Map of Ireland

Culture of Ireland

A page from the Book of Kells.

The culture of the people living on the island of Ireland is far from monolithic. Many notable cultural divides exist between the rural people and city dwellers, between the Catholic and Protestant people of Northern Ireland, between the Irish-speaking people within and without the Gaeltacht regions and the English-speaking majority population, between the settled people and the Travellers, and, increasingly, between new immigrants and the native population.

1 Land use and settlement patterns

1.1 Agriculture and rural life
1.2 Townslands, villages, parishes and counties
1.3 Land ownership and land hunger
1.4 Towns and cities

2 Family life
3 Holidays and festivals
4 Cultural institutions, organizations and events

4.1 Institutions and organisations
4.2 Events

5 Religion
6 Minority cultures

6.1 The Travellers
6.2 New immigrants

7 Literature and the arts
8 Food and Drink

8.1 Food in early Ireland
8.2 The potato in Ireland
8.3 Food in Ireland today
8.4 Pub culture

9 Language
10 Media

10.1 Print
10.2 Radio
10.3 Television
10.4 Film

11 Sport
12 References
13 See also

Land use and settlement patterns

Agriculture and rural life

Lough Gur, an early Irish farming settlement

As archaeological evidence from sites such as the Céide Fields in County Mayo and Lough Gur in County Limerick demonstrates, farming in Ireland is an activity that goes back to the very beginnings of human settlement. In historic times, texts such as the Táin Bó Cúailinge show a society in which cattle represented a primary source of wealth and status. Little of this had changed by the time of the Norman conquest of Ireland in the 12th century. Giraldus Cambrensis portrays a Gaelic society in which cattle farming and transhumance is the norm. Three hundred years later, the society depicted in Edmund Spenser's A View of the Present State of Ireland had changed remarkably little. Even today, when a quarter of the population of the Republic lives in Dublin, the cattle population is of the order of 6.7 million. The total population of humans on the island, north and south, only just approaches this figure.

Townslands, villages, parishes and counties

The Normans also introduced the manorial system of land tenure and social organisation. This led to the imposition of the village and parish over the native system of townsland system. In general, a parish was a civil and religious unit with a manor, a village and a church at its centre. Each parish incorporated one or more existing townslands into its boundaries. With the full extension of English feudalism over the island, the Irish county structure came into existence. These structures are still of vital importance in the daily life of Irish communities. Apart from the religious significance of the parish, most rural postal addresses consist of house and townsland names. The village and parish are key focal points around which sporting rivalries and other forms of local identity are built and most people feel a strong sense of loyalty to their native county, a loyalty which also often has its clearest expression on the sports field.

Land ownership and land hunger

With the Elizabethan English conquest and the Cromwellian plantations, the patterns of land ownership in Ireland were altered greatly. The old order of transhumance and open range cattle breeding died out to be replaced by a structure of great landed estates, small tenant farmers with more or less precarious hold on their leases, and a mass of landless labourers. This situation continued up to the end of the 19th century, when the agitation of the Land League began to bring about land reform. In this process of reform, the former tenants and labourers became land owners, with the great estates being broken up into small and medium sized farms and smallholdings. The process continued well into the 20th century with the work of the Irish Land Commission. One consequence of this is the widely-recognised cultural phenomenon of "land hunger" amongst the new class of farmer. In general, this means that farming families will do almost anything to retain land ownership within the family unit, with the greatest ambition possible being the acquisition of additional land.

Churches such as Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin, contributed to city expansion

Towns and cities

Early Irish social organisation was essentially rural. Towns were more or less unknown, and monasteries and market sites fulfilled many urban functions. In the 9th century, Viking activity in Ireland shifted from raiding to permanent settlement and the first true towns on the island emerged. These towns were taken over and expanded by the Normans. As the Celtic Church was organised along monastic rather than diocesan lines, cathedrals were also more or less unknown before the 11th century. With the shift to Roman diocesan church structures, the first cathedrals, such as the Viking-founded and Norman-rebuilt Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin, contributed to the expansion of the Viking/Norman towns into cities.

