The Republic of Ireland is located between the United Kingdom and the Atlantic Ocean. Rugged cliffs line the coast while vibrant green fields dotted with ancient ruins and sacred sites fill the country's landscapes. Indeed, Ireland has a rich history stretching over 5,000 years. Modern Ireland continues to pay homage to its past through traditional music, dance and the Irish language, among other cultural forms. The Irish are proud of their identity and their perseverance through struggles such as the Potato Famine (1845), the Irish War for Independence (1919-1921) and ongoing tensions with Northern Ireland. Despite adversities, the Irish are characterised by warmth, creativity and mateship, as evidenced through music and sport.
Geographical and Political Distinctions
The Republic of Ireland occupies five-sixths of the island of Ireland. The remaining one-sixth of the island is occupied by Northern Ireland, which is a part of the United Kingdom. The two regions share a long and turbulent history. The nature of the history is complex and deeply entangled with other factors, particularly religion. One of the distinguishing factors between the two regions is that Northern Ireland is mainly Protestant Christian, whereas the Republic of Ireland is predominantly Catholic Christian.
The two areas have been separated from one another for almost 100 years, which began with the Irish War of Independence (1919-1921), a conflict between the British state and Irish republican independence fighters in the Irish Republican Army. The near-100 years of separation have resulted in diverging patterns of national cultural development, which is evident through language, dialect, accent, religion, politics, sport and music. The primary focus of this cultural profile is the Republic of Ireland, which is referred to throughout this profile as ‘Ireland'. However, it is important to acknowledge the geographical and political distinctions between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland to understand Irish society and culture better.
The Republic of Ireland
Ireland consists of four provinces: Connacht, Leinster, Munster and Ulster. These regions serve no political or administrative purposes, but rather function as historical and cultural entities. The provinces are often referred to as the West, Midlands (or East), South and North respectively. Ireland is divided into 26 counties. While most people from the Republic of Ireland identify as Irish, on a more local level, people use the county and region they are from as a point of reference. The Irish can often tell where someone is from within Ireland by their accent. Many feel connected to their county, especially where it comes to inter-county sporting matches involving national sports organised by the Gaelic Athletic Association such as hurling, camogie and Gaelic football.
Over half of the population reside in urban areas (63.8%), with nearly a third of the population living in the capital city of Dublin. Indeed, there is a cultural and regional distinction between urban and rural areas, especially between the capital city of Dublin and the rest of the country. Day-to-day life differs significantly between the bustling atmosphere of Dublin and the more rural areas where life is approached at a slower pace.
Northern Ireland contains six of the nine counties in Ulster. Within Northern Ireland, most citizens typically identify as British. The largest minority population in Northern Ireland are those who identify with the Republic of Ireland. The relationship between the groups is tense and deeply connected to the tensions between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. These tensions manifested in a 30-year (1968-1998) conflict within Northern Ireland known as ‘The Troubles.' The heart of the conflict lay in the constitutional status of Northern Ireland. At its core, the Troubles reflected two mutually exclusive visions of national identity and national belonging. Some citizens wished to remain within the United Kingdom, while others wished for Northern Ireland to be a part of the Republic of Ireland.
The end of this conflict came in 1998 when the Good Friday Agreement was signed and approved by citizens in both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. This agreement was a formal recognition that the majority of the Northern Ireland population wished to remain part of the United Kingdom and that a substantial section of the population in Northern Ireland and the majority of the population in the Republic of Ireland wished to create a united Ireland. The agreement acknowledged that both viewpoints were legitimate and that Northern Ireland is to remain part of the United Kingdom until a majority of the population of both regions agree that the status of Northern Ireland should change.
The culture of many in Northern Ireland is typically associated with the culture of the United Kingdom (click here to see the ‘United Kingdom’ cultural profile for more information). The topic of Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland relations continues to be a sensitive issue as there are various perspectives. To refer to someone from Northern Ireland as ‘Irish' can cause great offence. Yet some people in Northern Ireland consider themselves ‘Irish’ without qualification. It is important to recognise the complex relationship between both countries and to allow your counterpart to express their identity before making assumptions about their place of birth.
Social Structure and Emigration
Within Ireland, social hierarchies are widely disfavoured. There is an emphasis on egalitarianism and mateship. A person's level of education and wealth does not necessarily earn them status or respect. Instead, the Irish tend to emphasise one's efforts and hard work. Generally, there are not many social indicators that can define class distinctions in society. However, Ireland is not entirely without class categories. Social divisions do exist, particularly for the chronically unemployed and some marginalised populations such as the ethnic group of ‘Travellers' (sometimes known as ‘Tinkers').
