The British Isles (Irish: variously Na hOileáin Bhriotanacha, Oileáin Iarthair Eorpa, Éire agus an Bhreatain Mhór; Ellanyn Goaldagh; Eileanan Breatannach; Ynysoedd Prydain) are a group of islands off the northwest coast of continental Europe which comprise Great Britain, Ireland and a number of smaller islands. The term British Isles is controversial in relation to Ireland, where many people find the term objectionable; the Irish government also discourages its usage. There is evidence that as a result of these problems, "Britain and Ireland" is becoming a preferred description.
There are two sovereign states located on the islands: the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and Ireland. The group also includes the Crown dependencies of the Isle of Man and, by tradition, the Channel Islands, although the latter are not physically a part of the archipelago. There are other common uncertainties surrounding the extent, names and geographical elements of the islands.
Several different names are currently used to describe the islands. Dictionaries, encyclopaedias and atlases that use the term British Isles define it as Great Britain, Ireland and adjacent islands, typically including the Isle of Man, the Hebrides, Shetland, Orkney. Some definitions include the Channel Islands. Many major road and rail maps and atlases use the term "Great Britain and Ireland" to describe the islands, although this may be ambiguous regarding the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands. Another alternative name is "British-Irish Isles".
In addition, the term "British Isles" is itself used in widely varying ways, including as an effective synonym for the UK or for Great Britain and its islands, but excluding Ireland. Media organisations like the The Times and the BBC have style-guide entries to try to maintain consistent usage, but these are not always successful. Encyclopædia Britannica, the Oxford University Press - publishers of the Oxford English Dictionary - and the UK Hydrographic Office (publisher of Admiralty charts) have all occasionally used the term "British Isles and Ireland" (with Britannica and Oxford contradicting their own definitions of the "British Isles"), and some specialist encyclopedias also use that term. The BBC style guide's entry on the subject of the British Isles remarks, "Confused already? Keep going." The Economic History Society style guide suggests that the term should be avoided.
Other descriptions for the islands are also used in everyday language, examples are: "Great Britain and Ireland", "UK and Ireland", and "the British Isles and Ireland". Some of these are used by corporate entities and can be seen on the internet, such as in the naming of Yahoo UK & Ireland, or such as in the 2001 renaming of the British Isles Rugby Union Team to the current name of the "British and Irish Lions". Some critics of the term "British Isles" refer to Britain and Ireland as "the archipelago". As mentioned above, the term "British Isles" is controversial in relation to Ireland. One map publisher recently decided to abandon using the term in Ireland while continuing to use it in Britain.
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.
The islands are at relatively low altitudes, with central Ireland and southern Great Britain particularly low lying: the lowest point in the islands is the Fens at −4 m (−13 ft). The Scottish Highlands in the northern part of Great Britain are mountainous, with Ben Nevis being the highest point in the British Isles at 1,344 m (4,409 ft). Other mountainous areas include Wales and parts of the island of Ireland, but 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 km² (147 square miles); the largest freshwater body in Great Britain is Loch Lomond at 71.1 km² (27.5 square miles). Neither are rivers particularly long, the rivers Severn at 354 km (219 miles) and Shannon at 386 km (240 miles) being the longest.
The British 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. Winters are thus warm 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.
The English Channel and the southern North Sea are the busiest seaways in the world. The car ferry, M/F Ulysses, traveling the Irish Sea is the largest in the world. The Channel Tunnel, opened 1994, links Great Britain to France and is the second-longest rail tunnel in the world. The idea of building a tunnel under the Irish Sea has been raised since 1895, when it was first investigated, but is not considered to be economically viable. Several potential Irish Sea tunnel projects have been proposed, most recently the Tusker Tunnel between the ports of Rosslare and Fishguard proposed by The Institute of Engineers of Ireland in 2004. A different proposed route is between Dublin and Holyhead, proposed in 1997 by a leading British engineering firm, Symonds, for a rail tunnel from Dublin to Holyhead. Either tunnel, at 80 km, would be by far the longest in the world, and would cost an estimated €20 billion. A proposal in 2007, estimated the cost of building a bridge from County Antrim in Northern Ireland to Galloway in Scotland at £3.5bn (€5bn). However, none of these is thought to be economically viable at this time.
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. 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.
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 (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) 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.
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 characterized by long peninsulas, and headlands and bays; the internal and eastern coasts are "smoother".
