British Isles

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Geography of Great Britain

Location of the British Isles
Location of the British Isles

The British Isles are a group of islands off the northwest coast of continental Europe consisting of Great Britain, Ireland, and a number of smaller surrounding islands and islets. The term "British Isles" can be confusing (see British Isles (terminology)) and is objectionable to some people in Ireland. See the Terminology section below for details of the controversy.

There are two sovereign states located on the islands: the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The group also includes the Isle of Man, a United Kingdom crown dependency. Both states, but not the Isle of Man, are members of the European Union. Between 1801 and 1922, Great Britain and Ireland together formed the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. In 1922, Ireland left the jurisdiction of the United Kingdom, except for six counties in the north east of the island, which became known as Northern Ireland.

The islands encompass an area south to north from Pednathise Head to Out Stack, Shetland in the United Kingdom, and west to east from Tearaght Island in the Republic of Ireland to Lowestoft Ness in the United Kingdom, containing more than 6,000 islands, amounting to a total land area of 121,674  square miles (315,134 km²). The British Isles are largely low lying and fertile, though with significant mountainous areas in Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and the north of England. The regional geology is complex, formed by the drifting together of separate regions and shaped by glaciation.

The islands were named after the Priteni, an ancient name for the Irish and British pre-Roman inhabitants; however, on its own, the dominant modern meaning of the adjective " British" is "of Great Britain or of the United Kingdom or its people", so the term "British Isles" can be mistakenly interpreted to imply that the Republic of Ireland is part of the United Kingdom. The Irish government's policy is that the term is not used by the government and is without any official status, as stated by Minister for Foreign Affairs Dermot Ahern in 2005; the media in the Republic of Ireland also rarely use it. Irish people taking this view object to any use of the term, and avoid referring to the group of islands as a whole.


A map of the British Isles
A map of the British Isles
Satellite Image of the British Isles (excluding the Shetland Islands) and part of northern Continental Europe.
Satellite Image of the British Isles (excluding the Shetland Islands) and part of northern Continental Europe.

The island-group is made up of more than 6,000 islands, the two biggest being Great Britain and Ireland. Great Britain, to the east, covers 83,698 square miles (216,777 km²), over half of the total landmass of the group; Ireland, to the west, covers 32,589 square miles (84,406 km²). The other larger islands are situated to the north and west of the group, in the Hebrides and Shetland Islands.

The islands that constitute the British Isles include:

  • Great Britain
    • Northern Isles (including Orkney, Shetland and Fair Isle)
    • Hebrides (including the Inner Hebrides, Outer Hebrides and Small Isles)
    • Islands of the lower Firth of Clyde (including the Isle of Arran and Bute)
    • Anglesey (in Welsh Ynys Môn)
    • Farne Islands
    • Isles of Scilly
    • Isle of Wight
    • Portsmouth Islands (including Portsea Island and Hayling Island)
    • Islands of Furness
    • Isle of Portland
    • See also:
      • List of islands of England
      • List of islands of Scotland
      • List of islands of Wales
  • Ireland
    • Ulster: Arranmore, Tory Island
    • Connacht: Achill Island, Clew Bay islands, Inishturk, Inishbofin, Inishark, Aran Islands
    • Munster: Blasket Islands, Valentia Island, Cape Clear, Sherkin Island, Great Island
    • Leinster: Lambay Island, Ireland's Eye
    • See also: List of islands of Ireland
  • Isle of Man
    • See also: List of islands of Isle of Man

The Channel Islands are sometimes stated as being in the British Isles , though geographically they are not part of the island group, being close to the coast of France.

The islands are at relatively low altitudes, with central Ireland and southern Great Britain particularly low lying. 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  metres (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 metres (3,281 ft). Lakes on the islands are generally not large, although Lough Neagh in Northern Ireland is an exception, covering 147 square miles (381 km²); the largest freshwater body in Great Britain is Loch Lomond at 27.5 square miles (71.1 km²). Neither are rivers particularly long, the rivers Severn at 219 miles (354 km) and Shannon at 240 miles (386 km) 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 degrees Celsius (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.


An interactive geological map is available.

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 amounts of limestone and chalk rocks which 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".


