Erin, Éire, Ireland — the Emerald Isle of the north Atlantic is a beautiful island with beautiful names. The ancient Irish called it Éire (“Ire”), which might have meant “fertile country.” Put Éire together with the Old English word
Ireland is divided into thirty-two counties, grouped into four provinces: Leinster, Ulster, Connacht, and Munster. Twenty-six counties are in the Republic of Ireland, and six are in Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom, and the Republic of Ireland is an independent nation. (A map of Ireland and its environs has been provided on the inside back cover of this book for your reference.)
There's something unique about Ireland. It's a place where you can sit on an incredibly green field with a Neolithic tomb to your left and an ivy-covered monastery to your right. A farmer might drive a herd of sheep past you, then return to his thatch-roofed house to check his e-mail. Ireland is a place with a rich history, where the layers of different cultures have blended together into a beautiful mix found nowhere else. Its history has been filled with poetry, humor, and tragedy. It's a place worth getting to know.
Ireland has a long and colorful history, and to cover everything about the island would require an entire library. While this book can't contain every detail, it does provide the major elements of Irish history and heritage. It gives a solid overview of the Irish story and provides a starting point for learning more through reading or travel.
There were people in Ireland in prehistoric days, long before the dawn of Christianity. Ireland's earliest residents built enigmatic structures out of rock and made some intriguing pottery and jewelry, but their lives are still mostly a mystery. Historians know more about the Celts, whose culture overtook the island around the time the Romans were running most of Europe. They left behind a body of myths and culture that became a touchstone for later Irish people who wanted to define “Irishness.”
Christianity arrived in Ireland in the fourth or fifth century, supposedly through the influence of St. Patrick. The Celtic people incorporated the new faith into their lives, and Ireland became a center for scholarship and missionary work — the island of saints and scholars. Both saints and scholars lost their momentum in the ninth century when Viking invaders arrived and began an era of pillaging and conquest. Eventually, the Vikings either left or became upstanding Irish citizens themselves. They introduced several cultural innovations and founded many major towns, including Dublin.
The Viking era later became a symbol of Irish resistance to occupation; the king Brian Boru became an icon of Irish nationalism and bravery. A more tenacious invader, however, was to arrive shortly after the Vikings. The British came in the 1100s and never really left. The years of British wars and occupation had their share of low points — Cromwell's depredations, the Ulster Plantation, the Great Famine — but Irish culture continued to develop. Irish writers from Swift to Yeats showed a genius for using the Irish language, while Irish cooks demonstrated a world-class facility with the potato.
Ireland eventually won its independence and has worked hard to regain its own identity. It has had difficulties — lingering economic problems, the Troubles of Northern Ireland — but the Irish people have continued to push forward. Today, with peace in the North and amazing economic developments in the Republic, Ireland is enjoying its best times ever.
In addition to its fascinating history, Ireland also has an extremely vibrant culture. One reason Irish culture is so well known is that Irish people have spread all over the world. Hard times at home forced many people to emigrate to other countries. These emigrants became important members of their new societies and continue to embrace their heritage today.