POPULATION: 3.6 million
LANGUAGE: Irish Gaelic (official); English (primary)
RELIGION: Roman Catholicism; Protestantism; Judaism
The Republic of Ireland, which consists of twenty-six counties, covers five-sixths of the island of Ireland. The remaining portion is occupied by the six counties of Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom. The division of the island into two political entities is the legacy of a long period of British rule. It dates back as far as 1171, when England's King Henry II declared himself king of Ireland. Eventually the English controlled most of the island. With the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century, the division between the conquering and conquered peoples took on a religious dimension. The Protestant English began to try to eliminate native Irish Catholicism, further increasing hostility between the two. When the Republic of Ireland won its independence in 1922, Northern Ireland became a separate political entity, remaining part of the United Kingdom. In recent decades it has been the site of violent conflict between Catholic nationalists and Protestant extremist groups. The Republic of Ireland became a member of the European Community in 1973.
Ireland occupies an area smaller than the state of Maine. It is bounded by the Atlantic Ocean on the south, west, and northwest, and by the Irish Sea on the east. The country's two main topographic regions are a fertile central lowland and the mountain ranges that surround it. Most of the country is less than 500 feet (150 meters) above sea level. The Irish trace their ethnic origins to the various groups who inhabited and ruled their land over the course of history. These include the Celts, Norsemen, French Normans, and English. The people living east of the Shannon River generally have a higher standard of living, with a more advanced level of industrialization and richer farmland. The Gaeltacht along the western coast is the nation's Gaelic-speaking region.
Irish Gaelic is the official language of the Republic of Ireland. However, English is actually more widely used. Only about 30 percent of the population know Gaelic well enough to use it in daily conversation. Gaelic is a required subject in school. Signs throughout Ireland are written in both English and Gaelic. Irish Gaelic is a Celtic language closely related to Scottish Gaelic. Irish people speak English with an accent known as a brogue.
|good night||codladh sámh||kull-uh sawv|
The Irish are master storytellers. Their tales and legends date back to Druid priests and early Celtic poets who preserved the stories of Ireland's pre-Christian heroes and heroines. Many tales recall the exploits of Cuchulainn, who defended Ulster (Ireland's northern counties) single-handedly. Other tales come from the era of Cormac Mac Art, Ireland's first king. They include the love story of Diarmid and Grania and the exploits of Finn MacCool. Modern authors have helped keep these folk traditions alive. The poet William Butler Yeats wrote five plays based on the legendary adventures of Cuchulainn. James Joyce's final novel, Finnegans Wake— whose main character is identified with the mythic figure of Finn MacCool—is filled with Irish legends and mythology. Irish children today still learn tales about these legendary heroes, including MacCool and Saint Finnabar, who is said to have slain Ireland's last dragon.
Ireland is a staunchly Catholic country. Roman Catholics account for about 95 percent of Ireland's population, and nearly 90 percent of the Irish people attend Mass every week. Pilgrimages to shrines and holy places at home and abroad attract tens of thousands of people each year. Catholicism is deeply intertwined with Irish nationalism (patriotism). Before Irish independence, the British attempted to eliminate Catholicism from Ireland. This caused the Irish to cling even more fiercely to their faith. The non-Catholic minority is mostly Episcopalian, Methodist, Presbyterian, or Jewish.
The patron saint of Ireland, St. Patrick, is honored by people (not only those of Irish descent) worldwide on March 17 each year. Patrick, according to legend, dreamed that he received a call from the Irish people to help them. Ireland was overrun with snakes and reptiles in such large numbers that it was considered a plague. Patrick went a high mountain, carrying a staff to show that he was a priest. He charmed the snakes with prayers, and gathered them all together. When every last snake had responded, Patrick drove them all into the sea, freeing Ireland from the reptile plague. The Irish people gathered around him to thank him, and he began to preach Christianity to them. The peasant people could not grasp the meaning of Christianity's holy trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. When Patrick spotted the three-leafed shamrock, he picked it and used it to help explain how three gods, represented by the three leaves, could be one. This is the legend explaining how St. Patrick eliminated snakes from Ireland, led the Irish people to Christianity, and became their patron saint. It also explains why the shamrock is the national symbol of Ireland.
