An Outline Geography of Ireland
Ireland is an island on the western fringe of Europe between latitude 51 1/2 and 55 1/2 degrees north, and longitude 5 1/2 to 10 1/2 degrees west. Its greatest length, from Malin Head in the north to Mizen Head in the south, is 486 km and its greatest width from east to west is approximately 275 km. Since 1921 the island has been divided politically into two parts. The independent twenty-six county area, comprising 70,282 sq. km, has a population of 3,523,401 (1991). Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom and contains six of the nine counties of the ancient province of Ulster, has a population of 1,569,971 (1991). In 1973 Ireland became a member of the European Union (EU).
The two great mountain systems of Europe, north of the Alps, converge westwards to meet and mingle in Ireland. The older (Caledonian) extends from Scandinavia through Scotland to the north and west of Ireland, where it gives rise to the rugged and mountainous landscapes of Counties Donegal, Mayo and Galway. The higher mountains are of quartzite which weathers into bare, cone-shaped peaks such as Errigal (752 m) in Donegal, Croagh Patrick (765m) in Mayo and the Twelve Bens in Galway. Structures of similar age are responsible for the Wicklow and Blackstairs mountains which extend south-westwards from Dublin Bay for a distance of more than 100 km. In these, long-continued denudation of a great anticlinal structure has exposed a granite core which now forms rounded peat-covered uplands, the crests being notched in places by glacial cirques. The mountains are penetrated by deep glacially modified valleys of which the best known is Glendalough in County Wicklow.
The younger structures (Armorican) extend from central Europe through Brittany to southern Ireland, where they reappear as a series of east-west anticlinal sandstone ridges separated by limestone or shale-floored valleys. The hills rise in height westwards culminating in Carrantouhill (1041 m) in the Magillycuddy Reeks, the highest mountain in the country. The famous Upper Lake of Killarney nestles in the eastern slopes of this range. The valleys separating the western extension of these mountains have been flooded by the sea, giving rise to a number of long deep inlets.
In north-eastern Ireland basaltic lavas spread widely over the existing rocks in Eocene times and now form the bleak plateau of east Antrim. Westwards the basalt is downwarped and the resultant drift-covered lowland is occupied in part by Lough Neagh, the largest lake in Ireland.
The heart of the country is a limestone- floored lowland bounded on the south by the Armorican ridges and on the north and west by the Caledonian mountains. This lowland is open to the Irish Sea for a distance of 90 km between the Wicklow Mountains and the Carlingford peninsula, giving easy access to the country from the east. It also extends westwards to reach the Atlantic Ocean along the Shannon Estuary, in Galway Bay, in Clew Bay and again in Donegal Bay. Numerous hills break the monotony of the lowland which rises westward towards the coast in County Clare where it terminates in the cliffs of Moher, one of the finest lines of cliff scenery in Western Europe.
Much of Ireland was covered by ice during the Pleistocene period. This ice finally melted away about twelve thousand years ago, leaving behind evidence of its former presence in most of the minor physical features of the landscape. Throughout the greater part of the lowland the bedrock is hidden by glacial deposits which, in the north central part of the country, form a broad belt of small hills (drumlins). The glacial cover also modified the early drainage pattern and in places created groundwater conditions which facilitated the growth of peat bogs.
The lowland is drained by numerous slow- flowing streams, the largest of which is the River Shannon, 340 km in length. In its middle course this river broadens into a number of attractive lakes but as it approaches the sea its gradient steepens. This is the location of Ireland's earliest hydro-electric power scheme. The main rivers draining eastwards are the Lagan, which flows into Belfast Lough, the Liffey, with Dublin at its mouth, and the Slaney, which enters the sea at Wexford. In the south of Ireland the long east-west synclinal valleys are occupied by such rivers as the Suir, the Lee and the Blackwater which reach the coast by making right-angled turns to pass southwards through the sandstone ridges in narrow gorge-like valleys.
Ireland's mild and equable climate is a reflection of the fact that its shores are bathed by the relatively warm ocean waters of the North Atlantic Drift. Valencia, in the extreme south-west, has an average January temperature of 7íC and a July temperature of 1 5íC, a range of only eight degrees. The figures for Dublin are 4.5íC in January and 1 5.5íC in July, a range of eleven degrees. Extremely high or low temperatures are virtually unknown.
Rainfall is heaviest on the westward facing slopes of the hills where it may exceed 3,000 mm in Kerry, Mayo and Donegal. The east is much drier and Dublin records on average only 785 mm annually.
