Country Profile: Ireland

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Country Profile: Ireland

No attempt is made here to aid with pronunciation of personal and place names. These can be totally incomprehensible and often seemingly illogical. The only answer is to ask the bus driver or someone every time you come across a new name. Otherwise you can easily find yourself saying things you really shouldn't be saying.

Indispensable tools for the courier in Ireland might include a good collection of Irish music, traditional and modern, a book of Yeats poetry and a video of Riverdance or Lord of the Dance. If you buy any of these things you can put them on expenses and send them afterwards to the London or Paris offices.

The following introductory pages are not intended to provide the basis for a coherent commentary. They are just a collection of random facts, figures and curiosities.

Gaelic is Ireland's official language but it's spoken as a native language by only about 58,000 people. These are concentrated in areas known as Gaeltacht, eg. parts of Connemara, the Aran Islands, Ring in Co. Waterford, Ballingeary in West Cork etc. These places have Gaelic schools, often attended by non-native speakers for short courses all year round, which teach everything in Gaelic. Otherwise, Gaelic is taught compulsorily for all children from the age of 4 or 5 until school leaving age. About 1 million people speak Gaelic reasonably well.

Administratively, the Republic of Ireland is divided into 26 counties. Northern Ireland is made up of 6 counties. The island of Ireland divides into four historical provinces. These are Ulster (the northeast); Leinster (the southeast); Munster (the southwest), and Connacht (the northwest). Most of Ulster constitutes Northern Ireland.

The counties are as follows:

Dublin, Wicklow, Wexford, Carlow, Kilkenny, Laois, Kildare, Offaly, Westmeath, Meath, Longford, Louth, Waterford, Cork, Kerry, Limerick, Clare, Tipperary, Galway, Mayo, Roscommon, Sligo, Leitrim, Cavan, Monaghan, and Donegal.

The four biggest cities of the Republic of Ireland are Dublin, Cork, Limerick and Galway.

The island of Ireland occupies an area of about 32,000 square miles, more or less the size of Indiana. North to south the island measures 300 miles, east to west 170 miles. The Republic of Ireland is more like West Virginia in size.

The population of the Republic is about 3.5 million, of Northern Ireland about 1.5 million. At least 93% of the population of the Republic is Catholic.

The Irish population is the youngest in Europe. About a quarter of the population is under 14. (In the 1998 census of the United States that proportion is about 20%.)

About 40 million Americans claim Irish descent, 5 million Canadians and 5 million Australians. Countless millions of English people have Irish ancestry.

Over the last 5 years Ireland has had the fastest-growing economy in the western world, hence its nickname 'The Celtic Tiger.'

Agriculture has been declining in recent years, but still forms an important part of the economy, constituting 8.1% of GDP and 21% of exports. There are about 170,000 farms in Ireland. The average size of a farm is 65 acres, ie. about 65 to 70 heads of cattle. Over 50 % of agricultural produce is exported. Dairy farming and the beef sector account for about 80% of this produce.

Nowadays by far the most important economic sector is industry which accounts for 38% of GDP and 80% of the country's exports. Information technology is the field in which Ireland excels.

Peat is formed in water-logged basins by dead plants incompletely decomposed. These plants don't decompose properly because the waters of the bog contain a high degree of acidity due to the presence of sphagnum moss. (This is the first stage in the creation of coal deposits.) Even though mechanisation is now standard, in many parts of Ireland peat is still cut by hand. To cut peat, an area of bogland is drained; the top layer containing living plants is removed; the turf is then cut using a sléan (a narrow spade with a side blade set at a right-angle), and it is laid out on the ground to dry. (In its natural state peat contains 90-95% water.) The turf is periodically turned over until each side dries and is then stacked, first loosely, then tight until thoroughly dry.

25% of Ireland's electricity is generated by peat-fired power stations. It is estimated that about 300 million tonnes of peat remain in the nation's bogs. Fuel is the prime purpose of peat but not its only value. It's also an excellent preservative: butter kept in peat can last several hundred years. It can be used to make shampoo or soap. In the reconstructed Bog Village on the Ring of Kerry you can see stacks of peat, sléans, the various uses to which peat is made, as well as the bog ponies who worked the lands. You may also see a couple of small peat-fired power stations.

