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Life & Style

The difference between the UK, Britain, the British Isles, the North and South of Ireland explained

mapFOR many reasons – political, cultural and social – there is often confusion about what exactly is meant by the terms United Kingdom (UK), Great Britain (GB) and the British Isles. 

Add to that the differences between the Republic of Ireland and Northen Ireland and it’s no wonder these two relatively small islands situated off the West of Europe cause so many problems, not just to visitors from far away but to their own citizens.

Here, to get to grips with the nomenclature (a fancy word that means choosing the names for things),  we’ve enlisted the help of Ordnance Survey (OS) Britain’s mapping agency and Dr. David Nally from the Department of Geography, University of Cambridge.

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So let’s start….

What is the United Kingdom and what countries are in it? 

The big hint is in the UK’s full name – the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Despite this, Rob Andrews from OS says: “It is surprising how many people use GB [Great Britian] and UK [United Kingdom] in the wrong context when in fact there are significant differences between the two. This is probably one of the most frequent questions which OS are asked.”

So to set the record straight, the UK  refers to the “political union between England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.”

The UK is a sovereign state, but the nations that make it up are also countries in their own right.

Dr Nally points out that England itself is not a sovereign state – it is just the largest country in the UK.

From 1801 to 1922 the UK also included all of Ireland, but not anymore.

Dr Nally adds: “In 1801, the Act of Union with Ireland created the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. When the 26 counties of Ireland became a Free State in 1922 the name was changed again to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.”

Gaining our independence from Britain was a pretty big deal, hence Irish people tend to get tetchy if you refer to them as British. But more on that later…

GB-UK-BI-3What about Great Britain – what’s the deal with that? 

Great Britain is the official collective name for the landmass encompassing England, Scotland and Wales and their associated islands.

Take note – Great Britain does NOT include Northern Ireland and therefore should “never be used interchangeably with ‘UK’”, something the team at OS say happens all too often.

Technically, if you lose the ‘Great,’ Britain only refers to England and Wales.

Dr Nally helpfully explains that Great Britain is not a sovereign country but a geographical designation to signal the whole island rather than its distinguishing parts.

So far so great.

The British Isles – a bit of a touchy subject

According to the OS (and some of you are not going to like this but read on…) the British Isles is “purely a geographical term”.

It refers to a collection of islands in the Atlantic to the Northwest of continental Europe – including the Republic of Ireland (it’s ok, breathe, breathe) and the 5000 or so smaller islands scattered around our coasts.

These smaller island include the Isle of Man, Isle of Wight and the Channel Islands. And, as Dr Nally points out to make things more confusing – “the Channel Islands are not part of the UK; they are dependent territories of the Crown!”  Good for you Channel Islanders.

Back to the British Isles – “Remember” warn the OS, “this only refers to geography, not nationality, and while the Republic of Ireland is part of the British Isles, its people are not British – a very important distinction.”

Dr Nally adds: “Many Irish people (though not all) bridle at the designation British Isles; they see the term itself as a act of cultural imperialism. For this reason, many prefer substitute terms like ‘these islands’. To them it is a more neutral designation than the politically charged British Isles.”

Whew, I’m glad that’s over. What’s next?

Picture courtesy of
Picture courtesy of

Ireland – it’s complicated(ish)

The island of Ireland is made up of a total of 32 counties (see right if you want to know all their names).

The Republic of Ireland (all the sections in light green) is made up of  26 counties.

The reason for the split occurred in 1922, when Ireland was declared a Free State.  “It was still something short of a fully sovereign state” says Dr Nally. “In 1937 the constitution was drafted but not until 1949 was the Republic of Ireland declared.”

So, the Republic of Ireland = 26 counties. We all speak English (and some of us speak our native tongue of Irish too), our currency is Euro (not British pounds) and we are a nice bunch, promise.

Got it, now tell me about Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland refers to the six counties in northeast of Ireland (See dark green portion of the map).

The North of Ireland is a political division of the UK, so the six counties use sterling (not Euro) and speak English.

Northern Ireland was created in 1921, when Ireland was partitioned between Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland by an act of the British parliament.

The last census figures from 2012 show a population that is 48 per cent Protestant, 45 % Catholic and 7 per cent who either belong to another religion or none.

Important to note that many people in the North also identify as Unionist (in favour of the union with Britain), republican (want a united Ireland) and nationalists (who believe the Irish people are a nation and generally, but not always, support the idea of a united Ireland).

Since the Good Friday Agreement was signed back in 1998, thankfully things have been pretty peaceful in the North, and that’s the way everyone, be they Protestant, Catholic or I’d Don’t Believe In God At All Thank You, would like to keep it.

And finally, a very important and sensible message from Dr Nally that everyone should read 

“We use words like ‘formed’, ‘declared’ and ‘created’ to describe how these political and geographical entities came into being when in reality they were often the outcome of wars and conquests – battles whose origin and meaning are still subject to different and quite often hostile interpretations.

The complex history of geographical naming helps to explain some of the more vexed questions about identity politics today. Take for example the fact that many members of the Unionist community living on the island of Ireland see themselves as ‘British’ and ‘Irish’ at the same time, or the fact that in recent years many communities in Scotland see themselves as Scots rather than British. The geography of identity is clearly not a straightforward matter!”

At least on that point, we can all agree.