The outstanding feature of the Irish weather is its changeability, a characteristic which it shares with all the countries that lie in the path of the temperate depressions. However more stable atmospheric conditions may arise in winter with the extension of the continental high pressure system bringing clear skies and cool conditions, especially to the eastern part of the country. In summer an extension of the Azores high pressure system may bring periods of light easterly winds and bright sunny weather.
Most of the soils of Ireland are derived from glacial drift and reflect its varied composition and texture. There are large areas of fertile grey-brown podzolic soils on the better drained parts of the lowland. These give way to less fertile acid brown earths where the parent material is low in lime or to gleyed soils where the drainage is poor. Thin acid peaty soils are widespread on the hills.
The visitor to Ireland is immediately impressed by two aspects of the vegetation cover. The first is an impression of intense greenness, the result of the abundant grasses responding to the mild moist air. The second is the relative absence of trees, especially along the western seaboard where strong winds are the main limiting factor to growth. The once extensive oak woodlands of the midlands were cleared over most of the country by the seventeenth century and remain today only as remnants in remote areas. The flora is of more limited variety than elsewhere in Europe but it has some interesting features. In the extreme south- west (Cork/Kerry) there is a vegetation with Mediterranean affinities which includes the Arbutus. The numerous bryophytes and lichens reflect the mildness and high humidity of this part of Ireland. In the Burren in County Clare an Arctic-Alpine flora survives from a colder period in the past.
Apart from seals which breed around the coast and whales which occasionally visit coastal waters, Ireland has twenty-seven species of mammal. These include the red deer, pine marten, badger, otter, hare and stoat which are native to the country, as well as introduced species such as the fallow deer, rabbit and other rodents. Ireland's only reptile is a small lizard and there are three amphibia, the newt, the frog and the toad. The rivers and lakes have salmon, trout, char, pollan, perch, pike and eels. Of the three hundred and eighty species of wild bird recorded in Ireland, only about one-third breed in the country.
Ireland has been inhabited since Stone-Age times and for more than five thousand years has been the recipient of peoples moving westwards across the European continent. Each new group of immigrants has contributed something to its population and culture and no group ever entirely obliterated the character of the earlier ones. It is these diverse elements that have come together to form the distinctive Irish nation of today.
The population of all Ireland was 8.2 million in 1841 and four-fifths of those lived in rural areas. After the famine of 1846, when many people died and many more emigrated, the population began to decrease, so that by 1930 it was only half what it had been in 1846. One result of this large-scale emigration, which continued throughout the latter part of the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth century, was that many people of Irish descent have made their homes in other countries. Irish men and women have made a significant contribution to life in Britain, the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.
From the 1960s population numbers gradually stabilised and between 1971 and 1986 there was a modest annual increase averaging just over one per cent. From 1986, however, the population declined for a few years as a result of renewed high emigration. The total number of people living in the state in 1991 was 3,523,401, a decrease of 17,242 on the 1986 figure. The overall density of population is 50 per square kilometre. There is a strong and continuing movement from rural areas to towns so that 52 per cent of the population now live in urban areas of 1,500 inhabitants or more. The rural population, which is mainly in dispersed, isolated farmsteads, is fairly evenly distributed throughout the country except in the mountainous areas and the peat bogs. Densities as high as 180 per square kilometre occur along the western seaboard, where the farms are small. Low rural densities are associated with the larger farms on the richer land in the east. The influence of Dublin and other urban areas is clearly seen in the above-average densities in their contiguous rural areas.
In Ireland (Republic) Roman Catholics comprise 95 per cent of the community. Other denominations include Church of Ireland (Anglican), Presbyterian, Methodist and a number of smaller Protestant groups. They are strongest in the counties bordering Northern Ireland, especially in Donegal (12 per cent), and in the Eastern Region which includes Dublin, Kildare, Meath and Wicklow (7 per cent). In Northern Ireland 65 per cent of the population is Protestant, mainly Church of Ireland and Presbyterian. They dominate in the three eastern counties of Ulster and comprise 40-50 per cent of the population in the west. There is also a small Jewish community centred in Dublin, Belfast and Cork.
For the great majority of the people in Ireland, English is the language in everyday use, but a quarter of the population claims to be competent in Irish as well. Irish remains the first language in the Gaeltacht (Irish speaking areas), located along the remoter areas of the western seaboard, and in some very small pockets of Irish speakers in West Cork, Waterford and Meath.