All the old roads in Ireland are based on cow paths, hence their winding nature. Cows never walk in a straight line.

Irish Coffee was invented in the 50s by the barman at Shannon Airport. The concept of Duty Free was also invented here in 1947.

Ireland receives an annual rainfall of between 31 to 47 inches (more in the west). The climate is temperate, influenced by the Gulf Stream, with temperatures fairly even over the whole country. January and February are the coldest months, 39F to 45F, and July and August are the hottest at 60F to 65F. It very rarely snows except on the highest ground. May and June are the sunniest months. Nobody goes to Ireland for a beach holiday.

A Brief Introduction to Irish History

On a tour like 'The Emerald Isle' you will come across places that have direct connections with just about every phase, great man or event in the history of Ireland. You need to know more or less how this rather complex history fits together. The following account attempts to sketch the seminal moments and characters in Ireland's history. It is not for recounting all at once; rather for elucidating at the appropriate times the relationship of the places you see and visit to their country's past, with its many visible marks deeply ingrained in today's Ireland.

Since the time of the Anglo-Norman invasions in the C12 Ireland's history has been inextricably intertwined with England. That history has been a constant tale of tragedy and triumph over tragedy. Before that time Ireland's history was very much its own.

Celtic Ireland was divided into the four kingdoms of Ulster, Munster, Leinster and Connacht. After the arrival of St. Patrick they quickly embraced Christianity. St. Patrick's story is worth telling. He went to Ireland in 432 as a Papal missionary (this was his second visit - he first went to Ireland as a slave tending sheep, and got religion then) and found welcome in Ulster after being turned away in the region of Dublin. According to the legend, his great breakthrough occurred when he appeared before King Laoghaire and explained the meaning of Christianity by holding up a shamrock leaf saying that its three leaves represented the Trinity. The shamrock has been Ireland's emblem ever since, and green the colour of St. Patrick and Ireland.

The following centuries, foolishly still known as the Dark Ages, were very much Ireland's golden age, when culture, learning and social organisation was perhaps the most advanced in Europe. This was the time of productions like the Ardagh Chalice and the Book of Kells (C8 and early C9). The death knell of this Celtic golden age came in the C9 with the arrival of the Vikings.

Though the Vikings never gained complete control of Ireland they established their own colonies which have mushroomed to become some of Ireland's greatest towns, viz. Waterford, Limerick and Dublin. They brought coinage and overseas trade to the Irish. They also brought increased fragmentation and divisions to Irish society. This situation was briefly but gloriously reversed at the Battle of Clontarf in 1014 when Brian Boru defeated the Vikings and the King of Leinster to become crowned High King of Ireland in Cashel. The unity did not last, however. In the mid C12 the King of Leinster Dermot MacMurrough invited the English to Ireland to assist him in his political disputes. When the Anglo-Normans arrived in 1169 they came to stay.

The leader of the Anglo-Norman forces was Richard de Clare, known as Strongbow. He and his fellow nobles divided up Ireland among themselves, building castles and monasteries and imposing their rule on the native population. After Strongbow's successes King Henry II was able to declare himself overlord of Ireland with the Pope's blessing. Some Anglo-Norman families, for example the Butlers and the Fitzgeralds, assimilated into Irish society but many dissociated themselves politically, economically and socially from the Irish. A frontier, real and psychological, began to develop between Irish Ireland and English Ireland. It was known as the Pale. For details, see itineraries a) and b). Beyond the Pale the English had relatively little influence throughout the Middle Ages. This began to change in the C16 in the reign of King Henry VIII.

