The Island of Ireland is the second-largest island in Europe. It lies on the west side of the Irish Sea, across from Great Britain.

The island of Ireland, named Hibernia by the Romans, is 485km (301 miles) from North to South and 275km (171 miles) from East to West. Central lowlands are framed by hillier areas. The River Shannon, which runs from North-East to South-West, is the longest river, and there are a large number of lakes, of which Lough Neagh is the largest. For more detailed information see: Geography of Ireland.

Politically, the island of Ireland is currently divided into:

  • the Republic of Ireland, capital - Dublin, also referred to as 'the Republic';
  • Northern Ireland, capital - Belfast, also referred to controversially as the 'Six Counties', 'The North of Ireland', and 'Ulster' (the latter somewhat misleadingly as it is also the name of the historic province of Ulster encompassing three counties in the Republic as well as the six counties of Northern Ireland).1

The island is often said to be part of the British Isles. However, many people, especially those from the Republic, take exception to this name, which seems to suggest the whole island belongs to Britain. For this reason, the term Islands of the North Atlantic (IONA) is sometimes used as a more neutral alternative.

The division of the island into "Northern" and "Republic" is a relatively recent development, only coming about in 1920. The island itself has been inhabited for about 9,000 years. The Irish language (Gaeilge) arrived with the Celts in the last centuries BC; it is referred to as 'Irish' by the people of Ireland, and sometimes anglicized into 'Gaelic' by foreigners (which can prompt confusion with the Scottish Gaelic language). Almost nothing is known of the languages spoken before. In the 5th century, the country was converted to Christianity with Saint Patrick being central in this effort according to tradition. It subsequently became a centre of Christian scholarship. This was brought largely to an end, however, with the invasion of the Vikings in the 10th century and the Normans in the 12th century.

In 1172, King Henry II of England gained Irish lands, and from the 13th century, English law began to be introduced. English rule was largely limited to the area around Dublin known as the Pale initially, but this began to expand in the 16th century with the final collapse of the Gaelic social and political superstructure at the end of the 17th century. From that time, English (more accurately British) influence and expansion grew, and with it spread the English language. Over time there grew a movement to shake off British rule, and for Ireland to become independent. See history of Ireland for more details.

More recently, the Good Friday Agreement of April 10, 1998 has brought a degree of powersharing to Northern Ireland, giving both unionists, who favour it remaining a part of the United Kingdom, and nationalists, who favour it becoming part of the Irish state a hand in running its affairs. However, the power conferred by the agreement is limited, and the agreement has come close to breaking down on a number of occasions. The political future of Northern Ireland remains unclear.

In a limited number of areas, the island operates as a single entity. The Irish rugby team, for instance, includes players from the north and the south, and the Irish Rugby Football Union governs the sport on both sides of the divide. Gaelic football is, arguably, the most popular form of football and is played and organised on an All-Ireland basis. Once largely confined to one side of the divide, in recent years counties from Northern Ireland have had success. In 2002 and 2003, Armagh and Tyrone respectively won the coveted Gaelic football All-Ireland title, with both teams meeting in the 2003 final. Hurling, a kin of field hockey, is another popular traditional Irish sport, with teams from all 32 counties north and south competing. However, successes in this sport largely are confined to southern teams. Both these sports are governed by the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA), with its headquarters at Dublin's Croke Park, a magnificent 80,000 seater stadium at which both All-Ireland finals are played. Many matches in the final stages of the campaign (i.e. Quarter-finals, Semi-Finals etc.) are competed here. Boxing is also an All-Ireland sport governed by the I.A.B.A. The major religions, the Roman Catholic Church, the Church of Ireland and the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, are organised on an all-island basis. However soccer is organised within each state, with the (Northern) Irish Football Association and the (Southern) Football Association of Ireland. Some trades unions are also organised on an all-Irish basis and associated with the Irish Congress of Trades Unions (ICTU) in Dublin, while others in Northern Ireland are affiliated with the Trades Union Congress (TUC) in the United Kingdom.

The island also has a shared culture across the divide in many other ways. Traditional Irish music, for example, though showing some variance in all geographical areas, is broadly speaking the same on both sides of the divide.

Ireland is a full member of the European Union since January 1, 1973. Both the Republic of Ireland itself and Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom joined simultaneously. The Republic of Ireland is also a member of the European Economic and Monetary Union. As such, the Irish Pound was replaced by the Euro as the official currency on the 1st of January, 2002.

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1 The term Ulster is often used by many unionists. The terms North of Ireland or Six Counties are used by many nationalists and republicans. Each community usually takes offence at the other's term. Northern Ireland is the official name and the one used most widely across the communities.