Many Irish urban centres developed as garrison towns during the years of British rule and this fact contributed towards their particular character. Another significant factor was the fact thar the Industrial Revolution had a limited impact in Ireland. Belfast had its shipbuilding and a number of towns in Ulster had mechanised linen industries, but the majority of towns developed primarily as commercial and administrative centres. By the end of the 20th century, over 50% of the population lived in these urban areas.

Family life

The Constitution of Ireland guarantees the rights of the family and the institution of marriage. However, the reality is that social and economic change in recent years has brought about significant changes in family life in the Republic. According to figures published in September, 2004, 31% of all births in the Republic of Ireland occur outside marriage. This compares with 5% in 1980. The average age of mothers having their first child was 30 and the fertility rate is an average of 1.98 children.

In the Republic, divorce became legal on 27 February 1997. The 2002 Census of Population showed that the number of divorced persons in the state stood at 35,100, compared with 9,800 in 1996. The number of separated people, including divorcees, increased from 87,800 in 1996 to 133,800 in 2002. Cohabiting couples made up 8.4% of all family units in 2002 compared with 3.9% in 1996.

Holidays and festivals

Main article: Irish calendar

Much of the Irish calendar still today reflects the old pagan customs, with later Christian traditions also having significant influence. As in other countries, the date for observing Christmas was deliberately chosen to coincide with the winter solstice. Christmas in Ireland has several local traditions, some in no way connected with Christianity. On 6 January, which is known as "The Little Christmas" (An Nollaig Bhéag) or "The Women's Christmas" (Nollaig na mBan), there is a custom of "Wren boys" who call door to door, in times past, with a dead wren.

Brigid's Day (1 February, known as Imbolc or Candlemas) also does not have its origins in Christianity, being instead another religious observance superimposed at the beginning of spring. The Brigid's cross made from rushes on this day represents a pre-Christian solar wheel.

Other pre-Christian festivals, whose names survive as Irish month names, are Bealtaine (May), Lúnasa (August) and Samhain (November). The last is still widely observed as Halloween, followed by All Saints' Day, another Christian holiday associated with a traditional one.

Important church holidays include Easter, and various Marian observances. The national holiday in the Republic is Saint Patrick's Day, 17 March and is marked by parades and festivals in cities and towns all around the state.

Cultural institutions, organizations and events

Ireland is well supplied with museums and art galleries and offers, especially during the summer months, a wide range of cultural events. These range from arts festivals to farming events. The most popular of these are the annual Dublin Saint Patrick's Day Festival which attracts on average 500,000 people and the National Ploughing Championships with an attendance in the region of 400,000. There are also a number of Summer Schools on topics from traditional music to literature and the arts.

Institutions and organisations

  • Abbey Theatre
  • Aosdána
  • Arts Council of Ireland
  • Chester Beatty Library
  • Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann
  • Conradh na Gaeilge
  • Cork Opera House
  • Druid Theatre, Galway
  • Hugh Lane Municipal Gallery, Dublin
  • Irish Georgian Society
  • The Irish Museum of Modern Art at The Royal Hospital, Kilmainham
  • Macnas, performance arts company, Galway
  • National Archives of Ireland
  • National Concert Hall
  • National Gallery of Ireland
  • National Library of Ireland
  • National Museum of Ireland
  • National Photographic Archive
  • Poetry Ireland
  • Royal Dublin Society,RDS
  • Royal Irish Academy of Music
  • Royal Irish Academy
  • Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland
  • State Heraldic Museum
  • Taibhdhearc na Gaillimhe, Irish language theatre, Galway
  • The Helix, performing arts centre, Dublin
  • The Hunt Museum, Limerick
  • University Concert Hall, Limerick

See also

  • Museums in the Republic of Ireland
  • List of Irish learned societies


  • Cork Jazz Festival
  • Dublin Theatre Festival
  • Fleadh Cheoil
  • Galway Arts Festival
  • Kilkenny Arts Festival
  • National Ploughing Championships
  • Wexford Opera Festival


In the Republic, the last time a census asked people to specify their religion was 2002. The result was 88.4% Roman Catholics, 2.95% Church of Ireland (Anglican), 0.53% Presbyterians, 0.26% Methodists, less than 0.05% Jewish, approximately 2.3% other religious groupings including Islamic and 3.53% no specific religious beliefs. About 2% failed to answer. The relevant figures for Northern Ireland for 1991 are 38.4% Roman Catholics, 17.7% Church of Ireland (Anglican), 21.3% Presbyterians, 3.8% Methodists, 7.8% other religious groupings and 3.7 no specific religious beliefs. About 7.3% failed to answer. Amongst the Republic's Roman Catholics, weekly church attendance dropped from 87 % in 1981 to 60 % in 1998.