Ireland's legal holidays are New Year's Day (January 1), St. Patrick's Day (March 17), Good Friday, Easter Sunday and Easter Monday, bank holidays (days when banks, schools, etc., are closed) on the first Mondays of June and August, Christmas (December 25), and St. Stephen's Day (December 26). St. Stephen's Day is referred to as "Wren Day," reflecting the ancient druid belief that the wren was sacred. On this day, young men ("Wren Boys") dress in outrageous costumes and paint their faces. They go from house to house in a silly parade "hunting the wren," and people may throw them a few coins. In addition to these holidays, a variety of customs and celebrations are associated with various saints' days. St. John's Day (June 24), for example, is traditionally the time to dig up and eat the first new potatoes. On the night before, bonfires are lit on hilltops throughout the west of Ireland. A dish called colcannon, made from cabbage, potatoes, and milk, was traditionally served on Halloween with a ring, coin, thimble, and button inserted into it. Whoever found the ring was supposed to be married within a year. The coin symbolized wealth; the button, bachelorhood (a man who never marries); and the thimble, spinsterhood (a woman who never marries). Sometimes, the colcannon is left out on Halloween as a snack for the fairies.
As in most West European countries, most births occur in hospitals. In Roman Catholic families, the child is baptized within a week or so of birth. First communion and confirmation are important events for Catholic children. Marriage generally takes place in church. Weddings are festive events. In the west they may still be attended by "straw-boys," uninvited guests dressed in straw disguises who crash the wedding and play about in good-humored fashion.
Death is a solemn occasion. Although the Irish were once known for their wild wakes (a time for people to view the body before burial), these are quickly becoming a thing of the past.
The Irish are famous for their hospitality, which dates back to olden times. It was believed that turning away a stranger would bring bad luck and a bad name to the household. (According to one Christian belief, a stranger might be Christ in disguise coming to test the members of the household.) The front doors of houses were commonly left open at meal times. Anyone who passed by would feel free to enter and join in the meal. While many of the old superstitions are a thing of the past, Irish warmth and hospitality toward strangers remains. Hospitality is practiced not only at home, but also at the neighborhood pub (bar). Anyone joining a group of drinkers immediately buys a round of drinks for everyone at the table. (Similarly, no one smokes a cigarette without first offering the pack to everyone present.)
The traditional rural home was narrow and rectangular. It was built from a combination of stones and mortar (made from mud, lime, or whatever material was locally available). The roof was often thatched. Rural homes and those in some urban areas are commonly heated by fireplaces that burn peat (called "turf" in Ireland) instead of wood. (Peat is soil from marshy or damp regions, composed of partially decayed vegetable matter. It is cut and dried for use as fuel.) Modern homes are replacing traditional dwellings both in the country and the city. Families generally live in brick or concrete houses or apartment buildings. Large numbers of people have emigrated to Ireland's cities since the 1950s. Consequently, a great demand for new housing has been created, and developments have gone up around most large towns and cities.
The Irish have an extremely strong loyalty to the family. The nuclear family is the primary family unit. However, an ailing elderly relative and an unmarried aunt or uncle may also be included. Young people have traditionally lived at home with their parents until they marry, often after the age of twenty-five or even thirty. Bonds between siblings are unusually strong, especially in the western part of the country. Unmarried siblings often live together, sometimes joined by a widowed sibling later in life. While women are playing an increasingly active role in the work force, traditional gender roles are still common at home. Women perform most of the household chores and child-rearing, and the men fill the traditional role of breadwinner (the one who earns money to support the family, or "buy the bread").
People in Ireland wear modern Western-style clothing. Durability, comfort, and protection from Ireland's often wet weather are of primary concern. The Irish have been known for their fine cotton lace-making since the early 1800s. Handknitted sweaters are another famous Irish product, especially those made on the Aran Islands. Tweed—a thick cloth of woven wool used for pants, skirts, jackets, and hats—is another type of textile for which the Irish are known. The Irish have decorated (and fastened) their clothing with bronze and silver brooches since the third century AD , Traditional designs have included detailed engravings, animal designs, and enamel inlays.
Serve by cutting into pie-shaped wedges. May be served with butter or preserves.
The Irish have hearty appetites. Potatoes are the main staple and, together with cabbage, the most popular vegetable in Ireland. Dairy products are a favorite, and a great deal of milk and butter are consumed. Irish stew, one of the most common traditional dishes, consists of lamb or mutton, potatoes, onions, herbs, and stock. The main meals of the day are breakfast and lunch. The traditional Irish breakfast includes sausages, bacon, eggs, tomatoes, pudding (hot cereal), other meat dishes (such as liver or lamb chops), and bread, all washed down with plenty of tea. (Many have abandoned this menu in favor of lighter fare.) A typical lunch might include a hearty soup, a serving of chicken or beef, and vegetables. Supper usually consists of sandwiches, cold meats, or fish. Soda bread, made with baking soda and buttermilk, accompanies many meals. Popular desserts (called "sweets") include scones, tarts, and cakes.
