Ireland - Culture Smart!: The Essential Guide to Customs & Culture

Ireland - Culture Smart!: The Essential Guide to Customs & Culture

by John Scotney

Paperback(Second Edition, Second edition)

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The island of Ireland is famous for its timeless beauty, the variety of its landscape, its quiet towns and lively cities, the poetic and literary genius of so many of its citizens, its music and folklore, and its colorful and bloody history.
What is also true is that the Irish people have in many ways changed in recent years, while retaining the scars and proud memories of their past, and their thriving national culture. Twenty-first century Ireland, North and South, is the product not only of its history and culture, but also of massive political change, remarkable efforts to heal centuries-old animosities, a metamorphosis in social and religious attitudes, and the dramatic peaks and troughs of a transformed economy.
Until the late twentieth century Southern Ireland’s economy was essentially rural, tied to the UK; the North, a place of heavy industry. Then came the so-called “Celtic Tiger,” springing forward into a largely new type of economy that reaped colossal rewards. New industries arose, old industries disappeared. This was followed by financial collapse in the first decade of this century, worse than almost any country in Europe. Helped by its friends, and, at least in the South, by governmental and popular acceptance of savage austerity measures, Ireland survived. Today the Republic is a major target for US and European investment.
Businesspeople and visitors who don’t know Ireland will find this book an invaluable introduction to the people, the country, and the economic opportunities it offers; while if you think you know Ireland and the Irish you will find plenty here to broaden and deepen that knowledge, and also plenty that will surprise you.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781857338423
Publisher: Kuperard
Publication date: 07/05/2016
Series: Culture Smart! Series
Edition description: Second Edition, Second edition
Pages: 168
Sales rank: 1,156,825
Product dimensions: 4.30(w) x 6.60(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

John Scotney M.A., RSA, was the BBC’s Head of Drama in Ireland and later Head of BBC TV Drama Script Unit. A graduate of the University of Cambridge, he has written books and articles about literature and the media, and written and directed numerous programs for the BBC, many on Irish themes, including a critically acclaimed version of James Joyce’s Ulysses. He is a former advisor to the Arts Council and University Lecturer, and was Chair of the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain, Deputy Chair of the National Poetry Society, and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.

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By John Scotney

Bravo Ltd

Copyright © 2016 Kuperard
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-85733-843-0




Set at the very edge of Europe, battered by the Atlantic but warmed by the Gulf Stream, Ireland is tethered a few miles off the coasts of Wales, England, and Scotland. But in its shape — the smooth east coast and the straggling indented west coast — it seems to be reaching out across the Atlantic Ocean toward America, where so many of its sons and daughters now live.

Ireland's position and the nature of the land itself has shaped the way of life of the people and their attitudes toward themselves and others.

Ireland is famous for its greenness, and this greenness has become part of the Irish national identity: the national flag is green, white, and orange; the sportsmen and women play in green; even the telephone boxes are green.

Connemara on the west coast, which faces the great ocean head on, is not green. It is a brown, rugged, and bleak place of stones and of few trees. Yet it has a great natural grandeur and it is here that the old ways are best preserved. In the northwest is Donegal, distinctively beautiful, with magnificent beaches. Just south of Donegal, Sligo was immortalized by the poems of W. B. Yeats.

The Donegal Highlands in the northeast rise to about 700 feet (about 230 meters), but even Slieve Donard, the highest peak of the Mountains of Mourne, sweeps down to the sea from a height of just 2,786 feet (849 meters). The Wicklow Mountains in the east rise to a similar height. In the south the wonderfully named Macgillycuddy's Reeks are a little higher, making them the highest mountains in the whole island.

Ireland is a country of hills and plains, but above all it is a land of rivers and lakes; the Republic alone has 537 square miles (1,390 square kilometers) of water. Most people have heard of the beautiful Lakes of Killarney, but few realize Lough Neagh in Ulster is the largest lake in the British Isles. All this water is put to good use: hydroelectricity generates about 6 percent of Ireland's electrical needs.

