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ETHNONYM: Eireanneach


Identification and Location. For the Irish and Ireland, identification and location are inextricably linked aspects of self-definition. Ireland, located between 51°30 and 55°30 N and 6°00 and l0°30 W, is an island 480 by 273 kilometers at its longest and widest (N-S and E-W, respectively). It is separated on the east from Great Britain by the narrow Irish Sea (17 to 192 kilometers wide). To the west is the Atlantic Ocean. The island consists mainly of low-lying land whose central lowlands support rich pastureland, agricultural Regions, and a large central peat bog. The rim is mountainous, especially in the west, but elevations are rarely higher than 900 meters. Ireland's geographical locationcombining proximity to England with peripherality vis-à-vis Europehas played the major role in defining its historical experience. This relationship has also made the definition of just who and what is Irish problematic. Centuries of British rule culminated in the division of the island in 1922 into two political entities: the Republic (Free State from 1922 to 1949) of Ireland, comprising twenty-six counties and 70,550 square kilometers, and the Province of Northern Ireland, comprising six counties and remaining part of the United Kingdom. The population of the republic is 95 percent Catholic and that segment identifies itself unambiguously as Irish. Members of the Protestant minority may choose to emphasize their English ancestry, but they typically call themselves "Irish"or "Anglo-Irish" as they are identified by their Irish Catholic neighbors. In Northern Ireland, however, the situation is more complex. The substantial Catholic minoritywhatever their political affiliationconsider themselves ethnically Irish, while the subjective and objective identification of Protestants has been far more fluctuating and context-dependent. At various points, they may identify themselves as "Irish," "Ulster," "Ulster Protestant," or "British." The merging of Religious, geographical, and ethnic labels is also applied from the outside. Irish Catholics may use a variety of such terms to identify their neighbors, and the choice of label nearly always has a political subtext.

Demography. The population of the Republic of Ireland was 3,540,643 in 1986, representing an increase of 97,238 persons since the 1981 census. The population, which began a steep decline during the late 1840s famine, has been increasing since the 1961 census and has now been restored to the level of 1889-90. However, a recent decline in the birth-rate and a leap in the emigration rate (at least 72,000 Between 1981 and 1986), makes the demographic future uncertain. The high birthrate in the sixties and seventies has made Ireland one of the youngest countries in Europe, and migration to Dublin has made the population far more urban than it had been up until recently (57 percent urban, 43 percent rural), with close to a third of the population living in Dublin County.

Linguistic Affiliation. Although Irish Gaelic is the official language of the republic, the vast majority of people on both sides of the border speak English. Irish is the daily language of only tens of thousands (disputed number) of inhabitants of scattered Gaeltacht zones mainly along the west coast. Irish Gaelic, a Celtic language, has three main dialects and is closely related to Scottish Gaelic. The Goidelic Branch of the Celtic languages also includes Manx (once spoken on the Isle of Man), while the Brythonic Branch is represented by Welsh and Breton. The language issue has played a central part in the ethnic identity issues previously mentioned. Although Irish Gaelic was by the late nineteenth century very much a minority language, proponents of Irish nationalism (Protestant and Catholic) favored the restoration of the "national language" as a critical element in the maintenance of a distinct national identity and culture. Government measures meant to ensure this restoration have gradually relaxed over the decades, however, and despite the persistence of Irish in a few enclaves and a lively Irish-language literary and cultural scene, English is clearly the de facto national language.

