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History of Ireland

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Table of contents
1 Early history
2 Early medieval era
3 English involvement in Ireland
4 The nineteenth century
5 The twentieth century
6 Ireland today
7 See also
8 External link
9 Further reading

Early history

What little is known of pre-Christian Ireland comes from a few references in Roman writings, Irish poetry and myth, and archaeology. The earliest inhabitants, people of a mid-Stone Age, or Mesolithic, culture, arrived sometime after 8000 BC, when the climate had become more hospitable following the retreat of the polar icecaps. About three or four millennia later, agriculture was introduced from the continent, leading to the establishment of a high Neolithic culture, characterised by the appearance of huge stone monuments, many of them astronomically aligned. This culture apparently prospered, and the island became more densely populated. The Bronze Age, which began around 2500 BC, saw the production of elaborate gold and bronze ornaments and weapons. See the Early history of Ireland for a fuller treatment of this period of Irish history.





The Iron Age in Ireland is associated with the Celts, a people who spread across Europe and Great Britain in the middle of the 1st millennium BC. The Celts colonised Ireland in a series of waves between the 8th and 1st centuries BC. The Gael, the last wave of Celts, conquered the island and divided it into five or more kingdoms, in which, despite constant strife, a rich culture flourished. The society of these kingdoms was dominated by druids: priests who served as educators, physicians, poets, diviners, and keepers of the laws and histories. Ireland never became a Roman province but there is some archaeological evidence of Roman presence on the island.

Tradition maintains that in 432 AD, St. Patrick arrived on the island and, in the years that followed, worked to convert the Irish to Christianity. Probably a Celt himself, though of Romanised culture, Patrick preserved the tribal and social patterns of the Irish, codifying their laws and changing only those that conflicted with Christian practices. He also introduced the Roman alphabet, which enabled Irish monks to preserve parts of the extensive Celtic oral literature.

The druid tradition collapsed in the face of the spread of the new faith, and Irish scholars excelled in the study of Latin learning and Christian theology in the monasteries that shortly flourished. Missionaries from Ireland to England and the continent spread news of the flowering of learning, and scholars from other nations came to Irish monasteries. The excellence and isolation of these monasteries helped preserve Latin learning during the Dark Ages. The arts of manuscript illumination, metalworking, and sculpture flourished and produced such treasures as the Book of Kells, ornate jewelry, and the many carved stone crosses that dot the island. Sites dating to this period include clochans, ringforts and promontory forts.





Early medieval era

This golden age of Christian Irish culture was interrupted in the 9th century by 200 years of intermittent warfare with waves of Viking raiders who plundered monasteries and towns.

Thorgest (in Latin Turgesius) was the first viking to attempt an Irish kingdom. He sailed up the Shannon and the Bann, and forged a kingdom spanning Ulster, Connacht, and Meath which lasted from 831 to 845. In 845 he was killed by Malachy (Maelsechlainn), king of Meath.

In 848 Malachy, now High king, defeated a Norse army at Sciath Nechtain. Arguing that his fight was allied with the Christian fight against pagans, he requested aid from the Frankish emperor Charles the Bald, to no avail.

In 852, the Vikings Ivar Beinlaus and Olaf the White landed in Dublin Bay and established a fortress, on which the city of Dublin (from the Irish Gaelic Án Dubh Linn meaning the 'black pool') now stands. This moment is generally considered to be the founding of Dublin.

The Vikings founded many other seacoast towns, and after several generations a group of mixed Irish and Norse ethnic background arose (the so-called Gall-Gaels, \Gall then being the Irish word for the Norse). This Norse influence is reflected in the Norse-derived names of many contemporary Irish kings (e.g. Magnus, Lochlann, and Sitric), and in the appearance of residents of these coastal cities to this day.

