Europe

Ireland country profile - Overview

  • 26 May 2015
  • From the section Europe
Map of Ireland

Ireland emerged from the conflict that marked its birth as an independent state to become one of Europe's economic success stories in the final decade of the twentieth century.

After the country joined the European Community in 1973, it was transformed from a largely agricultural society into a modern, high-technology economy.

Its strong literary and musical traditions, as well as its long history of emigration, have given Ireland an international cultural presence disproportionate to its size.

History

Christianised in the sixth century, Ireland's Gaelic regional kingdoms were disrupted by an invasion from Norman England in the 12th century. The reach of the English crown fluctuated for centuries, but was extended over all of Ireland in the 16th century.

The capital Dublin is a popular with tourists

Despite attempts by the London authorities to impose Protestantism, most of the country remained staunchly Catholic. The bloody suppression of two major 17th century Irish Catholic rebellions left a legacy of lasting bitterness.

Dominated by a privileged Protestant Anglo-Irish minority, the Kingdom of Ireland reluctantly united with the British crown in 1800. But most Irish were never fully reconciled to the United Kingdom, and the 19th century saw a growing independence movement.

The sentiment was boosted by the Great Famine of the 1840s, which cut Ireland's population by a quarter through death and emigration - a disaster seen as worsened by government neglect.

Independence and partition

During World War I, nationalist ferment erupted in the Easter Rising of 1916. The uprising was crushed, but the independence campaign continued in the Anglo-Irish War of 1919-1921.

De facto independence came in 1922 as a result of the Anglo-Irish Treaty. The new Irish Free State, formed out of 26 of Ireland's 32 counties, was formally still part of the British empire, but largely self-governing.

Although defeated in the 1922-3 Irish Civil War, Republicans seeking full sovereignty became the leading electoral force in the 1930s. In 1948, all ties to the British monarchy were severed and the modern-day Republic of Ireland formed.

Six Protestant-dominated counties of Northern Ireland - afraid of a majority Catholic united Ireland - in 1921 opted to stay in the United Kingdom. Northern Ireland subsequently saw decades of violent conflict between those campaigning for a united Ireland, and those wishing to stay in the United Kingdom.

Despite a legacy of strained relations over the partition, the Irish and UK governments have worked closely to achieve a negotiated peace, culminating in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement on power-sharing in Northern Ireland.

Ireland joined the European Union in 1973, and was a founding member of the euro. The country follows a policy of military neutrality, and is not a member of Nato.

Economy

Long dominated by agriculture and high unemployment, Ireland's economy began to be transformed as a result of tax cuts, deregulation, and a policy of negotiated pay restraint introduced in the late 1980s.

The economic boom of the 1990s transformed Dublin

Foreign investment flowed, and Ireland became one of Europe's foremost knowledge economies, unleashing a period of rapid growth known as the "Celtic Tiger" from the mid-1990s onwards.

Even the country's longstanding pattern of mass emigration was reversed, with the boom attracting a growing number of incomers and creating a new multiculturalism.

But after 2000, growth increasingly came from a property boom fuelled by massive bank lending. When this collapsed as a result of the 2008 world financial crisis, the Irish economy suffered one of the eurozone's deepest recessions, and public debt and unemployment soared.

In 2010, the Irish government had to accept an EU/IMF bailout to the tune of 85bn euros in return for agreeing to implement strict austerity measures.

Signs of Ireland having turned the corner began to emerge in 2013. That year, the economy pulled out of its second recession since the crisis and Ireland became the first eurozone nation to leave the bailout scheme.

But although falling gradually from a 15% high in 2012, unemployment remains a problem. Tens of thousands of Irish reportedly emigrated between 2008-13.

Culture

Ireland is famed for its vibrant literary tradition. Ireland has produced many of the English-speaking world's most renowned writers, including Oscar Wilde, W.B. Yeats, George Bernhard Shaw and James Joyce.

The Gaelic language - a member of the Celtic language group that also includes Welsh and Breton - was displaced by English as the main language of most Irish in the 18th and 19th centuries, but is the republic's first official language. It is still spoken as a first language in certain pockets known as Gaeltacht, mainly in rural areas of the far West.

Drawing on its long folk tradition and international influence, the country has one of Europe's liveliest music scenes.

Along with the famously green landscape, Ireland's cultural life - and not least its renowned pub atmosphere - is a major tourist draw.

Recent decades have seen a weakening of the Catholic Church's traditionally powerful role in Irish life, evinced especially in a turn away from social conservatism.

The west of Ireland features spectacular sea and mountain landscapes

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