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LAND EVOLUTION | A Strange Question:

Is Ireland Really an Island?

NASA satellite image of Ireland, Great Britain, and Northwest Europe

The Emerald Isle. The Island of Destiny. Ireland’s status as an island has certainly spawned some of its more poetic alternative names, and it is no exaggeration to say that this island status is fundamental to our conception of Ireland as a land and to the identities of Irish people. It has played a crucial role over thousands of years in determining which animals and plants live on the island, as well as influencing the flow of people into and out of Ireland, thus profoundly affecting the development of Irish people in social, cultural, and political terms. But – is Ireland really an island?

The answer to this question would seem to be an obvious one, and by any reckoning it would simply have to be 'Yes'. Of course, if we are only concerned with what Ireland is at this very moment in time, then this answer is entirely correct. However, if we step back and enlarge our scope to include the great enormity of Ireland’s past, our certainty soon begins to dissolve.

The first leg on our journey, though, would seem to bolster our conception of Ireland's status as an island, as its most recent separation from Britain is now thought to have occurred over twice as long ago as was once believed. Well into the 2000s there were still many experts who argued that there were landbridges connecting Ireland to Britain as recently as around 8,000 years ago, but even then this view was being overtaken by new research which demonstrated that Ireland had become an island as early as around 16,000 years ago, if not earlier.

By this time, as the Ice Age was nearing its end, the great torrent of meltwater from Ireland’s collapsing ice sheets, and those of other areas worldwide, had raised sea levels at a faster rate than Ireland’s crust was rising as it rebounded after the great weight of the ice was lifted from its surface. And as the waves rose, they sundered the land connections between Ireland and its nearest neighbour, resulting in the Irish coastline taking on more or less the shape it has today, with Britain peeking in over Ireland’s shoulder.

In geological terms, though, 16,000 years is little more than the blink of an eye, and if we expand our scope to a range of millions of years, this recent extension in the age of Ireland’s current island status starts to pale into insignificance.

For instance, if we look at the great expanse of time since the demise of the dinosaurs 66 million years ago, the reality of Ireland’s position becomes quite stark. For the vast majority of this time, perhaps 90 per cent of it, Ireland has most likely been connected to Britain, often along the entirety of its east coast. Furthermore, for large parts of this period, allowing for invasions of the sea here and there, Ireland and Britain have been joined to France.

So, taking even just the last 66 million years into account, our answer to the question 'Is Ireland really an island?' would have to be a resounding 'No!'.

Of course, this opens up the question of the possibility of Ireland becoming joined to Britain once more at some point in the future. Again, if we are to enlarge our scope to millions of years, this almost certainly becomes more a question of 'when?' rather than 'if?'. The waters cutting Ireland off from Britain and Europe are really quite shallow, and it would not take much of a fall in sea level or the rise of Ireland’s crust, or a combination of the two, to end Ireland’s island status and make it a part of ‘the Continent’.

So, despite its crucial part in the development of Ireland as we know it today, then, we must conclude that there is nothing immutable about Ireland’s island status. And to that end it is worth remembering the words of the geologist Robin Edwards of Trinity College, Dublin, as stated in the recent book Secrets of the Irish Landscape:

‘The coastline is a dynamic place where stability is an illusion: its current form is merely the latest expression of the constantly changing balance between land and sea.’

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