History of the British Isles

By chronology

  • Prehistoric Britain
  • Iron Age Britain
  • Roman Britain
  • Sub-Roman Britain
  • Medieval Britain
  • Early Modern Britain
  • Modern Britain

By nation

  • History of England
  • History of Northern Ireland
  • History of Ireland
  • History of Scotland
  • History of Wales

By topic

  • Constitutional history
  • Economic history
  • Military history
  • Social history
History of Ireland
Early history
Early Christian Ireland
Early medieval and Viking era
Norman Ireland
Early Modern Ireland 1536–1691
Ireland 1691–1801
Union with Great Britain
History of the Republic
History of Northern Ireland
Economic history

The British Isles has a long and complex shared history. While this tends to be presented in terms of national narratives, many events transcended modern political boundaries. In particular these borders have little relevance to early times and in that context can be misleading, though useful as an indication of location to the modern reader. Also, cultural shifts which historians have previously interpreted as evidence of invaders eliminating or displacing the previous populations are now, in the light of genetic evidence, perceived by a number of archaeologists and historians as being to a considerable extent changes in the culture of the existing population brought by groups of immigrants or invaders who at times became a new ruling élite.


At a time when the islands were still joined to continental Europe, Homo erectus brought Palaeolithic tool use to the south east of the modern British Isles some 750,000 years ago followed (about 500,000 years ago) by the more advanced tool use of Homo heidelbergensis found at Boxgrove. It appears that the glaciation of ice ages successively cleared all human life from the area, though human occupation occurred during warmer interglacial periods. Modern humans appear with the Aurignacian culture about 30,000 years ago, famously with the " Red Lady of Paviland" in modern Wales. The last ice age ended around 10,000 years ago, and Mesolithic hunter-gatherers spread to all parts of the islands by around 8,000 years ago, at a time when rising sea levels now cut off the islands from the continent. The immigrants came principally from the ice age refuge in what is now the Basque Country, with a smaller immigration from refuges in the modern Ukraine and Moldavia. Three quarters of the ancestors of people of the British Isles may have arrived in this wave of immigration.

Around 6,500 years ago farming practices spread to the area with the Neolithic Revolution and the western seaways quickly brought megalithic culture throughout the islands. The earliest stone house still standing in northern Europe is at Knap of Howar, in Orkney which also features such monuments as Maes Howe ranking alongside the Callanish stone circle on the Isle of Lewis, Newgrange in Ireland, and Stonehenge in southern England along with thousands of lesser monuments across the isles, often showing affinities with megalithic monuments in France and Spain. Further cultural shifts in the bronze age were followed with the building of numerous hill forts in the iron age, and increased trade with continental Europe.

Pretani, Romans and Anglo-Saxons

The oldest surviving historical records of the islands preserve fragments of the travels of the ancient Greek Pytheas around 320 BC and describe Great Britain and Ireland as the islands of Prettanike with their peoples the Priteni or Pretani, a name which may have been used in Gaul. A later variation on this term as the Cruithne would come to refer to certain groups. Ireland was referred to as Ierne (the sacred island as the Greeks interpreted it) "inhabited by the race of Hiberni", and Great Britain as insula Albionum, "island of the Albions". These terms without the collective name appear in the 4th century writings of Avienus which preserve fragments of the Massaliote Periplus of the 6th century BC. Later scholars associated these tribal societies with the Celts the Ancient Greeks reported in what is now south-west Germany, and subgrouped their Celtic languages in the British Isles into the Brythonic languages spoken in most of Great Britain, and Goidelic in Ireland and the west of modern Scotland. They perceived these languages as arriving in a series of invasions, but modern evidence suggests that these peoples may have migrated from Anatolia around 7000 B.C. through southern and then western Europe. Genetic evidence indicates that there was not a later large-scale replacement of these early inhabitants and that the Celtic influence was largely cultural. In the Scottish highlands northwards the people the Romans called Caledonians or Picts spoke a language which is now unknown. It is also possible that southern England was settled by Belgic tribes.

During the first century the Roman conquest of Britain established Roman Britain which became a province of the Roman Empire named Britannia, eventually extending on the island of Great Britain to Hadrian's Wall with tribes forming friendly buffer states further north to around the Firth of Clyde and the Firth of Forth, and military expeditions beyond that into Caledonia. The interaction of the Romans with Ireland appears to have largely been limited to some trade. From the 4th century raids on Roman Britain increased and language links have led to speculation that many Britons migrated across the English Channel at this time to found Brittany, but it has been contended that Armorica was already Brittonic speaking due to trade and religious links, and the Romans subsequently called it Brittania.

