The Republic of Ireland occupies five-sixths of the island of Ireland, the second largest island of the British Isles. Irish is the common term of reference for the country’s citizens, its national culture, and its national language. While Irish culture is relatively simple when compared to other countries states, Irish people recognize both minor and some significant cultural distinctions that are specific to the country. In 1922 Ireland, which until then had been part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, was politically divided into the Irish Free State (later the Republic of Ireland) and Northern Ireland, which continued as part of the renamed United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland occupies the remaining sixth of the island. Almost 80 years of separation have resulted in differing patterns of national cultural development between these two neighbors, as seen in language and dialect, religion, government and politics, sports, music, and business culture. Nevertheless, the largest minority population in Northern Ireland (approximately 42 percent of the total population of 1.66 million) consider themselves to be nationally and ethnically Irish, and they point to the similarities between their national culture and that of the Republic as one reason why they, and Northern Ireland, should be reunited with the Republic, in what would then constitute an all-island nation-state. The majority population in Northern Ireland, who consider themselves to be nationally British, and who identify with the political communities of Unionism and Loyalism, do not want unification with Ireland, but rather want to maintain their ties to Britain.
Location and Geography: Ireland is in the far west of Europe, in the North Atlantic Ocean, west of Great Britain. The island is 302 miles long, north to south, and 174 miles at its widest point. The area of the island is 32,599 square miles, of which the Republic covers 27, 136 square miles. The Republic has 223 miles of land border, all with the United Kingdom, and 898 miles of coastline. It is separated from its neighboring island of Great Britain to the east by the Irish Sea, the North Channel, and Saint George’s Channel. The climate is temperate, modified by the North Atlantic Current. Ireland has mild winters and cool summers. Because of the high precipitation, the climate is always humid. The capital city, Dublin, at the mouth of the River Liffey in central eastern Ireland, on the original site of a Viking settlement, is currently home to almost 40 percent of the Irish population; it served as the capital of Ireland before and during Ireland’s integration with the United Kingdom.
Language: Irish (Gaelic) and English are the two official languages of Ireland. Irish is a Celtic language. Irish evolved from the language brought to the island in the Celtic migrations between the sixth and the second century B.C.E. Despite hundreds of years of Norse and Anglo-Norman migration, by the sixteenth century Irish was the spoken tongue for almost all of the population of Ireland. Nevertheless, in 1835 there were four million Irish speakers in Ireland, a number that was severely reduced in the Great Famine of the late 1840s. By 1891 there were only 680,000 Irish speakers, but the key role that the Irish language played in the development of Irish nationalism in the nineteenth century, as well as its symbolic importance in the new Irish state of the twentieth century, have not been enough to reverse the process of vernacular language shift from Irish to English. In the 1991 census, in those few areas where Irish remains the language, there were only 56,469 Irish-speakers. Most primary and secondary school students in Ireland study Irish, however, and it remains an important means of communication in governmental, educational, literary, sports, and cultural circles.
Irish is one of the preeminent symbols of the Irish state and nation, but by the start of the twentieth century English had supplanted Irish as the spoken language, and all but a very few ethnic Irish are fluent in English. Hiberno-English (the English language spoken in Ireland) has been a strong influence in the evolution of British and Irish literature, poetry, theater, and education since the end of the nineteenth century. The language has also been an important symbol to the Irish national minority in Northern Ireland, where despite many social and political impediments its use has been slowly increasing since the return of armed conflict there in 1969.
Symbolism: The flag of Ireland has three equal vertical bands of green, white, and orange. This tricolor is also the symbol of the Irish nation in other countries, most notably in Northern Ireland among the Irish national minority. Other flags that are meaningful to the Irish include the golden harp on a green background and the Dublin workers’ flag of “The Plough and the Stars.” The harp is the main symbol on the national coat of arms, and the badge of the Irish state is the shamrock. Many symbols of Irish national identity derive in part from their association with religion and church. The shamrock clover is associated with Ireland’s patron Saint Patrick, and with the Holy Trinity of Christian religion. A Saint Brigid’s cross is often found over the entrance to homes, as are representations of saints and other holy people, as well as portraits of the greatly admired, such as Pope John XXIII and John F. Kennedy.
Green is the color associated worldwide with Irishness, but within Ireland, and especially in Northern Ireland, it is more closely associated with being both Irish and Roman Catholic, whereas orange is the color associated with Protestantism, and more especially with Northern Irish people who support Loyalism to the British crown and continued union with Great Britain. The colors of red, white, and blue, those of the British Union Jack, are often used to mark the territory of Loyalist communities in Northern Ireland, just as orange, white, and green mark Irish Nationalist territory there. Sports, especially the national ones organized by the Gaelic Athletic Association such as hurling, camogie, and Gaelic football, also serve as central symbols of the nation.