Even quite small village-like settlements are basically service centres providing shopping facilities for the rural community. The larger towns are also service centres but, in addition, usually have industrial, administrative and commercial functions. The main concentration of towns is in the east and south of the country and all of the larger centres grew up as ports. Dublin (city and county population 1,021,449), the focus of the roads and railways, is situated where the central lowland reaches eastwards to the Irish Sea. It is the chief commercial, industrial, administrative, educational and cultural centre. Cork city (127,000) has traditionally been associated with the processing and marketing of agricultural products but it benefits also from the presence of large-scale industrial development around its outer harbour and the use of natural gas from the offshore Kinsale field. Waterford (40,000), Dundalk (26,000) and Drogheda (24,000) are smaller regional centres with industrial functions. On the west coast, the main city is Limerick (52,000), which is located at the lowest crossing place on the river Shannon. It shares in the prosperity of the Shannon Industrial Estate but its harbour facilities are now little used, though significant port and industrial activities are developing westwards along the Shannon estuary. Other significant western urban centres are Galway (51,000) and Sligo (17,000).
In Northern Ireland the chief towns are Belfast (400,000), an administrative and engineering centre with a fine harbour, and Derry (190,000), the focus of the Foyle lowland. The new town of Craigavon links the older urban centres of Lurgan and Portadown and together the total population of the three towns is 72,000 people.
Farms and enclosed fields dominate the Irish landscape. Two-thirds of the surface area is improved agricultural land and much of the remainder is used by farmers as rough grazing for cattle and sheep. Almost all the land is owned by the farmers who work it, the former defective tenancy system as was replaced by owner-occupancy in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Farms of small and medium size predominate, over half the holdings being 10-40 hectares. Farm size decreases westwards and northwards and poorer land quality in the west adds to the agricultural difficulties of the area.
Although the role of agriculture diminishes as the Economy develops, it is still a major source of income, export earnings and employment. Farm products contribute about 20 per cent of the total value of exports and agriculture's share of employment is 14 per cent (7 per cent in Northern Ireland). The agricultural labour force has halved over the last twenty-five years but the welfare of the farming community has increased, aided since 1973 by the market outlets and financial support of the EU.
Irish agriculture is predominantly mixed pastoral farming with some subsidiary arable cropping. The mild, moist climate and the soils are more suitable for the growth of grass than for arable crops. Livestock farming has been further favoured by the large market demand for its products in Britain and continental Europe. Livestock products account for more than four-fifths of the value of agricultural output. Dairying is most important in the south-west and in the north and, apart from urban supply from areas near cities, most of the milk is processed. The beef cattle industry is widespread: the emphasis in the west on rearing young stock, whereas on the better land and the larger farms of midland and eastern areas it is more on fattening. Sheep are of greatest significance in the upland environment and in a traditional sheep area on the dry limestone land of south Connacht. The horse-breeding industry is most concentrated in north Leinster with many stud farms around the Curragh in County Kildare. Pig and poultry production was traditionally associated with the small- farm, dairying areas of Ulster and to a lesser extent with Munster but modern production units have been established in other places also. Tillage occupies one-tenth of the agricultural land, the main crops being barley, wheat, oats, potatoes and sugar beet. They are mainly on the lighter soils in the drier and sunnier east of the country, though oats and potatoes are better able to tolerate conditions in the west.
There has been an active state afforestation programme in this century, especially since 1950. Over 400,000 hectares have been planted by the state. There was a rapid increase in private afforestation in the 1980s. Forests now cover 6 per cent of the land area, but Ireland still remains the least forested country in Europe apart from Iceland. The objectives have been to provide a domestic supply of timber, to make profitable use of land and to afford employment.
Forestry policy had been to use land which was less suited for agriculture, mainly in upland and peat bog areas. There the environmental conditions favour coniferous trees which mature rapidly, planting being mainly of sitka spruce and lodgepole pine. From the early 1950s the use of hardier species and of machinery and fertilisers facilitated planting on deep peat and in more difficult environments, resulting in a westward and upward shift in the focus of afforestation. The remoter rural and western areas already derive employment and income benefits but as the forests mature and timber output increases the impact will be much greater. Planting of land which is marginal for agriculture has been encouraged under EU policies from the 1980s. The recreational role of forests has increased dramatically since the 196Os with twenty forest parks and about five hundred other forest sites being open to the public.