The break with the Catholic Church and the Dissolution of the Monasteries brought England into direct conflict with Ireland. The English strengthened their grip on the Irish lands. Henry VIII was declared King of Ireland. Conflict continued into the reign of Queen Elizabeth I In Munster the Desmond clan rebelled in 1579. The rebellion was severely crushed and the Desmond lands were confiscated and colonised. Elizabeth's successor James I decided to create a permanent Protestant stronghold in Ireland by transplanting English and Scottish people into Ulster. The six northern counties were declared forfeit to the English crown. This was the birth of the division of Ireland.

In spite of these drawn-out battles for political and religious control, nothing compared to the horrors that Ireland suffered in the mid C17 under Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of revolutionary England. The Ulster plantation was strongly opposed by native Catholic families who rose up in armed rebellion against the Ulster Protestants. Cromwell, a militant Protestant determined to wipe out Catholicism, took bloody revenge. The whole populations of Drogheda and Wexford were slain. Irish landowning families were forced out to the inhospitable, unliveable lands of the northwest. The chilling name given to this policy was "To Hell or Connacht." Oliver Cromwell remains a reviled name throughout Ireland.

After Cromwell Irish hopes were raised with the Catholic king of England James II but he was deposed in 1688 and the Protestant William of Orange came to the throne. James fled to Ireland to raise an army but it was defeated in 1690 at the Battle of the Boyne. The Catholics under the leadership of Patrick Sarsfield retreated to Limerick where they surrendered the terms of the Treaty of Limerick guaranteeing religious and propery rights. The treaty was immediately broken. All through the C18 Catholics were refused the right to buy land, clergy were banished from the country and children were prevented from travelling abroad to receive a Catholic education. Mass had to be held in secret.

The end of the C18 was the age of independence, in the footsteps of France and the United States. The Irish made their own moves towards independence as the Irish Parliament gained a certain degree of autonomy more illusory than real. Subsequently violent rebellions led by Wolfe Tone and Robert Emmett tried to push the issue further but they were easily and bloodily quashed. In 1828 Daniel O'Connell, after campaigning for five years without violence, secured Catholic Emancipation.

The worst for Ireland was still to come. In 1845 potato blight destroyed the potato crop, then the staple food of the Irish population. The crop failed for four years. English intervention at first served only to increase the suffering. The reason was this. Other crops such as wheat produced excellent harvests but the Irish were too poor to buy them. The English landlords therefore raised their prices to provide greater profits but this only served to disenfranchise the Irish poor even more. The only people to profit from the high prices were the English; the Irish were forced deeper into starvation. When the English finally responded appropriately it was too late. It is not clear exactly how many people died during the Potato Famine of 1845-49 but it is generally thought that perhaps 1 million people died of starvation, typhoid or cholera; 1 million emigrated to England or to America, and 1 million died in the so-called 'coffin ships' on their way to a new land. In the early C19 the population of Ireland was about 8 million. By 1900 it was 4 million.

Rural hardship forced the English government gradually to pass Land Acts returning land to the Irish. This evolved towards the end of the C19 into the issue of Home Rule for Ireland, under the political leadership of Charles Stewart Parnell. He was thwarted in his hopes and finally imprisoned but the C20 road to independence was now firmly established.

In 1918 Sinn Fein, a political party dedicated to Irish separation from Westminster, made huge gains in the general election. They were led by Eammon de Valera, the dominant figure in C20 Irish politics. Events now take on an astonishing pace. For brevity's sake they are only skimmed through here. In the following 3 or 4 years the Irish Declaration of Independence is signed, the first Anglo-Irish Treaty is made, the country is plunged into civil war, the Irish Free State is inaugurated and Michael Collins, hero of the War of Independence and chairman of the Free State, is killed. In 1937 the Republic of Ireland achieved complete independence from Britain.

Some Irish Writers  Ireland has an astonishing tradition in the literary world. The following is a set of mini-biographies of some of Ireland's most famous writers.

Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) He was a brilliant political satirist who later became Dean of St. Patrick's, Dublin. He combines fantastical imagery with a great clarity of language, Irish mythic content fused with English common-sense form. Gulliver's Travels, Battle of the Books, Tale of a Tub.

Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) Ireland's greatest wit, relying typically on paradox and sheer outrageousness. He was not just a writer but a public personality, electrifying and at the same time mortifying London society. He was imprisoned in Reading Gaol for his homosexuality. He died in poverty in Paris. The Importance of Being Earnest, An Ideal Husband. Oft-quoted: "I have nothing to declare but my genius." "I can resist everything except temptation." "We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars."

W.B.Yeats (1865-1939) A prominent figure in the Irish literary revival of the turn of the century. One of the founders of the Abbey Theatre. Lake Isle of Inishfree, When I am old and grey. He won the Nobel Prize in 1923.

John Millington Synge (1871-1909) friend of Yeats, playwright and poet deriving inspiration from the songs and legends of western Ireland. Riders to the Sea, Playboy of the Western World.

James Joyce (1882-1941) Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Ulysses, Finnegan's Wake. One of the greatest literary figures of the C20. His writings become more and more impenetrable as he extends the barriers of the written word. He died in Zurich.

George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) Dominated London literary circles for decades. Another great Irish wit. St. Joan, Pygmalion, Major Barbara. Shaw was involved in social theorising, establishing 'Shavian' or 'Fabian' socialism. His style was paradoxical, his humour often cruel and pessimistic. He won the Nobel Prize in 1925.

Myth, Legend and Fairy Tale  The Irish Celtic mythic cycles are intricate and complicated but two figures stand out whose life and exploits are worth a mention.

Finn MacCool is the great Irish mythical hero and giant, leader of the warrior fraternity known as the Fianna. He was also a seer and a magician. He could see the future by peering through his thumb or, in other versions of his story, by sucking his thumb. His son was the great warrior and poet Oísín (or Ossian). Finn is said to have built the Giant's Causeway. (Incidentally, Finn is a central figure in all ancient Celtic mythologies. He is the hero who gives his name also to the cities of Vienna in Austria and Vienne in France.)

Cuchulain is the other great figure of Irish myth and legend. As a child of six he slayed the terrible hound of Culain and, in repentance for his action, he took over the hound's guard duties as well as its name meaning in Gaelic 'the hound of Culain.' Among his many great victories and heroic exploits one stands out: the Cattle Raid of Cooley. Queen Maeve of Connacht sent her armies to capture of the great bull known as the Donn of Cooley. The heroes of Ulster were rendered helpless so Cuchulain single-handedly took on the task of opposing Maeve's armies. One by one, over a period of about four months, he defeated the whole Connacht host. Maeve resorted to sorcery and conjured up an imaginary army making Cuchulain's task seem endless. Finally, exhausted, he tied himself to a post to stay upright while fighting. This was his downfall.

Cuchulain's appearance was somewhat grotesque. He had seven pupils in each eye, seven fingers on each hand and seven toes on each foot. His hair was dark, red and blond. His face was yellow, green, blue and red. When in the frenzy of battle his body turned round inside his own skin, his hair was set on fire, flames shot from his mouth and a fountain of black blood spouted from his skull. One of his eyes expanded and shot out from his cheek; the other retreated inside his head. To bring him back to normal after battle, he had to be plunged into three vats of ice cold water.

And then there are these characters:

A leprechaun is an irascible old man, usually a shoemaker, who wears a green coat, a leather apron and a felt hat. He is about 2 feet tall and lives alone under a stone or in the hollow of a tree near a puddle. He is the jealous guardian of a pot of gold. If you see him you must hold his gaze, at the same time threatening grevious bodily harm - a difficult task - until he is forced to relinquish his purse. (To find him you listen out for the tap tap tap of a shoemaker's hammer.)

A banshee is a female spirit whose piercing howl is heard as a warning of impending death.

A fairy ring is a circle made of stones, usually in the middle of a field, which has magic powers. If you stand in the middle of them you will find yourself subject to an evil curse. Farmers never go near them if they are in their field. You shouldn't either.

A pouca is a malevolent spirit who takes on the form of an animal and is only visible to the person it latches on to. The most famous pouca of all, though atypical in that his influence is entirely benevolent, is Harvey the giant white rabbit in the eponymous film starring James Stewart.


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