The departure of the Romans around 410 left numerous kingdoms across the British Isles. Settlement in Sub-Roman Britain by peoples traditionally called the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes created Anglo-Saxon kingdoms ("the Heptarchy") over much of what is now England and south-east Scotland. To the north, the Irish Dál Riatans, also known by the name Scotti expanded their influence to western Scotland.

National formation

The Vikings arrived in Britain and Ireland in the 790's with raids on Lindisfarne, Iona, and the west of Ireland. They provided another wave of immigration, settling in Orkney and Shetland and then Western Isles, Caithness, Sutherland, Isle of Man, Galloway, in various places around Ireland, Northumbria, East Anglia and Mercia. Wessex prevented the further expansion of the Vikings, and achieved a united kingdom of England in 927, which was then ruled by both English and Viking kings until 1066. Further north, in 900 A.D. Donald II was the first king of Alba rather than king of the Picts. His successors amalgamated all the kingdoms north of England into the kingdom of Alba and fixed its southern border on the Tweed in 1018. Wales was divided into a number of British kingdoms, apart from one short period of unification, and also suffered from viking raids in the tenth century. Ireland was divided among around eighty to a hundred petty kingdoms grouped under larger regional kingdoms and then a weak High King. The Vikings founded Dublin in 852 and established several other coastal strongholds around Ireland. The Viking kingdom of Dublin went on to dominate much of Ireland, but their power was broken by Brian Boru in 1014 who effectively united Ireland, but only until his death.

Norman immigration

The next wave of immigration were Viking descendants, the Normans. The Norman Conquest of 1066 brought England under their rule and then extended their influence and power to the rest of the British Isles. The Normans were centralisers and expansionists. Their lands (and those of their successors, the Plantagenets) within the British Isles were part of more extensive land holdings in France and elsewhere, and held within a feudal framework. They controlled Wales by the end of the 11th century, only to partially lose it again several times owing to revolts until 1283 when Edward I successfully enforced Plantagenet supremacy. In 1072 the Normans forced the Scottish king Malcolm III to submit to their feudal overlordship, something they would regularly assert during the mediaeval period. The Normans did not supplant the Scottish political structure, but had great influence over it, eventually supplying the kings of the Scots from 1150, and then asserting independence of the Scottish Crown from that of England. The Scottish Crown gradually gained control of Norse areas, annexing the kingdoms of Mann and of the Isles in 1266, and Orkney and Shetland from Norway in 1472. The Normans were initially invited to Ireland, here they asserted overlordship, resulting in 1184 with the Pope authorising the feudal Lordship of Ireland. This fell under the English crown with the accession of John. Formal taxation and government during the middle ages was generally restricted to an arc around Dublin called the Pale.

During the Middle Ages, the Normans slowly intermarried with the previous populations and adopted their language and customs. In England, the anglicisation of the Norman and Plantagenet elite was driven by the slow erosion of their lands elsewhere, but it was 1362 before the Langue d'oïl, Anglo-Norman gave way to Middle English to become the language of the law courts.

Protestant reformation and civil wars

The feudal system decayed and by the end of the sixteenth century was replaced by a system of centralised states. The English throne had come under the Welsh Tudors, who centralised government in England, Ireland, and Wales. In 1603 James VI of Scotland brought England and Scotland into personal union and promoted the existence of a modern British identity.

These changes happened at the same time as the Protestant reformation where the Roman Catholic church had been replaced by national churches to which all people were expected to adhere to. Failure to do so resulted in prosecution for recusancy and heavy fines, and recusants laid themselves open to accusations of treason and loss of land. By 1600 there was a wide range of religious belief within the islands from Presbyterian Calvinists (who were the majority in much of Scotland) and Independents to episcopal Calvinists (in the Church of Ireland and parts of Scotland) to Protestant Episcopalians that retained formal liturgy (especially the Church of England) to Roman Catholicism (which retained a large majority in Ireland).

James, and his son, Charles I, favoured political and religious centralisation and uniformity throughout the British Isles. They favoured episcopal, Armininian churches with a formal liturgy, which antagonised many Protestants. In addition, James, although he followed a policy of relative religious toleration, worsened the position of Irish Catholics by expanding the policy of plantation in Ireland, most notably in the Plantation of Ulster where forfeited lands from Catholics were settled by Scottish and English Protestants and by barring Catholics from serving in pubic office. Charles tried to force central, personal government. He attempted to bypass institutions he could not control and impose a uniform non-Calivinistic settlement throughout the islands.