The marine environment on the continental shelf around Ireland is generally productive of fish but the bulk of the catch has for long been taken by the fleets of other countries and the fortunes of the Irish fishing industry have fluctuated. From the early 196Os major development efforts were made, including harbour improvement, provision of larger and better-equipped vessels, training, expansion of processing, organisation of distribution and market development at home and abroad. Fish landings expanded dramatically but from the mid-1970s expansion of the industry was hindered by some problems of resource supply, with the need for restrictions on fishing.
The total catch of the Irish fleet is about 250,000 tonnes. Mackerel is the leading fish by value, followed by Dublin Bay prawns, cod, herring, salmon and whiting. There are many fishing ports scattered around the coast but the principal ones are Killybegs, Howth, Rossaveel, Dunmore East and Castletownbere, and in Northern Ireland Kilkeel, Ardglass and Portavogie. Many fish farms have been established along the coast, especially in the west. They are contributing an increasing share of fish output, with salmon being the leading variety.
Major expansion in Irish mining during the 196Os and 1970s related mainly to the development of metalliferous resources. Mining began at Tynagh in east Galway, at Silvermines and Gortdrum in County Tipperary and at Avoca in County Wicklow but production has ceased at these mines. The greatest development has been at Navan in County Meath where production began in 1977 on one of the largest zinc-lead deposits in the world.
The most widespread mining activity is the quarrying of sand, gravel and stone for the large construction industry. Limestone is used as a soil improver and in cement manufacture. Other minerals extracted include barite in Tipperary, gypsum in Cavan and marble in west Galway.
Peat is a major mineral fuel and Ireland is the second-largest producer in the world. It has been hand-cut as a domestic fuel for centuries but now output is mainly by mechanised cutting, especially on the large bogs of the central lowland. There has been considerable offshore exploration for oil and natural gas and in 1978 the first gas came ashore from the Kinsale Head gas field off Cork. It is piped from Cork to Dublin and the major towns.
Ireland is dependent on imported fuels for the major part of its energy supply but the policy has been to utilise native resources to the maximum in the generation of electricity. The first major development was the ambitious Shannon hydroelectric scheme in the 1920s, followed by harnessing of the Rivers Liffey, Erne, Lee and Clady in the 1940s and 1950s. There is a pumped storage plant in the Wicklow Mountains. Eleven medium to small peat-fired power stations had begun production by the early 1960s, mainly in the midlands. Electricity is also generated from Kinsale natural gas in the Cork Harbour area and in Dublin.
Most of the power stations using indigenous resources are at inland locations but all those based on imported fuels have coastal sites and are generally of much larger size. Production at these stations was initially from coal but later principally from oil. Location had been mainly adjacent to the largest urban markets for electricity in Dublin and Belfast but other sheltered, deep-water sites have been used near Larne in County Antrim and on Lough Foyle, the Shannon Estuary and Waterford Harbour. There is a large coal-fired power station at Moneypoint on the Clare shore of the Shannon estuary.
Transport in Ireland is predominantly by road. There are public bus and freight services but most road transport is in private vehicles. The dense road network was developed to serve a population which was larger than at present and traffic density is low by European standards. Yet with increasing motor vehicle ownership there is considerable traffic congestion in and around the major urban centres and some of the main routes are being improved.
With the growth of competition from road transport, the railway system which had developed in the nineteenth century contracted through closure of light railways, branch lines, some main routes and smaller stations. The network now comprises 2,300 km of route way with Dublin as the main focus. The railway operates at a substantial loss but its social benefits are recognised.
External air and sea links are vital to Ireland because of its island location. Almost all the goods traffic and substantial passenger movement goes by sea. The principal ports are on the east and south coasts, most of the traffic being through Larne, Belfast, Dublin, Dun Laoghaire, Rosslare, Waterford and Cork. The main international airports are at Dublin, Belfast, Shannon and Cork. Air services operate to the principal British cities and to mainland European countries, with the main role of Shannon being in transatlantic traffic. The considerable expansion in air transport is reflected in the growth of the national airline, Aer Lingus, which carries more than four million passengers annually.
Much of early manufacturing development was concentrated in the north-east of Ireland, the Lagan valley becoming the major industrial area in the country, relying mainly on linen and shipbuilding. When both of these industries fell into decline, diversification of the industrial structure became a major objective of policy in Northern Ireland and a variety of new industries were established, principally of British origin and mainly in the east.
