Irish Eire, second largest island (32,598 sq mi/84,429 sq km) of the British Isles. It lies W of the island of Great Britain, from which it is separated by the North Channel, the Irish Sea, and St. George's Channel. It is divided politically into Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland; physically, it is composed of a large, fertile central plain roughly enclosed by a highland rim. Heavy rains (over 80 in./203 cm annually in some areas) account for the brilliantly green grass that makes Ireland the "emerald isle." The interior is dotted with lakes and wide stretches of river called loughs. The longest river is the Shannon.
Celtic tribes in ancient Ireland established a distinctive culture (see Celt) that, in its full flower after the introduction (5th cent. A.D.) of Christianity by St. Patrick, produced superb works of art and literature. Beginning in the 8th cent., Norsemen (see Vikings) invaded the area, remaining until the Irish king Brian Boru broke their strength in 1014; Ireland then remained free from foreign interference for 150 years. But in the 12th cent. Pope Adrian granted overlordship of Ireland to Henry Ii of England, initiating an Anglo-Irish struggle that lasted for nearly 800 years. The bitter religious contention between Irish Catholics and Protestants began in the 16th cent. after England tried to impose Protestantism on a largely Catholic Ireland. Irish rebellions flared up repeatedly-under Henry Viii, Elizabeth I, and Oliver Cromwell. The Act of Union (1800) united England and Ireland; the Irish parliament was abolished, and Ireland was represented in the British parliament. Agitation by the Irish leader Daniel O'connell resulted in passage of the Catholic Emancipation Act in 1829. But political developments were dwarfed by the Great Potato Famine (1845-49), in which nearly a million Irish died of starvation and disease; another 1,600,000 emigrated (1847-54) to the U.S. Irish desire for domestic control persisted. The failure of the British government to implement Home Rule, complicated by the fear in largely Protestant Ulster of Catholic domination, led to the Easter Rebellion of 1916. The militant Sinn Féin, founded (1905) among Irish Catholics, emerged as the dominant nationalist group, declaring themselves the Dáil Éireann (Irish Assembly) and proclaiming an Irish republic (1918). Outlawed by the British, the Sinn Féin went underground and waged guerrilla warfare. In 1920 a new Home Rule bill provided for partition of Ireland, with six counties of Ulster remaining part of the United Kingdom as Northern Ireland (see Ireland, Northern). In 1922 a treaty gave the remainder of Ireland dominion status within the British Empire as the Irish Free State (see Ireland, Republic Of).
The Concise Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia Copyright© 1994. Columbia University Press.