The result was the Bishops Wars#First Bishops War in Scotland in 1639, when the Scottish Presbyterians rebelled against Charles' religious policies. The crisis rapidly spread to Ireland, in the form of the Irish Rebellion of 1641 and then to England, where Parliament refused to raise an army for Charles to fight in Scotland or Ireland, fearing that it would next be used against them. the English Civil War broke out in 1642. Collectively, these conflicts are known as the Wars of the Three Kingdoms, a shifting series of conflicts and alliances within Britain and Ireland. The King's supporters were known as the Royalists and had forces in England, Scotland (mostly episcopalian and Catholic highlanders), and Ireland. The English Parliamentary forces (mostly presbyterian and independents) fought against them, but were defeated in England by 1645. The Scottish presbyterians (the Covenanters) were allied to the English Paliament, while the Irish Catholic Confederates were loosely allied with the Royalists.

By 1649 Parliamentary forces ruled England and executed Charles and the Covenanters had secured Scotland. An alliance between the Catholic Confederates and the Royalists in Ireland resulted in the parliamentary conquest of Ireland, followed by a brutal guerrilla campaign which officially ended in 1653. Charles II repudiated the Irish alliance in 1650 in order to enter one with the Covenanters instead and invaded England. He was defeated in 1651 and the result was that the entire British Isles were brought under the English parliamentary army. There was religious toleration of Protestant denominations (though no episcopalian church), but Catholics were strongly repressed. In Ireland they were disenfranchised and dispossessed with Catholic land ownership dropping from 60% to 8% and their land was confiscated to pay off the Parliament's debts. Some of the land was given to another wave of Protestant immigrants, especially former soldiers, but these were not sufficient to replace the existing Irish, so Ireland became a land largely owned by Protestant landlords with Catholic tenants.

The return of the Stuarts

The restoration of Charles II in 1660 reversed many of the Commonwealth measures: the three kingdoms were separated again, the episcopalian Churches of England and Ireland re-established, a Presbyterian Church of Scotland established, and Protestant nonconformism repressed. A small proportion of the confiscated lands in Ireland were restored, bringing Catholic ownership up to 20%. In1685 brought Charles' brother, James II, a Catholic, to the thrones. James suspended the laws discriminating against those not adhering to the national churches; but, he attempted personal rule with a large standing army and heavy-handedly attempted to replace Anglicans with Catholics. This alienated the English establishment who invited the Dutch William, Prince of Orange to depose James in favour of his daughter, Mary. On William's landing, James fled first to France and then to Ireland where the government remained loyal to him. Here he was defeated, and the position of the Protestant Ascendancy cemented with the imposition of Penal Laws there that effectively denied nearly all Catholics (75% of the population) any sort of power or substantial property.

James and his descendants attempted to recover the throne several times over the next sixty years, but failed to gain sufficient active support and were consistently defeated.

Kingdom of Great Britain and social revolutions

The 1707 Act of Union united England and Scotland in the Kingdom of Great Britain. The next century saw the start of great social changes. Enclosure had been taking place over a long period in England, but the agricultural revolution accelerated the process by which land was privatised, commercialised, and intensively exploited, and caused it to spread throughout the British Isles. This resulted in the displacement of large numbers of people from the land and widespread hardship. In addition, the industrial revolution saw the displacement of cottage industries by large-scale factories and the rapid growth of industrial towns and cities. The British Empire grew substantially, stoking the growth in industrial production, bringing in wealth, giving rise to large-scale emigration, and making London the largest city in Europe.

Social unrest and repressive government accompanied these upheavals. The ideals of the French Revolution were widely supported and led to a full-scale rebellion in Ireland. A result of the rebellion was the start of the end of Ascendancy hegemony in Ireland and its political unification with Great Britain in 1801. Unrest throughout the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland continued well into the 19th century, but was increasingly legitimised and able to find an outlet in Parliament from the Great Reform Act of 1832 onwards. The role of religion in determining political markedly decreased from the Catholic Relief Act in 1829 onwards. The social upheavals continued with widespread migration from the countryside to towns and cities and abroad. Ireland suffered a great famine from 1845 until 1849 which resulted in its population dropping by a third through death and migration. This included large-scale movements to Great Britain, especially to the north west of England and western Scotland. Emigration from the whole of the British Isles overseas continued, especially to the English-speaking parts of the British Empire, the United States, and other countries such as Argentina.