The demographics of the British Isles show dense population in England, which accounts for almost 80% of the total population of the region. In Ireland, Northern Ireland. Scotland, Wales dense populations are limited to areas around, or close to, their respective capitals. Major populations centres (greater than one million people) exist in the following areas:
The population of England has risen steadily throughout its history, while the populations of Scotland and Wales have shown little increase during the twentieth century - the population of Scotland remaining unchanged since 1951. Ireland, which for most of its history comprised a population proportionate to its land area, one third of the total population, has since the Great Famine 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 number fifteen times the current population of the island
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Between 1801 and 1922, Great Britain and Ireland together formed the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. In 1922, twenty-six counties of Ireland left the jurisdiction of the United Kingdom following the Irish War of Independence and the Anglo-Irish Treaty; the remaining six counties, mainly in the northeast of the island, became known as Northern Ireland under the Government of Ireland Act, 1920. Both states, but not the Isle of Man or the Channel Islands, are members of the European Union.
However, despite independence of most of Ireland, political cooperation exists across the islands on some levels:
In classical times, several Greco-Roman Geographers used derivatives of the Celtic Languages term "Pretani", like "Brit-" or "Prit-" with various endings to describe the islands to the north west of the European mainland, although several included islands not currently viewed as part of the "British Isles", e.g. Thule. Later in the Roman era the term Britannia came to mean more specifically the Roman province of Britain.
Other early classical geographers and also later native sources in the post-Roman period used the general term "oceani insulae", simply meaning "islands of the ocean". Great Britain was called "Britannia" and Ireland was called "Hibernia" and also, between about the fifth and eleventh centuries, "Scotia". The Orkneys ("Orcades") and Isle of Man were typically also mentioned in descriptions of the islands. No specific collective term for the islands was used other than "islands of the ocean".
The term "British Isles" entered the English language in the seventeenth century as the description of Great Britain, Ireland and the surrounding islands, but was not in common use until the first half of the nineteenth century and, in general, the modern notion of "Britishness" only started to become common after the 1707 Act of Union. While it is probably the most common term used to describe the islands, use of this term is not universally accepted and is sometimes rejected in Ireland.
Other descriptions are also used, including "Great Britain and Ireland", "The British Isles and Ireland", "Britain and Ireland", and the deliberately vague "these isles", as well as other less common designations like "IONA" (Islands of the North Atlantic), "The Anglo-Celtic Isles", etc.
Around AD 70 Pliny the Elder in Book 4 of his Naturalis Historia describes the islands he considers to be Britanniae as including Great Britain, Ireland, The Orkneys, smaller islands such as the Hebrides, Isle of Man, Anglesey, possibly one of the Friesan Islands, and islands that have been identified as Ushant and Sian. He refers to Great Britain as the island called Britannia, while noting that its former name was Albion. The list also includes the island of Thule, most often identified as Iceland, although some express the view that it may have been the Faroe Islands, the coast of Norway or Denmark or possibly Shetland.
Ptolemy included essentially the same main islands in the Britannias. He was writing around AD 150, though he used the now lost work of Marinus of Tyre from around fifty years earlier. His first description is of Ireland, which he called Hibernia. Second was the island of Great Britain, which he called Albion. Book II, Chapters 1 and 2 of his Geography are respectively titled as Hibernia, Island of Britannia and Albion, Island of Britannia. Ptolemy included Thule in the chapter on Albion, although the coordinates he gives have been mapped to the area around modern Kristiansund in western Norway.
Following the conquest of AD 43 the Roman province of Britannia was established, and Roman Britain expanded to cover much of the island of Great Britain. An invasion of Ireland was considered, but this was taken no further and Ireland remained outside the Roman Empire. The Romans failed to consolidate their hold on the Scottish Highlands, and the northern extent of the area under their control, which at times was defined by the Antonine Wall across central Scotland, stabilised at Hadrian's Wall across the north of England by about AD 210. Inhabitants of the province continued to describe themselves as Brittannus or Britto, and gave their patria (homeland) as Britannia or as their tribe. The vernacular term Priteni came to be used for the barbarians north of the Antonine Wall, with the Romans using the tribal name Caledonii more generally for these peoples who after AD 300 they called Picts.
The post-Roman era saw Brythonic kingdoms established in all areas of Britain except the Scottish Highlands, but coming under increasing attacks from Picts, Scotti and Anglo Saxons. At this time Ireland was dominated by the Gaels or Scotti, who subsequently gave their name to Ireland and then to Scotland, where it still applies.
