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The island of Ireland consists of a large central lowland of limestone with a relief of hills and several coastal mountains. The mountain ridges of the south comprise old red sandstone separated by limestone river valleys. Elsewhere granite predominates, except in the north east which is covered by a basalt plateau. The central plain contains glacial deposits of clay and sand. It is interrupted by low hills and has large areas of bog and numerous lakes. The following are some key geographical facts about Ireland:
Total area 84,421 km2
Republic of Ireland 70,282 km2
Northern Ireland 14,139 km2
Highest mountain Carrantuohill 1,041 metres
Longest river Shannon 340 km
Largest lake Lough Neagh 396 km2

Influenced by the relatively warm waters of the Gulf Stream, and with the prevailing southwesterly winds coming from the Atlantic, the climate of Ireland is equable and temperatures are fairly uniform over the whole country. The coldest months are January and February which have mean daily air temperatures of between 4°C and 7°C while July and August are the warmest, with mean temperatures of between 14°C and 16°C. May and June are the sunniest months, averaging five to seven hours sunshine per day. In low-lying areas average annual rainfall is mostly between 800mm and 1200mm but in mountainous areas it may exceed 2000mm.

Ireland was separated from the European mainland after the last Ice Age. As a result the island has a smaller range of flora and fauna than is found elsewhere in Europe. In the Burren area of Clare, Arctic-Alpine plants survive from the last glaciation. Ireland's bogs host a large variety of bog-moss species together with heather and sedges. In the south west (Cork and Kerry), there are areas rich in plants that thrive in the mildness and humidity of this region's climate. The once extensive oak forests were cleared over most of the country by the seventeenth century. In recent decades a re-afforestation programme has favoured Sitka spruce, Scots, contorta and other pines, larches, Norway spruce and Douglas fir. There are nature reserves and national parks throughout the country. Of some 380 species of wild birds recorded in Ireland, 135 breed in the country. There is considerable migration of birds to Ireland in spring and autumn, while several species arrive from Greenland and Iceland in winter; 75 per cent of the world's population of the Greenland whitefronted goose winter in Ireland. Inland waters support colonies of swans, geese, waders, duck, tern and gulls. Game shooting is strictly controlled and State-assisted restocking programmes augment stocks of wild game birds. Among the more unusual species of bird are merlin, peregrine falcons, corncrake and chough. Freshwater species of fish include salmon, char, pollan, eel, pike and brown trout. Amphibians are represented by a single native species each of frog, toad (natterjack) and newt. There is only one native reptile, the common lizard. There are 31 species of mammals including red deer, fox, badger, red squirrel, otter, grey seals, common seals and many cetacean species. The Irish stoat and the Irish hare are interesting examples of native development.

At the 1996 census, the population of the State was 3,626,087. About 60% of the people live in cities and towns of 1,000 or more inhabitants. Population densities are highest in the east and south. The population is very young with approximately 41% under twenty-five years of age and 24 per cent under fifteen. Emigration has declined in recent years and immigration has increased. In 1997, there was a net inflow of 15,000 people, the highest such figure since the 1970s.

The name of the State is Éire, or in the English language, Ireland. The Republic of Ireland Act of 1948 provides for the description of the State as the Republic of Ireland but this provision has not changed the usage Ireland as the name of the State in the English language. The etymology of the name Éire is uncertain and various theories have been advanced. There is no doubt, however, that it is of considerable antiquity. It first appears in Greek geographical writings which may be based on sources as early as the fifth century BC (translation: "Ierne"). The modern english word Ireland derives from the Irish word Éire with the addition of the Germanic word land.

