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Ireland and What to Call It

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Many people are confused by the names applied to Ireland. What is Éire? Is Ulster the same as Northern Ireland? And are Irish people British? Some of these questions don't even have clear-cut answers among the Irish, and some are clouded by what people think the situation should be rather than what it is. This Entry attempts to clear up these and similar issues.

The Island and How it is Divided Up

Let's start with the simplest issue - the island, all of it, is called Ireland in the English language. In the Irish language, it is called Éire, pronounced 'air-uh'. The name Éire should only be used in the Irish language. Incidentally, the 'Ire' of Ireland is probably a corruption of 'Éire'.

Provinces and Counties

The island of Ireland is divided up into four provinces and 32 counties. Long ago there were five provinces, but two of them were combined and now there are only four. They are as follows:

  • Ulster - in the north, divided into nine counties:

    Antrim, Armagh, Cavan, Donegal, Down, Fermanagh, Londonderry, Monaghan and Tyrone.

  • Leinster - in the east, divided into 12 counties:

    Carlow, Dublin, Kildare, Kilkenny, Laois, Longford, Louth, Westmeath, Meath, Offaly, Wexford and Wicklow.

  • Munster - in the south, divided into six counties:

    Clare, Cork, Kerry, Limerick, Tipperary and Waterford.

  • Connacht1 - in the west, divided into five counties:

    Galway, Leitrim, Mayo, Roscommon and Sligo.

Countries

Since the early 20th Century, Ireland has been divided into two political entities.

  • 26 of the counties form a country which is officially called Éire in the Irish language and Ireland in the English language. This country is usually called the Republic of Ireland, or sometimes the Irish Republic, to distinguish it from the island, but its official name is the same as the name of the island. The term 'Republic of Ireland' is officially the description of the country rather than its name.

  • The remaining six counties form a political entity called Northern Ireland. This is part of the country called the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, usually just called the United Kingdom or the UK.

Whether Northern Ireland is itself a country or not is a matter for debate2. Most people would feel that England, Scotland and Wales are separate countries, which makes the UK strange in that it is a country made up of other countries.

Some Confusing or Contentious Terminology

Ulster - because Northern Ireland makes up most of the province of Ulster, it is often referred to as Ulster (for example 'Ulster Says No'). But there are three other counties in Ulster - Donegal, Monaghan and Cavan - that are in the Republic.

The North and the South - these terms are used for Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland respectively. Northern Ireland is at the north end of the island, but the northernmost point in the island, Malin Head, is in Donegal which is part of the Republic, so the northernmost point is in the South.

Éire - as already explained, this is the name of both the island and the Republic in the Irish language. When used in English by people of the UK, it refers to the Republic, although the official name of the Republic in English is Ireland.

The Free State - this was an old (pre-1949) name for the country which is now the Republic. The title is still sometimes used by people in Northern Ireland, to the great confusion of people from the Republic who didn't pay attention during history class in school and have never heard of the Free State.

The British Isles - this means the islands of Great Britain and Ireland, and the other smaller islands around them such as the islands off Scotland. The name is disliked by people in the Republic because it suggests that Ireland belongs to Britain in some way.

British - this is the most confusing term as there are completely different meanings used by different groups. These can be roughly divided into:

  • Those who think that the islands of Great Britain and Ireland are the British Isles and that therefore anybody in any part of either island is British. This usage is popular with BBC reporters claiming British victories for Republic of Ireland sports people.

  • Those who think that the word British refers to inhabitants of the United Kingdom. This definition puts inhabitants of Northern Ireland as British (as well as probably being Irish).

  • Those who think that the word British refers only to inhabitants of the island of Great Britain. By this definition, people of Northern Ireland are not British but Irish.

Which form of the word you use depends very much on your political views of Northern Ireland. Since most people outside of Ireland don't have any political views of Northern Ireland, they don't know what all the fuss is about.

Other Not-So-Confusing Terms

Erin - in some dialects of Irish, the name for Ireland is Éirinn3 rather than Éire, and this has been brought into English as 'Erin'. You'll find this name for the island in many old songs in English. Since these were written before the formation of the Republic, the name Erin can be taken to refer to the whole island.

The Wee North - another name for Northern Ireland, using the northern word 'wee' to mean small in a likeable way.

The Six Counties and the Twenty-six Counties - these again refer to Northern Ireland and the Republic respectively. They're clear enough and sidestep various contentious issues.

All Ireland - this term is used to refer to events that encompass the whole of the island. For example, the sports of Hurling and Gaelic Football are played throughout the island and a county-against-county competition takes place each year, culminating in the All Ireland Final in each sport in Dublin.

The Atlantic Archipelago - this ridiculous title was suggested as an alternative to the term 'British Isles' because it does not suggest any ownership.

These Islands - this term has been used instead of the 'British Isles' in government negotiations because of its neutral associations.

Hibernia - this was the Roman name for the island and means the land of winter, although it was probably originally formed from a corruption of the name Éire and the Latin ending -nia. England (or Britannia as it was known then) was the northernmost region of the Roman Empire and the coldest and wettest. Hibernia was that land across the sea where it never stops raining and is dark all the time. Whether this view of the island was formed by Roman visitors or was an inspired piece of propaganda by some Irish king who wanted to keep the Romans out is not clear. In any event, the Romans never bothered to conquer the island.

The Land of Ire - this dreadful phrase is occasionally used in really bad poetry about Ireland. Even one use is too many.

The Emerald Isle - a name sometimes used in American songs and poems about Ireland, referring to the fact that the island is in fact pretty green as a whole. The term was invented by Belfast-born poet William Drennan (1754-1820) and first used in his poem 'When Erin First Rose'.

1Sometimes spelt Connaught.2Although according to the Gov.uk website, Northern Ireland is classed as a country.3Éirinn is also the dative case of Éire in all dialects of Irish, but this shouldn't concern English speakers.

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