Geography of Ireland

Professor William Nolan

The Republic of Ireland occupies 70,282 sq. km. of the island of Ireland which has a total area of 84,421 sq. km. It is located in the extreme north-west of the European continent lying between 51° and 55° north latitude and 5° and 10° west longitude.

Locked in by the turbulent waters of the Atlantic Ocean, which wash its northern, southern and western shores, its geography and history have been shaped by contacts with its eastern neighbour, the United Kingdom, across the narrow passage of the Irish Sea.

Subject to successive invasions, from Norse in the ninth century, Anglo-Norman in the twelfth and New English from 1500 onwards, the island remained but partly assimilated to Britain until its final conquest in the seventeenth century. At this time large-scale immigration, mainly of English and Scots settlers, though countrywide were more focussed on the northern part of the island. In the wake of the Reformation, these peoples were more likely to be adherents of the Anglican and Presbyterian faiths. Ethnic and religious differentiation was henceforth to characterise the geography of Ireland.

When nationalists attempted to reclaim the island as a sovereign, independent state in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries such ambitions were trenchantly opposed by descendants of the earlier immigrants. On the eve of the First World War, the British government became convinced of the need to detach areas of strong Protestant and pro-British sentiment in Northern Ireland before granting self-government to the rest of the country. Wars followed but under the provisions of the Government of Ireland Act (1920) the island was partitioned between Northern Ireland, incorporated into the United Kingdom, and the Irish Free State. The contemporary map of Ireland reveals the international land boundary which snakes irregularly through the drumlin country of the north midlands connecting Carlingford Lough on the Irish Sea with Derry on the Atlantic Coast. North of this line is Northern Ireland and to the south the Republic (since 1949) of Ireland.

Partition was facilitated by the existence of a regional or county system of local government which had evolved in piecemeal fashion since the twelfth century. Counties were based on the British system of shire government and they fulfilled devolved administrative functions in respect of justice, health, taxation and general infrastructure. They had a gradual evolution and followed in the wake of conquest. Dublin was a shire by the 1190s but the last county, Wicklow, was not created until 1606.

Because they were forged for political purposes over a long time period, counties are most unequal in respect of scale and population. The largest counties such as Donegal, Mayo, Galway, Kerry and Cork lie astride the Atlantic whereas Dublin and Louth on the east coast are much smaller but, because of geography and history, have substantially large populations. County towns helped fashion a network of central places throughout the country and these have become regional powerhouses of modern economic development.

Since the 1970s the emphasis on physical planning has generated new spatial arrangements but invariably these, whether for industrial or agricultural purposes, are based on multiples of the older division. Despite the fact that it has no deep roots in Ireland’s Gaelic past the county has become a focus of regional consciousness and even regional patriotism. It is a great paradox of Ireland’s cultural geography that this mark of conquest owes much of its persistent vitality as a region of the mind to the pragmatic adoption by the Gaelic Athletic Association, founded in 1884 to revive native games, of the county as its organisational unit.

According to the most recent census return some 88 per cent of Ireland’s four million population classify themselves as members of the Roman Catholic Church. Historically a kind of surrogate state the Catholic Church operated an almost parallel system of governance through its lattice of some 1,000 parishes managed by its priests. Churches acted as anchor tenants both in remote rural outposts and in mushrooming suburbia. Since the population explosion of the 1970s some 90 new Catholic parishes have been created in the greater Dublin region providing a sense of continuity amidst the high rise apartments and rampant shopping centres. Recent immigration, though it has changed the religious complexion of the population, has not done so in a fundamental manner, primarily because many of the immigrants have come from largely Catholic countries, such as Brazil and Poland.

There is no indigenous tradition of cartography in Ireland so that early maps of the island and the discovery of its interior geography were the prerogative of outsiders. Indeed the first representation of the island was fashioned by Ptolemy, the Greek geographer, at his workshop in Alexandria. Putting Ireland on the map was a slow and tedious business and it was not until William Petty’s Hiberniae Delineatio, published in London in 1685, that the modern recognisable country emerged. Subsequently the 1,906 sheets published by the Ordnance Survey revealed in intimate detail the furniture of the island at its maximum population before the great Famine swept much of it to oblivion.

