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Ireland on a map of Europe
Topographical map of Ireland

Ireland is an island in Europe. To the west of Ireland is the Atlantic Ocean; to the east of Ireland, across the Irish Sea, is the island of Great Britain.

The island of Ireland is about 486 km (302 miles) long and about 288 km (179 miles) wide. About 6.4 million people live on the island – 4.6 million in the Republic of Ireland and 1.8 million in Northern Ireland.

The River Shannon, which runs from north to south, is the longest river on the island. Ireland has many lakes. Lough Neagh, in Northern Ireland, is the largest lake in Ireland. Ireland is known for its beautiful landscapes, music, history, and mythology.

Today, the island of Ireland is split between two countries:

  • The Republic of Ireland is five sixths (83%) of the island. Its capital city is Dublin. The official languages are Irish and English. Most people in the country can speak a little Irish, but only a small number of the population are fluent or native speakers. Almost everyone learns Irish at school, but most people outside the Gaeltacht speak English in their day-to-day lives.
  • Northern Ireland is the remaining one sixth (17%) of the island and is part of the United Kingdom. The capital of Northern Ireland is Belfast.

Many people live in the eastern coasts of both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. Dublin has a population of more than one million, and the Greater Belfast region has a population of nearly half a million.

Provinces and Counties

Ireland is traditionally divided into four provinces and thirty-two counties. Twenty-six counties are in the Republic and six in Northern Ireland. Three of the provinces are entirely within the Republic (Connaught, Leinster and Munster), and one province (Ulster) has some counties in both the Republic and in Northern Ireland.

  • Connacht - Galway, Leitrim, Mayo, Roscommon, Sligo
  • Leinster - Carlow, Dublin, Kildare, Kilkenny, Laois, Longford, Louth, Meath, Offaly, Westmeath, Wexford, Wicklow
  • Munster - Clare, Cork, Kerry, Limerick, Tipperary, Waterford
  • Ulster - Cavan, Donegal, Monaghan (Republic of Ireland); Antrim, Armagh, Derry/Londonderry, Down, Fermanagh, Tyrone (Northern Ireland)

Main Cities

Dublin is the largest city in the country and capital of the Republic of Ireland. Dublin was established as a Viking settlement in the 9th century. Population 525,383 (Dublin City), 1,270,603 (Co. Dublin)

The city of Belfast is the capital of Northern Ireland. It has 483,000 in the Greater Belfast urban area, and 267,000 in the city itself. Shipbuilding used to be a major industry here; the Titanic was built in Belfast at the Harland and Wolff shipyard.

Armagh, in Northern Ireland, is often called the 'Ecclesiastic Capital of Ireland' as it is the seat of both the Catholic Church and the (Protestant) Church of Ireland. Population 14,590

Cork is the largest city in Munster. Corconians often jokingly refer to it as 'the Real Capital'. Population 119,230.

Derry (also known as Londonderry), is the second largest city in Northern Ireland. Derry is notable for the Medieval city walls which still stand. Because the walls have never been breached the city is nicknamed "The Maiden City". In 2013 Derry/Londonderry is the UK Capital of Culture, therefore many cultural events will take place in the city throughout the year. Population 83,652


12,000 years ago, most of Ireland was covered with ice. The Ice Age then ended and Ireland became covered with trees. The first people came to Ireland about 9,000 years ago, in the Middle Stone Age (Mesolithic period). They were nomadic. Once food ran out in the place they lived, they would move to another place. Evidence of these people was found in Mount Sandel, Co. Derry.

About 4000BC, in the New Stone Age (Neolithic period), the first farmers arrived in Ireland. These people cleared openings in the forest and built permanent settlements with houses and farmland. When people in this age died, they were buried in tombs called megaliths. Many megaliths are left standing today, such as portal dolmens and passage tombs. The most famous megalith is Newgrange passage tomb in co. Meath.

New settlers came around 2000BC, marking the start of the Bronze Age. Copper was mined mainly in Mount Gabriel, co. Cork, and tin was imported from Cornwall. These people used bronze to make weapons, such as swords. They also used it to make early forms of jewellery, such as sun discs and torcs. These settlers buried the dead in cost graves or wedge tombs, and burial places have been found with stone circles.

It is unknown when the Celts came to Ireland, but it is likely they brought the use of iron with them. The use of iron marks the start of the Iron Age. It is known that by about 300BC, the use of iron and Celtic culture was widespread in Ireland. The celts lived in ring forts, hill forts, promontory forts and crannógs. It is thought that only the richer families and settlements lived in crannógs. These were man-made islands in the middle of lakes with houses on them.

Celtic Ireland was split into around 150 kingdoms called tuath. The king was elected from the royal family. Below the king were the Nobles, and the Aos Dána, who were people with special skills, such as poets, Druids (priests), judges and craftsmen.

By the early 6th century, Ireland was mostly Christian through the work of St. Patrick and other missionaries. Druids were replaced by priests and monks. Monasteries soon were built such as Glendalough in co. Wicklow. Glendalough and other monasteries built round towers for safety when Vikings attacked. Small monasteries were also built in remote places, the most famous being Skellig Michael, off the coast of co. Kerry.

At this time many manuscripts (hand-written books) were created by the monasteries such as the Cathach, the Book of Durrow, and the Book of Kells. Monks also produced fine silver chalices, croziers and brooches, and carved high crosses.

In 1169, Anglo-Norman lords invaded Ireland, led by Strongbow, who landed at Passage, co. Waterford. The Anglo-Normans conquered many parts of Ireland the following 60 years, Introducing their way of life. The feudal system was soon introduced in Ireland as means of organising land. Castles were built to defend the land like Trim Castle, co. Meath. During the Middle Ages, Ireland's first proper towns were built.

From 1801 until 1922 all of Ireland was part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. In 1921 Northern Ireland was created and 'partitioned' from the south. Northern Ireland has stayed within the United Kingdom since then. The full name of the UK is 'The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland'.

In 1922 the south became the Irish Free State. In 1937 the Irish Free State adopted a new constitution which named the state 'Ireland', and in 1948 this state passed the Republic of Ireland Act which declared it to be a republic.


Many Irish people have left Ireland and moved to the United States, Canada, Australia, and South America. The Great Famine in the 1840's forced many to leave; it is estimated almost a million people died of starvation, and a million more emigrated. From a maximum of over 8 million in 1841, the total Irish population dropped to just over 4 million in the 1940s. Since then, the population has grown to over 6 million. This has been helped by the economic growth of the "Celtic Tiger" and since 2004 immigration from countries in Eastern Europe such as Poland.

Today almost 80 million people around the world are descended from Irish immigrants.