The Orange Order

Minority cultures

The Travellers

New immigrants

Literature and the arts

Main Articles: Irish literature, Irish poetry, Irish fiction, Irish theatre, Irish mythology, Modern literature in Irish, Music of Ireland, Irish dance
George Bernard Shaw, one of four Irish winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature.

For a comparatively small country, Ireland has made a disproportionate contribution to world literature in all its branches. The works that are best known outside the country are in English, but Irish Gaelic also has the most significant body of written literature, both ancient and recent, of any Celtic language, in addition to a strong oral tradition of legends and poetry. Poetry in Irish represents the oldest vernacular poetry in Europe, with the earliest examples dating from the 6th century. In more recent times, Ireland has produced four winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature; George Bernard Shaw, William Butler Yeats, Samuel Beckett and Seamus Heaney

The early history of Irish visual art is generally considered to begin with early carvings found at sites such as Newgrange and is traced through Bronze age artefacts, particularly ornamental gold objects, and the religious carvings and illuminated manuscripts of the medieval period. During the course of the 19th and 20th centuries, a strong indigenous tradition of painting emerged, including such figures as John Butler Yeats, William Orpen, Jack Yeats and Louis le Brocquy.

The Irish tradition of folk music and dance is also widely known. In the middle years of the 20th century, as Irish society was attempting to modernise, traditional music fell out of favour to some extent, especially in urban areas. Young people at this time tended to look to Britain and, particularly, the United States as models of progress and jazz and rock and roll became extremely popular. During the 1960s, and inspired by the American folk music movement, there was a revival of interest in the Irish tradition. This revival was inspired by groups like The Dubliners, the Clancy Brothers and Sweeney's Men and individuals like Sean Ó Riada.

The Uilleann pipes, a form of bagpipes unique to Ireland.

Before long, groups and musicians like Horslips, Van Morrison and even Thin Lizzy were incorporating elements of traditional music into a rock idiom to form a unique new sound. During the 1970s and 1980s, the distinction between traditional and rock musicians became blurred, with many individuals regularly crossing over between these styles of playing as a matter of course. This trend can be seen more recently in the work of bands like U2 and The Corrs.

Food and Drink

Main Article: Irish cuisine

Food in early Ireland

The worldwide famous pint of Guinness along with a slice of soda bread

There are many references to food and drink in early Irish literature. Honey seems to have been widely eaten and used in the making of mead. The old stories also contain many references to banquets, although these may well be greatly exaggerated and provide little insight to every diet. There are also many references to fulacht fiadh. These were sites for cooking deer, and consisted of holes in the ground which were filled with water. The meat was placed in the water and cooked by the introduction of hot stones. Many fulacht fiadh sites have been identified across the island of Ireland, and some of them appear to have been in use up to the 17th century.

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 animals eaten were cattle, sheep and pigs, with pigs being the most common. This popularity extended down to modern times in Ireland. Poultry and wild geese as well as fish and shellfish were also common, as were 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 potato in Ireland

The potato would appear to have been introduced into Ireland in the second half of the 17th century, initially as a garden crop. It eventually came to be the main food field crop of the tenant and labouring classes. As a food source, the potato is extremely efficient in terms of energy yielded per unit area of land. The potato is also a good source of many vitamins and minerals, particularly vitamin C (especially when fresh).

Potatoes form the basis for many traditional Irish dishes

As a result, the typical 18th and 19th century Irish diet of potatoes and buttermilk was a contributing factor in the population explosion that occurred in Ireland at that time. However, the damp Irish climate favours the spread of potato blight and this frequently led to shortages and famine. The most notable instance being the Irish potato famine of 1846 to 1849 which more or less undid all the growth in population of the previous century by a combination of starvation, disease and emigration.