History and Cultural Relations

The earliest inhabitants of Ireland were Mesolithic hunter-gatherers whose sites are dated as early as 8980 B.P., but it is the extensive Neolithic settlement that has left a large number of impressive megalithic constructions. The exact origin point of "Celtic culture" in Ireland and its relation to preexisting cultures and/or populations is much disputed. By the first few centuries b.c., however, a clearly Celtic culture was established all over the island, with clear connections to continental Celts. Iron Age Celtic society established a lasting economic, political, social, and cultural framework for Irish society. Unhampered by the Romanization that transformed so much of continental Europe, Ireland's cattle-based chieftaincies remained the basic social unit through the early Christian period, giving Irish Christianity a Celtic construction that would give rise to Roman consternation at various historical junctures. Celtic Ireland was notably rural, and it was the Vikings who established the major port cities that would continue to play an important role in Irish history (e.g., Dublin, Cork, Waterford, Wexford). The English Presence began with the twelfth-century Anglo-Norman expedition under the auspices of Henry II, in aid of one side in an internecine struggle in the south. The invaders settled, particularly in the southeast, bringing with them a manorial type of settlement and economy, as well as a new language and Culture. The succeeding centuries brought much cultural borrowing between native Irish and Anglo-Norman cultures, particularly in areas distant from the capital. The Cromwellian and Williamite wars of the seventeenth century established Ireland as a fully colonial society, with political rule and most landownership in the hands of English-speaking Protestants, and with a native population of mainly Gaelic-speaking Catholics, the vast majority of whom were poor tenant farmers, seen and described by their overlords in increasingly "primitive" terms. The wars also brought the "plantation" of Northern Ireland, the importation of thousands of mainly Presbyterian Scots who took ownership of small farms and settled in areas from which Catholic Irish had been driven. There was also a very considerable influx of Protestant English into the south. For most Catholic tenants, the central issue through the eighteenth century was local land tenure, and a variety of locally based secret societiessuch as the "White Boys"were active in retaliatory guerrilla raids against landlords, agents, or collaborators. After the failure of the United Irishmen's rebellion in 1798, land tenure as well as cultural and religious identity came more and more to be linked with nationalism. The nineteenth century saw a series of attempts, armed and legislative, to win independence and/or redress land issues, culminating in the Easter Uprising of 1916 and the war of independence that followed. Ireland achieved independence as a Free State with the treaty of 1922, which left the six Protestant-majority counties of Ulster in the United Kingdom. The Free State became Eire, or the Republic of Ireland, in 1949. One faction of the Irishrepresented thereafter by the Irish Republican Army (IRA)refused to accept the legitimacy of the boundary. Within Northern Ireland most Catholicsand a few Protestantsare "nationalists" favoring a "United Ireland." The vast majority of Protestantsand very few Catholicsespouse "Unionism," seeking to remain a part of the United Kingdom. It is difficult to assess what proportion of either population supports the activities of violent paramilitary organizations, which continue to carry out assassinations and bombings. After the bloody reaction to Catholic civil rights demonstrations in Northern Ireland in 1969, the British Army began to maintain a strong and active presence that continues to this day.

In addition to the political developments already described, the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries brought tremendous economic and social upheaval to Ireland. The population increased at a tremendous rate and grew increasingly dependent on the potato for sustenance. The great potato famine of the late 1840s (numerous smaller ones occurred before and after) led to evictions and immigration that vastly increased the flow of Irish to America.

While significant numbers went to Englandand, to a lesser extent, Canada and Australiathe large proportion of Irish in America has had a great and lasting impact on both the United States and Ireland. Even since 1973, when Eire joined the European Economic Community, cultural (as opposed to economic) attention has been focused on the United States, to which the current crop of emigrants have once again come.


Settlement patterns have of course varied much over time and place. The dominant Celtic pattern seems to have been scattered fort/cattle pen/households (rath ). Peasant communities following a mixed-cattle, agricultural regime, at least in the west of Ireland, lived in small hamlets (clachan or clibin ), using a commonly held infield for grain and vegetables and an extensive outfield "mountain" for livestock. This pattern was generally eliminated (though there are a few survivals) through landlord intervention by the middle of the nineteenth century. The demise of such traditional patterns was also accelerated by the famine and emigration. The resulting pattern was of more or less dispersed households and farms, or more concentrated but separate rows of dwellings where geography and varying land type made that form appropriate. In either case, however, the "townland" (baile fearainn ), which corresponds to the common holding of the traditional cluster settlement, may continue to operate as a socially Significant "neighborhood" and its inhabitants may even continue to hold common rights to turf (for fuel) in bogs and grazing land on mountains. Elsewhere other agricultural and/or geographical factors made for other settlement types, including dispersed large farms, estate villages, or the street market towns, which mainly developed in the nineteenth Century under landlord regimes.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Agriculture, until recently the overwhelming mainstay of the Irish Economy, remains important, although a decreasing percentage of the population is engaged in such pursuits. Most arable land is devoted to pasture or hay production, and livestock and livestock products are the most important exports, sold in European and Near Eastern markets. The United States is also a major trading partner. Tourism, greatly promoted in recent decades, provides the single largest item in the country's net earnings. Since the 1960s, attractive conditions have brought many foreign-owned small factories to Ireland, and they along with Irish manufacturing and construction firms now employ around 27.5 percent of the labor force. While the city of Dublin has grown at a great rate, the lack of a large Industrial or commercial base there has meant much unemployment. Membership in the European Common Market has benefited agricultural producers through subsidies and opened up new channels for emigration for professionals, but so far has not done much to change the economic peripherality of Ireland. The relative prosperity of the sixties and seventies seems to have been based on borrowed money, leaving Ireland with one of the highest per capita foreign debts in the world. Inflation and high unemployment fueled renewed Emigration, mostly to the United States, in the late 1980s. In the west of Ireland, where most anthropological fieldwork has been carried out, small farmswhere viablecontinue to produce livestock and dairy products sold at marts or through local cooperatives. Much of the extreme west, including Gaeltacht zones, is characterized by underfarmed smallholdings, which support a subsistence crop of potatoes and vegetables, combined in varying degrees with sheep farming (whose economic viability depends on government subsidies). In a few areas small- or medium-scale fishing or rural factory employment adds to the income of such families or provides the total support of younger families. Government welfare and old-age pensions, however, contribute Importantly to the maintenance of many households. Where the farm is viable, it absorbs the labor of the entire family. In smaller holding areas, however, younger family members are often engaged in subsidiary income pursuits. Where available, factory jobs are sought by young men and women. Areas of large farms, such as Meath and West Meath, and the city and suburbs of Dublin exhibit different sociocultural patterns, which are only recently being studied by anthropologists.