The 20th century

Prosperity increased through the 19th and into the 20th century, and politics became increasingly popular and democratic. The Irish War of Independence and subsequent Irish Civil War led to the 1922 formation of the Irish Free State, which was a dominion until becoming a republic in 1949. Six Irish counties remained part of the United Kingdom as Northern Ireland, initially with devolved government. Since then there have been extensive periods of unrest. Both the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland joined the European Economic Community (now the European Union) in 1973. Currently there are devolved governments in Wales and Scotland, though in Northern Ireland the devolved assembly is currently suspended.

Further waves of migration from Ireland to Great Britain took place during times of economic difficulty in the thirties, forties, and fifties, though since then it has grown more prosperous and its Gross Domestic Product per capita now exceeds that of the United Kingdom. The end of the British Empire in the latter half of the 20th century saw the end of large-scale emigration; instead, there was immigration to Britain, especially from the West Indies and the Indian sub-continent, and recently to both Britain and Ireland from eastern Europe.

Sport and Culture

Despite the split between the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom, a limited number of sport or cultural events operate across the isles as a whole, especially where an all-Ireland team competes internationally. The British and Irish Lions is a rugby union team made up of players from the entire archipalego; they compete in tours of Southern Hemisphere rugby playing nations. Prior to 1979, the Ryder Cup was played between the United States and the British Isles, before it was expanded to include the whole of Europe. Bowls continues to have a British Isles championship.

There can also be strong links in cultural activities. For example, 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; for example, U2 won the best international group award at the 2001 Brit awards.

Other organisations are sometimes organised across the islands; for example the Samartitans.


The term British Isles is in widespread use, and is defined as "Great Britain and Ireland and adjacent islands". However the term carries additional meanings; political, economic, cultural and geopolitical, reflecting historical divisions and the fact that the British Isles in general coincided with the geographic area of the former United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland (1801—1922). The use of the term British Isles has on occasion been interpreted as implying a continued political association with Britain, an implication which causes the term to be both unacceptable and controversial to many people in Ireland, a sovereign state that became independent from the United Kingdom some eighty years ago.

Problems over terminology are summed up by the columnist Marcel Berlins, writing in The Guardian in 2006. He gives his opinion that "although purely a geographical definition, it is frequently mixed up with the political entities Great Britain, or the United Kingdom. Even when used geographically, its exact scope is widely misunderstood". He also acknowledges that some people view the term as representing Britain's colonial past, when it ruled the whole of Ireland.

Origins of the term

The prefix "Brit-" is derived from the Latin Britto of classical times. This was itself one of several variations on the αι Βρεττανιαι, the Brittanic Isles, peopled by the Ρρεττανοι, Priteni or Pretani. These names were used by Greek and Roman geographers and were derived from a Celtic language term which is likely to have reached them from the Gauls.

Throughout Book 4 of his Geography, Strabo is consistent in spelling the island Britain (transliterated) as Prettanikee; he uses the terms Prettans or Brettans loosely to refer to the islands as a group. On some interpretations he also included Iceland (called Thule) in the group.

Pliny the Elder writing around AD 70 uses a Latin version of the same terminology in section 4.102 of his Naturalis Historia. He writes of Great Britain: Albion ipsi nomen fuit, cum Britanniae vocarentur omnes de quibus mox paulo dicemus. ("Albion was its own name, when all [the islands] were called the Britannias; we will speak of them in a moment."). In the following section, 4.103, Pliny describes the places he considers to make up the Britannias, including Great Britain, Ireland, Iceland, some of the Friesan Islands, possibly Cornwall, which was sometimes mistakenly supposed to be a separate island, and other places which are uncertain but may include the mainland of Denmark, the Faroes, and parts of the coast of Norway.

Ptolemy includes Ireland, which he calls Hibernia, as being part of the island group he calls Britannia. He titles Book II, Chapter 1 of his Geography as Hibernia, Island of Britannia. Since classical times, a meaning of "British" is to refer to the ancient Britons, and was used in this way by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (specifically excluding the English, Scots, Picts and Latin readers), through Early Modern times to the present day Peter Heylyn, who was to coin the term British Isles in English, used British in this way to refer to the ancient Britons, stating that Britt meant paint.

