealth of Nations to joint action on a limited number of foreign policy matters.

Éire (1937-1949)

De Valera and Fianna Fáil won reelection in the July 1937 national election, and in a simultaneous plebiscite, Irish voters approved a new constitution proposed by de Valera. This document renamed the country Éire (Gaelic for “Ireland”) and established a “democratic state, sovereign and independent.”

The new constitution provided for an elected president as head of state, a prime minister as head of government, and a two-house legislature. The constitution formally claimed authority over all of Ireland, although its application in Northern Ireland was not to take effect until after reunification. The constitution made no reference to the British monarch or to the Commonwealth of Nations. However, de Valera indicated that Éire’s relations with the United Kingdom would continue to be governed by the 1936 External Relations Act, which preserved a formal role for the British monarch in Ireland’s diplomatic dealings with other nations. The constitution of 1937 has been in force ever since, although subsequent amendments have modified the document to loosen antiabortion laws, legalize divorce, and remove articles claiming territorial jurisdiction over Northern Ireland.

In 1938 Irish writer and patriot Douglas Hyde became the first president of Éire, with de Valera continuing as prime minister. In the same year, a treaty between Éire and the United Kingdom ended the costly tariff war. The treaty provided for the withdrawal of British forces from naval bases in Éire in exchange for a lump-sum payment to settle debts owed to the United Kingdom. However, the slight improvement in relations between the two nations was marred by a violent terrorist campaign in the United Kingdom conducted by the IRA.

During World War II (1939-1945) de Valera followed a policy of strict neutrality for Ireland and refused to let British forces use Irish naval bases, despite German air raids on the city of Dublin in 1941. Although public opinion in Éire remained solidly anti-British, many of its citizens enlisted in the British armed services or worked in war industries in the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland. Éire, which emerged from the war relatively unscathed, was one of the few countries of Europe to avoid food rationing during the war. In the immediate postwar period, however, economic devastation in the United Kingdom and Europe subjected the economy of Éire to severe strain, resulting in a period of rapid inflation.

Éire’s economic woes contributed to the defeat of Fianna Fáil and de Valera in the 1948 national election. John Aloysius Costello became prime minister, leading a coalition of six parties, the chief of which was Fine Gael. He called for legislation to reduce inflation and the cost of living, lower taxes, expand industrial production, and establish closer commercial relations with the United Kingdom. To the dismay of British authorities, Costello also announced that he would lead a campaign for Ireland’s full independence. In November 1948 Costello introduced the Republic of Ireland Bill in the Dáil, and it was passed the following month.

Republic of Ireland (1949- )

On Easter Monday, April 18, 1949, the anniversary of the Easter Rebellion, Éire declared itself the Republic of Ireland, completely independent of the British crown and no longer a member of the Commonwealth of Nations. In May the British Parliament recognized Ireland’s status as a republic but declared that the six counties of Northern Ireland would not be severed from the United Kingdom without the assent of the parliament in Northern Ireland.

The transition from Éire to the Republic of Ireland was of chiefly symbolic significance, marking the achievement of a goal sought by Irish nationalists for generations. The United Kingdom allowed Ireland to retain the economic benefits of Commonwealth membership, and it extended to Irish citizens living in the United Kingdom the same rights as British citizens. Ireland granted British citizens residing in the republic similar benefits. Nevertheless, the continued partition of Ireland strained the republic’s relations with the United Kingdom. As a protest against partition, the republic declined to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), since this would have entailed entering into a military alliance with the United Kingdom.

In the republic’s first national election in 1951, de Valera returned as prime minister. De Valera’s willingness to accept an independent country that did not include the six counties of Northern Ireland provoked renewed protests from the IRA. During the 1950s the IRA organized armed raids and ambushes along the border of Northern Ireland. De Valera was forced to take repressive action against the IRA while simultaneously protesting the continuation of partition.

More pressing than the question of partition, however, were the social and economic problems that beset the republic. Particularly serious was the constant loss of young people, who continued to leave the country by the tens of thousands annually in search of greater opportunities in the United Kingdom and the United States. In an effort to assist the agricultural population, and to stem the flow of farm workers to the cities and foreign countries, the de Valera government began an ambitious program of rural electrification and promoted new measures to stimulate local industry.