Adult literacy is nearly universal in Ireland. All children must attend school between the ages of six and fifteen. Most go to single-sex rather than coeducational (girls and boys together) schools. Both English and Gaelic are taught in primary school (called National School). Secondary school students receive an Intermediate Certificate at the age of fifteen or sixteen. Following an optional two more years of study, they receive a Leaving Certificate, which is required for admission to one of Ireland's three universities. Ireland's oldest university is Trinity College, also known as the University of Dublin.
The Irish place great value on the arts. Ireland's writers, composers, painters, and sculptors do not have to pay income taxes as long as their work is recognized as having "artistic or cultural merit." Ireland's greatest contribution has been in the field of literature. Its great writers include Jonathan Swift, author of Gulliver's Travels; the playwrights Oliver Goldsmith and Oscar Wilde; and such giants of twentieth-century literature as playwright George Bernard Shaw, poet William Butler Yeats, and novelist James Joyce. Yeats won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1923, as did his fellow Irishman, playwright Samuel Beckett in 1969. Contemporary Irish writers include poets Seamus Deane and Seamus Heaney. Heaney won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1995. There is also a considerable amount of modern literature written in Irish Gaelic, including poets Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill and Máirtín Ó Direáin.
In 1992, 59 percent of Ireland's labor force was employed in service sector jobs, 28 percent worked in industry, and 13 percent were in agriculture, forestry, and fishing. Primary industries include meat, dairy, and grain processing; electronics, machinery, beer, shoe, and glassware production. Farming takes place on both small subsistence farms where families raise just enough to support themselves, and on large sophisticated commercial farms that produce food for export. Tourism is a mainstay of the service sector. It provides restaurant, hotel, and retail jobs and it expands the range of government employment.
Ireland's most popular sports are hurling and Gaelic football. Hurling, similar to field hockey, is played by two teams of fifteen players who, with long sticks called hurleys or camans, attempt to knock a leather ball through their opponents' goalposts. The All-Ireland Hurling Championship is the Irish equivalent of the World Series in the United States. It is held in Dublin every September. The women's version of hurling is called camogie. Gaelic football combines elements of soccer and rugby, and also culminates in an All-Ireland match in the nation's capital. Another popular traditional Irish sport is road bowling (played mostly in County Cork). Its object is to advance a metal ball, called a "bullet," over a two-or three-mile (three-to-five-kilometer) course in as few throws as possible. Other widely played sports include soccer, rugby, cricket, boxing, and track and field. Horse racing is a favorite national pastime, and Ireland's famous races include the Irish Derby and the Grand National (the race featured in the movie National Velvet ).
Irish men spend many of their hours in pubs (bars), drinking beer or ale, playing darts, and socializing with their friends. In recent years, it has become increasingly acceptable for women to frequent pubs, although the neighborhood pub still remains primarily male territory. Pubs are also the scene of traditional music sessions, which are associated with craic (pronounced "crack"). This is an all-around term for having a good time that can include playing and/or listening to music, joking, getting drunk, or flirting with members of the opposite sex. "The craic was mighty" means that someone had a good time. Other popular leisure-time pursuits include chess, bingo, and bridge (a card game).
Traditional crafts include tweed and linen weaving, wool knitting, glass blowing, and woodcarving. Belleek china and Waterford crystal are especially famous. Rathborne, which has been producing candles for over 450 years, is Europe's oldest candle maker. The women of the Aran Islands are known for their distinctive woolen sweaters. (At one time, every family on the islands had its own sweater pattern, which aided in identifying drowned sailors.) Ireland has a rich folk music tradition, and ancient jigs and reels can be heard at local festivals and during informal performances at neighborhood pubs. Since the 1960s, groups like the Chieftains and Planxty have revived national interest in traditional tunes and instruments. They have also gained an international audience for Irish music, both live and recorded. Traditional instruments include the fiddle, flute, Celtic harp, accordion, bodhran (a hand-held drum), and uilleann pipes (a bagpipe-like instrument powered by bellows).
Ever since the great potato famine of 1845, Ireland has lost a large percentage of its population to emigration. People regularly leave in search of better opportunities abroad. In addition to inflation, high unemployment, and the highest taxes in Europe, the nation must deal with one of the largest per capita (per person) foreign debts in the world. Terrorist attacks among competing Protestant and Catholic factions have killed more than 3,200 people in Northern Ireland since 1969.
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