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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 culture--arrived about 6000 BC, when the climate had become hospitable following the retreat of the polar icecaps. About 4,000 years later, tribes from southern Europe arrived and established a high Neolithic culture, leaving behind gold ornaments and huge stone monuments for archaeologists. This culture apparently prospered, and the island became more densely populated. The Bronze Age people, who arrived during the next 1,000 years, produced elaborate gold and bronze ornaments and weapons.

The Iron Age arrived abruptly in the fourth century BC with the invasion of the Celts, a tall, energetic people who had spread across Europe and Great Britain in the preceding centuries. The Celts, or Gaels[?], and their more numerous predecessors divided into five kingdoms in which, despite constant strife, a rich culture flourished. This pagan society 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.

The coming of Christianity from across the Irish Sea brought major changes and civilizing influences. 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, St. 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 pagan 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.

This golden age of culture was interrupted by 200 years of intermittent warfare with waves of Viking raiders who plundered monasteries and towns.

The Vikings established Dublin (from the gaelic Án Dubh Linn meaning the 'black pool') and other seacoast towns but were eventually defeated by the High King[?] Brian Boru. Although the Irish were subsequently free from foreign invasion for 150 years, internecine clan warfare continued to drain their energies and resources.

English involvement in Ireland

The links between Ireland and England were established due to the complicated political alliances of the period. An Irish king (of which there were many each with their own small kingdoms, overwhich reigned a 'high king[?]' ) invited a Norman knight to come to his aid in a rivalry with a neighbouring kingdom. That invitation by Diarmuid MacMorrough[?] to Richard de Clare (known as Strongbow), which also involved the marriage of Strongbow of King Diarmuid's daughter, caused consternation to Henri II, the frenchman who controlled mass lands in France and who reigned in England though he rarely lived there, as Henry II. To curb Strongbow's power, which he felt threatened his own security, King Henry invaded Ireland. Pope Adrian IV, the only English Pope, granted overlordship, but not the requested absolute ownership, of the island to King Henry. Henry then used the his new Irish lands to solve a family problem; he had divided up his various French and English territories among his sons, but one, Jean (or John) remained without any land, earning the name 'John Landless'. Henry 'awarded' his son his newly conquered territories in Ireland, with the title 'Lord of Ireland'. However by accident, namely the premature death of each of King Henry's older sons, notably King Richard the Lionheart, left his young son, Jean or John, as King John of England also. Thus Ireland fell by accident directly under the English Crown rather than, as Henry had intended, remaining an independent lordship under a minor norman prince.

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, in a popular Irish historical soundbyte, 'more Irish than the Irish themselves.' 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 English catholicism from Rome, over the pope's refusal to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, fundamentally changed Ireland. As in England, monasteries were suppressed and those Catholic leaders of Church and state who remained loyal to Rome were deposed and executed. While Henry VIII broke english Catholicism from Rome, his son Edward VI of England moved further, breaking with catholicism completely. These changes exacerbated the oppression of the Roman Catholic Irish, and, in the early 17th century, Scottish and English Protestants were sent as colonists to the north of Ireland and the counties of Laois (in older spelling Leix) and Offaly. A series of Penal Laws discriminated against all Christian faiths other than the established Church of Ireland. The principal victims of these laws were Roman Catholicism and Presbyterianism. Ireland played a crucial role in the Glorious Revolution of 1689, when the Roman Catholic King James II/VII (of England and Scotland) was deposed by Parliament and replaced by joint monarchs, James' protestant daughter Queen Mary and her husband, King 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.

Ireland had been upgraded from a Lordship to a full kingdom under Henry VIII. From the period of the original lordship in the twelfth century onwards, it 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 (Roman Catholics were barred) and powers, notably Poynings Law[?], whereby no Act could be introduced into the Irish Parliament without the approval of the English Privy Council. By the late eighteenth century, most such restrictions were removed, in part through a campaign led by among others Henry Grattan (hence the Irish parliament came to be known as 'Grattan's Parliament from 1782, when legislative independence was granted, until 1800. That legislative freedom was also known as the Constitution of 1782.) 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, so allowing Catholics to sit in parliament. O'Connell mounted an unsuccessful campaign for the 'Repeal[?]' of the Act of Union.