Economic Stabilization and Growth

Although inflation and an unfavorable balance of trade continued to trouble the country’s economy, Ireland made significant strides toward economic stability through the 1950s and 1960s. The republic gradually abandoned protectionist economic policies in favor of long-term planning aimed at fostering economic expansion and international trade. A key figure in this strategy was Irish civil servant T. G. Whitaker, whose ideas were embodied in a study published during de Valera’s last government of 1957 to 1959. De Valera’s successor as prime minister, Sean Lemass, instituted Whitaker’s reforms. Under Lemass the government drew up a five-year plan for economic development that included generous tax incentives for foreign investors and new initiatives to promote Ireland’s export industries.

By 1964, upon completion of the first five-year plan, Ireland’s economic expansion had doubled anticipated growth goals. Partly as a result of such planning, the rate of economic growth increased from about 1 percent per year in the 1950s to more than 4.5 percent in the late 1960s. During this period hundreds of new factories opened production in Ireland, most with some foreign ownership. The dramatic increase in industrial production and exports accompanied a substantial decline in emigration, which had continued unabated for more than a century.

Political Developments

The transformation of Ireland’s economy also involved a rethinking of Ireland’s relationship with its largest trading partner, the United Kingdom. An important aspect of this change was the emergence of growing opposition to the IRA, whose terrorist activities were seen by many as damaging to Irish-British relations and likely to prolong partition of the island. As early as 1957 Irish prime minister John Costello had called for forceful action against the IRA. De Valera, who succeeded Costello after the 1957 national elections, publicly agreed that Ireland’s unification with Northern Ireland could not be achieved by force.

Throughout the 1960s and early 1970s Ireland, under Prime Minister Lemass and his successor, Jack Lynch, cultivated closer ties to the United Kingdom and the rest of Europe. When the United Kingdom applied for membership in the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1961, Ireland—heavily dependent on British markets for its agricultural exports—had little choice but to follow suit. In 1965 the United Kingdom abolished virtually all remaining tariffs on Irish goods, and Ireland agreed to do the same for the United Kingdom over a period of 15 years. In 1973, after several setbacks, Ireland and the United Kingdom joined the European Community (EC), a successor of the EEC.

The republic’s growing prosperity stimulated profound changes in Irish society, culture, and politics. Consumer spending increased, and many Irish began to question traditional values, including the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. At the same time, Irish nationalism became politically less important than social and economic issues, leading to new tensions over the meaning of Irish identity.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, when Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland were virtually at war, Prime Minister Lynch adhered to a policy of gradualism in the aim of Irish reunification. He took steps to curb the IRA, which used the Republic of Ireland as a base for attacks on the north, and to make the republic secular. In 1972 Irish voters approved a constitutional amendment that abolished the special position of the Roman Catholic Church in the republic.

A coalition of Fine Gael and the Labour Party gained a slim majority in the 1973 national election and Fine Gael leader Liam Cosgrave became prime minister. In 1977 Fianna Fáil returned to power in a government headed by Lynch; in 1979 he was replaced by Charles Haughey.

During the late 1970s and early 1980s the Irish government faced several difficult problems, including increased terrorism in the north and a weakening economy that produced growing unemployment, massive budget deficits, and rising foreign debt. A coalition government led by Garret FitzGerald, head of Fine Gael, briefly came to power following the national election in 1981. An inconclusive election in 1982 returned Haughey to power, but another election, in late 1982, brought FitzGerald back.

In 1985 FitzGerald signed the Anglo-Irish Agreement with the United Kingdom, a pact giving the Republic of Ireland a consultative role in governing Northern Ireland. FitzGerald remained prime minister until 1987, when he was replaced by Haughey, whose government had a single-vote majority in the Dáil. High inflation, high taxes, and large budget deficits declined after Haughey broadly cut social welfare expenditures in 1987, and robust growth in Ireland’s export sector helped reduce the country’s high foreign debt during the mid- and late 1980s.