The classical name for all the islands associated with Great Britain and Ireland was used by continental mapmakers in Latin or French from the 16th century onwards, such as Gerardus Mercator ( 1512. Ortelius makes clear his understanding that England, Scotland and Ireland were politically separate in 1570 by the full title of his map: "Angliae, Scotiae et Hiberniae, sive Britannicar. insularum descriptio" which translates as "England, Scotland and Ireland, that I describe [to be] the British islands".

The first use in English of "British Isles" was by Peter Heylin (or Heylyn) in his Microcosmus: a little description of the great world in 1621, a collection of his lectures on historical geography. He used this term for both Great Britain and Ireland (as well as the other islands) by reasoning that all the pre-Roman inhabitants of the islands would have been ancient Britons owing to the close proximity of the islands to each other, that "ancient writers call this Iland a Brttiʃh Iland", and a quote from Tacitus that the habits and disposition of the people in Ireland were not much unlike the "Brittaines". The use of the term as a historical term (along with others) continues to have a wide use within the United Kingdom to describe the whole of the British Isles in a geographical sense.

Perspectives in Britain

As a general rule, the use of the term British Isles to refer to the archipalego is common and uncontroversial within Great Britain. It is commonly understood as being a politically neutral geographical term. Despite this, many within the UK still misuse the term. This can be explained by confusion between the many similar terms in use within the islands

Perspectives in Ireland

At the end of the 16th century British also came to mean as pertaining to the island of Great Britain, and this use grew very quickly with the accession of James VI of Scots to the English throne. It was used in an Irish context to differentiate those from Great Britain from native Irish in 1641. As a result of Irish nationalism and eventual secession, the use of the name "British Isles" is highly controversial in Ireland because of the perception that its use implies a continued constitutional relationship between the sovereign states of the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom. This perception can lead to the incorrect belief that the United Kingdom retains sovereignty over the Republic. Due to these geopolitical connotations, the use of the term in the Republic of Ireland can be controversial. However such concerns rarely surface in Britain.

According a written answer given by the Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs Dermot Ahern, British Isles is not an officially recognised or used term, and no branch of the Irish government, including the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Irish Embassy in London, officially uses the term. He added that officials in the Embassy of Ireland, London, continued to monitor the media in Britain for any abuse of the official terms as set out in the Constitution of Ireland and in legislation, including the name of the State, the President, Taoiseach and others.

Many bodies avoid describing the Republic of Ireland as being part of the British Isles. Some believe that Ireland left the British Isles when it left the United Kingdom in 1922. The term "British Isles" is occasionally used at governmental level in Ireland, as when a cabinet minister, Síle de Valera, delivered a speech containing the term, contrary to stated government policy, in 2002. British Isles has been used in a geographical sense in Irish parliamentary debates, though not by government ministers.

A survey in Northern Ireland found unionists who considered the British Isles to be a natural geographical entity, considering themselves primarily British with a supplementary Irish identity. In contrast, nationalists considered their community to be that of the Irish nation as a distinct political community extending across the whole of Ireland. Identities were diverse and multi-layered and Irishness was a highly contested identity, and nationalists expressed difficulty in understanding unionist descriptions of Britishness.

The overall opinions of Irish people about the term have never been formally gauged. Politicians from the Irish Unionist and Northern Ireland Unionist traditions do readily use the term "British Isles" The contrast between Unionist and Nationalist approaches to the term was shown in December 1999 at a meeting of the Irish cabinet and Northern Ireland executive in Armagh. The First Minister of Northern Ireland, David Trimble, told the meeting

British Isles
This represents the Irish government coming back into a relationship with the rest of the British Isles. We are ending the cold war that has divided not just Ireland but the British Isles. That division is now going to be transformed into a situation where all parts work together again in a way that respects each other.
British Isles

In contrast, the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, avoided any use of the term in his address to the meeting.

At a gathering of the British-Irish Inter-Parliamentary Body (15th plenary session, in 1998), the sensitivity about the term became an issue. Referring to a plan for a "Council of the Isles" which was being supported by both Nationalists and Unionists, British MP for Falkirk West Dennis Canavan was paraphrased by official notetakers as having said in a caveat:

British Isles
He understood that the concept of a Council of the Isles had been put forward by the Ulster Unionists and was referred to as a "Council for the British Isles" by David Trimble. This would cause offence to Irish colleagues; he suggested as an acronym IONA-Islands of the North Atlantic.
British Isles

In a series of documents issued by the United Kingdom and Ireland, from the Downing Street Declaration to the Belfast Agreement, relations in the British Isles were referred to as the East-West strand of the tripartite relationships defined.

