Talk:British Isles/Meitheal

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The British Isles lie at the juncture of several regions with past episodes of tectonic mountain building. These orogenic belts form a complex geology which records a huge and varied span of earth history.[1] Of particular note was the Caledonian Orogeny during the Ordovician Period, ca. 488–444 Ma and early Silurian period, when the craton Baltica collided with the terrane Avalonia to form the mountains and hills in northern Britain and Ireland. Baltica formed roughly the north western half of Ireland and Scotland. Further collisions caused the Variscan orogeny in the Devonian and Carboniferous periods, forming the hills of Munster, south-west England, and south Wales. Over the last 500 million years the land which forms the islands has drifted northwest from around 30°S, crossing the equator around 370 million years ago to reach its present northern latitude.[2]

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The islands have been shaped by numerous glaciations during the Quaternary Period, the most recent being the Devensian. As this ended, the central Irish Sea was de-glaciated and the English Channel flooded, with sea levels rising to current levels some 4,000 to 5,000 years ago, leaving the British Isles in their current form. Whether or not there was a land bridge between Great Britain and Ireland at this time is somewhat disputed, though there was certainly a single ice sheet covering the entire sea.

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The islands' geology is highly complex, though there are large numbers of limestone and chalk rocks that formed in the Permian and Triassic periods. The west coasts of Ireland and northern Great Britain that directly face the Atlantic Ocean are generally characterised by long peninsulas, and headlands and bays; the internal and eastern coasts are "smoother".

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There are about 136 permanently inhabited islands in the group, the largest two being Great Britain and Ireland. Great Britain is to the east and covers 216,777 km2 (83,698 square miles), over half of the total landmass of the group. Ireland is to the west and covers 84,406 km2 (32,589 square miles). The largest of the other islands are to be found in the Hebrides, Orkney and Shetland to the north, Anglesey and the Isle of Man between Great Britain and Ireland, and the Channel Islands near the coast of France.

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The islands are at relatively low altitudes, with central Ireland and southern Great Britain particularly low lying: the lowest point in the islands is Holme, Cambridgeshire at −2.75 m (−9.02 ft).[3] The Scottish Highlands in the northern part of Great Britain are mountainous, with Ben Nevis being the highest point on the islands at 1,343 m (4,406 ft).[4] Other mountainous areas include Wales and parts of Ireland, however only seven peaks in these areas reach above 1,000 m (3,281 ft). Lakes on the islands are generally not large, although Lough Neagh in Northern Ireland is an exception, covering 381 square kilometres (147 sq mi). The largest freshwater body in Great Britain is Loch Lomond at 71.1 square kilometres (27 sq mi). There are a number of major rivers within the British Isles. The river Severn at 354 km (220 mi) is the longest in Great Britain and the Shannon at 386 km (240 mi) is the longest in Ireland. The isles have a temperate marine climate. The North Atlantic Drift ("Gulf Stream") which flows from the Gulf of Mexico brings with it significant moisture and raises temperatures 11 °C (20 °F) above the global average for the islands' latitudes.[5] Winters are cool and wet, with summers mild and also wet. Most Atlantic depressions pass to the north of the islands, combined with the general westerly circulation and interactions with the landmass, this imposes an east-west variation in climate.[6]

Flora and fauna[edit]

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The islands are enjoy a mild climate and varied soils, giving rise to a diverse pattern of vegetation. Animal and plant life in the archipelago is similar to that of the northwestern European continent. However, there are few numbers of species with Ireland having even less. All native flora and fauna in Ireland, for example, is made up of species that migrated from the elsewhere in Europe, and Great Britain in particular. However, the only window during which this could occur was between the end of the last Ice Age (about 12,000 years ago) and when the land bridge connecting the two islands was flooded by sea (about 8,000 years ago).

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Originally forests covered all parts of the islands but today only accounts for about 9% of the land area of Great Britain and 5% of Ireland. These forests were cleared extensively over the past millennium to make way for crop and pasture land. Most forest land in Ireland are maintained by state forestation programmes. Almost all land outside of urban areas is farmland. However, relatively large areas of forest remain in east and north Scotland and in southeast England. Oak, elm, ash and beech are amongst the most common trees in England. In Scotland, pine and birch are most common. Natural forests in Ireland are mainly oak, ash, wych elm, birch and pine. Beech and lime, though not native to Ireland, are also common there. Farmland hosts a variety of semi-natural vegetation of grasses and flowering plants. Woods, hedgerows, mountain slopes and marshes host heather, wild grasses, gorse and bracken.