Land Tenure. Although after the seventeenth century the mainly British landlords held proprietary rights, the Irish tenantry continued to pass on the right to these tenancies as if they were property. Land reforms in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century turned these tenants into peasant proprietors. Common rights were often retained in bogs (for peat fuel) and in extensive mountain pasturelands.

Kinship, Marriage, and Family

Kinship. Cían is an Irish word and traditionally referred to the agnatic descendants of a common ancestor (e.g., "the O'Donnells"). Such clans had a hierarchical territorial arrangement in traditional chiefdoms, wherein subgroups and individuals were linked to superiors through cattle clientship and/or tribute and service. The local kin group in this system was called a fine. In this way traditional commonage rundale (common land that is distributed among owners in such a way that an individual's holdings are scattered among those of others) was followed by divided inheritance in western Ireland, which gave way, again under landlord action, to enforced undivided inheritance. This continues to be the legal mode today, with the father naming a single son as heir to the farm. The social integrity and relative autonomy of the Household farm based on the single heir is a central concern of many influential studies of the culture. However, in some areas at least, the ethos of continuing obligation to and among all siblings makes "stem family" a misleading designation, even for the contemporary rural Irish family.

Marriage. Sibling solidarity before and after marriage is a striking feature of daily life. In the west, in particular, Individuals still marry close to home and tend to keep up frequent visiting patterns with siblings. In the extreme case men and women may even remain with their natal households after marriage. Unmarried siblings will very often live together and will frequently be joined by a widowed sibling late in life.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Although an increasing share of the population lives in Dublin, rural culture enjoys a disproportionate importance, and many urban dwellers retain ties to the countryside. While an egalitarian ethos prevails in most rural areas, there are large differences in the "objective" class situation of farmers, ranging from large numbers of very small farmers cultivating less than 6 hectares, mainly in the west, to graziers farming hundreds of hectares in the east. The class structure of the cities resembles that of other urban areas in western Europe.

Political Organization. Eire is a parliamentary democracy with a nonexecutive president elected by direct vote. The Parliament (Oireachtas) consists of a lower house (An Dail Eireann) elected through proportional representation by a single transferable vote, and an upper house (An Seanad Eireann). The government is headed by a prime minister (An Taoiseach) chosen by An Dail. The two principal political parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, are both centrist in European terms and owe their origins to respective positions on the border question seventy years ago. There are a variety of other parties holding few seats, including the Labor Party and Sinn Fein (the political wing of the IRA). Local government is through the "county council," but recent changes in the structure of taxation have left that body with little real resources and hence little power, making Eire's political system an increasingly centralized one.

Social Control. In rural areas, the local community and kin groups continue to play the most obvious role in daily Social control. The Catholic church, especially in the person of the parish priest, typically continues to exercise considerable authority, especially in the rural areas. In these same areas the "legitimacy" of the state to interfere with local practice may be more often questioned.

Conflict. Irish nationalists tend to sum up Ireland's History as "800 years of British oppression and Irish resistance." Academic histories currently debate whether the local uprisings and guerrilla activity of the eighteenth century, the 1798 rebellion, the Fenians of the nineteenth century, and the ongoing "troubles" can best be understood in terms of class, nationalism, or local interests. From any point of view, however, conflict continues to define the Irish experience, historically and currently.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs and Practices. By any measure, Ireland is a profoundly Catholic country and culture. Weekly mass attendance continues at nearly 90 percent of the population, and the influence of the clergy on all social as well as narrowly religious questions is enormous. Ireland, alone with Malta in Europe, has no legal divorce, and abortionnever legalhas recently been made unconstitutional. The central tenets of the Catholic church are mainly accepted, but various local heterodox usages continue in some areas. Notably, holy well cults are still an important aspect of local practice. There are more than three thousand holy wells listed for Ireland, most of them associated with a Roman Catholic saint and with beliefs about curing, indulgences, honor, prayer, etc. Major pilgrimage points within Ireland (Knock, Croagh Patrick, Station Island, Lady's Island) attract tens of thousands annually, and the Irish are disproportionately represented at Lourdes.

Arts. Language remains perhaps the most important form of expressive culture: from the oral narrative that still characterizes much local Irish life to one of the most vibrant literary traditions in Europe. Although less well-known, there is a lively visual art scene in the urban centers. Music, always important in the folk tradition, has made a great resurgence in recent decades with much creative interaction between folk and rock forms.