In October 2006, Irish educational publisher Folens announced that it was removing the term British Isles from its popular school atlas from January 2007. This atlas is the Irish edition of one published in the United Kingdom by Philip's.

Alternative terms

There have been several suggestions for replacements for the term British Isles.

Sometimes, an ambiguous phrase such as "these Isles" or "the Isles" is used, thus utilising the same logic used when referring to the Persian Gulf as "the Gulf". "These Islands" was used in Strand Three of the Belfast Agreement to establish the British-Irish Council, and has been described as the favoured term of Irish politicians.

Probably the most common alternative term in modern usage is " Britain and Ireland". This is very common and almost entirely uncontroversial, although it may be felt to neglect smaller islands in the archipelago and is ambiguous concerning the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands.

Although somewhat less common, another widely used term is The British Isles and Ireland. Similary to "Great Britain and Ireland", this has been used in a variety of areas; among others the BBC on occasion, religion, nursing, zoological publications, academia, and other sources. This form of title is also used in some book titles and in various legal publications. The precise reasoning for the use of such terminology is not typically set out where it is used, nor the intended definitions of either component made explicit. Some may be using British Isles as a synonym or near synonym of "British Islands". They may simply use the expanded term to avoid causing offense, without necessarily having a distinct meaning of "British Isles" in mind. This is particularly so in areas like charities, academia, publishing, nursing or law where information is supplied or documents sold Ireland or where their publications are used by Irish people, where simply using British Isles might be controversial.

In the context of the Northern Ireland peace process the term Islands of the North Atlantic (IONA), a term initially created by then Conservative Party MP Sir John Biggs-Davison, has been used as a neutral term to describe the "British Isles", but in a wider context the term might be misunderstood as including Iceland, Greenland, the Azores and other islands.

IONA has been used by among others the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern.

British Isles
The Government are, of course, conscious of the emphasis that is laid on the East-West dimension by Unionists, and we are, ourselves, very mindful of the unique relationships that exist within these islands — islands of the North Atlantic or IONA as some have termed them.
British Isles

It has also been adopted by the British National Party, in their 'Project-IONA', an attempt to make a collection of the cultural artefacts of the islands. The party does, however, use the term British Isles elsewhere; for example in their declared wish for a return of "Eire as well as Ulster as equal partners in[to] a federation of the nations of the British Isles"

Others have interpreted the term more narrowly to mean the Council of the Isles or British-Irish Council. Peter Luff MP told the British House of Commons in 1998 that

British Isles
In the same context, there will be a council of the isles. I think that some people are calling it IONA — the islands of the north Atlantic, from which England, by definition, will be excluded.
British Isles

His interpretation, as Ahern's comment earlier shows, is not widely held, particularly in Ireland, where IONA is seen as a parallel to either the British Islands or the British Isles. In 1997 the leader of the Green Party, Trevor Sargent, discussing the Strand Three (or East-West) talks between the Republic and the United Kingdom, commented in Dáil Éireann:

British Isles
I noted with interest the naming of the islands of the north Atlantic under the acronym IONA which the Green Party felt was extremely appropriate.
British Isles

His comments were echoed by Proinsias De Rossa, then leader of Democratic Left and later President of the Irish Labour Party when both parties merged, who told the Dáil "The acronym IONA is a useful way of addressing the coming together of these two islands."

Anglo-Celtic Isles has been used in academia for the isles. This reflects the supposed ethnic make up of the islands of the ' Celtic' peoples — the Irish, Manx, Scottish, Cornish and Welsh — and the ' Anglo-Saxon' peoples, the English.

The British government currently uses British Islands (as defined in the Interpretation Act, 1978) to refer to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, together with the Crown Dependencies: the Bailiwicks of Jersey and of Guernsey (which in turn includes the smaller islands of Alderney, Herm and Sark) in the Channel Islands; and the Isle of Man.

Some academics in the 1990s and early 2000s also used the term northwest European archipelago. Usage however appears sporadic in historiography and rarely repeated outside it, to date.

The name "the West European Isles" is one translation of the islands' name in Irish and Manx Gaelic.—but explicit "British Isle" terms also exist in Irish and Manx. A somewhat similar usage exists in Iceland. "Westman" is the Icelandic name for a person from Ireland and Great Britain and "Western Lands" is the translation of the name for these islands in Icelandic.

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