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Republic of Ireland: Regions in Brief

The island is divided into two major political units -- Northern Ireland, which, along with England, Scotland, and Wales, forms the United Kingdom, and the Republic of Ireland. Of the 32 counties in Ireland, 26 are in the Republic.

Ireland divided into two separate countries in 1922, when the British government that had occupied Ireland agreed to allow the Republic to become a free state, with the exception of the six northern counties that remained part of the U.K.

These days, the line between north and south is no longer marked, and the only indication on many roads that you've crossed into a different nation is the road signs, which change from metric distances in the Republic to imperial in Northern Ireland.

The ancient Gaelic regions into which Ireland was once divided are still used in conversation and directions: Ulster is north, Munster is south, Leinster is east, and Connaught is west. Each region is divided into counties:

In Ulster (to the north): Cavan, Donegal, and Monaghan in the Republic; Antrim, Armagh, Derry, Down, Fermanagh, and Tyrone in Northern Ireland.

In Munster (to the south): Clare, Cork, Kerry, Limerick, Tipperary, and Waterford.

In Leinster (to the east): Dublin, Carlow, Kildare, Kilkenny, Laois, Longford, Louth, Meath, Offaly, Westmeath, Wexford, and Wicklow.

In Connaught (to the west): Sligo, Mayo, Galway, Roscommon, and Leitrim.

Dublin & Environs

With 40% of the Republic's population living within 97km (61 miles) of Dublin, the capital is the center of the profound, high-speed changes that have transformed Ireland into a prosperous and increasingly European country. Within an hour's drive of Dublin are Dalkey, Dɉn Laoghaire, and many other engaging coastal towns, as well as the rural beauty of the Wicklow Mountains, and the prehistoric ruins in County Meath.

The Southeast

The southeast offers sandy beaches, Waterford's city walls and crystal works, Kilkenny and Cahir castles, the Rock of Cashel, the Irish National Heritage Park at Ferrycarig, and Ireland's largest bird sanctuary, on the Saltee Islands.

Cork & Environs

Cork, Ireland's second-largest city, feels like a buzzy university town, and provides a congenial gateway to the south and west of the island. Within arm's reach are the Blarney Castle (and its famous stone), the culinary and scenic delights of Kinsale, the Drombeg Stone Circle, Sherkin and Clear islands, and Mizen Head. Also in this region is the dazzling landscape of West Cork.

The Southwest

The once-remote splendors of County Kerry have long since ceased to be a secret, so at least during the high season, be prepared to share the view in this gorgeous section. Highlights are the Dingle Peninsula, and two sets of islands: the Skelligs and the Blasketts. Killarney is surrounded by natural beauty, but is synonymous with souvenir shops and tour buses. The "Ring of Kerry" (less glamorously known as highways N70 and N71) encircling the Iveragh Peninsula is the most visited attraction in Ireland after the Book of Kells. That's both a recommendation and a warning. Killarney National Park provides a stunning haven from buses.

The West

The west of Ireland offers a first taste of Ireland's wild beauty and striking diversity for those who fly into Shannon Airport. County Limerick has an array of impressive castles: Knappogue, Bunratty, King John's, Ashrod, and (just over the county line in Galway) Dunguaire. County Clare's natural offerings -- the Cliffs of Moher and the lunar landscape of the Burren -- are unforgettable. Farther up the coast to the north, past Galway, County Mayo is home of the sweet town of Westport on Clew Bay. Achill Island, Ireland's largest, has beaches and stunning cliff views, and is accessible by car.

Galway & Environs

Galway just may be the perfect small city. It is vibrant, colorful, and funky -- a youthful, prospering port and university city, and the self-proclaimed arts capital of Ireland with theater, music, dance, and a vibrant street life. County Galway is the gateway to Connemara's moody, melancholy, magical landscapes. Here are the Twelve Bens mountains, Kylemore Abbey, and the charming town of Clifden. Offshore lie the mysterious Aran Islands -- Inishmore, Inishmaan, and Inisheer -- with their irresistible desolation.

The Northwest

In Ireland it's easy to become convinced that isolated austerity is beautiful, and nowhere is this more true than Donegal, with its jagged, desolate coastline that, if you don't mind the cold, offers some of the finest surfing in the world. Inland, the Glenveagh National Park has as much wilderness as you could want. County Sligo inspired the poetry of W.B. Yeats with its dense collection of megalithic sites: stone circles, passage tombs, dolmens, and cairns at Carrowmore, Knocknarea, and Carrowkeel.

The Midlands

The lush center of Ireland, bisected by the lazy River Shannon, is a land of pastures, rivers, lakes, woods, and gentle mountain slopes, a lush antidote to the barren beauty of Connemara and a retreat, in high season, from the throngs of tourists who crowd the coasts. The shores and waters of the Shannon and Lough Derg and of their many lesser cousins provide much of the lure. Outdoor pursuits -- cycling, boating, fishing, and hiking -- are the heart of the matter here. The midlands also hold remarkable sites -- Birr Castle and its splendid gardens, and Clonmacnois, the evocative ruins of a famous Irish monastic center.

Northern Ireland

Across the border, Northern Ireland's six counties are undergoing a time of intense change, as peace has held there for nearly a decade. Still one of the most underrated parts of the island, the stunning Antrim coast (particularly between Ballycastle and Cushendum), the bizarre, octagonal basalt columns of the Giant's Causeway, and the Glens of Antrim are unforgettable. The loveliness of the Fermanagh Lake District to the south is written in a minor key. The old city walls of Derry, the past glory of Carrickfergus Castle, and Belfast's elaborate political murals make a trip across the border worthwhile.

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