The national flag of Ireland is a tricolour of green, white and orange. The tricolour is rectangular in shape, the width being twice its depth. The three colours are of equal size, vertically disposed, and the green is displayed next to the staff. The green represents the older Gaelic and Anglo-Norman element of the population, the orange represents the Protestant planter stock and the white, in the words of Francis Meagher who first introduced the flag as an emblem of the Young Ireland movement in 1848, signifies "a lasting truce between the 'Orange' and the 'Green' and I trust that beneath its folds the hands of the Irish Protestant and the Irish Catholic may be clasped in heroic brotherhood." The heraldic harp is invariably used by the government, its agencies and its representatives at home and abroad. It is engraved on the seal matrix of the office of the President as well as on the reverse of the coinage of the state. It is also emblazoned on the distinctive flag of the President of Ireland -a gold harp with silver strings against an azure field. The model for the harp is the fourteenth century "Brian Boru Harp" now preserved at Trinity College, Dublin. The text of the National Anthem -"The Soldier's Song" or "Amhrán na bhFiann" in Irish (pronounced: "Owrawn na Veean")- was written in 1907 by Peadar Kearney, who together with Patrick Henney also composed the music. It was first published in 1912, and was formally adopted in 1926. It consists of three stanzas and a chorus, the text of which is given below:

Soldiers are we, whose lives are pledged to Ireland;
Some have come from a land beyond the wave,
Sworn to be free, no more our ancient sireland
Shall shelter the despot or the slave.
Tonight we man the bearna baol*
In Erin's cause come woe or weal
'Mid cannon's roar and rifles peal,
We'll chant a Soldier's song.
*(Gap of danger).

The National Holiday is March 17, St. Patrick's Day, named after the Patron Saint of Ireland. St. Patrick was a Romanised Celt called Patricius, and the traditional dates for his mission to Ireland have been given as 431 AD to 461AD. March 17 was the date of his death. He was the son of a Deacon and grandson of a priest who was kidnapped at the age of sixteen by an Irish raiding party near his home and brought to Ireland. After several years as a herdsman, he escaped back to Continental Europe, where he studied for the priesthood. Tradition holds that one night he dreamed that a voice called to him to return to Ireland and "walk once more amongst us". The compassionate and determined way in which he answered that mystical request has caused him to be known and loved ever since as Naomh Padraig (pronounced: "Nayov Pawdrig") or in English, Saint Patrick, patron of Ireland. Much of his life story is known from one of the few documents written by Patrick himself, his Confessio. To him his work was principally a spiritual task. Although there were some scattered Christian communities in Ireland before his arrival, the impetus for the general change to Christianity throughout the land was due to him personally and to his work. There are two particularly well known traditions associated with Saint Patrick. The first is the belief that he banished the snakes from Ireland. This seems not to have originated until the 11th century and there are indications that this idea was suggested by the many accounts of how the saint banished the "demons of paganism" from Ireland. The second is the association of the shamrock with him. We are told that Patrick used the symbol of the trefoil stem of the shamrock to explain the Christian mystery of the Holy Trinity to the people, explaining that just as three leaves can spring from one stem so also are there three persons in one God. The current practice of wearing shamrock on Saint Patrick's Day is hardly more than a few centuries old.