Ireland Since 1990

Ireland’s economy continued to expand rapidly throughout the 1990s and into the 21st century, earning it the title Celtic Tiger. At the same time, new efforts to achieve a political solution to the problem of Northern Ireland brought the Irish and British governments into closer cooperation than at any time in the past.


In November 1990, without the endorsement of the major parties, Mary Robinson was elected president of Ireland. A champion of women’s rights and civil liberties, Robinson was the first woman to hold so high an office in the country. For many in Ireland, Robinson’s election was an important symbol of social change. Robinson resigned the post in 1997 to become the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Charles Haughey resigned as prime minister and leader of Fianna Fáil in early 1992, amid allegations that he had known about illegal telephone tapping ordered by one of his ministers in a previous administration; Haughey’s former finance minister, Albert Reynolds, was chosen to replace him. Reynolds remained prime minister after the elections of November 1992, but at the head of a coalition government made up of Fianna Fáil and the Labour Party.

In November 1994 the coalition government collapsed over disagreements regarding Reynolds’s appointment of a controversial attorney general, a move that led the Labour Party to withdraw its support of Fianna Fáil. A new coalition government was formed, headed by Prime Minister John Bruton of the Fine Gael Party. The coalition was composed of members of Fine Gael, the Labour Party, and the Democratic Left. Bruton proclaimed that his top priority was to establish a viable peace in Northern Ireland.

In early 1997 Bruton’s government faced a growing political crisis following revelations of a corruption scandal involving members of the Irish parliament and sharp criticism of Bruton’s handling of peace negotiations for Northern Ireland. Bruton called a national election for June, and his three-party coalition government won just 75 seats in the 166-seat Dáil Éireann (lower house of parliament), compared to 81 for the opposition coalition of Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democratic Party. Although neither group secured the 84 seats needed for an overall majority, the Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrat coalition gained enough support in the Dáil to elect Fianna Fáil leader Bertie Ahern to the post of prime minister. Ahern and his governing coalition returned to power following the national election in May 2002, in which Fianna Fáil won 81 seats and the Progressive Democrats won 8 seats. Ahern led Fianna Fáil to victory again in May 2007, when the party won 78 seats. However, the Progressive Democrats lost seats in the election, and Ahern formed a coalition that included the Green Party for his third term in office. In April 2008 Ahern announced his intention to resign as prime minister the following month, and Fianna Fáil chose Brian Cowen to succeed Ahern as party leader. Accordingly, Cowen became the new prime minister in May.

Social Issues

Abortion is one of the most contentious social issues in Ireland, and the country’s abortion laws are among the strictest in Europe. In 1992 the Irish Supreme Court ruled abortion legal in Ireland in the case of life-threatening situations for the mother, including the threat of suicide. In the same year, Irish voters approved ballot measures that would guarantee access to information about abortion and legalize foreign travel to obtain an abortion. Although Irish women won the right to travel abroad to seek an abortion, a 1993 Supreme Court decision upheld a ban on the distribution of information about overseas abortions within the country. In March 2002 a referendum to stop permitting abortion for women considered a suicide risk was narrowly defeated.

In 1995 Irish voters approved a referendum to overturn a constitutional ban on divorce. Divorce had been illegal in Ireland since 1925, shortly after the establishment of the Irish Free State, and the ban was affirmed in the 1937 constitution. The measure won endorsement by voters despite vigorous opposition from the Roman Catholic Church. Ireland’s divorce rate remains lower than in most of the world’s industrialized countries.


In December 1991 Ireland signed the Maastricht Treaty on European Union after securing a special provision protecting Irish abortion laws from future EU policies. The treaty was ratified by a national referendum in June 1992, and the EU was formally inaugurated in November 1993. Because Ireland’s per capita income fell below the average for members of the EU, Ireland’s disadvantaged regions qualified for substantial economic development funds. These funds, directed mainly toward education, training, and the development of infrastructure, including transportation and communications, helped modernize the Irish economy. By the late 1990s, Ireland’s per capita income exceeded the EU average.