In 914 an unstable peace between the Irish and the Norse devolved into a long and drawn-out war. The descendents of Ivar Beinlaus established a long dynasty based in Dublin, and from this base succeeded in dominating much of the isle. This rule was ultimately broken by the joint efforts of Malachy, king of Meath and the famous Brian Boru, who afterwards became High King of Ireland.

Although the Irish were subsequently free from foreign invasion for 150 years, interdynastic warfare continued to drain their energies and resources.

English involvement in Ireland

Early Ireland was divided politically into a shifting hierarchy of petty kingdoms and overkingdoms. During the second half of the first millennium a national kingdom emerged as power concentrated into the hands of three regional dynasties contending against each other for control of the whole island. After losing the protection of Muirchertach MacLochlainn, a King of Ireland who was killed in 1166, a Leinster dynast named Diarmuid MacMorrough decided to invite a Norman knight to aid him against his local rivals. This invitation to Richard de Clare caused consternation to King Henry II of England, to curb Richard`s power, which he felt threatened his own security, Henry invaded Ireland. Henry awarded his Irish territories to his younger son John with the title "Lord of Ireland." When John unexpectedly succeded his brother as King John, Ireland fell directly under the English Crown.

Initially the Normans controlled much of Ireland, but over time the native Irish regained some territory and outside the Pale, an area of English authority around Dublin, the Norman lords adopted the Irish language and customs, becoming known as the Old English, and in a popular Irish historical saying, "more Irish than the Irish." Over the following centuries they sided with the indigenous Irish in political and military conflicts with England and generally stayed Catholic after the Reformation.

The Reformation, in which Henry VIII broke away from the Catholic Church (1536), fundamentally changed Ireland. While Henry VIII broke English Catholicism from Rome, his son Edward VI of England moved further, breaking with Catholicism completely. While the English, the Welsh and (later) the Scots accepted Protestantism, the Irish remained Catholic, a fact which determined their relationship with the British state for the next 400 years.

In the early 17th century, Scottish and English Protestants were sent as colonists to the north of Ireland and the counties of Laois and Offaly. A series of Penal Laws discriminated against all Christian faiths other than the established (Protestant) Church of Ireland. The principal victims of these laws were Roman Catholicism and (to a lesser extent) Presbyterianism. Ireland played a crucial role in the Glorious Revolution of 1689, when the Roman Catholic James II was deposed by Parliament and replaced William of Orange. James and William fought for the English, Scottish and Irish thrones in a series of battles in Ireland, most famously the Battle of the Boyne in 1690.

Ireland had been upgraded from a Lordship to a full kingdom under Henry VIII. From the period of the original lordship in the 12th century onwards, Ireland had retained its own bicameral Parliament of a House of Commons and House of Lords, though it was restricted for most of its existence in terms both of membership (Catholics were barred) and powers, notably by Poynings Law of 1494, which said that no Bill could be introduced into the Irish Parliament without the approval of the English Privy Council.

By the late 18th century, most such restrictions were removed, in part through a campaign led by among others Henry Grattan. However in 1800 the Irish Parliament passed the Act of Union which in 1801 merged the Kingdom of Ireland and the Kingdom of Great Britain (itself a merger of England and Scotland in 1707) to create the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.

The nineteenth century

Part of the agreement which led to the Act of Union stipulated that the Penal Laws were to be repealed and Catholic Emancipation granted. However King George III blocked emancipation, arguing that to grant it would break his coronation oath to defend the Anglican Church. A campaign under lawyer and politician Daniel O'Connell led to the conceding of Catholic Emancipation in 1829, thus allowing Catholics to sit in parliament. O'Connell then mounted an unsuccessful campaign for the Repeal of the Act of Union.

Ireland underwent major highs and lows economically during the 19th century; from economic booms during the Napoleonic Wars and in the late 19th century (when it experienced a surge in economic growth unmatched until the Celtic Tiger boom of the 1990s), to severe economic downturns and a series of famines, the latest threatening in 1879. The worst of these was the Irish famine of 1846-48, in which about 750,000 people died and another million were forced to emigrate.

