Ireland has long been known as the Emerald Isle, famous forits dramatic landscape, welcoming and friendly people and its historic monuments. Lesser known are the natural riches of the island, its unusual flora and its surprising fauna. In this introduction, we will take you on a quick tour of Ireland and give you tips on which places to visit on this wild outpost of Europe.
Topography, Geography and Weather
The island of Ireland measures 84.421 square kilometres and sits at the north-western edge of Europe. It is separated from its neighbouring island of Britain by the North Channel and the Irish Sea. To the south of Ireland the Celtic Sea forms a natural border to France and continental Europe. To the west and north lies the Atlantic Ocean.
Ireland’s topography is often compared to a saucer. All the major mountain ranges are located in the coastal regions while the interior is for the most part a flat lowland plain. The highest of these mountains can be found in the south-west where they form the backbones of a number of narrow peninsulas.
In the West
The western part of the country is without a doubt the visually most enticing and hosts some of the most unique landscapes on the island, including the limestone karst of the Burren and the bleak and beautiful blanket bog and mountain landscape of Connemara. In addition the west is home to the last surviving native oak forests, and other unique plant communities.
In the East
The eastern half of the country is very different, with an almost continental flair. This is where most of the Irish live and the landscape is more domesticated, showing off the green checkerboard of fields, pastures and hedgerows one expects from Ireland. Even the coast appears more gentle, with long sandy beaches and the occasional headland fortified with sheer cliffs.
The interior of the country is known as the Midlands, the inner part of the ‘saucer’. This plain once was covered by vast areas of raised bog. Today the Midlands feature a predominately farming landscape, with fields and hedgerows stretching into the distance. The majority of the peatlands have been converted into farmland or harvested for fuel and garden products, so only a few pockets of intact raised bog have survived.
Through the centre of this tranquil landscape flows Ireland’s longest river, the Shannon, opening into three large lakes along its course. The north-eastern corner of the midlands is dominated by a collection of lakes, known as the Fermanagh Lakelands, that cover most of County Fermanagh in Northern Ireland and parts of County Cavan and County Monaghan in the Republic.
The only noteworthy elevations in the midlands area are the Slieve Bloom Mountains, one of Ireland’s oldest mountain ranges that have been ground down to a series of rolling hills that overlook the vast central plain.
Politically Ireland is divided into 4 provinces (Leinster – the east, Munster – the south-west, Connaught – the west and Ulster – the north) and 32 counties. 26 of those are in the Republic of Ireland and six, all located in Ulster, make up Northern Ireland which is part of the United Kingdom (the seventh county of Ulster, Donegal, belongs to the Republic of Ireland).
The two capital cities, Dublin for the Republic of Ireland and Belfast for Northern Ireland, are also the two biggest urban areas in the country. Cork in the south and Limerick and Galway in the west are further major cities and between them these five metropolitan areas accommodate more than half of the entire population. The rest of the Irish residents live in small market towns, villages and, typical for the Irish countryside, spread out single housing.
The road network that connects all these settlements has been greatly improved over the past few decades. A motorway network connects all of the major cities and even the most remote areas can be accessed via mostly decent roads.
The Irish climate is classified as temperate oceanic which means as much as damp and mild. Rain is never far away in Ireland and this high precipitation was partly responsible in the formation of the country’s blanket and raised bogs. Spring and autumn are statically the driest seasons, winter the wettest and the summer not far behind. Temperatures stay above freezing for most of the year and prolonged frost and snow are very rare and mostly limited to the far north and east of the country.
Climate change has manifested itself over the past decade with more and stronger severe storm events that often come with coastal flooding on one side and unusually long dry spells and heatwaves in early summer.
Irelands history is long and complicated. The first people arrived in Ireland around 8000 BC after the end of the last glaciation when Ireland was just transforming from an arctic tundra landscape to a mix of steppe and forest. These first settlers were Mesolithic hunter gatherers that lived from the land, never staying in one place for too long.