Medicine. Although most Irish avail themselves of whatever modern medical facilities are available, many will combine such treatments with propitiation of saints and/or pilgrimages to the above sites.

Death and the Afterlife. For the vast majority of Irish, the rites of the Catholic church are followed scrupulously on the occasion of death. Wakes held in the home of the deceased for two or three days, however, continue to provide a central communal focus to the event in many areas. Appropriation of the powerful act and rites of death has characterized Irish Political activity, especially in the twentieth century.

See also Gaels (Irish); Irish Travellers; Northern Irish; Tory Islanders


Arensberg, Conrad (1937). The Irish Countryman. New York: Macmillan.

Arensberg, Conrad, and Solon Kimball (1968). Family and Community in Rural Ireland. 2nd ed. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Curtin, C., and T. Wilson (1989). Ireland from Below: Social Change and Local Communities. Galway: University College Galway Press.

Fox, Robin (1978). The Tory Islanders: A People of the Celtic Fringe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

O'Kelly, Michael P. (1989). Early Ireland. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Taylor, Lawrence J. (1989). "Bás InÉirinn: Cultural Constructions of Death in Ireland." Anthropological Quarterly 62:175-187.


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POPULATION: 3.6 million

LANGUAGE: Irish Gaelic (official); English (primary)

RELIGION: Roman Catholicism; Protestantism; Judaism


The Republic of Ireland, which consists of twenty-six counties, covers five-sixths of the island of Ireland. The remaining portion is occupied by the six counties of Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom. The division of the island into two political entities is the legacy of a long period of British rule. It dates back as far as 1171, when England's King Henry II declared himself king of Ireland. Eventually the English controlled most of the island. With the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century, the division between the conquering and conquered peoples took on a religious dimension. The Protestant English began to try to eliminate native Irish Catholicism, further increasing hostility between the two. When the Republic of Ireland won its independence in 1922, Northern Ireland became a separate political entity, remaining part of the United Kingdom. In recent decades it has been the site of violent conflict between Catholic nationalists and Protestant extremist groups. The Republic of Ireland became a member of the European Community in 1973.


Ireland occupies an area smaller than the state of Maine. It is bounded by the Atlantic Ocean on the south, west, and northwest, and by the Irish Sea on the east. The country's two main topographic regions are a fertile central lowland and the mountain ranges that surround it. Most of the country is less than 500 feet (150 meters) above sea level. The Irish trace their ethnic origins to the various groups who inhabited and ruled their land over the course of history. These include the Celts, Norsemen, French Normans, and English. The people living east of the Shannon River generally have a higher standard of living, with a more advanced level of industrialization and richer farmland. The Gaeltacht along the western coast is the nation's Gaelic-speaking region.


Irish Gaelic is the official language of the Republic of Ireland. However, English is actually more widely used. Only about 30 percent of the population know Gaelic well enough to use it in daily conversation. Gaelic is a required subject in school. Signs throughout Ireland are written in both English and Gaelic. Irish Gaelic is a Celtic language closely related to Scottish Gaelic. Irish people speak English with an accent known as a brogue.

English Gaelic Pronunciation
man fear fahr
woman bean bahn
yes sea shah
no ní-hea nee hah
hand lámh awv
leg cos kuss
good night codladh sámh kull-uh sawv
English Gaelic Pronunciation
Monday Luan loo-un
Tuesday Máirt mawrt
Wednesday Céadaoin kay-deen
Thursday Déardaoin dayr-deen
Friday Aoine een-uh
Saturday Satharn sahurn
Sunday Domhnach doh-nukh
English Gaelic Pronunciation
one aon een
two dó doh
three trí tree
four ceathair kay-hir
five cúig koo-ig
six sé shay
seven seacht shakht
eight ocht ukht
nine naoi nee
ten deich deh


The Irish are master storytellers. Their tales and legends date back to Druid priests and early Celtic poets who preserved the stories of Ireland's pre-Christian heroes and heroines. Many tales recall the exploits of Cuchulainn, who defended Ulster (Ireland's northern counties) single-handedly. Other tales come from the era of Cormac Mac Art, Ireland's first king. They include the love story of Diarmid and Grania and the exploits of Finn MacCool. Modern authors have helped keep these folk traditions alive. The poet William Butler Yeats wrote five plays based on the legendary adventures of Cuchulainn. James Joyce's final novel, Finnegans Wake whose main character is identified with the mythic figure of Finn MacCoolis filled with Irish legends and mythology. Irish children today still learn tales about these legendary heroes, including MacCool and Saint Finnabar, who is said to have slain Ireland's last dragon.