Emigration has been a notable characteristic throughout Irish history. For hundreds of years, the number of Irish people leaving the country was greater than the number of foreigners immigrating to Ireland. For many generations, most Irish people have had family members living abroad. Notable periods of mass emigration include the Potato Famine in 1845 and the more recent wave in the 1950s and 1980s for those seeking a better life. This is reflected in the sizable Irish ethnic minorities in many countries, including the United States, Canada, Australia and Argentina. The migration patterns have changed from the late 1990s when the Irish economy dramatically improved. Since then, many people have migrated to Ireland, with a significant number of Irish returning to their homeland. Nonetheless, no matter where they are in the world, most Irish make efforts to stay in touch with family back home and will visit from time to time when work and education obligations permit them.
Many symbols of Irish national identity come from their association with religion. For example, green is the colour associated worldwide with Irishness, but, within Ireland and particularly in Northern Ireland, the colour green is closely linked to being both Irish and Catholic. On the other hand, orange in Northern is associated with Protestantism. This means that the Irish national identity is in part connected to Catholicism. Overwhelmingly, Protestants in the Republic of Ireland consider themselves Irish and don’t associate with the colour orange.
Another facet of the Irish national identity is the Irish Gaelic language (also known as Irish or Gaelic). Irish is an official language of the country alongside English and was once the main language spoken in the country. By the start of the 20th century, English had become the vernacular language. As of 2011, 38.7% of the population speak Irish as a first or second language. The Irish language is spoken on a day-to-day basis in the Irish-speaking communities known as Gaeltacht – particularly in parts of County Kerry, Galway and Donegal. Some of the older generation is fluent in the Irish language. Irish appears throughout the country in various ways, such as through Irish-speaking television and radio stations as well as signposts in Irish.
It is compulsory for all Irish to learn the Irish language during school. One is required to pass a language test on Irish to graduate high school. Some question the utility of the language, particularly concerning the business sector. However, the language has long been an important part of the Irish identity. Thus, the emphasis on retaining the Irish language is primarily intended to preserve culture.
On a more local level, the Irish identity is closely linked to one's sense of place. Indeed, the invisible boundaries of small towns are well known to those who live in rural Ireland, and county identities are expressed through lighthearted rivalries during inter-county sporting matches.
Warmth and Camaraderie
Warmth and mateship are hallmarks of the Irish demeanour. A common expression heard throughout Ireland is, "What's the craic?”. The term ‘craic’ refers to news, gossip and conversation. Indeed, the art of conversation and storytelling is an important value for many Irish and a common way to build rapport. This informality and warmth allow for an open and fluid approach between people. Indeed, public displays of emotion, affection or attachment are common and widely accepted. Another core characteristic of Irish mateship is generosity and reciprocity. This is particularly evident in the ritualised forms of group drinking in pubs whereby people take turns paying for a ‘round of drinks,' which is then returned during a later round.
The ‘pub’ (‘public house') provides a communal place for a lot of Irish socialisation and camaraderie to flourish. ‘Pub culture' extends beyond drinking alcohol. Rather, pubs act as important meeting places where people gather and interact with their neighbours, friends, family and, at times, strangers. The character of pubs in Ireland varies according to the area and the customers they serve. ‘Pub sessions' are a tradition whereby performers come together and play traditional folk music while enjoying conversation. Such sessions are often informal, with anyone invited to join in and play. Indeed, the pub is where the Irish passion for conversation, stories, jokes and traditional folk music continues to grow and evolve.
Creativity and Expression
Historically, artists in Ireland were invaluable in preserving the culture of the country. The artists of Ireland wrote and performed songs, poems and tales, painted pictures and kept accounts of history coloured by their experience. As a result, Irish heritage is rich and maintained in many written and oral forms. For example, when the native Irish Gaelic language was suppressed under British rule, the history of Ireland was transmitted through songs containing historical and patriotic themes. Literature has also played a significant role in forming Irish culture and identity. The country is known for producing many distinguished writers like Oscar Wilde, James Joyce and William Butler Yeats.
In contemporary Ireland, the diversity of expression informs the way in which the Irish appreciate the experience of others and express their own. Respect for creativity and expression is found throughout the country and abroad. For example, many Irish children are taught to play traditional instruments as a way to carry on ancient Celtic traditions. Moreover, Irish dancing is increasingly popular, with Irish dancing teachers all over the world teaching second-, third- and fourth-generation Irish children traditional jigs and reels.