Irish - Orientation

Identification and Location. For the Irish and Ireland, identification and location are inextricably linked aspects of self-definition. Ireland, located between 51°30′ and 55°30′ N and 6°00′ and l0°30′ W, is an island 480 by 273 kilometers at its longest and widest (N-S and E-W, respectively). It is separated on the east from Great Britain by the narrow Irish Sea (17 to 192 kilometers wide). To the west is the Atlantic Ocean. The island consists mainly of low-lying land whose central lowlands support rich pastureland, agricultural Regions, and a large central peat bog. The rim is mountainous, especially in the west, but elevations are rarely higher than 900 meters. Ireland's geographical location—combining proximity to England with peripherality vis-à-vis Europe—has played the major role in defining its historical experience. This relationship has also made the definition of just who and what is Irish problematic. Centuries of British rule culminated in the division of the island in 1922 into two political entities: the Republic (Free State from 1922 to 1949) of Ireland, comprising twenty-six counties and 70,550 square kilometers, and the Province of Northern Ireland, comprising six counties and remaining part of the United Kingdom. The population of the republic is 95 percent Catholic and that segment identifies itself unambiguously as Irish. Members of the Protestant minority may choose to emphasize their English ancestry, but they typically call themselves "Irish"—or "Anglo-Irish" as they are identified by their Irish Catholic neighbors. In Northern Ireland, however, the situation is more complex. The substantial Catholic minority—whatever their political affiliation—consider themselves ethnically Irish, while the subjective and objective identification of Protestants has been far more fluctuating and context-dependent. At various points, they may identify themselves as "Irish," "Ulster," "Ulster Protestant," or "British." The merging of Religious, geographical, and ethnic labels is also applied from the outside. Irish Catholics may use a variety of such terms to identify their neighbors, and the choice of label nearly always has a political subtext.

Demography. The population of the Republic of Ireland was 3,540,643 in 1986, representing an increase of 97,238 persons since the 1981 census. The population, which began a steep decline during the late 1840s famine, has been increasing since the 1961 census and has now been restored to the level of 1889-90. However, a recent decline in the birth-rate and a leap in the emigration rate (at least 72,000 Between 1981 and 1986), makes the demographic future uncertain. The high birthrate in the sixties and seventies has made Ireland one of the youngest countries in Europe, and migration to Dublin has made the population far more urban than it had been up until recently (57 percent urban, 43 percent rural), with close to a third of the population living in Dublin County.

Linguistic Affiliation. Although Irish Gaelic is the official language of the republic, the vast majority of people on both sides of the border speak English. Irish is the daily language of only tens of thousands (disputed number) of inhabitants of scattered Gaeltacht zones mainly along the west coast. Irish Gaelic, a Celtic language, has three main dialects and is closely related to Scottish Gaelic. The Goidelic Branch of the Celtic languages also includes Manx (once spoken on the Isle of Man), while the Brythonic Branch is represented by Welsh and Breton. The language issue has played a central part in the ethnic identity issues previously mentioned. Although Irish Gaelic was by the late nineteenth century very much a minority language, proponents of Irish nationalism (Protestant and Catholic) favored the restoration of the "national language" as a critical element in the maintenance of a distinct national identity and culture. Government measures meant to ensure this restoration have gradually relaxed over the decades, however, and despite the persistence of Irish in a few enclaves and a lively Irish-language literary and cultural scene, English is clearly the de facto national language.

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