In classical geography. the world of the Mediterranean was thought to be surrounded by a fast flowing river, personified as the Titan Oceanus. As a result, islands off the north and west shores of continental Europe were termed (in Latin) the Oceani Insulae or Islands of the Ocean. For example, in AD 43 various islands, including Britain, Ireland and Thule, were described as "Septemtrionalis Oceani Insulae", meaning Islands of the Northern Ocean, by Pomponius Mela, one of the earliest Roman geographers.
This description was also used in indigenous sources of the post-Roman period, which also used the term "Oceani Insulae" or "Islands of the Ocean" as a term for the islands in the Atlantic and elsewhere. One such example is the Life of Saint Columba, a hagiography recording the missionary activities of the sixth century Irish monk Saint Columba among the peoples of modern-day Scotland. It was written in the late seventh century by Adomnán of Iona, an Irish monk living on the Inner Hebridean island. No Priteni-derived collective reference is made. Jordanes writing in Getica (AD 551) also describes the various islands, particularly in the western Ocean as "islands of the ocean", naming various islands in the North Atlantic, and believing Scandinavia to be one of them. Jordanes subsequently gives a description of Britain, but does not mention Ireland.
Another native source to use the term is the Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum of Bede written in the early eighth century. Bede's work does not give a collective term for the archipelago, referring to Brittania solely as the island "formerly called Albion" and treating Ireland separately. As with Jordanes and Columba, he refers to Britain as being Oceani insula or "island of the ocean".
Isidore of Seville's Etymology, written in the early seventh century and one of the most used textbooks in Europe throughout the Middle Ages, similarly lists Britain (Britannia), Ireland (called Scotia or Hibernia), Thule, and many other islands simply as "islands" or "islands of the Ocean" and uses no collective term.
In the seventeenth century, Peter Heylyn in Microcosmus described the Classical conception of the Ocean and so included in the Iles of the Ocean consisted of all the classically known offshore islands, that is Zeeland, Denmark, the British Isles, and those in the Northerne Sea.
In his Historia Regum Britanniae of around 1136, Geoffrey of Monmouth responded to the slights of English historians with a theme of the sovereignty of Britain which exalted Welsh national history, portraying a once unified Britannia, founded by Brutus of Troy, defended against Anglo-Saxon invasion by King Arthur of the Britons who was now sleeping, one day to return to the rescue. By the end of the century, this adaptation of myths common to Wales, Cornwall and Brittany had been adopted in the service of England, with Henry II of England enthusiastically taking up Arthurian legend, and Edward I of England putting on pageantry to show the Welsh that he was Arthur's heir. The Welsh and the Scots Edward Bruce used the legends to find common cause as one "kin and nation" in driving the English out of Britain. Both Welsh rebels and English monarchs continued such claims, particularly Henry Tudor who had Welsh ancestry and claims of descent from Arthur. His son Henry VIII incorporated Wales into England, but also laid claim to be an heir of Arthur as did his successor Elizabeth I of England.
The rediscovery of Ptolemy's Geographia by Maximus Planudes in 1300 brought new insight, and circulation of copies widened when it was translated into Latin in 1409. This spread Ptolemy's naming of Hibernia and Albion as Island[s] of Britannia. The Latin equivalents of terms equating to "British Isles" started to be used by mapmakers from the mid sixteenth century onwards, for example Sebastian Münster in Geographia Universalis, a 1550 re-issue of Ptolemy's Geography, uses the heading De insulis Britannicis, Albione, quæ est Anglia, & Hibernia, & de cuiutatibus carum in genere. Gerardus Mercator produced much more accurate maps, including the British Isles in 1564. Ortelius, in his atlas of 1570, uses the title "Angliae, Scotiae et Hiberniae, sive Britannicar. insularum descriptio". This translates as "A Representation of England, Scotland and Ireland, or Britannica's islands".
The geographer and occultist John Dee, of Welsh family background, was an adviser to Queen Elizabeth I of England, and also prepared maps for several explorers. He helped to develop legal justifications for colonisation by Protestant England, breaking the duopoly the Pope had granted to the Spanish and Portuguese Empires. Dee coined the term British Empire and built his case in part on the claim of a British Ocean including Britain and Ireland as well as Iceland, Greenland and possibly extending to North America, using alleged Saxon precedent to claim territorial and trading rights. Current scholarly opinion is generally that "his imperial vision was simply propaganda and antiquarianism, without much practical value and of limited interest to the English crown and state." The Lordship of Ireland had come under tighter English control as the Kingdom of Ireland, and diplomatic efforts interspersed with warfare tried to also bring Scotland under the English monarch. Apparently Dee used the term Brytish Iles in his writings of 1577 which developed his arguments claiming these territories. This appears to be the first use of a recognisable version of the modern term.