Ireland's economic problems were in part the result of the small size of Irish landholdings. In particular, both the law and social tradition provided for subdivision of land, with all sons inheriting equal shares in a farm, meaning that farms became so small that only one crop, potatoes, could be grown in sufficient amounts to feed a family. Furthermore many estates, from whom the small farners rented, were poorly run by absentee landlords and in many cases heavily mortgaged.

When potato blight hit the island in 1846, much of the rural population was left without food. Unfortunately at this time British politicians such as the Prime Minister Robert Peel were wedded to the economic policy of laissez-faire, which argued against state intervention of any sort. While enormous sums were raised by private individuals and charities (American Indians sent supplies, while Queen Victoria personally gave the equivalent in modern money of €70,000) British government inaction (or at least inadequate action) led to a problem becoming a catastrophe. The class of cottiers or farm labourers was virtually wiped out.



The famine spawned the first mass wave of Irish emigration to the United States. There was also a large amount of emigration to Britain, Canada, and Australia. This had the long term consequence of creating a large and influential Irish diaspora, particularly in the United States, whose members supported and financed the Irish independence movement. In 1858, the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB, also known as the Fenians) was founded as a secret society dedicated to armed rebellion against the British. A sister organization was formed among Irish in the United States as the Fenian Brotherhood, which several times invaded the British Province of Canada. However support for Irish republicanism was minimal in Ireland in the period; as late as the 1860s, mass meetings of Irish nationalists ended with the singing of God Save the Queen while royal visits drew cheering crowds.

Most Irish people elected as their MPs Liberals and Conservatives who belonged to the main British political parties. A significant minority also elected unionists, who championed the cause of the maintenance of the Act of Union. A former Tory barrister turned nationalist campaigner, Isaac Butt, established a new moderate nationalist movement, the Home Rule League in the 1870s. After his death, under William Shaw and in particular a radical young protestant landowner, Charles Stewart Parnell, turned the Home Rule movement, or the Irish Parliamentary Party as it became known, into a major political force, dominating Irish politics, to the exclusion of the previous Liberal, Conservative and Unionist parties that had existed. Parnell's movement proved to be a broad church, from conservative landowners to the Land League which was campaigning for fundamental reform of Irish landholding, where most farms were held on rental from large aristocratic estates.

A fringe among Home Rulers associated with militant republicanism, particularly Irish-American republicanism. Parnell's movement also campaigned for 'Home Rule', by which they meant that Ireland would govern itself as a region within the United Kingdom, in contrast to O'Connell who wanted complete independence subject to a shared monarch and Crown. Two Home Rule Bills (1886 and 1893) were introduced by Liberal Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone, but neither became law. The issue divided Ireland, for a significant minority (largely though by no means exclusively based in Ulster), opposed Home Rule, fearing that a Catholic-Nationalist parliament in Dublin would discriminate against them and would also impose tariffs on industry; while most of Ireland was primarily agricultural, six counties in Ulster were the location of heavy industry and would be effected by any tariff barriers imposed.

In 1912 a further home rule bill passed the house of commons but was defeated in the house of lords, as was the bill of 1893,but by this time the house of lords had lost its veto on legislation and could only delay the bill by 2 years.During these two years the threat of civil war hung over the island of Ireland,with the creation of the Unionist ulster volunteers and their nationalist counterparts the Irish volunteers.these two groups armed themselves by importing rifles and ammunition and carried out drills openly .the outbreak of world war 1 in 1914 put the crisis on the political backburner for the duration of the war.the Unionist and nationalist volunteer forces joined the British army in their thousands and suffered crippling losses in the trenches.

