Terrain: Lakes and Forests
Ireland's terrain is one of the reasons it's such a pleasure to visit. Although it has few dramatic features, like large mountains or giant lakes, it has an attractive diversity of landscapes that are accessible on a human scale. It's not the place for rugged hiking or wilderness expeditions, but it can't be beat for pleasant strolls in the countryside.
A Watery Wonderland
Ireland is full of picturesque lakes, gouged out by glaciers during the last Ice Age. The lakes near Killarney have stunned visitors for years. Lough Neagh in Northern Ireland is Ireland's largest lake.
Ireland is also full of rivers, which have allowed people to penetrate Ireland's interior either to settle it or to attack it. The Shannon is the longest river; it runs from County Cavan to the Shannon Estuary between Counties Clare and Limerick, traveling more than 230 miles across the middle of the island.
Forests and Farms
In prehistoric times, Ireland was covered with forests. Most of these trees were oaks, mixed with birch and pine on the hills and with elm, alder, ash, and hawthorn in the lower areas. Other plants grew under the trees. The forest was home to a large variety of animal species.
Farmers started cutting down trees about 6,000 years ago, but deforestation didn't become rampant until the 1500s. At that time the English occupiers cut down most of Ireland's oak to use in shipbuilding and barrel making. By the eighteenth century, Ireland had very little forest left and had to import most of its wood. In the twentieth century, Irish people began planting tree farms, and now about 5 percent of the country is covered with trees again. Most of that is commercially grown pine, but some people are working on planting oaks and other native trees again.
The forests have been replaced with natural bogs and man-made agricultural fields. Ireland has long been a great place to farm; even the most marginal land on hillsides can support bumper crops of potatoes, though it's not good for much else. The richest soil is in central and eastern Ireland, east of the Shannon River. The west is rockier and not especially good for agriculture; that's why Oliver Cromwell banished rebellious Irish out there, keeping the better land for his own supporters (See Chapter 7).
Were limericks invented in Limerick?
No one knows where they're from. The people of Limerick are known for their ribald humor and it's thought that the town was mentioned in many early poems of this form, and so the name stuck.