The "pleasant waters of the river Lee," the Blackwater, the Suir, the Nore, the Barrow, the Liffey, from whose water Guinness is supposed to be made, the Boyne where a famous battle was fought, and the Lagan on which the city of Belfast stands, all flow toward the east. Only the Bann flows north; and the Shannon, two hundred fifty miles long and the longest river in the British Isles, flows south.

To the north of the Shannon lies the lovely county of Clare, with the unique landscape of the rocky Burren country.

Galway, in its famous bay, is the major city of the west and looks to the sea rather than the land.

No rivers flow into the sea in Connaught, but there is no shortage of water. The west is often seen as the most distinctively Irish part of the country — it is certainly the wettest. The water-bearing clouds fresh from the Atlantic strike the rising ground and the rain comes down in bucketfuls. But there's still plenty left for the rest of the country.

For in truth the "Emerald" Isle's color derives from its climate, which involves a certain amount of rain. Even the driest parts around Dublin get 150 days of rain a year, and an annual total of 29.5 inches (75 cm) of rainfall. Bring your umbrellas and waterproof gear even in the sunniest months of May and June, but be prepared equally for beautiful sunny days in February or November. The skies are often overcast, but the sun is always ready to surprise you by showing her face when she is least expected — the sun is a female noun in Irish, and was once a goddess. The combination of sunshine and moisture makes for wonderful sunsets over Galway Bay and for glorious rainbows. And all you have to do is find the foot of a rainbow to claim a Leprechaun's crock of gold.

If an Irishman tells you it's "a grand soft day" he means it is raining gently but the day is quite pleasantly warm. For the climate is surprisingly mild, milder than might be expected in northern latitudes thanks to the warm Gulf Stream that washes Ireland's shores. The rain rarely turns to snow, and temperatures in the east range from about 39°F (4°C) in January to 68°F (20°C) in August.

The mild damp climate affects many aspects of Irish culture. The ancient Irish clans roamed widely to rustle each other's cattle, and epic poems like The Cattle Raid of Cooley were recited about their deeds. These heroes never settled down to become respectable farmers tilling fields of wheat because wheat does not grow well in this climate. The rainfall is wonderful for grass, but wheat tends to rot. Even today 90 percent of Irish agricultural land is down to pasture or rough grazing.

About a third of Ireland is made up of a central plain covered with clay, deposited when the ice sheets withdrew at the end of the last ice age, which retains a lot of surface water from the copious rainfall. Here peat moss thrives and over thousands of years has built up into peat bogs, a sort of embryonic coal — though the island has very little true coal. Most of the bogs have been drained so the peat can be cut for fuel. The scent of a peat fire (the Irish often call peat "turf") drifting from a cottage chimney is unforgettable.

Ireland is known for the excellence of its beef and dairy products and Ireland is the biggest beef exporter in Europe. The green pastures of the central plain are devoted mainly to dairying, but also raise fine pigs, and the wonderful grass of the Curragh breeds famous horses. Beef cattle from the west are sent eastward to the richer pastures of Meath for fattening. James Joyce writes in Ulysses of a sturdy young woman being "beef to the heels" like a Mullingar heifer. There are few golden fields of corn; instead oats and potatoes are grown, and in the comparatively dry and sunny southeast, barley — Cork is famous for its brewing and distilling.

West of the west coast are the Aran Islands. These rocky places, battered by the seas and gales of the Atlantic, have an emotional significance to Irish people out of all proportion to the number of their inhabitants.

People have lived here for 4,000 years, and the islands are a treasure house of antiquities and Celtic remains. Gaelic is still many people's first language, though English is today heard almost as often. Here the old traditions and folklore lasted longer than on the mainland. The way of life was hard. Seaweed and sand were carried from the shore to cover the barren rocks with some sort of soil, which had to be held in by stone walls to keep it from being blown back into the sea. The tiny fields supported at best a single cow or a few scraggy sheep. To catch fish the islanders would brave the Atlantic rollers in currachs — frail canvas boats that they rowed with remarkable courage and skill.