Ireland's location and proximity to Britain have in large measure shaped her history. As an island to the west of continental Europe, Ireland, which has been inhabited for about 7,000 years, experienced a number of incursions and invasions, resulting in a rich mixture of ancestry and traditions. The first settlers, mostly hunters from Britain, brought with them a Mesolithic culture. They were followed around 3,000 B.C. by farmers who raised animals and cultivated the soil. After these neolithic settlers, around 2,000 BC came prospectors and metalworkers. By the sixth century B.C. waves of Celtic invaders from Europe began to reach the country. While Ireland was never unified politically by the Celts, they did generate a cultural and linguistic unity. The introduction of Christianity in the fifth century is traditionally credited to St Patrick, though there is evidence that there were Christians on the island before his arrival. Ireland never experienced the barbarian invasions of the early medieval period and, partly as a result, the sixth and seventh centuries saw a flowering of Irish art, learning and culture centring on the Irish monasteries. Irish monks established centres of learning and Christianity in many parts of Europe in the period before 800 A.D. During the ninth and tenth centuries, Ireland was regularly raided by the Vikings. They were also traders and they did much to develop town life at Dublin, Cork and Waterford. Following the defeat of the Vikings by Brian Boru, the High King of Ireland, at Clontarf in 1014, Viking influence in Ireland faded. In the twelfth century, such progress as had been made towards the creation of a centralised State under a single High King was shattered by the arrival of the Normans, who had earlier settled in England and Wales. The Normans quickly came to control large parts of Ireland, which then came under the political authority of the King of England. For the next four hundred years the Normans were an influential presence in Ireland. However, many areas of the country remained in Irish hands and, by the early sixteenth century, there were widespread fears in England that English influence was in danger of collapse, both as a result of Gaelic incursions and of the progressive Gaelicisation of the Norman settlers. Religious change in England at this time had a major impact in Ireland.
The descendants of the Norman settlers in Ireland, who came to be called the Old English, were, by and large, hostile to the Protestant reformation which led to the establishment of the Church of Ireland. In addition, the central strategic importance of Ireland, as an island close to both Britain and continental Europe, and hence a possible base for English malcontents or foreign enemies, gave Irish affairs a relevance in England that they had not had for centuries. Following a series of revolts in Ireland - which arose largely in response to religious differences and to the English crown's policy of introducing new settlers from Britain - Gaelic resistance was worn down and in 1603, the last Gaelic stronghold, Ulster, was brought under crown control. The seventeenth century witnessed a struggle for supremacy which was, after numerous ebbs and flows throughout the period, finally settled at the Battles of the Boyne (1690) and Aughrim (1691). The Old English and the Gaelic Irish, both largely Catholic in religion, were crushed and many of their leaders and followers ('The Wild Geese') left Ireland to pursue military, religious or commercial careers abroad. The Protestants of the Established Church monopolised political power and ownership of the land, and in time would come to see themselves as the Irish Nation. In the eighteenth century, there was much economic development. The linen industry flourished, particularly in Ulster, and Irish wool, beef, butter and pork were important exports. An Irish parliamentary tradition developed although it excluded Catholics and was subordinate to the Westminster Parliament. Sustained Irish emigration began in the eighteenth century, as many thousands of Ulster Presbyterians and, to a lesser extent, Catholics departed for the New World. The developing dispute between Britain and her colonies in North America from the 1760s helped create a tradition of radical patriotism that was ultimately, under the impact of the French Revolution, to produce the Society of United Irishmen. In 1798 the United