Shorter History of Ireland

Ireland’s location and proximity to Britain has in large measure shaped her history. From the earliest of times, migration and assimilation impacted the development of Ireland for millennia.

As an island to the west of continental Europe, Ireland, which has been inhabited for about 7,000 years, experienced a number of incursions and invasions, resulting in a rich mixture of ancestry and traditions. The first settlers, mostly hunters from Britain, brought with them a Mesolithic culture. Farmers who raised animals and cultivated the soil followed them around 3,000BC. Prospectors and Metalworkers followed about 2,000BC.

By the sixth century B.C. waves of Celtic invaders from Europe began to reach the country. While Ireland was never unified politically by the Celts, they did generate a cultural and linguistic unity.

The introduction of Christianity in the fifth century is traditionally credited to Saint Patrick, though there is evidence that there were Christians on the island before his arrival. Ireland never experienced the barbarian invasions of the early medieval period and, partly as a result, the sixth and seventh centuries saw a flowering of Irish art, learning and culture centring on the Irish monasteries. Irish monks established centres of learning and Christianity in many parts of Europe in the period before 800 A.D.

During the ninth and tenth centuries, the Vikings regularly raided Ireland. They were also traders and they did much to develop town life at Dublin, Cork and Waterford. Following the defeat of the Vikings by Brian Boru, the High King of Ireland, at Clontarf in 1014, Viking influence in Ireland faded.

In the twelfth century, such progress as had been made towards the creation of a centralised State under a single High King was shattered by the arrival of the Normans, who had earlier settled in England and Wales. The Normans quickly came to control large parts of Ireland, which then came under the political authority of the King of England.

For the next four hundred years the Normans were an influential presence in Ireland. However, many areas of the country remained in Irish hands and, by the early sixteenth century, there were widespread fears in England that English influence was in danger of collapse, both as a result of Gaelic incursions and of the progressive Gaelicisation of the Norman settlers. Religious change in England at this time had a major impact in Ireland.

The descendants of the Norman settlers in Ireland, who came to be called the Old English, were, by and large, hostile to the Protestant reformation that led to the establishment of the Church of Ireland. In addition, the central strategic importance of Ireland, as an island close to both Britain and continental Europe, and hence a possible base for English malcontents or foreign enemies, gave Irish affairs a relevance in England that they had not had for centuries.

Following a series of revolts in Ireland – which arose largely in response to religious differences and to the English crown’s policy of introducing new settlers from Britain – Gaelic resistance was worn down and in 1603, the last Gaelic stronghold, Ulster, was brought under crown control.

The seventeenth century witnessed a struggle for supremacy that was, after numerous ebbs and flows throughout the period, finally settled at the Battles of the Boyne (1690) and Aughrim (1691). The Old English and the Gaelic Irish, both largely Catholic in religion, were crushed and many of their leaders and followers (‘The Wild Geese’) left Ireland to pursue military, religious or commercial careers abroad. The members of the new Established Church monopolised political power and ownership of the land, and in time would come to see them as the Irish Nation.

In the eighteenth century, there was much economic development. The linen industry flourished, particularly in Ulster, and Irish wool, beef, butter and pork were important exports. An Irish parliamentary tradition developed although it excluded Catholics and was subordinate to the Westminster Parliament. Sustained Irish emigration began in the eighteenth century, as many thousands of Ulster Presbyterians and, to a lesser extent, Catholics departed for the New World.

The developing dispute between Britain and her colonies in North America from the 1760s helped create a tradition of radical patriotism that was ultimately, under the impact of the French Revolution, to produce the Society of United Irishmen. In 1798 the United Irishmen staged an insurrection in Ireland, with the objective of establishing an independent Irish republic. The rebellion was crushed and the Act of Union of 1800 created a full parliamentary Union between Britain and Ireland.

By this time however, Britain and Ireland were moving apart, especially in economic and demographic terms. As Britain industrialised and urbanised, Ireland, outside of Ulster, in effect de-industrialised, with the bulk of its rapidly growing population becoming ever more dependent on the potato for sustenance. In the late 1840s, as a result of the wholesale failure of the potato crop in successive years, a terrible famine occurred: one million people died and a further million fled Ireland. Within ten years (1846 – 56) the population had fallen by a quarter (8 million to 6 million), and would fall further as emigration became a dominant feature of Irish society.

In politics, the 19th century was dominated by a succession of efforts to reform or undo the Union between Great Britain and Ireland. The Great Famine had an enormous political impact: Britain stood indicted in the popular mind. Some form of self-government was now sought by a majority of Irish voters. Irish landlords, too, came under political and economic pressure in the post-Famine decades. By the early twentieth century, after sustained agrarian unrest, legislation was in place inducing the great landlords to sell land to their tenants with the tenants being offered loans to enable them to purchase their holdings.

The question of self-government, or ‘Home Rule’ had not, however, been settled: attempts by Daniel O’Connell and Isaac Butt in the 1840s and 1870s came to little, but under the leadership of Charles Stewart Parnell in the 1880s, the Irish Parliamentary Party placed the Irish question at the centre of British politics. In 1886, the Liberal party under WE Gladstone gave its support to a limited form of self-government for Ireland.

Unionists in Ireland, who were predominantly Protestant, and were a majority in the province of Ulster, were galvanised into action by the prospect of Home Rule. Along with their allies in England who feared that Home Rule for Ireland would lead to the break-up of the Empire, Unionists set out to prevent the granting of Home Rule.

In an increasingly militarised atmosphere, private paramilitary armies (the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Irish Volunteers) marched and drilled, and hostilities were only averted by the outbreak of the First World War and the consequent postponement of Home Rule. The war changed everything: at Easter 1916 a republic was declared in Dublin and an armed insurrection took place.

This rising, which initially enjoyed little public support, was suppressed but its supporters, capitalising on public revulsion at the execution of its leaders, were successful in the General Election of 1918, when they swept aside the Irish Parliamentary Party which had campaigned for Home Rule.

Sinn Féin (‘Ourselves’), the election victors, refused to take their seats at Westminster and set up the first Dáil (Parliament) in Dublin in 1919. A war of national independence ensued and, by the time an Anglo-Irish treaty was concluded in 1921, six counties in northeast Ulster had already been given their own Northern Ireland parliament. As a result of the treaty, the remaining twenty-six counties formed the Irish Free State.

The establishment of the Free State was followed by a short Civil War between those who accepted the treaty and those who wanted to hold out for a republic. Despite its brevity, the Civil War was to colour attitudes and determine political allegiances for decades.

The first government of the new State was headed by W.T. Cosgrave of the Cumann na nGaedheal, later Fine Gael party. From the 1930s until the 1970s the Fianna Fail party, founded by Eamon de Valera, dominated Irish politics. Building on a progressive diminution of the constitutional links between Britain and Ireland, a new constitution was introduced in 1937 and Ireland remained neutral during the Second World War.

In 1948, the Republic of Ireland Act severed the last remaining constitutional links with Britain. Ireland was admitted to the UN in 1955.

The island of Ireland’s recent history has been categorised by The Troubles in Northern Ireland and, more recently, by the resurgence in the fortunes of the Irish economy. Emigration from Ireland has been reversed and inward migration is now categorising the early part of 21st century Irish history.

Finally, the Northern Ireland peace process seems to have come to fruition and the island of Ireland looks forward to a future of her own making. The future is still unwritten.