Essential History of Ireland
Ireland's history is one of the most interesting of all European nations. The last 100 years is a lens that allows you to view a culmination of the vital events that have shaped its people and initiated its rebirth as a nation. The formation of modern Ireland is a direct result of the melting pot of language and culture that came together with the various peoples who made it their home.
Imagine the Emerald Isle as the Glacier Isle! That is what covered the current Republic of Ireland about 16,000 B.C. It was not until 8,000 years later that Middle Stone Age nomads began perching here. Archaeologists who have unearthed huts and stone tools in the region believe they resided on Mount Sandel near Lon-donderry, Northern Ireland.
Three thousand years later, Neolithic farmers began settling the land, which had a greater impact on the once tree-filled landscape. What they left behind were megalithic structures, including impressive dolmens, and the method of their construction leaves modern man puzzled. Thousands of these types of structures dot the horizon, some such as the impressive Poulnabrone in the Burren, County Clare.
By the time the Celts arrived in 500 B.C., they had brought with them a feudal system filled with hundreds of clans and no central government. The tribes eventually came to recognize a high king (Ard-Rí) and provincial leaders, but their organization was chaotic at best. Numerous paltry skirmishes took place; ring strongholds warded certain kinship groups better than others.
The Celts, descendants of those who fled Roman rule, offered tremendous advancement in regard to language, religion, art, poetry, and sports, along with developed technologies. When they weren't fighting for their lives, their cultural impact spread and is of historical repute. They were skilled in the use of iron and built structures and weapons that have withstood the test of time. With an established religion of Celtic polytheism, they forever changed the land and culture of éire (Ireland).
The Rise of Christianity
While the Romans never vied for Ireland (most likely due to its climate), ancient Christians were all about spreading the Word to the farthest kingdoms. All heathens deserved their chance. The Celts did not know exactly what to think of the slow influx of these monotheistic believers. But, without much fuss the Celts accepted them and adopted their religion.
One persistent fellow named Maewyn Succat (later called Saint Patrick) was a Roman previously living in Wales who had been enslaved in County Antrim. He is credited with the conversion of the masses. Saint Patrick returned to the isle in the 430s A.D. with inspired fervor that not only cast away all snakes (old religion), but also converted and spread the Good News. His popularity and status grew. To the great pleasure of the pope, Ireland would become a primarily Catholic nation.
Because the local Celts were less affected during the rest of Europe's darker times (the Dark Ages), scholars, monks, priests, and intelligentsia came to Ireland in order to continue their progress as intellectuals. With them, settlers brought riches that made Ireland quite a little treasure trove unbeknownst to the world.
When the Vikings landed around A.D. 795, jaws dropped that no one had beat them to the punch. What they found was unprotected riches held in scant towers, which knew no defense. The highly educated were not equipped to withstand the Vikings, who pillaged with no regard. However, the Vikings, who were not the most literary bunch, left behind the scrolls, manuscripts, and books that would delineate the history of Ireland and the movement of Christianity therein.
The Vikings, who had pillaged all they could throughout the 800s, decided that Ireland was not that bad of a place in which to live. They began settling the land by the boatload. What they fortified were the major harbors on the eastern side of the Island, including Dublin, and west toward Limerick.
The turning point for the perturbed Irish natives was the Battle of Clontarft in 1014 led by the high king of Ireland named Brian Ború. With sole Viking rule out of the picture, Ireland moved ahead, eventually succumbing to the Roman Catholic Church's whims.
Wanting to unite Ireland when he had the chance, the king of Leinster, Diarmait Mac Murchada in 1169 called upon the help of Henry II, the Norman king of England, for military aid. Henry II knew the offer was too juicy to refuse, so he sent Richard de Clare, who would come to be called Strongbow. Following battles in Dublin and elsewhere, Strongbow's victories brought about his appointment as governor and also his marriage to Diarmait's daughter. This gave Britain a bloodline and stake to the Emerald Island's land, people, and inherent wealth. Strongbow took Diarmait's place as king of Leinster.
With Strongbow's rise, King Henry II became begrudgingly concerned about where he stood, so he claimed all of Ireland as his own. What ensued was an influx of unwelcome Anglo-Normans who congregated behind stone walls and scoffed at the primitive Irish clans surrounding them. But, by the later 1200s, the English were not maintaining their rule with ironclad force. Much too busy in France and on their own soil, the English ruled from afar — the Pale (or “ditch”) surrounding Dublin marking their true dominion.
