Ireland (Éire in Irish Gaelic, Airlann in Ulster-Scots) is Europe's third-largest island (after Great Britain and Iceland). It politically divided between the Republic of Ireland, which covers 83% of the island, and Northern Ireland, a part of the United Kingdom. The former is overwhelmingly Catholic and was granted independence from the UK in 1922, after many centuries of English domination. Northern Ireland, a part of the traditional province of Ulster, was heavily settled by Lowland Scots in the 17th century. Mostly Protestant, a majority of people in Ulster remained loyal to the British Crown, causing serious tensions and numerous (frequently deadly) confrontations with Catholic nationalists who aspire to a unified independent Ireland.
The Republic of Ireland emerged from being one of Europe's poorest and most backward country in the mid-20th century to one of the richest at the turn of the 21st century, even overtaking the UK in GDP per capita and Human Development Index.
Northern Ireland experienced the reverse trend. A bastion of the industrialisation and one of the world's leading shipbuilding centres (the Titanic was built in Belfast) in the 19th and early 20th centuries, its economy has suffered steady decline due to the political troubles that plagued the region from the late 1960s until the mid-1990s.
Ireland was settled nearly 10,000 years ago, following the end of the last ice age. At the time Ireland and Great Britain were still attached to the European mainland. Ireland experienced a first golden age during the Neolithic period (4000 to 2500 BCE), when the great megalithic passage tombs of Newgrange, Knowth and Carrowmore were constructed.
From 2500 to 2000 BCE, the new wave of immigrants from the continent annihilated the Neolithic culture and replaced it by a brand new one based on bronze working. These people are believed to have brought with them a Proto-Celtic language that would evolve into Gaelic. The old egalitarian matriarchal society of farmers was replaced by a patriarchal clan-based society based on stock breeding and herding. Celtic Ireland was born.
Nowadays over 90% of Irish men (of non-British descent) can trace their paternal ancestry to Y-chromosomal haplogroup R1b, a lineage brought to Europe by Bronze Age Indo-Europeans.
Potato has been the main crop in Ireland since the 18th century due to the rocky soil relatively unsuitable for cereal cultivation. Cabbage and onions are the most common vegetables.
Typical Irish dishes include bacon and cabbage (cooked with potatoes), boxty (potato pancake), colcannon (mashed potatoes with kale or cabbage), coddle (dish made of sliced pork sausages and potatoes with bacon and onions), the Irish Shepherd's Pie (made with mashed potato, minced lamb/beef, and vegetables) and the Irish stew (lamb, or mutton stew with potatoes, onions, parsley and sometimes carrots). The traditional Irish breakfast is similar to the full English breakfast and consists of fried eggs, bacon, sausage or black pudding, white beans, tomatoes, mushrooms and potatoes. Oats porridge is also common.
Ireland is also a major producer of beer, although the hops used to make it is not native to Ireland and was traditionally imported from England. Today the total production of beer stands at over 8 million hectolitres, nearly half of which is exported. The most common kind of beer is lager (60%), followed by stout (34%) and ale (6%). Guinness, the most famous Irish beer abroad, is a dry stout. The leading lager brand in Ireland is Harp Lager, a Vienna-style lager brewed by Guinness. Other popular brands include Smithwick's, an Irish red ale, and Kilkenny, a nitrogenated Irish cream ale.
The other national drink is Irish whiskey, said to be the only variety to match Scotch whisky in quality. It isn't clear in which of the two countries the spirits originated, but the first confirmed written record of whisky was in an Irish chronicle dating from 1405. Whiskey is added to black coffee with whipped cream to make Irish coffee.
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