Ireland is a staunchly Catholic country. Roman Catholics account for about 95 percent of Ireland's population, and nearly 90 percent of the Irish people attend Mass every week. Pilgrimages to shrines and holy places at home and abroad attract tens of thousands of people each year. Catholicism is deeply intertwined with Irish nationalism (patriotism). Before Irish independence, the British attempted to eliminate Catholicism from Ireland. This caused the Irish to cling even more fiercely to their faith. The non-Catholic minority is mostly Episcopalian, Methodist, Presbyterian, or Jewish.

The patron saint of Ireland, St. Patrick, is honored by people (not only those of Irish descent) worldwide on March 17 each year. Patrick, according to legend, dreamed that he received a call from the Irish people to help them. Ireland was overrun with snakes and reptiles in such large numbers that it was considered a plague. Patrick went a high mountain, carrying a staff to show that he was a priest. He charmed the snakes with prayers, and gathered them all together. When every last snake had responded, Patrick drove them all into the sea, freeing Ireland from the reptile plague. The Irish people gathered around him to thank him, and he began to preach Christianity to them. The peasant people could not grasp the meaning of Christianity's holy trinityFather, Son, and Holy Ghost. When Patrick spotted the three-leafed shamrock, he picked it and used it to help explain how three gods, represented by the three leaves, could be one. This is the legend explaining how St. Patrick eliminated snakes from Ireland, led the Irish people to Christianity, and became their patron saint. It also explains why the shamrock is the national symbol of Ireland.


Ireland's legal holidays are New Year's Day (January 1), St. Patrick's Day (March 17), Good Friday, Easter Sunday and Easter Monday, bank holidays (days when banks, schools, etc., are closed) on the first Mondays of June and August, Christmas (December 25), and St. Stephen's Day (December 26). St. Stephen's Day is referred to as "Wren Day," reflecting the ancient druid belief that the wren was sacred. On this day, young men ("Wren Boys") dress in outrageous costumes and paint their faces. They go from house to house in a silly parade "hunting the wren," and people may throw them a few coins. In addition to these holidays, a variety of customs and celebrations are associated with various saints' days. St. John's Day (June 24), for example, is traditionally the time to dig up and eat the first new potatoes. On the night before, bonfires are lit on hilltops throughout the west of Ireland. A dish called colcannon, made from cabbage, potatoes, and milk, was traditionally served on Halloween with a ring, coin, thimble, and button inserted into it. Whoever found the ring was supposed to be married within a year. The coin symbolized wealth; the button, bachelorhood (a man who never marries); and the thimble, spinsterhood (a woman who never marries). Sometimes, the colcannon is left out on Halloween as a snack for the fairies.


As in most West European countries, most births occur in hospitals. In Roman Catholic families, the child is baptized within a week or so of birth. First communion and confirmation are important events for Catholic children. Marriage generally takes place in church. Weddings are festive events. In the west they may still be attended by "straw-boys," uninvited guests dressed in straw disguises who crash the wedding and play about in good-humored fashion.

Death is a solemn occasion. Although the Irish were once known for their wild wakes (a time for people to view the body before burial), these are quickly becoming a thing of the past.


The Irish are famous for their hospitality, which dates back to olden times. It was believed that turning away a stranger would bring bad luck and a bad name to the household. (According to one Christian belief, a stranger might be Christ in disguise coming to test the members of the household.) The front doors of houses were commonly left open at meal times. Anyone who passed by would feel free to enter and join in the meal. While many of the old superstitions are a thing of the past, Irish warmth and hospitality toward strangers remains. Hospitality is practiced not only at home, but also at the neighborhood pub (bar). Anyone joining a group of drinkers immediately buys a round of drinks for everyone at the table. (Similarly, no one smokes a cigarette without first offering the pack to everyone present.)


The traditional rural home was narrow and rectangular. It was built from a combination of stones and mortar (made from mud, lime, or whatever material was locally available). The roof was often thatched. Rural homes and those in some urban areas are commonly heated by fireplaces that burn peat (called "turf" in Ireland) instead of wood. (Peat is soil from marshy or damp regions, composed of partially decayed vegetable matter. It is cut and dried for use as fuel.) Modern homes are replacing traditional dwellings both in the country and the city. Families generally live in brick or concrete houses or apartment buildings. Large numbers of people have emigrated to Ireland's cities since the 1950s. Consequently, a great demand for new housing has been created, and developments have gone up around most large towns and cities.


The Irish have an extremely strong loyalty to the family. The nuclear family is the primary family unit. However, an ailing elderly relative and an unmarried aunt or uncle may also be included. Young people have traditionally lived at home with their parents until they marry, often after the age of twenty-five or even thirty. Bonds between siblings are unusually strong, especially in the western part of the country. Unmarried siblings often live together, sometimes joined by a widowed sibling later in life. While women are playing an increasingly active role in the work force, traditional gender roles are still common at home. Women perform most of the household chores and child-rearing, and the men fill the traditional role of breadwinner (the one who earns money to support the family, or "buy the bread").