Irishmen staged an insurrection in Ireland, with the objective of establishing an independent Irish republic. The rebellion was crushed and the Act of Union of 1800 created a full parliamentary Union between Britain and Ireland. By this time however, Britain and Ireland were moving apart, especially in economic and demographic terms As Britain industrialised and urbanised, Ireland, outside of Ulster, in effect de-industrialised, with the bulk of its rapidly growing population becoming ever more dependent on the potato for sustenance. In the late 1840s, as a result of the wholesale failure of the potato crop in successive years, a terrible famine occurred: one million people died and a further million fled Ireland. Within ten years (1846 - 56) the population had fallen by a quarter (8 million to 6 million), and would fall further as emigration became a dominant feature of Irish society. In politics, the 19th century was dominated by a succession of efforts to reform or undo the Union between Great Britain and Ireland. The Great Famine had an enormous political impact: Britain stood indicted in the popular mind. Some form of self-government was now sought by a majority of Irish voters. Irish landlords, too, came under political and economic pressure in the post-Famine decades. By the early twentieth century, after sustained agrarian unrest, legislation was in place inducing the great landlords to sell land to their tenants with the tenants being offered loans to enable them to purchase their holdings. The question of self-government, or 'Home Rule' had not, however, been settled: attempts by Daniel O'Connell and Isaac Butt in the 1840s and 1870s came to little, but under the leadership of Charles Stewart Parnell in the 1880s, the Irish Parliamentary Party placed the Irish question at the centre of British politics. In 1886, the Liberal party under WE Gladstone gave its support to a limited form of self-government for Ireland. Unionists in Ireland, who were predominantly Protestant, and were a majority in the province of Ulster, were galvanised into action by the prospect of Home Rule. Along with their allies in England who feared that Home Rule for Ireland would lead to the break-up of the Empire, Unionists set out to prevent the granting of Home Rule. In an increasingly militarised atmosphere, private paramilitary armies (the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Irish Volunteers) marched and drilled, and hostilities were only averted by the outbreak of the First World War and the consequent postponement of Home Rule. The war changed everything: at Easter 1916 a republic was declared in Dublin and an armed insurrection took place. This rising, which initially enjoyed little public support, was suppressed but its supporters, capitalising on public revulsion at the execution of its leaders, were successful in the General Election of 1918, when they swept aside the Irish Parliamentary Party which had campaigned for Home Rule. Sinn Féin ('Ourselves'), the election victors, refused to take their seats at Westminster and set up the first Dáil (Parliament) in Dublin in 1919. A war of national independence ensued and, by the time an Anglo-Irish treaty was concluded in 1921, six counties in North-East Ulster had already been given their own Northern Ireland parliament. As a result of the treaty, the remaining twenty-six counties formed the Irish Free State. The establishment of the Free State was followed by a short Civil War between those who accepted the treaty and those who wanted to hold out for a republic. Despite its brevity, the Civil War was to colour attitudes and determine political allegiances for decades. The first government of the new State was headed by W.T. Cosgrave of the Cumann na nGaedheal, later Fine Gael, party. From the 1930s until the 1970s the Fianna Fail party, founded by Eamon de Valera, dominated Irish politics. Building on a progressive diminution of the constitutional links between Britain and Ireland, a new constitution was introduced in 1937 and Ireland remained neutral during the Second World War. In 1948, the Republic of Ireland Act severed the last remaining constitutional links with Britain. Ireland was admitted to the United Nations in 1955. Ireland's membership since 1973 of what is now the European Union has had profound effects. The intervening years have seen profound economic, social and cultural change in Ireland.