Nowadays the island economy is rather more prosperous. In the course of the summer season 100,000 visitors arrive, and many of them take away with them one of the famous Aran sweaters (or ganseys) knitted in complex and individual Celtic designs.

Northern Ireland, which comprises only about a sixth of the island, contains nearly a quarter of its population; most live in the east near Belfast, though it is easy to escape into areas of real peace.

The North's physical geography differs little from the rest of Ireland. You will sometimes hear the North called "Ulster," though this is not strictly correct — the old kingdom of Ulster also included three counties now in the Republic.

The weather is no less rainy than that of the Republic, and the winters are equally mild.

The damp climate and pure water were well suited to the cultivation and preparation of flax, and Northern Ireland was world famous for its linen.

Finally, Ireland is the best place to be on the planet if you want to avoid earthquakes. No epicenter has ever been found anywhere on the entire island!


The pattern of life in Ireland has come to resemble that of its neighbors. Superficially, it can be hard to tell an English, Scots, or Welsh person from someone from Ireland. People dress the same, speak the same language, have many of the same tastes.

This was not always so and underneath the surface there are significant differences — many born of historical experience. To understand the Irish you must be aware of the events that have shaped and still shape their thoughts and feelings. Ireland is a complex place where the apparent similarity to other Western countries can be misleading. A little trouble taken to learn its customs, etiquette, and traditions will be amply rewarded.

The English are famously ignorant of Irish history — if they had understood it a bit better things might have been different. On the other hand, the Irish are steeped in their history, both real and mythical. Their history and their religion have forged the national consciousness — which is why, throughout this book, you will find plenty of snippets of history.

For nearly eight hundred years England ruled Ireland. During much of that time effective English government could only be imposed within fifty miles of Dublin, the so-called Pale of Dublin — those outside English control being considered barbarians and so "beyond the Pale." But at other times English rule extended throughout the island and was often harsh, repressive, and bitterly resented.

An Open Society

If yesterday the English were the ruling class and the Irish were the ruled, today the most obvious characteristic of Irish society is its openness and lack of any obvious class structure. Everybody uses first names except, significantly, priests and nuns, who are always Father this or Sister that. The Anglo-Irish, once the landowning gentry, still exist, but are tolerated rather than revered — especially since Irish farmers are no longer tenants but own their land.

Ireland scarcely experienced the eighteenth and nineteenth century industrialization that created the working-class/middle-class division in English society, except to some extent in what is now Northern Ireland, and there the fiercely egalitarian nature of the dominant Presbyterian Church militated against obvious class differences.

The result is that Irish society is fairly heterogeneous, with most people having similar roots in rural culture. To suggest that there is absolutely no distinctive Irish urban working-class culture is an exaggeration — as witness the plays of Sean O'Casey and, more recently, the novels of Roddy Doyle. Another famous writer, Brendan Behan, was proud of being the working-class son of a Dublin painter and decorator. Yet his mother's family came from a family of farmers in County Meath, while his mother's brother, the poet Paedar Kearney, actually wrote the Irish national anthem, "The Soldiers' Song."

Nevertheless, given Dublin's size, a rural/urban divide is inevitable. Dublin in the new millennium is awash with new money as successful entrepreneurs and entertainers pay lavish sums for the houses of the old English rulers. "Dublin 4" actually refers to a postal area, but the term is used to sum up the cosmopolitan attitudes of the urban elite who live there (as opposed to the old sturdy rural values of "the plain people of Ireland"!). Then there are the so-called "chattering classes" — intellectuals, politicians, bureaucrats, and professionals found in certain southside Dublin pubs. There is even a lively interest in genealogical matters, and not just from expatriate families. Although Eire does not grant aristocratic titles it does have a Chief Herald whose office grants coats of arms, and there are several organizations that can help you trace your Irish roots. Country-dwellers can feel out of touch with city people, and tend to distrust them, though less so as change percolates into the countryside.