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Larger animals, such as wolf, bear, boar and reindeer are today extinct. However, some species such as red deer are protected. Other small mammals, such as foxes, badgers, hares, hedgehogs, and stoats, are very common. Many rivers contain otters and seals are common on coasts. Over 200 species of bird reside permanently on the islands and another 200 migrate to them. Common types are the chaffinch, blackbird, sparrow and starling, all small birds. Large birds are declining in number, except for those kept for game such as pheasant, partridge, and red grouse. Fish are abundant in the rivers and lakes of the islands, in particular salmon, trout, perch and pike. Dogfish, cod, sole, pollock and bass are among the sea fish as well as mussels, crab and oysters on the coastline. There are more than 21,000 species of insects found on the islands.

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Neither Great Britain nor Ireland are inhabited by many reptiles or amphibians. Only three snakes are native to Great Britain: the common European adder, the grass snake and the smooth snake;[7] none are native to Ireland. In general, Great Britain has slightly more variation and native wild life, with weasels, polecats, wildcats, most shrews, moles, water voles, roe deer and common toads also being absent in Ireland. This patterns in true also for birds and insects. However, notable reversals of this theme include the Kerry slug and certain species of wood lice, which are native to Ireland but not found on Great Britain.


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The demographics of the British Isles today are characterised by a generally high density of population in England, which accounts for almost 80% of the total population of the islands. In elsewhere on Great Britain and on Ireland, high density of population is limited to areas around, or close to, a few large cities. The largest urban area by far is the London metropolitan area with 12–14 million inhabitants. Other major populations centres include Greater Manchester Urban Area (2.5 million), West Midlands conurbation (2.3 million), West Yorkshire Urban Area (2.1 million) in England, Greater Glasgow (1.7 million) in Scotland and Greater Dublin Area (1.6 million) in Ireland.

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The population of England rose rapidly during the 19th and 20th centuries whereas the populations of Scotland and Wales have shown little increase during the 20th century, with the population of Scotland remaining unchanged since 1951. Ireland for most of its history comprised a population proportionate to its land area (about one third of the total population). However, since the Great Irish Famine, the population of Ireland has fallen to less than one tenth of the population of the British Isles. The famine, which caused a century-long population decline, drastically reduced the Irish population and permanently altered the demographic make-up of the British Isles. On a global scale, this disaster led to the creation of an Irish diaspora that numbers fifteen times the current population of the island.


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There are two sovereign states in the isles: Ireland and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Ireland, sometimes called the Republic of Ireland, governs five sixths of the island of Ireland, with the remainder of the island forming Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland is a part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, usually shortened to simply the United Kingdom, which governs the remainder of the archipelago with the exception of the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands. The Isle of Man and the two states of the Channel Islands, the Jersey and the Guernsey, are known as the Crown Dependencies of the UK. They are by tradition wholly independent for domestic affairs but depend upon the UK for international representation and defence. The United Kingdom is made up of four constituent parts: England, Scotland and Wales, forming Great Britain, and Northern Ireland in the north-east of the island of Ireland. Of these, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have "devolved" governments meaning that they have their own parliaments/assemblies and are self-governing with respect to certain areas set down by law. For judicial purposes, Scotland, Northern Ireland and England and Wales (the latter being one entity) form separate legal jurisdiction, with there being no single law for the UK as a whole.

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All of the states in the isles are parliamentary democracies with their own separate parliaments. All parts of the United Kingdom return members to parliament in London. In addition to this, voters in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland return members to a parliament in Edinburgh and to assemblies in Cardiff and Belfast respectively. Governance in the norm is by majority rule, however, Northern Ireland uses a system of power sharing whereby unionists and nationalists share executive posts proportionately and where the assent of both groups are required for the Northern Ireland Assembly to make certain decisions. (In the context of Northern Ireland, unionists are those who want Northern Ireland to remain a part of the United Kingdom and nationalists are those who want Northern Ireland join with the rest of Ireland.) The British monarch is the head of state for all parts of the isles except for the Republic of Ireland, where the head of state is the President of Ireland.

