Ireland is an island in the North Atlantic separated from Great Britain to its east by the North Channel, the Irish Sea, and St George's Channel. It is the second-largest island of the British Isles, trailing only Great Britain, the third-largest in Europe, and the twentieth-largest on Earth.
Politically, Ireland is divided between the Republic of Ireland (officially also named Ireland), which covers five-sixths of the island, and Northern Ireland, a part of the United Kingdom, which covers the remaining area and is located in the northeast of the island. In 2011 the population of Ireland was about 6.4 million, ranking it the second-most populous island in Europe. Just under 4.6 million live in the Republic of Ireland and just over 1.8 million live in Northern Ireland.
Irish culture has had a significant influence on other cultures, especially in the fields of literature and, to a lesser degree, science and education. Alongside mainstream Western culture, a strong indigenous culture exists, as expressed through Gaelic games, Irish music, and the Irish language. The culture of the island has also many features shared with Great Britain, including the English language, and sports such as association football, rugby, horse racing, and golf.
Ireland's culture comprises elements of the culture of ancient peoples, later immigrant and broadcast cultural influences (chiefly Gaelic culture, Anglicisation, Americanisation and aspects of broader European culture). In broad terms, Ireland is regarded as one of the Celtic nations of Europe with Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, Isle of Man and Brittany. This combination of cultural influences is visible in the intricate designs termed Irish interlace or Celtic knotwork. These can be seen in the ornamentation of medieval religious and secular works. The style is still popular today in jewellery and graphic art, as is the distinctive style of traditional Irish music and dance, and has become indicative of modern "Celtic" culture in general.
The island's lush vegetation, a product of its mild climate and frequent rainfall, earns it the sobriquet the Emerald Isle. Overall, Ireland has a mild but changeable oceanic climate with few extremes. The climate is typically insular and is temperate avoiding the extremes in temperature of many other areas in the world at similar latitudes. This is a result of the moderating moist winds which ordinarily prevail from the South-Western Atlantic.
The levels of education in Ireland are primary, secondary and higher (often known as "third-level") education. In recent years further education has grown immensely. Growth in the economy since the 1960s has driven much of the change in the education system. Education in Ireland is free at all levels, including college (university), but only for students applying from the European Union. For universities there are student service fees (up to €3,000 in 2015), which students are required to pay on registration, to cover examinations, insurance and registration costs.
The Department of Education and Skills, under the control of the Minister for Education and Skills, is in overall control of policy, funding and direction, while other important organisations are the National Qualifications Authority of Ireland, the Higher Education Authority, and on a local level the Education and Training Boards are the only comprehensive system of government organisation. There are many other statutory and non-statutory bodies that have a function in the education system. The current Minister for Education is Jan O'Sullivan, a TD for the Limerick City constituency.
All children must receive compulsory education between the ages of five and sixteen years, and all children up to the age of eighteen must complete the three years of post-primary. The Constitution of Ireland allows this education to be provided in the home; this has caused much legal wrangling for years as to the minimum standards required for home education since the constitution does not explicitly provide for the State to define these minimum standards.
In the English-speaking regions of Ireland (most of the state), English is the primary medium of instruction at all levels, except in Gaelscoileanna: schools in which Irish is the working language and which are increasingly popular. In the Irish-speaking regions of Ireland, Irish is likewise the primary medium of instruction at all levels. English is taught as a second language in these schools starting mostly in the second or third year. Universities also offer degree programmes in diverse disciplines, taught mostly through English, with a few in Irish. Some universities also offer some courses partly through other languages such as French, German or Spanish.
Irish cuisine is a style of cooking originating from Ireland or developed by Irish people. It evolved from centuries of social and political change. The cuisine takes its influence from the crops grown and animals farmed in its temperate climate. The introduction of the potato in the second half of the 16th century heavily influenced Ireland's cuisine thereafter and, as a result, is often closely associated with Ireland. Representative Irish dishes include Irish stew, bacon and cabbage, boxty, coddle, and colcannon.