In the attempt to develop an industrial sector the Irish Government followed at first a protectionist policy with the objective of establishing Irish-owned manufacturing to serve the home market. There was a major reversal of policy from the late 1950s, with the initiation of a movement towards free trade and promotion of export-oriented industry. Foreign involvement has been actively encouraged, the main investment coming from the United States, Britain and Germany. Factory employment is now three times what it was at the time of independence. There had been a high degree of industrial concentration in Dublin and the main urban centres but state policy has been to bring manufacturing to other towns also and to favour development in the west by making higher grants available to firms establishing there.
The principal sectors in Irish manufacturing are metals and engineering, the food, drink and tobacco industries, and textiles and clothing. Industries in which there has been substantial recent growth include light engineering, electronics, synthetic fibres, pharmaceuticals and plastics.
The food and drink industries are more widely dispersed throughout the country than are other forms of manufacturing, since their raw materials are for the most part produced in rural areas. The remainder of manufacturing is more concentrated in the main industrial centres, principally Belfast and Dublin. With decline in some of the industries in these centres and the establishment of new factories throughout the country, the trend has been towards greater decentralisation of manufacturing .
There has been major growth in Irish tourism since the Second World War, related mainly to increased affluence, improved transport facilities and greater promotion and organisation of the industry. A severe setback occurred in the years 1969-72, principally as a result of violence in Northern Ireland, and subsequent recovery has been slower in the north. Tourism plays an important role in the balance of payments, with over three million people visiting the country annually. Visitors come mainly from Great Britain but also from continental Europe, North America and other areas. There is also substantial tourist traffic within the country.
The tourist attractions of Ireland include the relaxed atmosphere and friendliness of the people, the clean rural environment, the varied and attractive scenery, the important historical and literary associations and the opportunities to participate in recreational activities. There is also a major ethnic factor, with emigrants returning home on holiday and people of Irish descent visiting relatives and places of ancestral connection. Tourism is strongly oriented towards the coastal zone, which offers the attractions of the sea, scenic landscapes and the major cities and towns. Dublin is the single most important centre but the western seaboard is the part of the country having the greatest tourist appeal.
Growth of the service or tertiary sector has been a major feature of economic development in recent decades. It accounts for 60 per cent of employment, the role of services being greater in Northern Ireland. The principal service categories are educational and medical services, retail and wholesale distribution, public administration and defence, transport and communication, the insurance, finance and business service group, and varied personal services. The spatial patterns of individual services differ but they are essentially urban activities because of the need to be accessible to consumers and because of interrelationships between services. The high degree of concentration in the major urban centres, especially Dublin and Belfast, and the consequent increase in office activities have been reflected in the extent of office building development. There is an international off- shore services centre at the Custom House Dock in Dublin.
Regional imbalances in population trends, employment, income and related social conditions have for long been a feature of Ireland. The most striking traditional contrast is between the more prosperous east and the less developed west, though this twofold distinction is a simplification of a more complex regional pattern. The less developed character of the west can be explained mainly in terms of its more difficult physical environment, its remoteness from external influences, markets and financial sources, its heavy dependence on small-farm agriculture and its lower levels of urbanisation and infrastructural provision. The result has been low incomes, high unemployment and underemployment and heavy migration from the area with its social consequences. In recent times inner Dublin and the central districts of other cities have been recognised as problem areas also.
Attempts have been made to counteract regional imbalance since the 1950s, at first focusing exclusively on the west but later promoting western development within a broader regional planning framework. The Irish-speaking Gaeltacht areas have been particularly favoured in welfare promotion. The major initial incentive was the allocation of direct state grants to manufacturing firms locating in the west, and although grant provision was later extended to all parts, a differential was maintained in favour of western areas. The largest manufacturing concentration of this type is at Shannon, where an industrial estate was developed as part of a plan to promote traffic through the airport. While manufacturing remained the spearhead of regional policy, development efforts in other sectors assumed an increasing regional dimension, as in agriculture, forestry, fishing and tourism. Some decentralisation of government administration has been introduced. In recent years there has been a growing realisation of the role which service industries could play in regional development.
Within Northern Ireland there is also a core- periphery contrast; the main area of development comprises much of Antrim, Down and north Armagh, with most of the remainder, in particular the west, lagging behind. The more peripheral parts tend to be characterised by population, religious and political differences, by a weaker urban structure with more limited economic opportunities and by higher unemployment and emigration rates. Development measures have included infrastructural improvement, advance factory provision and higher industrial grants.
Most of the geographical features of Ireland influence the spatial pattern of economic and social development. In turn, the extent to which regional development policies are effective, both north and south, will have a major bearing on the future geography of the island.
Click here to return to the Reference Index
Click here to return to the
Information about Ireland Site