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Ireland and the United Kingdom are part of the European Union (EU). The Crown Dependencies are not a part of the European Union but have certain limited privileges and obligations that were negotiated as a part UKs ascension to the EU. Neither the United Kingdom or Ireland area part of the Schengen area, that allow passport-free travel between EU members states. However, since the partition of Ireland, an informal free-travel area had existed across the region. In 1997, this area required formal recognition during the course of negotiations for the Amsterdam Treaty of the European Union and is now known as the Common Travel Area.

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Reciprocal arrangements allow British and Irish citizens to full voting rights in the two states. Exceptions to this are presidential elections and constitutional referendums in the Republic of Ireland, for which there is no comparable franchise in the other states. In the United Kigndom, these pre-date European Union law, and in both jurisdictions go further than that required by European Union law. Other EU nationals may only vote in local and European Parliament elections while resident in either the UK or Ireland. In 2008, a UK Ministry of Justice report investigating how to strengthen the British sense of citizenship proposed to end this arrangement arguing that, "the right to vote is one of the hallmarks of the political status of citizens; it is not a means of expressing closeness between countries."[8]

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The Northern Ireland Peace Process has led to a number of unusual arrangements between the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom. For example, citizens of Northern Ireland are entitled to the choice of Irish or British citizenship or both and the Governments of Ireland and the United Kingdom consult on matters not devolved to the Northern Ireland Executive. The Northern Ireland Executive and the Government of Ireland also meet as the North/South Ministerial Council to develop policies common across the island of Ireland.

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These arrangements were made following the 1998 Belfast Agreement. Another body established under that agreement, the British-Irish Council, is made up of the major political entities governing the islands. The British-Irish Inter-Parliamentary Body (Irish: Comhlacht Idir-Pharlaiminteach na Breataine agus na hÉireann) predates the British-Irish Council and was established in 1990. Originally it comprised 25 members of the Oireachtas, the Irish parliament, and 25 members of the parliament of the United Kingdom, with the purpose of building mutual understanding between members of both legislature. Since then the role and scope of the body has been expanded to include representatives from the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly for Wales, the Northern Ireland Assembly, the States of Jersey, the States of Guernsey and the High Court of Tynwald (Isle of Man).

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The British-Irish Council does not have executive powers but meets biannually to discuss issues of mutual importance. Similarly, the British-Irish Inter-Parliamentary Body has no legislative powers but investigates and collects witness evidence from the public on matters of mutual concern to its members. Reports on its findings are presented to the Governments of Ireland and the United Kingdom. During the February 2008 meeting of the British-Irish Council, it was agreed to set-up a standing secretariat that would serve as a permanent 'civil service' for the Council.[9] Leading on from developments in the British-Irish Council, the chair of the British-Irish Inter-Parliamentary, Niall Blaney, has suggested that the body should shadow the British-Irish Council's work.[10]

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Many civil bodies are organised throughout the islands as a whole. For example the Samaritans, which is deliberately organised without regard to national boundaries on the basis that a service which is not political or religious should not recognise sectarian or political divisions.[citation needed] The RNLI, the life boats service, is also organised throughout the islands as a whole, covering both the United Kingdom and Ireland.[11]


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At the end of the last ice age, what are now the British Isles were joined to the European mainland as a mass of land extending north west from the modern-day northern coastline of France, Belgium and the Netherlands. Ice covered almost all of what is now Ireland and Great Britain with the exception of most of modern-day Munster and much of what we now call England. Between 14,000 to 10,000 years ago, as the ice melted, sea levels rose separating Ireland from the mainland, creating also the Isle of Man. About two to four millennia later, Great Britain became separated from the mainland. Britain probably became repopulated with people after the ice age ended but before it became separated from the mainland. It is likely that Ireland became settled by sea after it had already become an island.