Elizabeth was succeeded by her cousin king James VI of Scotland, who brought the English throne under his personal rule as king James I of England, and proclaimed himself as 'King of Great Brittaine, France and Ireland'. However, the states remained separate until the monarchy was overthrown in the civil wars of the Three Kingdoms and the Commonwealth of England briefly ruled all before the restoration of the monarchy restored separate states.
The Oxford English Dictionary states that the first published use in English of "British Isles" was in 1621 (before the civil wars) by Peter Heylin (or Heylyn) in his Microcosmus: a little description of the great world, a collection of his lectures on historical geography. Writing from his English political perspective, he grouped Ireland with Great Britain and the minor islands by three asserting points:
Modern scholarly opinion is that Heylyn "politicized his geographical books Microcosmus ... and, still more, Cosmographie" in the context of what geography meant at that time. Rather, Heylyn's geographical work must be seen as political expressions concerned with proving or disproving constitutional matters and "demonstrated their authors' specific political identities by the languages and arguments they deployed." In an era when "politics referred to discussions of dynastic legitimacy, of representation, and of the Constitution ... [Heylyn's] geography was not to be conceived separately from politics."
Following the Acts of Union of 1707 the Kingdom of Great Britain and conflict with France brought a new popular enthusiasm for Britishness, mostly in Britain itself, and the term British Isles came into common use despite the persistent stirrings of Irish nationalism. A desire for some form of Irish independence had been active throughout the centuries, with Poyning's Law a common focus of resentment. After the hugely turbulent sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, a sort of nationalism surfaced among the Irish Protestant population and eventually lead to the legislative independence of the Irish Parliament under Grattan's Parliament - followed after the Act of Union in 1800 by renewed assertiveness of the Irish Catholics, who first agitated for Catholic Emancipation and later for Repeal of the Union under Daniel O'Connell.
Subsequently the Great Irish Famine, the Land War, the failure of William Gladstone and Charles Stuart Parnell to get partial independence or a Bill for Home Rule through the Westminster Parliament lead to the events of and the eventual total secession/independence of most of Ireland from the United Kingdom and the end of British rule in most of Ireland.
The ethno-linguistic heritage of the British Isles is very rich in comparison to other areas of similar size, with twelve languages from six groups across four branches of the Indo-European family. The Insular Celtic languages of the Goidelic sub-group (Irish, Manx, Scottish Gaelic) and the Brythonic sub-group (Cornish, Welsh and Breton, spoken in north-western France) are the only remaining Celtic languages - their continental relations becoming extinct during the 4th, 5th and 6th centuries. The Norman languages of Guernésiais, Jèrriais and Sarkese are spoken in the Channel Islands, as is French. A cant, called Shelta, is a language spoken by Irish Travellers, often as a means to conceal meaning from those outside the group. However, English, sometimes in the form of Scots, is the dominant language, with few monoglots remaining in the other languages of the region. The Norn language appears to have become extinct in the 18th/19th century.
Until perhaps 1950 the use of languages other than English roughly coincided with the major ethno-cultural regions in the British Isles. As such, many of them, especially the Celtic languages, became intertwined with national movements in these areas, seeking either greater independence from the parliament of the United Kingdom, seated in England, or complete secession. The common history of these languages was one of sharp decline in the mid-19th century, prompted by centuries of economic deprivation and official policy to discourage their use in favour of English. However, since the mid-twentieth century there has been somewhat of a revival of interest in maintaining and using them. Celtic-language medium schools are available throughout Ireland, Scotland and Wales to such an extent that it is now possible to receive all formal education, up to and including third-level education, through a Celtic language. Instruction in Irish and Welsh is compulsory in all schools in the Republic of Ireland and Wales respectively. In the Isle of Man, Manx in taught in all schools, although it is not compulsory, and there is one Manx-medium school. The respective languages are official languages of state in Ireland, the Isle of Man, Scotland and Wales, with equal status with respect to English. In the Channel Islands French is a legislative and administrative language (see Jersey Legal French). Since 2007, Irish is a working language of the European Union.