Until 1918 the Irish Parliamentary Party remained the dominant Irish party, though it has for part of that time being divided by the O'Shea Divorce Case, when it was revealed that (as many already knew but pretended they hadn't), Parnell, nicknamed the 'Uncrowned King of Ireland' for his popularity, had been living with the wife of one of his fellow MPs for many years and was the father of a number of her children. When the scandal broke, religious nonconformists in Britain, who were the backbone of the pro-Irish Liberal Party, forced leader W. E. Gladstone to abandon support for the Irish cause as long as the 'adulterer' Parnell remained in charge. The Party and the country split between pro- and anti-Parnellites, who fought each other in elections. (Ireland's current top selling 'Irish Independent' was launched as the 'Daily Independent' during the split as an anti-Parnell!)

See also: Local Government (Ireland) Act 1898

The twentieth century

The British government's concession of Home Rule in 1914 proved too little too late. It did not deal with the conflicting demands of Irish nationalism and Irish unionism, and was put on hold for the duration of the First World War. In 1916, a small band of republican rebels staged an attempted rebellion, called the Easter Rising under Padraig Pearse and James Connolly. Initially their acts were widely condemned in nationalist Ireland, much of which had sons fighting in the British Army at the urging of Irish Parliamentary Leader John Redmond. Indeed major newspapers like the Irish Independent and local authorities openly called for the execution of Pearse and the Rising's leadership. However Britain's handling of the aftermath, and the execution of rebels and others in stages, caused fury.

Britain and the Irish media wrongly blamed a small monarchist party called Sinn Féin for the rebellion, even though it had nothing whatsoever to do with it. Rising survivors, notably Eamon de Valera (who contrary to myth did not avoid being executed because he was American, but because firstly he was held in a different prison from the other leaders and so could not be executed immediately, and secondly because of his American citizenship, a technical delay occurred; by the time a decision had been taken to execute him, all executions had been stopped) infiltrated and took over Sinn Féin.

Up to 1917, Sinn Féin under its founder Arthur Griffith had campaigned for a form of repeal championed first by O'Connell, namely that Ireland would become independent as a dual monarchy with Britain, under a shared king. Such a system operated under Austria-Hungary, where the same monarch, Emperor Karl I/King Charles IV reigned (under a different nomenclature) in both separately. Indeed Griffith in his book 'The Insurrection in Hungary' modelled his ideas on the manner in which Hungary had forced Austria to create a dual monarchy linking both states.

Faced with an impending split between its monarchists and republicans, a compromise was brokered at the 1917 Sinn Féin Árd Fhéis (party conference) whereby the party would campaign to create a republic, then let the people decide if they wanted a monarchy or republic, subject to the proviso that if they wanted a king, they could not choose someone from Britain's Royal Family. (Pearse during the Rising had suggested having Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany's youngest son, Prince Joachim as King of Ireland).

Throughout 1917 and 1918, Sinn Féin and the Irish Parliamentary Party fought a bitter and rather inconclusive electoral battle; each won some by-elections and lost others. (One of Sinn Féin's most notable 'victories' involved a party member putting a gun up to a count official's head when he tried to announce that Sinn Féin had lost and telling him to count again, an account revealed in a recent publication!) The scales were finally tipped Sinn Féin's way when Britain, which ironically had received vast number of soldiers from Ireland, tried to impose conscription on the island. An infuriated public turned against Britain over this Conscription Crisis. Even the Irish Parliamentary Party was forced to withdraw its MPs from the British Parliament in Westminster.

In the December 1918 general election, Sinn Féin won the vast majority of seats; most many were uncontested, which makes it difficult to calculate exactly what support base it really had. A recent academic study, based on by-elections, contested seats and local government votes, suggest Sinn Féin had the support of marginally less than half of all Irish voters; somewhere in the region of 45-48%. Its success was partly the result of a new electoral register containing many new voters, notably women (over 35), the long gap between elections (no election had occurred since 1910) and the decrepit nature of Irish Parliamentary Party's local organisation because of the long gap between elections.