Ireland underwent major highs and lows economically during the nineteenth century; from economic booms during the Napoleonic Wars and in the late nineteenth 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. As had occurred over one hundred years earlier, Ireland experienced another Great Famine in the period 1847-51. Part of the problem was the small size of Irish landholdings, a result of excessive family size (due in part to the disappearance of traditional methods of contraception and growing sexual activity outside marital relationships), among the poorer segments of society least able to provide for their children. In particular, both the law and social tradition provided for subdivision of land, all sons inherited equal shared in a farm, meaning that farms became so small that only crop, potatoes, could be grown in sufficient amounts to feed a family. Furthermore many estates, from whom these rented, were poorly run by absentee landlords and in many cases heavily morgaged.

However in the mid 1840s, a potato blight hit the island, leaving vast numbers without food. Unfortunately this coincided with a fashionable economic policy of laissez-faire, which argued against state intervention of any sort, an economic theory which again became popular under leaders like Thatcher and Reagan in the 1980s. 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. While no-one knows how many died (state registration of deaths, even if was possible given the vast numbers dying, did not exist, while the major religion, Catholicism, only just freed from the Penal Laws was poor at keeping records) best calculations suggest somewhere in the region of 500,000 died. One entire class, the cottiers or farm labourers, was wiped out. Mass emigration began, which continued over the decades, increasing as every threatened famine appeared. It is estimated that in the decades following, over one million people emigrated, many to the United States and Canada. Landlords too approached the mass deaths in various ways. Many evicted tenants who could no longer pay their rents. Others arranged for passage on ships for tenants to emigrate. Others stopped taking rents; some indeed went bankrupt trying to save the lives of their starving tenants.

The famine spawned the first mass wave of Irish emigration to the United States. There was also in this period a large amount of emigration to Britain, Canada, and Australia. A decade later, 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. 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 mass 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, Issac 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.

Two further Home Rule Bills were introduced and passed, in 1914 and 1920. Until 1918 the Irish Parliament Party remained dominant, 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 nonformists 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 'adulturer' 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!)

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 during 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 nomenaclature) 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 Fheis[?] (party conference) whereby the party would campaign to create a republic, then let the people decided 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 infamous '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, Sinn Féin won the vast majority of seats; most however 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 Wesminster 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 cleasing 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 Better Government of Ireland Act, 1920, attempted to partition Ireland into two states, Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland, with what was hoped to an embyronic 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 23 southern counties of Leinster, Munster and Connaught 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 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 Án 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 Metropolitican 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 lifes of any 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 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, through behind the scenes it worked closely with the Allies; the date of the Normandy landings was decided on the basis of translantic 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 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. However, 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 (ie, 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.

Ireland today

Modern Ireland today is dramatically different to the state created in 1922. A country once gripped by poverty and emigration in the 1990s became one of the fastest growing economies in the world, 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, notably former taoiseach (prime minister) Charles Haughey, who is due to stand trial shortly on issues related to tribunals. 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 personfied 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, Bob Geldof, a one-time controversial rock singer turned international humanitarian and founder of Live Aid, or world renouned Irish rock band, U2, whose lead singer, Bono, worked closely with figures like Pope John Paul II and the United States Secretary for the Treasury on the Jubilee 2000[?] campaign on third world debt reduction. Modern Ireland thinks nothing of public visits by British royalty, something unheard of before the 1990s, of 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.


Maps from http://www.irelandstory.com/

Further reading

  • Tim Pat Coogan De Valera (Hutchinson, 1993) [worth reading, though deeply hostile to de Valera]
  • Norman Davies The Isles: A History (Macmillan, 1999) [fascinating read, but with some inaccuracies when dealing with the 20th century]
  • Joseph Lee The Modernisation of Irish Society 1848-1918 (Gill and Macmillan) [classic small history of the period]
  • FSL Lyons Ireland Since the Famine [old, but still a classic]
  • Dorothy McCardle The Irish Republic [old but impressive text, written from a pro-de Valera perspective]
  • James H. Murphy Abject Loyalty: Nationalism and Monarchy in Ireland During the Reign of Queen Victoria (Cork University Press, 2001) [fascinating new book that puts 19th century Ireland in a new perspective]
  • John A. Murphy Ireland in the Twentieth Century (Gill and Macmillan) [good source of information]
  • Frank Packenham (Long Longford) Peace by Ordeal [The definitive account of the Anglo-Irish Treaty negotiations]
  • Alan J. Ward The Irish Constitutional Tradition: Responsible Government & Modern Ireland 1782-1992 (Irish Academic Press, 1994)
  • S.J. Connolly (editor) The Oxford Companion to Irish History (Oxford University Press, 2000) [a must for all students of Irish history]



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