Irish culture retains many features of its ancient Celtic origins while reflecting also the influence of other traditions and trends. Irish writers and painters were at the forefront of European modernism in the early decades of the twentieth century. In the 1990s, Irish directors and actors have been making their mark on international cinema. The Irish Government provides support for the development of the film industry, enticing filmmakers into Ireland as well as encouraging homegrown productions. An Chomhairle Ealaíon/The Arts Council is primarily responsible for promoting the arts in Ireland through the distribution of bursaries and scholarships to artists and communities.

Irish, the State's first official language, is a part of the Celtic family of languages, and is closely related to Scottish Gaelic, Welsh and Breton. Most people spoke Irish until the early nineteenth century, but by l89l over 85 per cent spoke English only. The latest figures available show that 35 per cent of adults describe themselves as having a knowledge of Irish. This increase is due to a national cultural revival and the creation of an independent Irish State in the early twentieth century.

While the English language reached Ireland during the Middle Ages, the first flowering of English literature in Ireland came in the eighteenth century. Among the first Anglo-Irish writers to achieve literary success were the satirist, Jonathan Swift(1667-1745), author of Gulliver's Travels (1726), the political thinker, Edmund Burke(l729-97),and the dramatists, Oliver Goldsmith (1728-74) and Richard Brinsley Sheridan (1751-1816). In the late nineteenth century, Oscar Wilde (1854-1900)and George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) produced major dramatic works. Shaw won the Nobel Prize in 1925. Increasing interest in Ireland's ancient Celtic culture influenced Irish writers, most significantly William Butler Yeats (l865-l939), whose work inspired the modern renaissance in Irish writing. Yeats was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1923. Yeats and his friends, Lady Gregory (1832-1952)and Edward Martyn (1859-1924) established an Irish National Theatre in Dublin and set out to create a distinctively Irish literature in English. John Millington Synge's(1871-1909) work, The Playboy of Western World (1907), gave Irish drama a new idiom. James Joyce (1882-1941) left Ireland in the early years of the twentieth century and spent most of the rest of his life in Europe, pioneering a new style of prose fiction. His encyclopaedic novel, Ulysses (1922), grafts the street life of his native city on to the plot of Homer's Odyssey and chronicles a single day in the life of its principal characters, Leopold Bloom, his wife, Molly, and Stephen Daedalus. Joyce's parodic playfulness inspired the work of Brian O'Nolan (Flann O'Brien)(1911-1966) who also wrote in Irish. Another Dublin exile in Paris, Samuel Beckett (1906-89), wrote in a minimalist vein, often in French. His play, Waiting for Godot (1953), has become a twentieth century classic. Beckett received the Nobel Prize in 1969. French authors provided a model for short story writers, Frank O'Connor (l903-66) and Sean O Faolain (1900-91) who blended continental realism with the native oral tradition to create the modern Irish short story. The form expanded in the hands of Liam O'Flaherty (1896-1984), Mary Lavin (1912-96), John McGahern (b.1934), William Trevor(b.1928),and more recently Bernard MacLaverty(b.1942). The generation of poets after Yeats included very different talents in Patrick Kavanagh (l904-67)and Louis MacNeice (1907-1963). Seamus Heaney (b.1939) drew initially on Kavanagh's example, but his vision of poetry’s redemptive power earned him the Nobel Prize in 1994. Among his contemporaries John Montague (b.1929), Michael Longley(b.1939) and Derek Mahon (b.1941)have explored the complexities of modern Ireland in work ranging over historical, pastoral and existential themes. Women poets, Eavan Boland (b.1945), Eilean ni Chuilleanain (b.1942), Medbh McGuckian (b.1950),and Paula Meehan (b.1955) have challenged traditional male domination of Irish literature. In fiction, women like Somerville and Ross (1858-1949; 1862-1915), Elizabeth Bowen (1899-1973) and Molly Keane (1904-1996) were born into the fading world of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy while Jennifer Johnston (b.1930)and John Banville (b.1945)have used it as a context for their novels. Middle class life provided a new theme for writers starting with Kate O'Brien (1897-1974)and more recently Julia O'Faolain (b.1932), Colm Toibin (b.1955)and Deirdre Madden(b.1960). Writing of small town life, Pat McCabe (b.1955) sustains the longstanding note of black humour in Irish writing. The relative darkness of these novelists' work is absent from Maeve Binchy's (b.1940) romances, which have a wide popular appeal and launched a new trend in Irish writing. In a different vein, the snappy dialogue of Dubliner Roddy Doyle (b.1958) has earned him a Booker Prize and entertains audiences around the world. The American-based Irishman, Frank McCourt, won the Pulitzer Prize for his memoir of growing up in Ireland, Angela's Ashes. If realism underpins the Irish novel, experiment is the key note of the drama as displayed in the plays of Brian Friel (b.1929), Tom Kilroy (b.1934), Tom Murphy (b.1935), Frank McGuinness (b.1953), Sebastian Barry (b.1955), and Martin MacDonagh whose play, The Beauty Queen of Leenane, has won international acclaim in the late 1990s. In their work, lines of satire and dark comedy cross with a keen lyrical sensibility to produce a theatre that hovers between fantasy and reality.