People in Ireland wear modern Western-style clothing. Durability, comfort, and protection from Ireland's often wet weather are of primary concern. The Irish have been known for their fine cotton lace-making since the early 1800s. Handknitted sweaters are another famous Irish product, especially those made on the Aran Islands. Tweeda thick cloth of woven wool used for pants, skirts, jackets, and hatsis another type of textile for which the Irish are known. The Irish have decorated (and fastened) their clothing with bronze and silver brooches since the third century ad, Traditional designs have included detailed engravings, animal designs, and enamel inlays.


Irish Soda Bread


  • 4 cups flour
  • ¼ cup sugar
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 3 Tablespoons caraway seeds
  • ½ cup raisins
  • ¼ cup butter, softened
  • 1½ cups buttermilk


  1. Place raisins in a small saucepan and cover with water. Heat over medium heat until the water boils. Lower heat, cover pan, and simmer about 5 minutes. Drain well.
  2. Stir together flour, sugar, salt, baking power, and baking soda. Add caraway seeds and well-drained raisins and mix well.
  3. Add butter and mix with very clean hands until butter and dry indredients are combined well.
  4. Add buttermilk and mix with a fork.
  5. Grease well a round baking pan or cast iron frying pan about 8 or 9 inches in diameter.
  6. Pat dough into greased pan and bake at 325° F about 75 minutes until lightly browned. The soda bread is done if a fork poked into the bread comes out clean.
  7. Remove from pan and cool before cutting.

Serve by cutting into pie-shaped wedges. May be served with butter or preserves.


The Irish have hearty appetites. Potatoes are the main staple and, together with cabbage, the most popular vegetable in Ireland. Dairy products are a favorite, and a great deal of milk and butter are consumed. Irish stew, one of the most common traditional dishes, consists of lamb or mutton, potatoes, onions, herbs, and stock. The main meals of the day are breakfast and lunch. The traditional Irish breakfast includes sausages, bacon, eggs, tomatoes, pudding (hot cereal), other meat dishes (such as liver or lamb chops), and bread, all washed down with plenty of tea. (Many have abandoned this menu in favor of lighter fare.) A typical lunch might include a hearty soup, a serving of chicken or beef, and vegetables. Supper usually consists of sandwiches, cold meats, or fish. Soda bread, made with baking soda and buttermilk, accompanies many meals. Popular desserts (called "sweets") include scones, tarts, and cakes.


Adult literacy is nearly universal in Ireland. All children must attend school between the ages of six and fifteen. Most go to single-sex rather than coeducational (girls and boys together) schools. Both English and Gaelic are taught in primary school (called National School). Secondary school students receive an Intermediate Certificate at the age of fifteen or sixteen. Following an optional two more years of study, they receive a Leaving Certificate, which is required for admission to one of Ireland's three universities. Ireland's oldest university is Trinity College, also known as the University of Dublin.


The Irish place great value on the arts. Ireland's writers, composers, painters, and sculptors do not have to pay income taxes as long as their work is recognized as having "artistic or cultural merit." Ireland's greatest contribution has been in the field of literature. Its great writers include Jonathan Swift, author of Gulliver's Travels; the playwrights Oliver Goldsmith and Oscar Wilde; and such giants of twentieth-century literature as playwright George Bernard Shaw, poet William Butler Yeats, and novelist James Joyce. Yeats won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1923, as did his fellow Irishman, playwright Samuel Beckett in 1969. Contemporary Irish writers include poets Seamus Deane and Seamus Heaney. Heaney won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1995. There is also a considerable amount of modern literature written in Irish Gaelic, including poets Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill and Máirtín Ó Direáin.


In 1992, 59 percent of Ireland's labor force was employed in service sector jobs, 28 percent worked in industry, and 13 percent were in agriculture, forestry, and fishing. Primary industries include meat, dairy, and grain processing; electronics, machinery, beer, shoe, and glassware production. Farming takes place on both small subsistence farms where families raise just enough to support themselves, and on large sophisticated commercial farms that produce food for export. Tourism is a mainstay of the service sector. It provides restaurant, hotel, and retail jobs and it expands the range of government employment.


Ireland's most popular sports are hurling and Gaelic football. Hurling, similar to field hockey, is played by two teams of fifteen players who, with long sticks called hurleys or camans, attempt to knock a leather ball through their opponents' goalposts. The All-Ireland Hurling Championship is the Irish equivalent of the World Series in the United States. It is held in Dublin every September. The women's version of hurling is called camogie. Gaelic football combines elements of soccer and rugby, and also culminates in an All-Ireland match in the nation's capital. Another popular traditional Irish sport is road bowling (played mostly in County Cork). Its object is to advance a metal ball, called a "bullet," over a two-or three-mile (three-to-five-kilometer) course in as few throws as possible. Other widely played sports include soccer, rugby, cricket, boxing, and track and field. Horse racing is a favorite national pastime, and Ireland's famous races include the Irish Derby and the Grand National (the race featured in the movie National Velvet ).