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By the time of the Roman Empire, about two thousand years ago, Celts were inhabiting the islands. The Romans expanded their civilisation to control southern Great Britain but were impeded in advancing any further, building Hadrian's Wall to mark the northern frontier of their empire in 122 AD. At that time, Ireland was populated by a people known as Scots, the northern part of Great Britain by a people known as Picts and the southern half by Britons. Anglo-Saxons arrived as Roman power waned in the 5th century AD. Initially, their arrival seems to have been at the invitation of the Britons as mercenaries to repulse incursions by the Scots and Picts. In time, Ango-Saxon demands on the British became so great that they came to occupy the bulk of southern Great Britain, creating what is now England and leaving British enclaves only in the north of what is now England, in Cornwall and what is now known as Wales. Ireland had been unaffected by the Romans except, significantly, having been Christianised, traditionally by the Romano-Brition, Saint Patrick. As Europe, including Britain descended turmoil following in the collapse of Roman civilisation, an era known as the Dark Ages, Ireland entering a golden age and responded with missions, first to Great Britain and then to the continent, founding monasteries and universities and were later joined by Anglo-Saxon missions of the same nature.

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Viking invasions began in the 9th century, followed by more permanent settlements, particularly along the east coast of Ireland, the west coast of modern-day Scotland and the Isle of Man. Though the Vikings were eventually neutralised in Ireland, their influence remained in the cities of Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Waterford and Wexford. England however was slowly conquered around the turn of the first millennium AD, eventually become feudal possession of the Kingdom of Denmark. The relations between the descendants of Vikings in England and counterparts in Normandy, in northern France, lay at the heart of a series of events that led to the Norman conquest of England in 1066. The remnants of the Duchy of Normandy, which conquered England, remain associated to the English Crown as the Channel Islands to this day. A century later the marriage of the future Henry II of England to Eleanor of Aquitaine created the Angevin Empire, partially under the French Crown. At the invitation of a provincial king and under the authority of Pope Adrian IV (the only Englishman to be elected pope), the Angevins invaded Ireland in 1169. Though initially intended to be kept as an independent kingdom, the failure of the Irish High King to ensure the terms of the Treaty of Windsor led Henry II, as King of England, to rule as effective monarch under the title of Lord of Ireland. This title was granted to his younger son but when Henry's heir unexpectedly died the title of King of England and Lord of Ireland became entwined in one person.

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By the Late Middle Ages, Great Britain was separated into the Kingdoms of England and Scotland. Power in Ireland fluxed between Gaelic kingdoms, Hiberno-Norman lords and the English-dominated Lordship of Ireland. A similar situation existed in the Principality of Wales, which was slowly being annexed into the Kingdom of England by a series of laws. During the course of the 15th century, the Crown of England would assert a claim to the Crown of France, thereby also releasing the King of England as from being vassal of the King of France. In 1534, King Henry VIII, at first having been a strong defender of Roman Catholicism in the face of the Reformation, separated from the Roman Church after failing to secure a divorce from the Pope. His response was to place the King of England as "the only Supreme Head in Earth of the Church of England", thereby removing the authority of the Pope from the affairs of the English Church. Ireland, which had been held by the King of England as Lord of Ireland, but which strictly speaking had been a feudal possession of the Pope since the Norman invasion invasion was declared a separate kingdom in personal union with England.

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Scotland, meanwhile had remained an independent Kingdom. In 1603, that changed when the King of Scotland inherited the Crown of England, and consequently the Crown of Ireland also. The subsequent 17th century was one of political upheaval, religious division and war. English colonialism in Ireland of the 16th century was extended by large-scale Scottish and English colonies in Ulster. Religious division heightened and the king in England came into conflict with parliament over his tolerance towards Catholicism. The resulting English Civil War (or War of the Three Kingdoms) led to a revolutionary republic in England. Ireland, largely Catholic was mainly loyal to the king. Following defeat to the parliaments army, large scale land distributions from loyalist Irish nobility to English commoners in the service of the parliamentary army created a new Ascendancy class and obliterated the remnants of Old English (Hiberno-Norman) and Gaelic Irish nobility in Ireland. The new class was Protestant and English whereas the populous was largely Catholic and Irish, creating a theme that would influence Irish politics for centuries to come. When the monarchy was restored in England, the king found it politically impossible to restore the lands of former land-owners in Ireland. The "Glorious Revolution" of 1688 repeated similar themes: a Catholic king pushing for religious tolerance in opposition to a Protestant parliament in England. The king's army was defeated at the Battle of the Boyne and the (militarily more crucial) Battle of Aughrim in Ireland, though resistance held out eventually forcing the guarantee of religious tolerance in the Treaty of Limerick. However, the terms were never honoured and a new monarchy was installed.

