Ireland

Ireland, Irish Éire, country of western Europe occupying five-sixths of the westernmost major island of the British Isles.

The magnificent scenery of Ireland’s Atlantic coastline faces a 2,000-mile- (3,200-km-) wide expanse of ocean, and its geographic isolation has helped it to develop a rich heritage of culture and tradition that was linked initially to the Gaelic language. Washed by abundant rain, the country’s pervasive grasslands create a green-hued landscape that is responsible for the popular sobriquet Emerald Isle. Ireland is also renowned for its wealth of folklore, from tales of tiny leprechauns with hidden pots of gold to that of the patron saint, Patrick, with his legendary ridding the island of snakes and his reputed use of the three-leaved shamrock as a symbol for the Christian Trinity. But while many may think of Ireland as an enchanted land, the republic has been beset with perennial concerns—emigration, cultural and political identity, and relations with Northern Ireland (comprising the 6 of Ireland’s 32 counties within the province of Ulster that remain part of the United Kingdom). At the beginning of the 21st century, Ireland’s long-standing economic problems were abating, owing to its diverse export-driven economy, but calamity struck again in 2008 when a new financial and economic crisis befell the country, culminating in a very costly bailout of the Irish economy by the European Union (EU) and the International Monetary Fund.

The emergence of Ireland as an independent country is a fairly recent phenomenon. Until the 17th century, political power was widely shared among a rather loosely constructed network of small earldoms in often-shifting alliances. Following the so-called “Flight of the Earls” after an unsuccessful uprising in the early 17th century, Ireland effectively became an English colony. It was formally incorporated into the United Kingdom in 1801. A 1914 Home Rule Act was passed but never implemented due to pro-union militancy in the north, the onset of World War I, and the subsequent Irish War of Independence. In 1920 the island was effectively partitioned with the creation of Northern Ireland, a six-county area with devolved powers within the United Kingdom, whereas under the Anglo-Irish Treaty of December 6, 1921, the other 26 counties became the Irish Free State, a self-governing dominion within the British Commonwealth and Empire. In 1937 the southern state passed a new constitution that offered a more robust expression of sovereignty, and in 1949 it formally left the Commonwealth as the Republic of Ireland.

Since then Ireland has become integrated with the rest of western Europe. It joined the European Economic Community (forerunner of the EU) in 1973. Though the country generally retained a neutral role in international affairs, in 2008 Ireland became an impediment to the enactment of the Lisbon Treaty—an agreement aimed at streamlining the EU’s processes and giving it a higher international profile—when the Irish voted against the passage of the treaty in a national referendum. The treaty, however, was approved by Irish voters in a second referendum, held the following year.

Dependent on agriculture, Ireland was long among Europe’s poorest regions, a principal cause of mass migration from Ireland, especially during the cycle of famine in the 19th century. Some 40 million Americans trace their ancestry to Ireland as a result of that traumatic exodus, as do millions of others throughout the world. Every year members of this diaspora visit their ancestral homeland and forge connections with long-lost family.

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