During the last 60 years there has been a great deal of immigration into Great Britain (less into Ireland). As a result a number of languages not formerly found in the British Isles are in regular use. Polish, Punjabi, and Hindustani (inc Urdu & Hindi), are each probably the first language of over 1 million residents, and a number of other languages are regularly spoken by substantial numbers of persons. Even in provincial areas it has become common for local government to publish information to residents in ten or so languages, and in the largest city, London, the first language of about 20% of the population is neither English nor an indigenous Celtic language. Cornish and the Norman languages of Guernésiais, Jèrriais and Sarkese are far less supported. In Jersey, a language office (L'Office du Jèrriais) is funded to provide education services for Jèrriais in schools and other language services, while in Guernsey there is a language officer and Guernésiais is taught in some schools on a volunteer basis. Of the four, only Cornish is recognised officially under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, and it is taught in some schools as an optional modern language. Guernésiais and Jèrriais are recognised as regional languages by the British and Irish governments within the framework of the British-Irish Council. Scots, as either a dialect of or a closely related language to English, is similarly recognised by the European Charter, the British-Irish Council, and as "part of the cultural wealth of the island of Ireland" under the Good Friday Agreement. However, it is without official status as a language of state in Scotland, where English is used in its place.
Shelta, spoken by the ethnic minority Irish Travellers, is thought to be spoken by 6,000–25,000 people, according to varying sources. Although evidence suggests that it existed as far back as the 13th century, as a secret language, it was only discovered at the end of the 19th century. It is without any official status, despite being thought to have 86,000 speakers worldwide, mostly in the USA.
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.
There are several sports popular in Ireland but not in Great Britain, and vice versa. Cricket, hurling and Gaelic football are probably the best examples of this. Cricket, while being very popular in England and Wales, is rare in Scotland and Ireland. Similarly, hurling and Gaelic football, although hugely popular across the island of Ireland and capable of regularly filling the 82,500-capacity Croke Park, the 4th largest stadium in Europe, are almost unknown in Great Britain.
Some sporting events do operate across Great Britain and Ireland as a whole.
The British and Irish Lions is a rugby union team made up of players from England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales that undertakes tours of the southern hemisphere rugby playing nations every few years. This team was formerly known as The British Isles or colloquially as "The British Lions", but was renamed as "The British and Irish Lions" in 2001. In rugby one united team represents 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.
Between 1927 and 1971 the Ryder Cup in golf was played between a United States team and a Great Britain team, although, in practice, a team representing Great Britain and Ireland. In 1973, the team was renamed so that United States faced an official Great Britain and Ireland team. From 1979 onwards this was expanded to include the whole of Europe. Bowls is also an example of a sport that continues to have a British Isles championship.
The United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland have separate television and radio networks, although UK television is widely available and watched in Ireland, giving people in Ireland a high level of familiarity with cultural matters in Great Britain. People in Ireland also can vote on many British shows such as X-Factor, telephone numbers for the Rep. of Ireland are also available to enter competitions and contribute to comment lines. Irish television is not widely watched in Great Britain. A previous venture, Tara TV by a consortium that included RTÉ, the Republic of Ireland's national broadcaster, to broadcast Irish television in the UK was wound up in 2002 after broadcasting since 1996. RTÉ are now expected to relaunch a new service, RTÉ International beginning in 2009.
British newspapers and magazines are widely available in Ireland and in recent decades have started to produce specific Ireland-orientated editorial copy. Again, as with television, the reverse is not true and Irish newspapers are not widely available in Great Britain. For example, the Irish Times is distributed only in London and the South East of England - although available in two thousand retail outlets, and with plans to extend distribution to Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham and Cardiff on a trial basis with a possibility to extend to Scotland.
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 or the Republic of Ireland. The Mercury Music Prize is handed out every year to the best album from a British or Irish musician or group, though other musical awards are considered on a national basis. It is not unusual for British organisations to include Irish people in lists of "Great Britons" or to include Irish authors in collections of "British" literature. Seamus Heaney made an objection to his inclusion in a 1982 anthology of British poetry by remarking: 'Don’t be surprised If I demur, for, be advised My passport’s green. No glass of ours was ever raised To toast the Queen. (Open Letter, Field day Pamphlet no.2 1983)".
Many other 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. The RNLI is also organised throughout the islands as a whole, and describes itself as covering the UK and Republic of Ireland.