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The Kingdoms of England and Scotland were unified in 1707 creating the Kingdom of Great Britain. Following an attempted republican revolution in Ireland in 1798, the Kingdoms of Ireland and Great Britain were unified in 1801, creating the United Kingdom. The Isle of Man and the Channel Islands remaining outside of the United Kingdom but with their ultimate good governance being the responsibility of the British Crown (effectively the British government). Although, the colonies of North American that would become the United States of America were lost by the start of the 19th century, the British Empire expanded rapidly elsewhere. A century later it would cover one thirds of the globe. Poverty in Ireland remained desperate however and industrialisation in England led to terrible condition for the working class. Mass migrations following the Irish Famine and Highland Clearances resulted in the distribution of the islands' population and culture throughout the world and a rapid de-population of Ireland in the second-half of the 19th century. Most of Ireland seceded from the United Kingdom after the Irish War of Independence and the subsequent Anglo-Irish Treaty (1919–1922), with six counties that form Northern Ireland remaining as an autonomous region of the UK.


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The United Kingdom and Ireland have separate media, although British television, newspapers and magazines are widely available in Ireland,[12] giving people in Ireland a high level of familiarity with cultural matters in Great Britain. A few cultural events are organised for the island group as a whole. For example, the Costa Book Awards are awarded to authors resident in the UK or Ireland. The Man Booker Prize is awarded to authors from the Commonwealth of Nations and Ireland. The Mercury Music Prize is handed out every year to the best album from a British or Irish musician or group.

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Many globally popular sports had modern rules codified in the British Isles, including golf, association football, cricket, rugby, snooker and darts, as well as many minor sports such as croquet, bowls, pitch and putt, water polo and handball. A number of sports are popular throughout the British Isles, the most prominent of which is association football. While this is organised separately in different national associations, leagues and national teams, even within the UK, it is a common passion in all parts of the islands. Rugby union is also widely enjoyed across the islands. The British and Irish Lions is a team made up of players from England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales that undertakes tours of the southern hemisphere rugby playing nations every four years. This team was formerly known as the British Isles and the British Lions, but has been called the British and Irish Lions since 2001. Ireland play as a united team, represented by players from both Northern Ireland and the Republic. The four national rugby teams from Great Britain and Ireland play each other each year for the Triple Crown as part of the Six Nations Championship. Also since 2001 the professional club teams of Ireland, Scotland and Wales have competed together in the Magners League.


  1. ^ Goudie, Andrew S. (1994). The Environment of the British Isles, an Atlas. Oxford: Clarendon Press. p. 2.  Unknown parameter |coauthors= ignored (|author= suggested) (help)
  2. ^ Ibid., p. 5.
  3. ^ BBC News (Friday, 29 November 2002). "UK's lowest spot is getting lower". England: BBC. p. 1. Retrieved 4 July 2010.  Check date values in: |date= (help)
  4. ^ "Encyclopaedia Britannica online:Ben Nevis". Encyclopaedia Britannica. 2010. Retrieved 5 July 2010.  Check date values in: |access-date= (help)
  5. ^ Mayes, Julian (1997). Regional Climates of the British Isles. London: Routledge. p. 13.  Unknown parameter |coauthors= ignored (|author= suggested) (help)
  6. ^ Ibid., pp. 13–14.
  7. ^ "Guide to British Snakes". Wildlife Britain Retrieved 17 August 2010. 
  8. ^ Goldsmith, 2008, Citizenship: Our Common Bond, Ministry of Justice: London
  9. ^ [Communiqué of the British-Irish Council], February 2008
  10. ^ Martina Purdy, 28 February 2008 2008, Unionists urged to drop boycott, BBC: London
  11. ^, The RNLI is a charity that provides a 24-hour lifesaving service around the UK and Republic of Ireland.
  12. ^ "Ireland". Retrieved 17 October 2008.