Irish men spend many of their hours in pubs (bars), drinking beer or ale, playing darts, and socializing with their friends. In recent years, it has become increasingly acceptable for women to frequent pubs, although the neighborhood pub still remains primarily male territory. Pubs are also the scene of traditional music sessions, which are associated with craic (pronounced "crack"). This is an all-around term for having a good time that can include playing and/or listening to music, joking, getting drunk, or flirting with members of the opposite sex. "The craic was mighty" means that someone had a good time. Other popular leisure-time pursuits include chess, bingo, and bridge (a card game).


Traditional crafts include tweed and linen weaving, wool knitting, glass blowing, and woodcarving. Belleek china and Waterford crystal are especially famous. Rathborne, which has been producing candles for over 450 years, is Europe's oldest candle maker. The women of the Aran Islands are known for their distinctive woolen sweaters. (At one time, every family on the islands had its own sweater pattern, which aided in identifying drowned sailors.) Ireland has a rich folk music tradition, and ancient jigs and reels can be heard at local festivals and during informal performances at neighborhood pubs. Since the 1960s, groups like the Chieftains and Planxty have revived national interest in traditional tunes and instruments. They have also gained an international audience for Irish music, both live and recorded. Traditional instruments include the fiddle, flute, Celtic harp, accordion, bodhran (a hand-held drum), and uilleann pipes (a bagpipe-like instrument powered by bellows).


Ever since the great potato famine of 1845, Ireland has lost a large percentage of its population to emigration. People regularly leave in search of better opportunities abroad. In addition to inflation, high unemployment, and the highest taxes in Europe, the nation must deal with one of the largest per capita (per person) foreign debts in the world. Terrorist attacks among competing Protestant and Catholic factions have killed more than 3,200 people in Northern Ireland since 1969.


Fairclough, Chris. We Live in Ireland. New York: Bookwright Press, 1986.

Gall, Timothy, and Susan Gall, eds. Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of the Nations. Detroit: UXL, 1996.

Ireland in Pictures. Minneapolis: Lerner Publications, 1993.

Pomeray, J.K. Ireland. New York: Chelsea House, 1988.


Lecturer at Trinity College. [Online] Available, 1998.

Mystical Ireland. [Online] Available, 1998.

Interknowledge Corporation and Northern Ireland Tourist Board. Northern Ireland. [Online] Available, 1998.

World Travel Guide. Ireland. [Online] Available, 1998.

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1. The adjective for Ireland, its people, languages, and traditions: Irish GAELIC, the Irish language, the Irish Question, Irish whiskey. Its nuances are varied, ranging from the sublime (Irish patriot) through such humorous and mischievous ‘institutions’ as the Irish bull and Irish joke, to facetious phrases like an Irish hurricane a flat calm with drizzling rain an Irish rise a reduction in pay. Such expressions are sometimes deliberately used in Britain to express anti-Irish feeling. If something seems unusual, fey, or illogical, a common comment is: That's a bit Irish.

2. Irish Gaelic: In Connemara they speak Irish.

Irish and English

The relationship between the English and Irish languages is at least eight centuries old. In that period, the fortunes of both have waxed and waned, and the contacts have been complicated by conquest, rebellion, religion, ethnicity, immigration, emigration, politics, and education. As English has advanced and Irish retreated, it has been said both that English ‘murdered’ Irish and that Irish ‘committed suicide’ in the face of English. It is certainly true that the main reasons for the replacement of Irish by English are social and political rather than linguistic. They include: (1) The large-scale settlements begun in the 16c by the Tudors and reinforced by the Stuarts and Cromwell in the 17c. (2) The penal laws of the 18c which reduced the native population to subsistence level and ensured that Irish was no longer the first language for those who hoped to improve their political or social position. (3) The introduction of National Schools in 1831, where English was the sole medium of instruction. (4) The years of famine in the mid-19c, which resulted in mass emigration and a belief that land and language were blighted.

The heyday of Irish

When in the 12c the Normans invaded Ireland, they found a secure language with strong and distinctive traditions. Speakers of Irish had Gaelicized not only the earlier people of the island and other Celtic settlers, but also later Pictish, Anglo-Saxon, and Norse settlers. The French, Flemish, Welsh, and English languages went to Ireland with the Normans and became in due course subject to pressure from Irish. Only within the eastern coastal region known as the Pale did English maintain a fragile grip. Medieval statutes show both the power of Irish and a wish to protect English against it: in 1285, a letter sponsored by the Bishop of Kildare and sent to the king suggested that Irish-speaking clerics should not be promoted because of their wish to maintain their language, and in 1366, the Statutes of Kilkenny (written in French) enjoined the English to use English names, customs, and language. However, Irish encroached even at the highest levels: in the 14c, the Earls of Ormond and Desmond spoke Irish and the latter, although Lord Chief Justice, wrote Irish poetry.

