Ireland is the third largest island in Europe, and the twentieth-largest island in the world. It lies to the north-west of continental Europe and to the west of Great Britain. Politically, the state Ireland, sometimes described as the Republic of Ireland, covers five-sixths of the island, with Northern Ireland, part of the United Kingdom, covering the remainder in the north-east.
The first settlements in Ireland date from 8000 BC. By 200 BC Celtic migration and influence had come to dominate the island. Relatively small scale settlement by both the Vikings and Normans in the Middle Ages gave way to complete English domination by the 1600s. Protestant English rule resulted in the marginalisation of the Catholic majority. A famine in the mid-1800s caused deaths and emigration.
Following a war of independence, Ireland was split into: the independent Irish Free State and Northern Ireland, which remains a part of the United Kingdom. The Free State left the Commonwealth to become a Republic in 1949. In 1973 both parts of Ireland joined the European Economic Community. Sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland led to much unrest from the late 1960s until the 1990s, which subsided following a peace deal in 1998.
The population of the island is slightly under 6 million (2006), with 4.2 million in the Republic of Ireland and an estimated almost 1.75 million in Northern Ireland. This is a significant increase from a modern historical low in the 1960s, but still much lower than the peak population of over 8 million in the early 19th century, prior to the Great Famine.
The economy of Ireland is modern and trade-dependent with growth averaging a 7% per annum in 1995–2007. Agriculture, once the most important sector, is now dwarfed by industry, which accounts for 46% of GDP, about 80% of exports, and employs 29% of the labour force. Although exports remain the primary engine for Ireland's robust growth, the economy also benefited from a rise in consumer spending and both construction and business investment. The annual rate of inflation stands at 5.1% as of 2007, up from recent rates of between 3% and 4%. On the EU HICP inflation index, inflation is 2.7%, against an EU average of 1.8% . House price inflation has been a particular economic concern (average house price was €251,281 in February 2005). Unemployment is low but is rising and up to 30,000 jobs may be lost between 2007 and 2008 much of which is attributed to a slowdown in house building. Incomes have been rising rapidly as well as service charges (utilities, insurance, healthcare, legal representation, etc.).
Dublin, the nation's capital, was ranked 16th in a worldwide cost of living survey in 2006 (up from 22nd in 2004 and 24th in 2003).
Ireland has the second highest per capita income of any country in the EU next to Luxembourg, and fourth highest in the world based on measurements of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita. The Gross National Income is $41,140, the seventh highest in the world. The unusually large divergence between GDP and GNI is due to the repatriation of profits by multinational companies. In any case, the vast majority of wealth held by Irish citizens is invested in property. Furthermore, the construction sector accounts for a significant component of Ireland's GDP and GNP and any downturn in this sector is likely to have a profound impact. In 2005, the World Bank measured Ireland's GNI per head at $41,140 - the seventh highest in the world, sixth highest in Western Europe, and the third highest of any EU member state.
Overall, Ireland has a mild, but changeable, Oceanic climate with few extremes. The climate is typically insular, and as a result of the moderating moist winds which ordinarily prevail from the South-Western Atlantic, it is temperate, avoiding the extremes in temperature of many other areas in the world at similar latitudes. Precipitation falls throughout the year, but is light overall, particularly in the east. The west, however, tends to be wetter on average and prone to the full force of Atlantic storms, more especially in the late autumn and winter months, which occasionally bring destructive winds and high rainfall totals to these areas, as well as snow and hail.
Ireland's largest cities are Dublin (1.7m in Greater Dublin), Belfast (800,000 in Greater Belfast), Cork (380,000 in Greater Cork), Derry (94,329 in Derry Urban Area), Limerick (93,321 including suburbs), Galway (71,983), Lisburn (71,465), Waterford (49,240 including suburbs), Newry (27,433), Kilkenny (23,967 incl. suburbs) and Armagh (14,590).
There are five main international airports in Ireland: Dublin Airport, Belfast International Airport (Aldergrove), Cork Airport, Shannon Airport and Ireland West Airport (Knock). Dublin Airport is the busiest airport in Ireland, carrying over 22 million passengers per year. A new terminal and runway is now under construction, costing over €2 billion. All provide services to Great Britain and continental Europe, while Belfast International, Dublin, Shannon and Ireland West (Knock) also offer a range of transatlantic services. Shannon was once an important stopover on the trans-Atlantic route for refuelling operations and, with Dublin, is still one of the Ireland's two designated transatlantic gateway airports.
Airlines in Ireland include: Aer Lingus (the national airline of Ireland), Ryanair, Aer Arann and CityJet.
The rail network in Ireland was developed by various private companies, some of which received (British) Government funding in the late 19th century. Long distance passenger trains in the Republic are managed by Iarnród Éireann (Irish Rail) and connect most major towns and cities across the country.
In Dublin, two local rail networks provide transportation in the city and its immediate vicinity. The Dublin Area Rapid Transit (DART) links the city centre with coastal suburbs, while a new light rail system named Luas, opened in 2004, transports passengers to the central and western suburbs. Several more lines are planned as well as an eventual upgrade to metro. The DART is run by Iarnród Éireann while the Luas is being run by Veolia under franchise from the Railway Procurement Agency (R.P.A.).
Motorists must drive on the left in Ireland, as in Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, India, Hong Kong, Japan, and a number of other countries. The island of Ireland has an extensive road network, with a (developing) motorway network fanning out from Belfast, Cork and Dublin.
In recent years the Irish Government launched Transport 21 which is the largest investment project ever in Ireland's transport system - with €34 billion being invested from 2006 until 2015. Work on a number of road projects has already commenced while a number of objectives have already been completed. The Transport 21 plan can largely be divided into five categories, Metro / Luas, Heavy rail, roads, buses and airports.