Can you name the largest cities in Ireland? If not, can you at least name 20 Irish cities and/or towns? And which of those are actually Ireland's largest towns? Well, the capitals Dublin (in the Republic) and Belfast (in Northern Ireland) immediately spring to mind, but what makes the grade behind the two big hitters? There might be some surprises here, as more often than not Ireland's cities are reminiscent of an assortment of villages that have somehow grown together -- organically in some cases, less so in others.
Urbanization on the Emerald Isle
Take the capital of the Republic as an example -- only Dublin actually has more than a million inhabitants. And of those, only a fraction are living in the city proper, with many suburbs taking up the bulk of the population. And even in the city proper, you have "villages", or quarters, which are almost an ecosystem in themselves, with the population usually not straying from a well-defined (at least to the locals) area. Parochialism in the capital ... it is not restricted to Leinster House.
When you leave Dublin (or Belfast, the other capital, for that matter -- where parochialism has been developed into an art form, with walls, barbed wire, and occasional scuffles), you will also notice that most towns in the country resemble nothing more but grown-up villages. To be explored on foot (no Irish city really needs a car, indeed it is counter-productive to attempt to drive in the Irish cities) within minutes, at least in the case of most county towns.
Note that Northern Ireland tends to skew the statistics a bit ... with the reform of local government, the new council areas in the (former) Six Counties lumped large areas together and called them "towns", even when they consisted of a central urban area proper, with a heap of rural settlements further afield. Craigavon is a fine example of this with a sizeable, but not big, town in the center of a cluster of urban areas.
The 20 Biggest Irish Towns
But enough of theory, let us get to the statistics. And the twenty largest towns in Ireland are:
- Dublin City - 527,612 inhabitants in the central urban area (the whole of what once was County Dublin counted 1,273,069 inhabitants in 2011, the "metropolitan area" extends to 1.8 million people);
- Belfast (capital of Northern Ireland) - 333,871 inhabitants;
- Cork City - 119,230 inhabitants;
- Derry City (Northern Ireland) - 93,512 inhabitants;
- Galway City - 75,529 inhabitants;
- Lisburn (Northern Ireland) - 71,465 inhabitants;
- Castlereagh (Northern Ireland) - 67,000 inhabitants (taking all the parts of the Borough together);
- Newtownabbey (Northern Ireland) - 62,056 inhabitants;
- Bangor (Northern Ireland) - 60,260 inhabitants;
- Craigavon (strictly speaking an "urban area", which includes Craigavon, Lurgan, the sparsely populated Lough Neagh Nature Reserve, Portadown, Waringstown, and Bleary - Northern Ireland) - about 60,000 inhabitants (but only around 16,000 in Craigavon proper);
- Limerick City - 57,106 inhabitants;
- Waterford City - 46,732 inhabitants;
- Swords - 42,738 inhabitants (urban, and a part of the old County Dublin);
- Drogheda - 30,393 inhabitants (urban);
- Dundalk - 31,149 inhabitants (urban);
- Newry (Northern Ireland) - 29,946 inhabitants;
- Ballymena (Northern Ireland) - 29,467 inhabitants;
- Newtownards (Northern Ireland) - 28,039 inhabitants.
- Carrickfergus (Northern Ireland) - 27,903 inhabitants;
- Bray - 26,852 inhabitants (urban);
Are These Cities Good for Tourists?
One question remains for the tourist ... which of these towns are actually worth a visit? This is, of course, a totally personal decision (and may be influenced by such factors as to where you want to visit relatives or friends, or where you can find cheap yet convenient lodgings). But of the towns listed above, I'd rate Lisburn, Castlereagh, Newtownabbey, Craigavon, Dundalk, Newry, Ballymena, and Newtownards as having the lowest "tourism potential", with Limerick City being a case of "beauty is in the eye of the beholder".
Of course, this does not necessarily mean that all these places being dumps (though some areas of many towns actually deserve this disparaging moniker, like the notorious “litter blackspots” highlighted each year), they simply do not shout "Come and Visit Me!" And while a walk through, say, Newry can be interesting for an hour or so, most people would rather not spend much more time there – unless they hit the shopping centers, again a totally different kettle of fish. Frankly, Ireland has so much to offer, that you can find “better places” almost everywhere nearby. In the case of Newry and Dundalk that would be the Mourne Mountains or the Cooley Peninsula.