Around 4000 BC new arrivals to the island brought a new concept of living with them. These Neolithic farmers intermingled with the resident Mesolithic people who slowly adapted to the new settled lifestyle of farming.Ireland is rich in remains of this era: Standing stones, megalithic tombs and stone circles can be found all over the country.
The next arrivals were the Celts who started expanding their territory from their home in the alpine region of the European mainland around 1200 BC ago and arrived in Ireland around 500 BC. It is thought that the Celts arrived in small groups and over a prolonged period of time and slowly mixed with the residing population. Nevertheless because of their superior Iron Age technology and the close organisation of their family units the Celtic culture soon dominated all of Ireland.
Many of Ireland’s myths and legends date back to this time and although the 150 or so stories that have survived are no true history they have played an important role in understanding and demystifying the Celts.
The Celts continued their way of life while the neighbouring Britain fell under Roman rule. For reasons unknown the Romans never tried to extend their empire to Ireland but it is thought that a close trade relationship existed between the two islands of Ireland and Britain.
The rule of the Celts nevertheless came to an end when a new religion started to spread across Europe. St. Patrick is Ireland’s national saint who according to legend brought the Christian faith to Ireland and drove out the snakes in the process. This is one of the many occasions in Irish history where fact and fiction intertwine.
Patrick was born in northern Britain, where Christianity was already established, as Patricius around 387 AD, was kidnapped by Irish pirates at a young age and sold into slavery. It is said that he spent his time as a slave herding goats somewhere in Northern Ireland where according to legend the voice of God told him how to escape his masters and return home. Back home Patrick vowed to bring the word of god back to Ireland and true to his word he did return and set out to bring Christianity to Ireland.
In reality Patrick was likely one of a several missionaries that travelled Ireland, preaching the new religion and founding monasteries. The new religion spread fast and within a few centuries Ireland was converted to Christianity. This was the beginning of what is known as the Golden Age in Irish history.
With the rest of Europe descending into chaos after the collapse of the Roman Empire, Ireland flourished under its new religion and the Irish monasteries became centres of culture and learning, attracting pilgrims and students from the continent. As a result the Irish monasteries grew wealthy and powerful which is reflected in lavishly illustrated books like the Book of Kells and other artwork from that time.
The riches of the Irish monasteries not surprisingly attracted raiders, first and foremost Vikings from Scandinavian countries. At first the Vikings employed a hit and run tactic but over time established bases along Ireland’s coast. These bases grew into settlements and eventually towns and cities: Dublin, Galway, Limerick, Waterford and Wexford, all originated as Viking settlements.Subsequently the invaders started to mingle with the locals, injecting Viking beliefs and lifestyle into the Irish way of life.
Ireland Under British Rule
At that time Ireland was made up of many small kingdoms that were in constant warfare with each other which eventually lead to the darkest part in Irish history. In 1152 the infamous Diarmuit Mac Murchada, King of Leinster, formed an alliance with Henry II, king of England. This alliance was the beginning of the Norman invasion that made Ireland part of the British Empire.
In the centuries that followed the English rule systematically suppressed the Irish way of life and planted English settlers on Irish land. Irish language, traditions and religion (the Irish were of catholic faith while the English were mainly protestants) were outlawed. As a result the majority of the Irish population lived in poverty. Occasional, mostly local, rebellions were dealt with brutally by the occupiers and the inability of the country to unite made these uprisings short lived.
The Great Famine
At the time the potato had become the main food stable for the Irish. When potato blight destroyed most of the crop in 1846 and the three following years and the English government failed to respond accordingly, Ireland was thrown into what became known as the Great Famine. One million people died; another million fled the island to America, Australia and Britain.
Struggle for Independence
In the end the Great Famine increased the hatred of the Irish for the English even more but also laid the seed for the long struggle for independence. After more failed rebellions and political attempts for an independent Ireland, a group of revolutionaries took hold of strategic buildings in Dublin on the easter weekend of 1916, an event known as the Easter Rising. The uprising was unsuccessful but marked the first step to an independent Ireland.