The conquest of Ireland

In the 16c, the English defeated the Gaelic order in Ireland; land was confiscated and plantation schemes brought in large numbers of English and later Scottish settlers. From 1600, English grew in strength and by 1800 was regularly used by up to 50% of the population. However, such was the growth in population that on the eve of the famines of 1846–8 there were probably more Irish-speakers in absolute terms than at any previous time. What began with Tudor pronouncements became more and more part of the social tissue of the island. As the 19c famines and mass emigrations proceeded, English consolidated its position. The Catholic Church became more reconciled to it and wary of Protestant proselytism through Irish, a process started by Elizabeth. Political leaders such as Daniel O'Connell were more concerned with emancipation than language and a school system was established, managed by the Catholic clergy, that excluded Irish from the curriculum. The steady decline of Irish was abetted by a general, pragmatic desire to acquire English. By the mid-19c, few Irish monolinguals were left and bilingualism had become a way-station on the road to English alone.

The Gaelic League

The founding of the Gaelic League in 1893 marked the start of the strongest wave of revivalist sentiment, which has endured in all its vicissitudes. Irish revivalism, an example of linguistic nationalism, arrived only when the language was already in grave peril. Its leaders were such Dublin intellectuals as Douglas Hyde and Eoin MacNeill, whose Irish was acquired rather than native. The movement largely failed to engage the support of the dwindling group of native speakers in the rural and impoverished Gaeltacht: an Irish-speaking area in the west that was idealized, romanticized, and kept at a safe remove. In addition, Irish was often linked with the strength of Catholicism, an association which permitted English to be depicted as the secular medium of a foreign culture, despite the fact that the Catholic Church promoted English even in Irish-speaking parishes.

Irish since independence

The Gaelic League had considerable success in fighting for Irish in schools and university but did not alter the language habits of the general population. When the Irish Free State was set up in 1921, Irish became a government responsibility. It was declared the national language, but accompanying the rhetoric was a serious and sometimes pessimistic concern for its fate. The government was often (and continues to be) accused of paying only lipservice to revival. It entrusted the task to the schools and it is therefore in education that the most important action has taken place over the last 70 years, such as compulsory Irish classes and making the gaining of an overall secondary school leaving certificate dependent on passing Irish (a rule no longer in effect). However, these efforts have not reversed the long decline: Ireland is now an overwhelmingly English-speaking country in which only 1–2% use Irish regularly and, even in the Gaeltacht, many parents bring up their children in English. Given the strong social currents of English in everyday life, it is hard to see what more the schools could have done than apply a thin wash of Irish across the land. See BORROWING, CELTIC LANGUAGES, HIBERNO-ENGLISH, SHELTA.

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I·rish / ˈīrish/ • adj. of or relating to Ireland, its people, or the Goidelic language traditionally and historically spoken there. • n. 1. (also Irish Gaelic) the Goidelic language that is the first official language of the Republic of Ireland. 2. [as pl. n.] (the Irish) the people of Ireland; Irish people collectively. PHRASES: get one's Irish up cause one to become angry: if someone tries to make me do something I don't want to do, it gets my Irish up.DERIVATIVES: I·rish·ness n.

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Irish pert. to Ireland. XIII. OE. Īras inhabitants of Īrland Ireland (obscurely based on OIr. Ériu; cf. HIBERNIAN) + -ISH1.

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Irishbanish, clannish, mannish, Spanish, tannish, vanish •garnish, tarnish, varnish •replenish, Rhenish •Danish •cleanish, greenish •diminish, finish, Finnish, thinnish •swinish •admonish, astonish, donnish •Cornish •brownish, clownish, townish •buffoonish, cartoonish, soonish •Hunnish, nunnish, punish •maidenish • hoydenish • paganish •womanish • vixenish • kittenish •heathenish •burnish, furnish •longish, strongish •youngish •Lappish, snappish •dampish, scampish, trampish, vampish •sharpish • apish •cheapish, sheepish, steepish •blimpish, impish, wimpish •foppish • waspish • uppish •frumpish, grumpish, lumpish, plumpish •parish •cherish, perish •bearish, fairish, garish, squarish •nightmarish • Irish •moreish, whorish •flourish, nourish •nearish, queerish •sourish •boorish, Moorish •gibberish • Micawberish • vulturish •spiderish • vigorish • vinegarish •tigerish • ogreish • Quakerish •lickerish, liquorice (US licorice) •ochreish (US ocherish) •vapourish (US vaporish) • viperish •spinsterish • Pooterish • amateurish •feverish • liverish • impoverish •minxish • niceish • coarsish • closish

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