The earliest Irish art is found in carvings on megalithic monuments dating from 2500-2000 BC. Celtic art predominated in early historic times and reached its peak in the illuminated manuscripts, the Book of Durrow and the Book of Kells. While the basic Celtic patterns remain, European influences are seen in work executed after the 9th century. These include Viking, Romanesque and Gothic patterns. The large stone high crosses were a distinctive Irish creation, the best known examples of which come from the 9th and 10th centuries. From the mid-17th century, decorative arts, influenced by contemporary European trends, flourished in conjunction with the large-scale building of the time. By the early 19th century, neo-classicism, romanticism and later naturalism were the dominant forces in painting, replaced later in that century by impressionism. Nathaniel Hone (1831-1917), Walter Osborne (1859-1903), John Lavery (1856-1941), William Leech (1881-1968), John Butler Yeats (1839-1922) and William Orpen (1878-1931) are the major figures of this era but the tradition in the 20th Century is dominated by the individualism of Jack B. Yeats (1871-1957), brother of the poet, William Butler Yeats. Modernism was first explored by the painters Evie Hone (1894-1955) and Mainie Jellett (1897-1944). A forum for the new movement was provided by the Irish Exhibition of Living Art, founded in 1943, from which emerged a generation of Irish artists whose work reflected international trends. Among these artists were Louis Le Brocquy, Patrick Scott, Michael Farrell and Robert Ballagh. Outside this movement but aligned to it were Patrick Collins, Tony O'Malley, Camille Souter and Barrie Cooke. Monumental sculpture in the 19th century is best represented by the work of John Hogan (1800-58) and John Henry Foley (1819-74), whose tradition lasted into the 20th century with such sculptors as Oisín Kelly (1915-81), Séamus Murphy (1907-74) and Hilary Heron (1923-77). The contemporary generation of sculptors include Brian King, John Behan, Michael Bulfin, Michael Warren and Eilis O'Connell. Performance and installation work has been most effectively made by James Coleman and Nigel Rolfe.

The earliest buildings which survive in the Irish countryside are the ring-forts, most of which postdate the introduction of Christianity in the 5th century. Hiberno-Romanesque architecture established itself in the 12th century and was superseded by Irish Gothic, which reached its zenith in the 15th century. The introduction of classicism followed the Cromwellian wars. The cities of Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Kilkenny and Armagh all bear the 18th century Georgian imprint. The Gothic Revival influenced the style of many of the churches and public buildings erected in the 19th century. The 20th century has witnessed the rapid expansion of the cities and main towns of Ireland. Present day Irish architects are working to meet the need for new commercial and community facilities while at the same time attempting to preserve a good environment. The 1990's has seen a new emphasis on urbanism and context as seen in the regeneration of Temple Bar in Dublin.

Music has always been important in Irish cultural life. One of the earliest Irish composers whose work has survived is Turlough O'Carolan (1670-1738), the blind harpist and one of the last of the ancient Bardic tradition. Eighteenth Century Dublin attracted many composers and saw the first performance of Handel's Messiah in 1742. John Field (1782-1837), creator of the nocturne, influenced European composers such as Chopin and Glinka. In more recent times composers A.J. Potter (1918-1980) and Gerard Victory (1921-1995) have been major influential figures on the contemporary classical music scene. In this century traditional Irish music has inspired modern composers such as Seán Ó Riada (1931-71), A. J. Potter (1918-1980), Brian Boydell, Seoirse Bodley, Shaun Davey and Micheal Ó Súilleabháin, to name but a few. Traditional Irish music has enjoyed a considerable revival in recent years and is now popular in many countries through the influence of groups as diverse as The Dubliners, Clannad, The Chieftains, De Dannan and Altan. Groups such as these have managed to perform traditional music in a modern context without compromising its timeless essence and integrity. Another aspect of the vitality and adaptability of the Irish cultural tradition is the phenomenon of "Riverdance" which brings together the best of Irish song, dance and music. In the field of popular music Irish Artists such as Van Morrisson, U2, Sinéad O'Connor, Enya, Boyzone, the Cranberries, Therapy, ASH and The Corrs enjoy an international reputation.