In 1919 the still intact group that had launched the Easter Rising declared the first independent Irish government. Part of this unofficial government was a military arm which became known as the Irish Republican Army, the IRA. What followed was a bloody guerrilla war that ended in 1921 with the signing of the Anglo-Irish.
Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland
Treaty which granted Ireland dominion status and gave permission to form its own government. The lasting side effect of this treaty was the separation of the island into Northern Ireland and the Irish Free State which eventually would become the Republic of Ireland in 1937.
This separation and the subsequent discrimination of the catholic minority in Northern Ireland was the cause of a long lasting and bloody civil war, known as The Troubles, that only came to an end in 1998 with the Good Friday Agreement which gave Northern Ireland its own government and some degree of independence from England.
Today the Republic of Ireland is a completely independent state while Northern Ireland is still part of Great Britain but like Scotland and Wales can form its own government.
On the ground you won’t notice much difference between the “South” and the “North”. People all over Ireland are generally welcoming, friendly and helpful. All that changes is the local dialect which in some places is – for the non-native speaker -hardly recognisable as English and in some areas the guttural sounds you will overhear in the pub actually aren’t English.
Ireland’s official language is Irish, a form of Gaelic, but it is only spoken on a daily basis in a few small areas, mostly on the west coast, which are known as Gaeltachts and even here the people also speak English.
Other traditions that define the Irish are music (Irish traditional music is known all over the world), sports (hurling and camogie are a faster and more brutal form of hockey and Gaelic football which has similarities with rugby and soccer), the “cuppa tea” (tea is still the most consumed beverage in Ireland although coffee has become more popular in recent years) and the famous Irish Breakfast.
The latter differs slightly regionally but the key ingredients are sausages, rashers (bacon), black and white pudding, egg and tomatoe which are served with soda bread (also known as brown bread which is made from flour, buttermilk and bicarbonate of soda) and toast.
Places to visit
- Killarney National Park
Ireland is the least forested country in Europe and most of the little tree cover it has are commercial plantations and semi-natural woodlands that only had been established over the past few centuries. Ancient woodlands, which are known as Atlantic Rainforest, have only survived in pockets mostly in the south west of the country. The largest area of Atlantic Rainforest can be found in Killarney National Park which is one of Ireland’s most picturesque areas featuring mountains, lakes and moorlands in addition to the old, moss-covered forests.
- Loop Head Peninsula
Still a well-kept secret is the Loop Head peninsula which lies between the estuary of the river Shannon and the open Atlantic. The area boasts with some of Ireland’s most dramatic cliff sceneries and is also home to a variety of wildlife including Basking Sharks, seabird colonies and the Shannon Dolphins, an over 100 strong group of resident Bottlenose Dolphins.
- The Burren
The Burren is a landscape that seems out of place in Ireland, a vast limestone karst area consisting of flat limestone pavements dotted with boulders and stark, terraced hills. The area is internationally renowned for its unique flora, a rare combination of arctic, alpine and Mediterraneanwildflowers including Spring Gentian, Mountain Avens and various orchids. The Burren also has one of the densest accumulations of prehistoric and early-Christian monuments including the famous Poulnabrone portal tomb.
Connemara is a large peninsula to the north west of Galway city with a mesmerizing beauty. The coast is a mixture of sandy beaches and mostly flat, rocky shores. Unique to the area are the so-called Coral Strands that consists of coarse and bleached pieces of coralline algae and shells. Adjoining the coast are areas of Machair, a rare coastal grassland that can only be found in the west of Ireland and Scotland and which is home to a variety of scarce wildflowers including many orchids.
The hinterland is dominated by vast stretches of seemingly desolate blanket bog which on closer inspection host myriads of wildlife including carnivorous plants. The centre of Connemara is dominated by two mountain ranges that rise from the plains, the Twelve Bens and Maumturk Mountains.