The nation’s economy also benefited from the Irish government’s strong encouragement of foreign investment. During the 1990s many large corporations, especially those in the computer and electronics industries, opened facilities in Ireland. Ireland’s economy was expected to continue growing into the 21st century, although the growth rate was expected to slow toward the end of the first decade. The main downside to Ireland’s dramatic economic growth has been inflation. Ireland’s rate of inflation reached a high of 5.2 percent in 2000, and in 2002 remained nearly double the average inflation rate of the other EU countries to adopt the euro, the EU’s single currency. Although it later dropped somewhat, it stayed above the EU average of 2.3 percent.

Ireland, Northern Ireland, and the United Kingdom

The long search for lasting peace and political stability in Northern Ireland remains unresolved. However, attempts to end the violence have brought the governments of Ireland and the United Kingdom closer together as both sides have sought to build consensus on future political structures for the island.

In December 1993 Irish prime minister Albert Reynolds and British prime minister John Major signed the Downing Street Declaration, a conciliatory peace declaration that attempted to set a positive tone for ending hostilities in Northern Ireland. After initially rejecting the document, the IRA announced in August 1994 that it intended to suspend military operations in favor of peace negotiations.

In February 1995 the Irish and British governments established a written framework for negotiating the status of Northern Ireland. The document recognized Northern Ireland’s right to self-determination and proposed to restore home rule in the province (which had been suspended in 1972) with the creation of a provincial parliament, the Northern Ireland Assembly. It also called for the establishment of a cross-border body composed of members of the proposed assembly and representatives of the Irish parliament. However, negotiations stalled over the issue of IRA disarmament. Ireland opposed British demands for complete disarmament of the IRA as a precondition for Sinn Fein’s participation in the talks. The IRA resumed its terrorist activities in February 1996.

The peace process was revitalized after Labour Party leader Tony Blair won a landslide victory over John Major’s Conservative Party in the May 1997 British parliamentary elections. After taking office, Blair declared the talks a top priority. The IRA renewed its cease-fire in July, and after the British government dropped its demands for complete IRA disarmament, Sinn Fein joined the negotiations. Initial progress was limited. However, the talks gradually proceeded with the help of Blair and Irish prime minister Ahern and under the oversight of former United States senator George Mitchell, who set April 9, 1998, as the deadline for agreement. Although many feared the process would collapse, Mitchell kept the talks on track. On April 10, after an all-night negotiating session, and slightly past the deadline, the talks culminated in a historic agreement.

The Northern Ireland peace agreement, commonly known as the Good Friday Agreement or the Belfast Agreement, authorized the creation of a provincial assembly for Northern Ireland to replace direct rule of the province by the British government. An executive cabinet would oversee this body. The agreement created a North-South Ministerial Council to coordinate policies between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, and a Council of the Isles to allow representatives from both parts of Ireland to meet with representatives from the British, Scottish, and Welsh legislative bodies. It also called for the Republic of Ireland to amend its constitution to drop its territorial claim to Northern Ireland.

The peace agreement was put to a vote in both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland on May 22. In the Republic of Ireland an overwhelming 94 percent of voters endorsed the agreement; in Northern Ireland, the peace agreement won support from 71 percent of voters.

Despite several false starts and many delays, the British Parliament formally transferred a wide range of powers to Northern Ireland’s provincial government on December 1, 1999. The following day, the Irish government issued a statement formally renouncing its territorial claim on Northern Ireland, and Irish and British officials signed an agreement setting up the North-South Ministerial Council. In the years ahead, however, an unresolved conflict over the pace of IRA disarmament triggered a series of crises that repeatedly put Northern Ireland’s provincial assembly on hold and threatened to undermine the peace process.

The peace process finally bore fruit in 2007, when the Protestant and Catholic factions in Northern Ireland agreed to share power and form a government. In March a historic meeting took place between longtime foes Gerry Adams, leader of the largely Catholic Sinn Fein, and Ian Paisley, leader of the predominantly Protestant Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). A new power-sharing government took office in May.

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