Physical Environment

What is the physical landscape?

The physical landscape is the mix of lowland and upland, of rivers, lakes, and seashores that provides the arena for life in Ireland. This landscape is very varied. It has a major influence on lives now as it had in the past. It influences the food we eat, the water we drink and the electricity we use every day.

As scenery, it is an ingrained element of daily life and culture, and is an outstanding resource for recreation and tourism. It is the surface on which, over thousands of years, settlers in Ireland have made their mark: creating homes, farms, and cities; making fields and plantations; and building lines of communication.

Silent witness to the toil of past generations can be found in the abandoned cultivation ridges of western fields, and in such features as the ruined outlines of castles and abbeys. The impact of the current generation is evident in a seemingly ever more pervasive built environment. Today's landscape is the outcome of an interweaving of the natural and the cultural, with many distinctive features and regional variations

The transformation of the natural landscape - variations.

An attempt by the geographer Fred Aalen to show how the physical landscape is the outcome of many changes over the last ten thousand years. (A) is just after the last Ice Age when much of the land was grass or bog. (B) is about 6000BC when woodland was widespread and man had made little impact. (C) is 2500BC after the first farmers had cleared some of the woods. (D) is 500BC when blanket bogs were advancing, especially on hill areas, and in places woods were again advancing. (E) is 800AD when farms centred on ringforts or raths were widespread. (F) is 1840AD just before the Great Famine, when rural settlement was at its maximum. (G) is to-day, when the extent of farmland is contracting and managed forestry is increasingly prominent.

Source: Atlas of the Irish Rural Landscape.

The transformation of the natural landscape - variations.

An attempt by the geographer Fred Aalen to show how the physical landscape is the outcome of many changes over the last ten thousand years. (A) is just after the last Ice Age when much of the land was grass or bog. (B) is about 6000BC when woodland was widespread and man had made little impact. (C) is 2500BC after the first farmers had cleared some of the woods. (D) is 500BC when blanket bogs were advancing, especially on hill areas, and in places woods were again advancing. (E) is 800AD when farms centred on ringforts or raths were widespread. (F) is 1840AD just before the Great Famine, when rural settlement was at its maximum. (G) is to-day, when the extent of farmland is contracting and managed forestry is increasingly prominent.

Source: Atlas of the Irish Rural Landscape.

.

The Cultural Impact of Landscape


The entrenched cultural impact of landscape is evident in the reverence for long accorded particular landforms, for example the Hills of Uisneach, Co. Westmeath and Tara, Co. Meath. Here in earlier times, assemblies were held during the festivals of Bealtaine and Samhain. Mountains, such as Drung Hill in Co. Kerry, were the sites for the Festival of Lķnasa and various other types of religious 'pattern'.

Secluded lakes, such as at Glendalough, Co. Wicklow

Glendalough, Co. Wicklow

Glendalough, Co. Wicklow is an example of the U-shaped cross profile of an over deepened main valley.

Courtesy of Carsten Clasohm

Glendalough, Co. Wicklow

Glendalough, Co. Wicklow is an example of the U-shaped cross profile of an over deepened main valley.

Courtesy of Carsten Clasohm

†, and Gouganebarra, Co. Cork - respectively associated with Saints Kevin and Finbarr - have also become places of religious importance

Glendalough Village.

This photograph from c.1950's shows the remains of the early Irish religious community in Glendalough in Co. Wicklow. This monastic site includes a round tower in the centre of the photograph and chapel to the left of the graveyard which was founded by St. Kevin in the sixth century. The round tower was a defensive monument in that it served as a look out for the danger of the Norsemen and a safe keep for valuable religious artefacts. At the same time it was a monument of pacifism and retreat. Glendalough monastery was founded by St. Kevin in the 6th century. As this time the valley would have been a place of complete retreat and isolation from the outside world.

†. Over many millennia, reaching back into pre-history, settlers have been sensitive to landscape, picking out those sites that afforded security, as with the great hill-forts of the Iron Age, or which offered them the best prospects for farming.

Toponyms


More prosaically, the significance of landscape is enshrined in place-names. Of the more than 60,000 townlands in Ireland, well over 20% incorporate name elements referring to physical or natural features. These are known as toponyms. There are thousands of such examples throughout Ireland, including placenames with the words 'druim' (ridge), 'cnoc' (hill), glean (glen), or inis (island).

The Landscape in Arts and Culture

The landscape also has a more subtle, if at times difficult to define, influence on the psyche. That influence is evident across a wide cultural spectrum. In song, the impact of such places is celebrated, as in the Mountains of Mourne, the Hills of Clare, the Meeting of the Waters, and Slievenamon. In the works of painters such as Paul Henry's In Connemara, Derek Hill's Tory Island. Poets, like W.B. Yeats and Patrick Kavanagh, who were inspired by the landscape of Sligo and many modern writers like John McGahern or John Broderick, both using settings in midland Ireland. The film-maker Sam Hanna Bell demonstrates the influence of Strangford Lough in his work. Landscape affects all of us in some way. Even if it is sometimes a subconscious response, we acknowledge its beauty, its changing colours, its moods.

Author of our Physical Landscape section

Dr. Arnold Horner, author of Physical Landscape.

Dr Horner has a long-time interest in the Geography of Ireland, broadly interpreted. More particularly, his study interests centre on Irish regions, especially the Dublin city-region, and the history of cartography in Ireland. He has twice been awarded a UCD Presidentís Research Fellowship, and he has also received awards from the former National Board for Science and Technology and the Irish Research Council for Human and Social Sciences. Dr Hornerís publications include contributions to a resource survey of Co. Kildare, census atlases on the agriculture and population of Ireland, and the section on Maynooth in the Irish Historic Towns Atlas. In recent years, Dr Horner has been researching the pioneering maps and surveys of the Bogs Commissioners of 1809-1814. His Mapping Offaly in the early nineteenth century: with an atlas of William Larkinís map of Kingís County 1809, was published by Wordwell in November 2006.

Copyright managed by the Library Council
Dr. Arnold Horner, author of Physical Landscape.
Copyright managed by the Library Council

Dr. Arnold Horner, author of Physical Landscape.

Dr Horner has a long-time interest in the Geography of Ireland, broadly interpreted. More particularly, his study interests centre on Irish regions, especially the Dublin city-region, and the history of cartography in Ireland. He has twice been awarded a UCD Presidentís Research Fellowship, and he has also received awards from the former National Board for Science and Technology and the Irish Research Council for Human and Social Sciences. Dr Hornerís publications include contributions to a resource survey of Co. Kildare, census atlases on the agriculture and population of Ireland, and the section on Maynooth in the Irish Historic Towns Atlas. In recent years, Dr Horner has been researching the pioneering maps and surveys of the Bogs Commissioners of 1809-1814. His Mapping Offaly in the early nineteenth century: with an atlas of William Larkinís map of Kingís County 1809, was published by Wordwell in November 2006.

Copyright managed by the Library Council
Enlarge image


Dr Arnold Horner, who lectures in Geography at University College Dublin, is a graduate of Trinity College, where the main subjects of his B.A. in Natural Sciences were Geography and Geology. He later taught at the Department of Geography, University of Liverpool. At UCD, Dr Horner teaches courses centred on the development of Geography, the human geography of global contrasts, Europe, and on cartographic ideas.