- Antrim Coast and Glens
The Antrim Coast and Glens are part of Northern Ireland and occupy the north-eastern corner of Ireland. The coast consists of geologically interesting rocky cliffs and shores, including the basalt columns of the Giant’s Causeway which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, sandy beaches and dune systems and small picturesque harbours.
Away from the coast lie the Nine Glens, which were carved into a vast plateau during the ice ages and each with its own character. The highlight is Glenarriff, also known as the Queen of the Glens, that features a narrow, wooded gorge and several waterfalls.
- The Midlands
The Midlands are mostly a gentle farming landscape but are home to two of Ireland’s most precious habitats. One are the floodplains of the Shannon Callows that line Ireland’s longest river, the Shannon, between Lough Ree and Lough Derg. These pastures are still traditionally managed and have kept most of their rich wildlife which includes rare wildflowers and threatened bird species.
The other habitat are the remains of the once vast raised bogs which are also home to many rare plants and animals.
- Wicklow Mountains National Park
The Wicklow Mountains National Park lies just south of Dublin city and contains some of Ireland’s most beautiful spots, one of which is Glendalough which is most famous for its early Christian monastic city. Apart from this important heritage site, the valley hosts two lakes, woodland as well as areas of blanket bog and heath which can all be explored via numerous signposted walks.
- The Atlantic Ocean
Ireland’s south west and west coast is one of Europe’s best places for whale and dolphin watching from both land and boat. The most common species are Common and Bottlenose Dolphin, Harbour Porpoise, Minke Whale, Humpback Whale and Fin Whale but Orcas, Blue Whales and others have also been spotted. Basking Sharks, the Earth’s second largest fish, and the odd-looking Sunfish are also regular visitors.
- Blarney Castle
Located in County Cork this is probably Ireland’s most famous medieval building and features the Blarney Stone, which allegedly gives you the gift of eloquence once you have kissed it.
- Muckross House and Gardens
Located in Killarney National Park this 19th century mansion seems to have escaped from a fairy-tale and is also well known for its formal gardens.
Located in County Offaly at the Shannon Callows this is one of Ireland’s most important monastic sites. During Ireland’s Golden Age, Clonmacnoise attracted pilgrims and students from all over Europe and was a centre for scholarship and trade.
- Galway City
Arguably Ireland’s most beautiful and vibrant city which mixes a modern atmosphere with historic buildings.
- Ceide Fields
Located in County Mayo this place features a stone age field system and other structures from the period which were covered with blanket bog and discovered only by chance in the early 20th century when the local school teacher cut his turf.
- Birr Castle Demesne
Located in County Offaly the demesne features vast formal gardens with exotic plants and the Great Telescope which, for a time, was the largest of its kind in the world.
- Trim Castle
Located in County Meath this is the largest Anglo-Norman castle in Ireland and has made an appearance in the Hollywood movie Braveheart.
- Hill of Tara
Located in County Meath this site is steeped in legend and history and was once the seat of the Irish High Kings.
- Bru Na Boinne
Located in County Meath this site features three major megalithic burial tombs – Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth – and is together with the nearby Hill of Tara the most important historic site in Ireland.
- Dublin City
Ireland’s capital city features an enticing mix of old and new, Europe’s largest enclosed urban park, Phoenix Park, and a beautiful coastline.
To learn more about Ireland’s natural wonders visit the Crossbill Guides Foundation wildlife page for Ireland!
Or buy the Crossbill guidebook for Ireland:
Carsten Krieger is a photographer and author who has been living in Ireland since 2002. Since then he has been working as a photographer in the tourism sector and produced and contributed to 20 books. Since 2018 he is mainly working in nature conservation and nature tourism. He started the Wild Loop Head project and is working as project manager for the Crossbill Guides Foundation. More information is available on Carsten’s website www.carstenkrieger.com.
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