Sinn Féin's new MPs refused to travel to Westminster and sit in the British House of Commons. Instead they assembled as TDs in the Mansion House in Dublin and called themselves Dáil Éireann (pronounced, 'dawl air-inn' meaning the 'Assembly of Ireland'). They proclaimed an Irish Republic and established a parliamentary system of government, with a prime minister called Priomh Áire or President of Dáil Éireann. In August 1921, this post was upgraded to a head of state, called President of the Republic. From April 1919 to January 1922 Eamon de Valera held these positions.

For several years the Irish Republican Army, the paramilitary army of the Irish Republic, engaged in guerrilla warfare against the British Army and a paramilitary unit known as the Black and Tans. Both sides engaged in brutal acts; the Black and Tans deliberately burned entire towns and tortured civilians (King George V became one of their most vocal critics!). The IRA carried out ethnic cleansing of protestant communities in the Munster region, as well as burning historic homes. This clash, for which it appears one third sided with the IRA, one quarter with the British while the vast majority kept their heads down and avoided getting caught in the crossfire (literally), came to be known as the Irish War of Independence or the Anglo-Irish War of 1919 - 1921.

The fourth Home Rule Act, known as the Government of Ireland Act, 1920, attempted to partition Ireland into two states, Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland, with what was hoped to an embryonic all-Ireland parliament, a Council of Ireland joining them. Northern Ireland did come into being. Southern Ireland however remained a figment on paper. Eventually, negotiations took place between delegations from the Irish Republican and British governments to reach some sort of solution. Ireland was to be given a form of dominion status far in excess of what Parnell and the Irish Parliamentary Party ever sought, modelled on the Dominion of Canada.

Northern Ireland was given the right to opt out of the new state, which was to be called the Irish Free State (or Saorstát Éireann, pronounced 'sayer-stawt air-inn'), in which case a Boundary Commission was to be established to work out the final details of the border. The Free State was to consist of the 26 southern counties of Leinster, Munster and Connacht and three counties in Ulster (Cavan, Monaghan and Donegal). The remaining six counties in Ulster (Antrim, Armagh, Derry, Down, Fermanagh and Tyrone) had become Northern Ireland in 1920, and remained part of the United Kingdom.

The Dáil narrowly passed the Anglo-Irish Treaty. Under the leadership of Michael Collins and W.T. Cosgrave it set about establishing the Irish Free State, a national, fully re-organised army to replace the haphazard paramilitary IRA and a new police force, the Civil Guard (generally known as An Garda Siochána pronounced 'on gar-da sch-awna') which replaced one of Ireland's two police forces, the Royal Irish Constabulary. (The second, the Dublin Metropolitan Police merged some years later with the 'garda'). A significant republican minority refused to accept the will of the Dáil, indeed the right of the Dáil, to accept the Treaty in place of the Irish Republic. While myth suggests that this division was due to partition, in fact all sides expected (wrongly) that the Boundary Commission would so reduce Northern Ireland's size as to make it unviable, so forcing unity with the Irish Free State later). The actual division was over the role of the Crown in the Treaty settlement; in particular an Oath of Allegiance 'to the Irish Free State by law established' which promised fidelity to King George V as part of the Treaty settlement.

The civil war (1922-1923), though short, was bloody. It cost the lives of many senior figures, notably Michael Collins. In one notorious act, the anti-treaty IRA boobytrapped the Irish Public Records Office, blowing to pieces one thousand years of Irish state and religious archives. With the public unambiguously siding with the pro-treaty forces, the pro-treaty side won decisively. Both sides carried out brutal acts; the government executed IRA prisoners, including acclaimed author and Treaty signatory Robert Erskine Childers while the anti-treaty IRA murdered TDs and burned yet more historic homes, such as the famous 'Moore Hall' in Mayo, because its owner had become a senator.

