Why Are Sheep an Unofficial Symbol of Ireland?

If you’ve ever been to Ireland, or seen it advertised or depicted in media, you’ll notice that there is one motif that is always there – sheep.

From t-shirts and coasters, to postcards and glasses, this motif even inspired whole sheep-designed brands like Wacky Woollies and Seamus the Sheep. So it seems that this animal is really an unofficial symbol of Ireland.

Why have sheep become so significant in Ireland?

There are multiple reasons that the sheep is so closely linked to Ireland today. From historical and practical reasons, to the Irish terrain and people, here are just some of the most important factors that contributed to this.

Ireland’s Sheep Throughout History

As A Smaller Social History of Ancient Ireland shows, in Ireland’s history, sheep were kept throughout the island. They had significant importance as a source of food and wool. In fact, their importance is such that they were often mentioned in the Brehon Laws (ancient native Irish law), as well as Irish literature.

The common Irish word for a sheep was, and is, cáera [caira].

From their earliest history, the Irish have taken great advantage of the wool their sheep had to offer. The wool was taken from sheep with ancient shears, similar to modern-day ones. The men would do the shearing, while the women completed the process from there. The wool was sorted, scoured, teased, combed or carded by hand, and then spun and woven, producing warm high-quality garments that were of great use since earliest history.

“Sheep On The Road” sculpture By Deborah Brown in Belfast

Other than wool, sheep were also used for their meat, so it’s no wonder that lamb, hogget and mutton are staples of Irish cuisine.

The Landscape

One of the reasons sheep became so popular in Ireland is the fact that the wide mountaneous landscapes of Ireland are a perfect venue – with so much space for grazing, the number of sheep that can be kept by farmers s quite large.

Also, the breeds of sheep kept in Ireland are quite hardy and easily put up with wind, cold, and most importantly – the constant Irish rain. They are also nimble and fare well on hilly terrain.

Is The Irish Sheep Really Irish?

One important thing to note is that, while there is a huge number of sheep in Ireland, most of the breeds present on the island today are not native to Ireland, but were brought sometime after the 16th century. Although there are frequent mentions of Irish sheep in historical records, details on this breed are scarce, and centuries of interbreeding likely caused original Ireland’s breeds to disappear.

The Numbers

And lastly, by far the most important part of the reason why sheep are so closely linked to Ireland in the minds of locals and visitors alike, is the sheer number of them.

The 2016 census showed that, in Ireland, there were almost half a million more sheep than people.

When driving through the Irish countryside, especially in Dingle and the Ring of Kerry, you can scarcely go 5 minutes without seeing white fluffy sheep on mesmerizingly green pastures. It’s quite a sight, so it’s no wonder this motif sticks in the minds of visitors. And often the sheep wonder off the road and cause – sheep traffic jams! So for many visitors who come from cities and are not used to countryside sights, this can be one of their most interesting Irish memories.

Irish Traffic Jam

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