Katy Harrington

Katy Harrington is Digital and Features Editor at The Irish Post. Follow her on Twitter @tweetkatyh

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24 comments on “The difference between the UK, Britain, the British Isles, the North and South of Ireland explained”

  1. Mike Higgins

    Perhaps the designation of European off shore islands as a group would be acceptable , seeing as all our leaders stash their wealth offshore from our tax men.

  2. Mike Johnston

    The great in Great Britain refers to Grand (large)Britain as to distinguish it from petite Britain (Brittany).

  3. Steve McGarrigle

    An interesting article but Dr. Nally makes the same infuriating mistake as far too many people both in Ireland and Britain by referring to Ireland or Eire as the "Republic of Ireland."
    Ireland has never ever changed its name. The "Republic of Ireland" is the name FIFA insisted the Irish football team use as up until the 1950s both teams on the island were referring to themselves as Ireland.
    Republic of Ireland is also a description of the territory and using it constantly is as ridiculous constantly referring to the UK as the Constitutional Monarchy of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
    Steve McGarrigle

  4. Boston, USA

    Ireland is an island nation. The most western part of Europe. It is located in the Atlantic Ocean. Not that complicated.

    • Mike

      Not complicated but Iceland is the most western part of Europe, not Ireland.
      Ireland is not an island nation, it is comprised of two sovereign nations who share the island.

      • Boston ,USA

        @ Mike: A good argument could be made that Iceland is NOT Europe. It's close to Greenland. Ireland is one island in the Atlantic that it's northeast corner is still colonized by Britain.

  5. Dai

    Interesting and well written. However, it's disappointing that your Celtic neighbours in Wales don't get a mention. Sure they are British, but a great number consider themselves Welsh first and British second. My response to the often heard statement when overseas 'Ah, you're from England......' is always 'No' which generates a good deal of perplexity. The confusion is complete when I follow up with 'I'm from Wales'. This happens not only with Americans (renown for being geographically challenged) but in other countries too.
    Wales is on the map, it IS part of the United Kingdom, but it is NOT and never will be in England.

    • OFaolain

      Incorrect. Northern Ireland is not a sovereign nation.

      • Seamus

        Two sovereign nations, the UK and the Irish Republic, might occupy the island of Ireland, except for the fact that both are members of the EU, and neither are, therefore, sovereign.

  6. Michael

    This is just over complicating things. There is Ireland and beside Ireland there is the UK. End.

  7. Seamus

    Culturally, Ireland is British, and England is Anglo-Saxon.

    • Chriso

      The poor old Saxons got the blame for the Normans' rapacity in Ireland, Scotland, & Wales.

    • Paul

      British culturally? Why did you just make that up? Ireland is Irish culturally.

    • Peter

      Culturally, all of us English, Welsh, Scots and Irish, are now British. Not all of the Celts moved from England into Wales when the Anglo-Saxons moved in, and similarly the Scots became an amalgam of (Welsh speaking) Picts and Irish Celtic tribes. Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England all contained Scandinavian immigrants. Although I am English both my mother's grandparents were Irish born. and of the Dunn and Gunning (O'Connaing) clans. I have a Welsh surname. I am tall and when I was young I had exceedingly blond hair so I certainly have some Anglo. Saxon or Viking blood in my veins. Many English and Scottish people have settled in Ireland and Wales and vice versa. We are all a blend - and British is a good way of describing us - though some will be more British than others!

  8. Thomas Timoney

    There is also the problem of Ulster, total nine counties, sometimes referred to as the six counties, or Northern Ireland, but three in the Republic of Ireland are they not Northern Ireland also??

    • Peter

      An interesting point: Had the whole of Ulster been taken as a single entity there would have been a majority of Roman Catholics, and presumably the majority vote would have been a vote for leaving the UK, as in the rest of Ireland. However, in the six counties there was a slight majority of Protestants so it was a political expedient to hive off these six counties to appease the faction who wished to remain in the UK. So Ulster is a split province with three counties in Eire and six in Northern Ireland. Perhaps Ulster will become whole again before too long ..... indications are that it will ... according to birthrate statistics.

  9. Patti Hucks

    My DNA ethnicity is 50% Irish and 40% British, but my Irish family is actually from Scotland, we are northern Irish. So what are the Irish genes that they are finding?

    • Peter

      Easy one! This is the irony. The Scots are Irish! Not 100% as they merged with the Picts ..... then later, some of them moved back to Northern Ireland.

    • OFaolain

      Actually, the demonym "Scot" actually refers to the Irish.
      For over 1500 years, Ireland was known as Scotia, the land of the Scotii (Gaels)

  10. Chriso

    Instead of 'British Isles' or 'these islands', the 'Home Isles' might be a better name, given our relationship as humans, beyond the mess that politicians have made.

  11. Mikey

    What about Irelands 33rd county, 'London'. They have after all, competed in 4 All Ireland finals..

    • Seamus

      You mean County Kilburn?

  12. Derek

    I live in England, was born in Scotland with a mother from Belfast and a granny from Mayo. No wonder I have a split personality! Strictly speaking Britons speak Brythonic which means they're Welsh and everyone else just have delusions of grandeur!!

  13. Seamus

    It doesn't explain what "the north of Ireland" means, and why the most northerly county isn't apparently in the "north of Ireland".


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