In 1932, Eamon de Valera, who had been the nominal leader of the anti-treatyites and who had ditched Sinn Féin in 1926 to found his own Fianna Fáil, became prime minister, known as President of the Executive Council of the Irish Free State. He re-wrote the 1922 Irish Free State constitution before introducing his own new Irish constitution, Bunreacht na hÉireann (pronounced 'bun-rockt na hair-inn') in 1937, with a new name, Éire replacing the Irish Free State in the text.

Ireland was nominally neutral in World War II (see: The Emergency), through behind the scenes it worked closely with the Allies; the date of the Normandy landings was decided on the basis of transatlantic weather reports supplied by the Irish. On April 18, 1949 Éire formally became the Republic of Ireland. As a republic, its membership of the British Commonwealth lapsed. It chose not to re-apply, though de Valera in the 1950s and Sean Lemass in the 1960s contemplated rejoining the Commonwealth (though one of Eamon de Valera's grandsons, now a cabinet minister, has again suggested rejoining!); it joined the European Community, now known as the European Union, in 1973.

Irish governments have sought the peaceful unification of Ireland and in recent decades have cooperated with Britain against terrorist groups such as the Provisional IRA and 'Real IRA' (see Irish Republican Army). Sinn Féin and the Provisional IRA refused until the second last decade of the twentieth century to accept the validity of the Republic of Ireland, claiming that its Army Council, not the parliament elected by three million citizens, was the legitimate voice of the people.

Sinn Féin has changed its policy stance on the existence of both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, serving in the parliament of the former and the cabinet of the latter, as part of the Good Friday Agreement, which set up powersharing institutions within Northern Ireland, North-South instructions and links between the states of the IONA (Islands of the North Atlantic), also known geographically as the British Isles (i.e. England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, Isle of Man, Republic of Ireland) The Irish state also changed Articles 2 and 3 of Bunreacht na hÉireann to acknowledge both the existence of Northern Ireland and the desire of Irish nationalists for a united Ireland.

See also: Ireland in the 20th Century

Ireland today

Modern Ireland today is dramatically different to the state created in 1922. A country once gripped by poverty and emigration in the mid 20th Century became one of the fastest growing economies in the world, from 1990 on, a phenomenon that was called the Celtic Tiger. A society once heavily dominated by Roman Catholicism has become a liberal democracy, repealing its constitutional ban on divorce and adopting some of the most progressive laws on gay rights in Europe.

Both church and state have been hit by scandals. The revelation that one senior Catholic Bishop, Eamon Casey fathered a child by a divorceé caused a major reaction, as did the discovery of child abuse by a large number of clerics, notably the infamous paedophile Father Brendan Smyth. (The incompetent handling of a request for the extradition of the late Fr. Smyth brought down an Irish government in 1994.) Another bishop has since resigned over his mishandling of child abuse cases in his diocese. Meanwhile a series of tribunals is currently inquiring into major allegations of corruption against senior politicians, Ray Burke, who served as Minister for Foreign Affairs in 1997, has been definitely described as 'corrupt' by a judge in a recent tribunal report.

The scale of the change in Ireland is personified in its leaders. Leaders like Daniel O'Connell, Eamon de Valera and W.T. Cosgrave all espoused a form of traditional Gaelic catholic nationalism. Today's symbols are figures like Mary Robinson, a radical feminist senator who became President of Ireland (1990-97), her successor as president, Mary McAleese, former advisor to the Catholic bishops and one of the founders of the Campaign for Homosexual Law Reform, and Bob Geldof, a one-time controversial rock singer turned international humanitarian and founder of Live Aid.

Modern Ireland is relaxed as regards public visits by British royalty, something unheard of before the 1990s, or amending its constitution as part of the Belfast Agreement to accept both the existence of Northern Ireland and the nationalist desire for Irish unity, of having a prime minister, Bertie Ahern whose marriage has broken up, living openly in a non-marital relationship with a new partner. The old image of Ireland, as a conservative catholic society is no longer an accurate reflection of post-Celtic Tiger Ireland.

See also

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Further reading