Food in Ireland today

In the 20th century the usual modern selection of foods common to Western culture has been adopted in Ireland. Both US fast-food culture and continental European dishes have influenced the country, along with other world dishes introduced in a similar fashion to the rest of the western world. Common meals include pizza, curry, Chinese food, and lately, some west African dishes have been making an appearance. Supermarket shelves now contain ingredients for, among others, traditional, European, American (Mexican/Tex-Mex), Indian and Chinese dishes.

The proliferation of fast food has led to increasing public health problems including obesity, and one of the highest rates of heart disease in the world. Traditional Irish food and diet is also somewhat to blame, with a large emphasis on meat. Government efforts to combat this have included television advertisements.

In tandem with these developments, the last quarter of the century saw the emergence of a new Irish cusine based on traditional ingredients handled in new ways. This cusine is based on fresh vegetables, fish, especially salmon and trout, oysters and other shellfish, traditional soda bread, the wide range of hand-made cheeses that are now being made across the country, and, of course, the potato. Traditional dishes, such as the Irish stew, Dublin coddle, the Irish breakfast and potato bread, have enjoyed a resurgence. Schools like the Ballymaloe Cookery School have emerged to cater for the associated increased interest in cooking with traditional ingredients.

Pub culture

Pub culture, as it is termed, pervades Irish society, across all cultural divides. The term refers to the Irish habit of frequenting public houses (pubs) or bars. Traditional pub culture is concerned with more than just drinking, even though Ireland has a recognised problem with over-consumption of alcohol, with the highest drink consumption in Europe. Per capita alcohol consumption increased by 41% in the period 1989 to 1999. Typically pubs are important meeting places, where people can gather today in the modern Ireland and meet their neighbours and friends in a relaxed atmosphere. Pubs vary widely according to the clientele they serve, and the area they are in. Best known, and loved amongst tourists is the traditional pub, with its tradional Irish music (or "trad music"), tavern-like warmness, and memorabilia filling it. Often such pubs will also serve food, particularly during the day. Many more modern pubs, not necessarily traditional, still emulate these pubs, only perhaps substituting traditional music for a DJ or non-traditional live music.

Some larger pubs in cities eschew such trappings entirely, opting for loud music, and focussing more on the consumption of drinks. Such venues are popular "pre-clubbing" locations. "Clubbing" is a popular phenomenon amongst young people in Ireland, and is entirely an imported concept. Clubs usually vary in terms of the type of music played, and the target audience.

The immigrant population in many cases, has not adapted to the Irish pub & club culture, particularly in city areas, where drinking to excess is often the focus of pub and club-goers.

A significant recent change to pub culture in Ireland has been the introduction of a smoking ban, in all workplaces, which includes pubs and restaurants. The ban was introduced on 29 March 2004. A majority of the population support the ban, including a significant percentage of smokers. Nevertheless, the atmosphere in pubs has changed greatly as a result, regardless of whether it has boosted or lowered sales, or whether it is a "good thing" or a "bad thing".

See Also: Baileys Irish Cream, Black and Tan, Irish breakfast, Irish Coffee, Irish whiskey, Saint Brendan's, Stout beer


The two dominant languages in Ireland have long influenced each other, with the local English dialect adopting aspects of the Irish grammatical structure, and in turn, Irish drawing much vocabulary from the foreign tongue. Several other languages are spoken on the island, including Ulster Scots, a variety of Scots spoken in Northern Ireland, and Shelta, a mix of Irish and Romany spoken widely by the Travellers. Some other languages have entered Ireland with immigrants – for example, Chinese is now the second most widely spoken language in Northern Ireland, with Urdu also a significant minority language there. In Limerick City about one in twenty people is Russian-speaking, making that language more common there than Irish.

  • Irish language
  • Hiberno-English
  • Ulster Scots language
  • Shelta language



There are several daily newspapers in Ireland, including the Irish Independent, The Irish Examiner, The Irish Times, The Star, The Evening Herald and The Irish Sun. The best selling of these is the Irish Independent which is published in both tabloid and broadsheet form.