About one-tenth of the labor force is involved in farming — much higher than the European Union average but a long way removed from the idealistic view of Ireland expressed by President Eamon de Valera in his 1943 St. Patrick's Day broadcast:

A land whose countryside would be bright with cosy homesteads, whose fields and villages would be ... joyous with the romping of sturdy children, the contests of athletic youths and the laughter of comely maidens....


By and large those people perceived to be at the top of Irish society come from the new class of entrepreneurs, some of whom are extremely wealthy by any international yardstick. Status is generally derived either from wealth or talent. What people achieve is determined by their own efforts rather than by background and education.

The Irish revere their dead heroes, but toward the living they are likely to feel less reverential. Irish culture is naturally artistic, particularly in the arts of poetry, music, and drama, but those who excel in these fields are seen as part of society, not some sort of elite.

Tax Free Art

Artists, especially writers, are attracted to Ireland by a taxation system that allows the first 50,000 euros of income from artistic activity to be tax free. The presence of so many artists from around the world has been a major influence on society over the last quarter-century.


There is probably no country in the world where the attitudes and values of its modern inhabitants are so much the product of their history. Certain key events or concepts have become part of the Irish mind-set. You will hear people speaking of the "Island of Saints and Scholars," or perhaps refer to the "Flight of the Earls," "the Plantation of Ulster," the "Curse of Cromwell," "the Penal Laws," "the Protestant Ascendancy," "the 98," Robert Emmet's speech from the dock, or "The Liberator O'Connell." Northern Protestants will talk about "the Apprentice Boys of Derry" and "King Billy and the Battle of the Boyne." And all spoken of as if they were still living issues — as to many Irish people they are!

Land of Saints and Scholars

Ireland has been inhabited since about 7,000–8,000 BCE when the first colonists arrived from Scotland, probably then linked to Ireland by land. Some 4,000 years later the Neolithic, or Stone Age, inhabitants arrived by boat from Britain and constructed massive religious monuments such as the megalithic tomb at New-Grange (within easy driving distance of Dublin and well worth a visit).

The sixth century BCE brought the Celts, and a dynamic era of arts and crafts: Ireland rejoices in the largest collection of prehistoric gold artifacts found in Western Europe; you can see them at the National Museum in Dublin.

Every Irishman knows that what sets Ireland apart from most of Europe is the fact that it was never part of the Roman Empire, at a time when most of Europe had submitted to the Roman yoke. In fact the Romans were not interested in occupying a country that had few metals of its own, and could not grow the grain needed to feed their armies.

Greco-Roman classical learning and literacy came to Ireland with the introduction of Christianity and writing in the fifth century. Latin civilization fused with the Celtic decorative tradition to produce such masterpieces as the Ardagh Chalice, the Book of Durrow, and the Book of Kells.

Sometimes the monks grew bored with the slow, painstaking copying of the Gospels, and scribbled short lyrics in the margins of their work, like this, written in an eighth-century copy of St. Paul's Epistles.

I and Pangur Ban, my cat,
'Tis a like task we are at;
Hunting mice is his delight,
Hunting words I sit all night ...

Better far than praise of men
'Tis to sit with book and pen ...

(Extract from Pangur Ban, trans. Robin Flower)

Among the hundreds of monasteries founded at this time were the great centers of Clonmacnoise in County Offaly, and Monastarboice in County Louth. This was a golden age for Ireland, which became a refuge for classical scholarship and Christian learning in a Europe that was elsewhere sinking back into barbarity. Hence the pride in being the "Island of Saints and Scholars"!

The Vikings and St. Brendan

The Viking invasions from the ninth century onward brought death and destruction but also trade, currency, and the foundation of most of the major towns including Dublin. It was in the ninth century that The Voyage of St. Brendan was written, which seems to describe a journey across the Atlantic to America by the Irish saint.


Excerpted from Ireland by John Scotney. Copyright © 2016 Kuperard. Excerpted by permission of Bravo Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Title Page,
About the Author,
Map of Ireland,
Key Facts,
Chapter 6: TIME OUT,
Appendix: Some Famous Irish Americans,
Further Reading,

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