Excavations at the Viking settlement in the Wood Quay area of Dublin have produced a significant amount of information on the diet of the inhabitants of the town. The main meats eaten were beef, mutton, and pork. Domestic poultry and geese as well as fish and shellfish were also common, as was a wide range of native berries and nuts, especially hazel. The seeds of knotgrass and goosefoot were widely present and may have been used to make a porridge.
The meat produced was mostly the preserve of the gentry and nobility. The poor generally made do with milk, butter, cheese, and offal, supplemented with oats and barley. The practice of bleeding cattle and mixing the blood with milk and butter (similar to the practice of the Maasai) was not uncommon. Black pudding is made from blood, grain, (usually barley) and seasoning, and remains a breakfast staple food in Ireland.
Potatoes were widely cultivated, but in particular by those at a subsistence level; the diet of this group of this period consisted mainly of potatoes supplemented with buttermilk. Potatoes were also fed to pigs, to fatten them prior to their slaughter at the approach of the cold winter months. Much of the slaughtered pork would have been cured to provide ham and bacon that could be stored over the winter.
The usual modern selection of foods common to Western culture has been adopted in Ireland. Common meals include pizza, curry, Chinese food, Thai food, and lately, some West African dishes and East European (especially Polish) dishes have been making an appearance, as ingredients for these and other cuisines have become more widely available.
This cuisine is based on fresh vegetables, fish (especially salmon and trout), oysters, mussels and other shellfish, traditional soda bread, the wide range of cheeses that are now being made across the country, and, of course, the potato. Traditional dishes, such as Irish stew, coddle, the Irish breakfast, and potato bread have enjoyed a resurgence in popularity. Schools like the Ballymaloe Cookery School have emerged to cater for the associated increased interest in cooking.
Two main languages are spoken in Ireland: Irish and English. Both languages have widely contributed to literature. Irish, now a minority but official language of the Republic of Ireland, was the vernacular of the Irish people for over two thousand years and was probably introduced by some sort of proto-Gaelic migration during the Iron Age, possibly earlier. It began to be written down after Christianisation in the 5th century and spread to Scotland and the Isle of Man where it evolved into the Scottish Gaelic and Manx languages respectively.
The Irish language has a vast treasure of written texts from many centuries, and is divided by linguists into Old Irish from the 6th to 10th century, Middle Irish from the 10th to 13th century, Early Modern Irish until the 17th century, and the Modern Irish spoken today. It remained the dominant language of Ireland for most of those periods, having influences from Latin, Old Norse, French and English. It declined under British rule but remained the majority tongue until the early 19th century, and since then has been a minority language, although revival efforts are continuing in both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.
Gaeltacht or Irish-speaking areas are still seeing a decline in the language. The main Gaeltacht areas are down the west of the country, in Donegal, Mayo, Galway and Kerry with smaller Gaeltacht areas near Dungarvan in Waterford, Navan, in Meath, and the Shaw's Road in Belfast. Irish language is a compulsory subject in the state education system in the Republic, and the Gaelscoil movement has seen many Irish medium schools established in both jurisdictions.
English was first introduced to Ireland in the Norman invasion. It was spoken by a few peasants and merchants brought over from England, and was largely replaced by Irish before the Tudor Conquest of Ireland. It was introduced as the official language with the Tudor and Cromwellian conquests. The Ulster plantations gave it a permanent foothold in Ulster, and it remained the official and upper-class language elsewhere, the Irish-speaking chieftains and nobility having been deposed. Language shift during the 19th century replaced Irish with English as the first language for a vast majority of the population.
In Northern Ireland, English is the de facto official language, but official recognition is afforded to Irish, including specific protective measures under Part III of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. A lesser status (including recognition under Part II of the Charter) is given to Ulster Scots dialects, which are spoken by roughly 2% of Northern Ireland residents, and also spoken by some in the Republic of Ireland. Since, the 1960s with the increase in immigration, many more languages have been introduced, particularly deriving from Asia and Eastern Europe.