The Sunday market is quite saturated with many British newspapers also selling in the Republic of Ireland. The leading Sunday newspaper in terms of circulation is The Sunday Independent. Other popular papers include The Sunday Times, The Sunday Tribune, The Sunday Business Post, Ireland on Sunday and The Sunday World.

There is a very large range of international magazines available in Ireland

There are quite a large number of local weekly newspapers, with most counties and large towns having two or more newspapers. Curiously Dublin remains one of the only places in Ireland without a major local paper; The Dublin Evening Mail having closed down in the 1960's. In 2004 The Dublin Daily was launched, but failed to attract enough readers to make it viable.

One major critisim of the Irish newspaper market is the large grip Independent News & Media has on the market. It controls the Evening Herald, Irish Independent, Sunday Independent, Sunday World and The Star aswell as holding a large stake in the cable company Chorus.

The Irish magazine market is one of the worlds most competitive with hundreds of international magazines available in Ireland rangeing from Time and The Economist to Hello and Reader's Digest. This means that domestic titles find it very hard to retain readership. Among the best selling Irish magazines are the RTE Guide, Ireland's Eye, and In Dublin.

See Also: List of Irish newspapers


The first known radio transmission in Ireland was a call to arms made from the General Post Office in O'Connell Street during the Easter Rising. The first official radio station on the island was 2BE Belfast, which began broadcasting in 1924. This was followed in 1926 by 2RN Dublin and 6CK Cork in 1927. 2BE Belfast later became BBC Radio Ulster and 2RN Dublin became RTE. The first commercial radio station in the Republic, Century Radio, came on air in 1989.

During the 1990's and particularly the early 2000's, dozens of local radio stations having gained licences.This has resulted in a fragmentaion of the radio broadcast market. This trend is most notably in Dublin where there are now 6 private stations in operation.

See Also: Irish Radio Stations


Father Ted - one of Ireland's most popular TV shows - was made by a British company

BBC Northern Ireland began broadcasting television programmes in 1959 and RTE Television opened in 1961. Telefís na Gaeilge (TnaG), now called TG4, started its Irish language service in 1996 and commercial television arrived when TV3 began broadcasting in 1998.

Despite there being four free terrestial channals available in Ireland; foriegn TV channels have captured a large portion of audiences, with ITV 1, Sky One, and several hundred UK satillite channels widely available.

See Also: Irish TV Channels


The Irish Film industry has grown rapidly in recent years thanks largely to the promotion of the sector by Bord Scannán na hÉireann (The Irish Film Bord)[1] ( and the introduction of heavy tax breaks. Some of the most successful Irish films included Intermission (2001), Man About Dog (2004), Michael Collins (1996), Angela's Ashes (1999) and The Commitments (1991).

Ireland has also proved a popular location for shotting films with The Quiet Man (1952), Braveheart (1995), and King Arthur (2004) all being shot in Ireland.


Main Article: Sport in Ireland
The GAA logo; GAA disciplines dominate the national sporting scene.

Sport in Ireland is popular and widespread. Levels of participation and spectating are high, but as in other western regions participation has been dropping due to the increasing popularity of other activities such as watching television and playing computer games. Throughout the country a wide variety of sports are played, the most popular being Gaelic football, hurling, rugby, soccer and field hockey. By attendance figures Gaelic football is the by far the most popular sport in Ireland.

In Ireland many sports, such as rugby, Gaelic football and hurling, are organised in an all-island basis, with a single team representing Ireland in international competitions. Others sports, such as soccer, have separate organising bodies in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. At the Olympics, a person from Northern Ireland can choose to represent either the 'Ireland' or 'Great Britain' team.

  • Community Games
  • Gaelic Athletic Association
  • Irish Derby Stakes
  • Irish Rugby Football Union
  • NI football team
  • RoI football team



  • Mitchell, Frank and Ryan, Michael. Reading the Irish landscape (1998). ISBN 1-86059-055-1
  • National Museum of Ireland. Viking and Medieval Dublin: National Museum Excavations, 1962 - 1973 (1973).


  • BBC Northern Ireland Television & Radio Archive (
  • Central Statistics Office Ireland (
  • Irish Department of Foreign Affairs: Facts about Ireland (
  • Irish Broadcasting (
  • Population figures by religion (
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Map of Ireland