Ireland is Europe's western outpost, fronting the vastness of the Atlantic. This has been one of the central facts of its history.
For centuries, until the discovery of the Americas, the island was regarded as a remote spot on the edge of the inhabited world, and new ideas and technologies did generally reach it quite late - which only makes the distinctive Irish contribution to civilization seem all the more remarkable.
Geography and climate were equally important in shaping Ireland's destiny. The ocean played a crucial role in the making of the land, bringing to its shores the warm currents that helped to make it mild, moist and green.
The shape of the land is unusual. Essentially it consists of a rolling, fertile area, the Central Lowlands, which is surrounded by low ranges of hills and mountains; the very highest point on the island, in Macgillycuddy's Reeks, stands a mere 1040 metres above sea level. The long break in the ranges occurs in the east, where the lowlands extend as far as the coast, from Dublin to Dundalk Bay - an all-too-helpful entry-point for invaders and settlers.
However, much of Ireland's special character derives from the network of rivers and lakes (known as loughs) which divide up the land. The river Shannon rises modestly out of a hole called the Shannon Pot in County Cavan, but then flows on and on until it empties into the sea some 400 kilometres away in the far south-west. It is the longest river not only in Ireland but in the British Isles; and, similarly, Lough Neagh, almost 400 square kilometres in area, is the biggest lake. The land is tamer than was once the case: the forests have diminished, and even Ireland's famous peat bogs are much diminished. But although industries, cities and 'post-industrial' enterprises have made their mark on the landscape, Ireland remains an extraordinarily spacious place, full of pleasant small towns and villages, mansions and ruins, that compliment rather than dominate the peaceful farmlands and magnificently varied scenery.
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