Ireland’s geography has infinite variety – laid down by geology, shaped by geomorphology and transformed by human agency, the sea girt isle has a coastline of some 2,797 kms; the country’s maximum length from Fair Head in Donegal to Mizen Head in Cork is 303 kilometres and its breadth from Howth Head in Dublin to Slyne Head in Galway is 274 kms. The margins of the wild Atlantic coast are magnificent landscapes where at intervals steep cliffs as at Slieve League, Slievemore (Achill Island), Inishmore and the Cliffs of Moher, mark the ocean’s edge. Inland spiky peaks rise above blanket peats providing a mountain barrier shaping both weather and human life. Four of Ireland’s six peaks above 3,000 feet (900 metres) are found in the MacGillycuddy Reeks in Kerry. Here in these inhospitable Atlantic ends farmers forged fields and lived through subsistence crisis after crisis until the Great Hunger of 1845 to 1849 and its aftermath re-ordered the population.

The east coast presents a different visage of low, sandy dune backed beaches with intermittent rocky headlands from Wexford north to Louth. Long the most favoured disembarkation point for immigrants, its arable hinterlands are replete with legacies of archaeology and history. Smothered in glacial debris the counties of Meath, Kildare, Dublin, Louth, Wexford and Westmeath all have arable land in excess of 80 per cent of their total areas. Grain was the medieval currency which created the surplus to sustain a rich urban life in towns largely the preserve of the invader. The adjacent countryside hosted the great mansions of Ireland in richly embellished landscapes which draped the river valleys. But in a landscape of infinite variety the mountains of Wicklow and Dublin threw up a granite and schist massif as a background stage.

The middle south of the Republic has a mix of mountain and valley scenery. Here sluggish rivers amble through some of the richest land in Europe in parallel lines reading from east to west – Slaney, Barrow, Nore, Suir, Blackwater and Lee. At journey’s end rivers provide anchorage for a suite of towns. A more in-between if uniform topography guards approaches from the centre to the north of the island. Tightly packed, low, rounded hills, famously described as ‘basket of eggs’ topography, supported by patches of bogland and wet rushy land, stretch from Carlingford Lough in Louth to Clew Bay in Mayo. This is classic small-farm country with its crowded network of carefully bounded and jealously guarded fields with dwellings and associated outbuildings snugly fitted into the drumlin’s face.

Apart from the woodlands which after almost becoming extinct now constitute, in mainly sitka plantations nine per cent of the country’s land surface, one of the Republic’s most distinctive landscapes are the raised (lowland) and blanket (highland) peat formations. Constituting some 17 per cent of the Republic’s surface, intensive mechanised harvesting has largely harvested the brown peat. In churning out this core reservoir of energy and fuel it has resurrected some of the nation’s priceless archaeological secrets concealed and preserved in these watery places. Perhaps the most beautiful and also the most fragile are the localised concentration of bare limestone pavements on the mid-west coastline in counties Clare and Galway. These sculpted terraces of low and high ground reach the sea in Galway Bay. Immediately to the south are the coal measures of dark Slieve Elva which prove that the country once had extensive fuel resources. But what geology gave geomorphology took away.

In 1841 the Republic of Ireland had a recorded population of 6,528,770, the great majority of whom worked in agriculture and lived in the open countryside. Famine and emigration had reduced this figure to 2,971,677 by the time the first census in the newly independent Free State was taken in 1926. By 1966 in excess of 50 per cent of the recorded population was resident in aggregate urban areas. Since then the people of the fields have become the people of the streets as the census of 2002 placed over 65 per cent of the population in urban areas. Such urbanisation has resulted from major structural changes in employment, In 1950, for example, agriculture sustained 43 per cent of people in employment; 21 per cent and 36 per cent, respectively, were employed in industry and services. In 2004 the comparative proportions of the 1.6 million people at work were 6.4 per cent (agriculture), 27.6 per cent industry and 66 per cent (services). Not surprisingly some two-thirds of the country’s four million population now live in gateway cities. Despite many attempts to equalise spatial disparities in population distribution, Dublin’s primacy remains unassailable. In 2002 the greater Dublin area had a population of over one million as compared to 186,239 for Cork the next largest urban concentration; 86,998 for Limerick city; 66,163 for Galway and 46,736 for Waterford.

The outward procession of people, long a dismal commentary on the Republic of Ireland’s economic health, has been halted since the early 1990s. Immigration has now outstripped emigration and it is estimated that some 10 per cent (400,000) of the current population was born outside the state. The Republic has a relatively sparse density of population with 58 inhabitants per sq. km. which compares to densities of 244 in the United Kingdom and 349 in the Netherlands.

Nothing captures the changing geography of the Republic of Ireland as aptly as the recorded statistics for the land area under potatoes long regarded as the country’s staple food. In 1846 some 656,014 hectares were under potatoes; in 1847 the figure was 89,000; in 1927, 150,000 and in 2006, 12,100.

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