The island of Ireland is the third-largest island in Europe. It lies on the west side of the Irish Sea, close to the island of Great Britain. It is composed of the Republic of Ireland in the south and Northern Ireland, a region of the United Kingdom. The population of the island is about 5.6 million people. The population of the republic recently passed 4 million for the first time since 1871, due to immigration and increased birth rate.
Politically, the island of Ireland is currently divided into:
This partition has existed since 1922, when the Irish Free State came into being as an independent state. Prior to that, the entire island was united politically under the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. Prior to the Act of Union in 1800, it also had an all-Ireland parliament. See Irish States (1171-present).
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, "Britain and Ireland" is commonly used as a more neutral alternative. Another suggestion, although used much less, is the Islands of the North Atlantic (IONA).
The division of the island into "Northern" and "Republic" is a relatively recent development, only coming about in 1920 after hundreds of years of violent repression, penal laws and various failed rebellions against English occupation. The island itself has been inhabited for about 9,000 years. The Irish language (Gaeilge) arrived with the Celts in the last centuries BCE; 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 due to manipulation by the British government. In the middle of the 1800's the country suffered a huge potato famine. The ruling local elite's laissez-faire approach to this catastrophe meant that millions were starving, spurring emigration waves to Britain, North America and Australia. The result was that, between deaths and emigration, the population dropped from over 8 million before the Famine to 4.4 million in 1911. From that time, English 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.
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. In sport, for example, the Irish rugby team 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 the most popular form of football and is played and organised on an All-Ireland basis; Hurling, a faster, more violent precursor of field hockey, is another popular traditional Irish sport, with teams from all 32 counties north and south competing - both these sports are governed by the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA). 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 of Ireland, are organised on an all-island basis. 92% of the population of the Republic of Ireland are Roman Catholic, and 40% in Northern Ireland. 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.
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