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Coastal Systems: The Physical, Biological and Human Settings

The first section (Chapters 1–9) of the Atlas begins by providing an overview of the key characteristics and processes that have helped shape and design Ireland’s coastal environments. It begins by introducing the roles of core physical processes, such as relief, climate and tidal movements, together with marine biology, and shows how these created the natural landscape that humans came to colonise. The human presence and subsequent transformation of Ireland’s coastal environment, is viewed initially through the introduction and subsequent development of agriculture. Even today the spectacle of Ireland’s coastline is epitomised for many, and especially for international tourists, in the combination of the ‘natural’ environment and the superimposition of a cultural landscape comprising traditional family farms, small field patterns and the rearing of cattle and/or sheep. More detailed accounts are then provided of the island’s formative processes, including the laying of its geological foundations and the impacts of glaciation and past sea-level changes around the coast. The section concludes by reviewing various ways in which people have interpreted the coast, both onshore and offshore, through different techniques of mapping and visualisation.

Contemporary Coastal Environments

The four chapters (Chapters 10–13) that constitute Section 2 focus on the physical expressions of Ireland’s natural coastal environments. Readers are exposed to the great diversity of the island’s shoreline, such as its rocky coasts, which display some of Ireland’s most iconic seascapes backed by steep cliffs plunging into the surrounding seas. Ireland’s wealth of beach and dune landscapes, wetlands and estuarine environments are also explored. In aggregate, this range of what are perceived to be spectacular coastal environments is of fundamental importance to the island’s large and growing tourist industry. Such landscapes, however, are coming under increasing threats from over-exploitation and ever-expanding urbanisation. Careful planning will be required to preserve the quality and vitality of these environments.

People and the Coast

The impact of people on Ireland’s coastline since they first colonised the island some 9,000 years ago is the focus of Section 3 (Chapters 1423). The section opens and closes with chapters that centre on how Irish people have imagined – and continue to imagine – the coast as a component of their identity. Despite what many Irish people would feel to be a stronger attachment to ‘the land’, in the shape of its rural economy and culture, Ireland possesses a deep maritime heritage and traditions. These take the form, for example, of many historic structures and ancient ruins located along the shoreline, including tower houses and Martello towers, as well as long-established marine institutions. Offshore lie the wrecks of many ships that foundered in the stormy seas that can pound the shoreline. Taken together, they continue to define coastal communities, whether established settlers or more recent ‘blow-ins’. The rest of this section traces the colonisation of Ireland from its beginnings, onwards through the Vikings, Normans, the plantation system and into the nineteenth century with its elements of modernisation. This latter century, however, also embraced the tragedy of the Great Famine, with consequences that continue to define much of the country’s landscape and culture, most especially along the depopulated western seaboard.

Resources, Communication and Industry

The fourth section (Chapters 24–29) takes the reader into the twentieth century and to the present. Focus is placed on the coastline’s contemporary resources, which became increasingly the foundation of much of the island’s economic and social development since the 1960s. Central to this growth in prosperity and renewed optimism was the surge in international trade through Ireland’s port infrastructure and the linked growth of population. This development, however, polarised increasingly in and around the larger city-ports located on the east coast, and was reflected especially in the urbanisation of large areas of the coastline and adjacent inland areas. Coastal developments associated with more traditional industries such as fishing and tourism are explored, as are more modern growth sectors, involving mining and the offshore exploitation of renewable energies.

Management of Coasts and the Marine Environment

Arising from the rapidity and uncontrolled nature of much of Ireland’s coastal development, these areas have experienced a significant increase in environmental impacts, from pollution and many other stresses that arise when expanding human populations and their infrastructures strive to occupy finite areas of coastal and estuarine land, a process sometimes known as ‘coastal squeeze’. In addition, while Ireland benefited significantly from its growing involvement in processes of globalisation and membership of the European Union (through for example, inward investment, increased employment and economic prosperity), the country was exposed increasingly to external threats over which it had comparatively little control, including the hypermobility of capital and rising sea levels linked to climate change. While Ireland, as a small and an increasingly open economy and society, has limited powers to control external threats of this nature, planning can assist in developing an integrated response that better reflects the aims of more sustainable human and physical environments. These crucial issues for Ireland’s coastal areas and communities are explored in Section 5 (Chapters 30–32), which offers some potential lessons that may benefit coastal communities located in other parts of the world.

Future Coasts

Finally, Section 6 consists of a single chapter (Chapter 33), in which conclusions are outlined and some thoughts on future coastal problems and solutions are presented. Ireland is currently having to confront an era of increasing precariousness in terms of issues such as climate change and future uncertainties, shifting patterns of global and local politics, the consequences of Brexit, restructuring of the world’s energy supplies, food security, globalisation and emerging counter-globalisation sentiments in the wake of Covid-19. All these issues have implications for Ireland’s coastal and marine spaces, as well as for our ability to manage them for present and, especially, future generations. This section confronts these issues and outlines some of the structural changes that need to be made in our political, economic and social systems, if Ireland is to increase its resilience and capacity to overcome the adverse consequences of these trends.

The Coastal Atlas of Ireland