“When Erin first rose from the dark swelling flood, God bless'd the green island and saw it was good; The em'rald of Europe, it sparkled and shone, In the ring of the world the most precious stone."

These are the famous beginning lines of Irish poet William Drennan's classic poem, “When Erin First Rose." But what was he talking about? What is this green island that's the emerald of Europe? He was referring to his home, of course: Ireland!

Ireland has long been known as the Emerald Isle. Drennan's poem was the first time Ireland was referred to in this way in print, but it's easy to see why this nickname has stuck with the island for so long.

Ireland is famous for its lush, rolling green hills. Little of Ireland's greenery comes in the form of forests, though. Massive clearing efforts in the 1600s removed most of its trees. Today, Europe's two least-forested countries are Iceland and Ireland.

Despite the lack of forests, Ireland enjoys landscapes covered with abundant vegetation. Most of it takes the form of dense green grasses. Ireland's green landscapes wouldn't necessarily be expected, though, given its location.

Located in the Northern Atlantic Ocean, west of Great Britain, Ireland sits at roughly the same north latitude as Newfoundland and Labrador in Canada. Rather than a chilly, snowy climate, however, Ireland enjoys a mild oceanic climate thanks to the North Atlantic Drift, an ocean current that pushes the warm Gulf Stream waters north toward Ireland.

Ireland's average temperature in January is a mild 45º F. Ireland also enjoys cool, mild summers. These mild temperatures combine with plenty of rain to create the perfect conditions for Ireland's lush, green landscapes. Average precipitation around its capital city, Dublin, is about 31 inches annually. Rainfall along the west coast can exceed 120 inches each year.

Besides giving Ireland its “Emerald Isle" nickname, the green grasses that grow so well in Ireland's mild climate make the island a perfect place to raise sheep and cattle. Farming remains a major industry in Ireland. In fact, the island's 8 million sheep and 7 million cows far outnumber the 4.5 million humans who call Ireland home!

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