Fight or Flight: Gaelic Rule Ends
By the 1500s, Spain had attempted to oust England via Ireland, but had no luck. England would use Ireland as their base to send settlers and bring back fortunes from the New World, the Americas. When England metamorphosed into a Protestant nation under Henry VIII, the transpiring revolts from Catholic Ireland were all crushed and the land was given to English converts by Elizabeth I.
In late 1595, Hugh O'Neill and Hugh O'Donnell fought gloriously for their homeland, but eventually had to succumb to the raw might of Britain following their loss in the 1601 Battle of Kinsale. O'Neill's land was confiscated but then returned under royal decree. By 1607, he and other once-strong Gaelic liege lords departed their country for another home in Europe, chronicled as the Flight of the Earls.
Following Elizabeth I, King James I moved quickly to populate the northeast of Ireland with Protestant settlers. When England fell into civil war, however, the Irish again attempted to reclaim their land from the haut monde.
Oliver Cromwell, who became Lord Protector of England, Scotland, and Ireland with the beheading of his nemesis King Charles I in 1648, wanted to ensure his rule over the kingdom. The Irish were up in arms about another Protestant ruler and as a result, Cromwell invaded Ireland with thousands of men and went on a bloodthirsty rampage that still lives on in infamy. With millions of acres of land under his iron fist, Cromwell handed it all over to his Protestant brethren. As the 1700s arrived, English rule only grew in the country and penal statues ostracized everyone and everything Catholic.
Only Time Will Tell: The Next 200 Years
The 1700s brought with them relative peace. Dublin was the new London and Georgian delights reigned. In the backdrop, Ireland was gaining in strength and inspiration from the revolutions against Britain in both America (1776) and France (1789). The Irish lawyer, Wolfe Tone, arranged the gathering of thousands of French troops to aid Ireland, but was defeated in 1796 not by sword, but by storms. Upon their return, Britain squashed the attempt and Tone was sentenced to death. By the turn of the nineteenth century, the Irish Parliament was politically terminated.
In 1845, the Great Potato Famine (or an Gorta Mór, the Great Hunger) hit Ireland more violently than any war. The blight infested and destroyed the country's most important crop. Peasants, who were given the worst land, depended on the potato for survival, and the death of nearly 1 million people from starvation and related diseases ensued. The English (who did send nutritionally devoid cornmeal from India, but exported all other crops) did little to aid their vassals. Nearly 2 million impoverished Irish left their country in search of a better life. They headed west to America and Canada, while others ventured as far away as Australia. Currently, over 50 million people of Irish descent reside in the United States.
By the 1880s, Ireland was gaining backing for their desire for “Home Rule” (independence). Charles Stewart Parnell, an Irish national, was elected to Parliament and fought for tenant rights and worked for the unification of the Irish at home and abroad. When Home Rule was nearly passed, he was ridiculed for a love affair. This, along with the onslaught of World War I, meant the issue would be dropped but not forgotten.
Easter Rising and Beyond
Easter Monday on April 24, 1916, brought with it a light crew of 1,500 Irish Volunteers who, along with the Irish Citizens Army, marched on Dublin, took over the post office, raised a new flag, and officially declared the independence of Ireland. Britain swiftly reacted and Dublin became a war zone. With the harsh execution of those involved, which included their leader Patrick Pearse, the Irish became outraged.
What ensued was the election of an Irish Parliament headed by Sinn Fein who would not take their seats in London. With fervor and timing on their side the rebels, led by éamon de Valera, alongside the cunning deputy Michael Collins (who infiltrated the British spy network and initiated urban guerrilla warfare tactics with the newly renamed Irish Republican Army) won Independence with the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty. The slightly disheartened Collins, who foresaw the treaty's compromise that left six mainly Protestant counties in the north (Northern Ireland) under the United Kingdom, knew more internal strife was to come. De Valera opposed, not accepting “partial” freedom for his nation.
Those who accepted the treaty battled those who defied it on the streets of Dublin. In April 1922, for eight days de Valera's anti-treaty forces fought against Collins's army. The anti-treaty's might was short-lived, but they were not yet stamped out. The fighting would continue in random skirmishes for the next year. De Valera distanced himself from the movement and went on to become president of Ireland. Collins was assassinated near his home a few months later. The Irish Free State officially became éire, and thereafter known as the Republic of Ireland.
Those who remained in the de facto Irish Republican Army (IRA) decided to head into the United Kingdom's Northern Ireland. It was not until the 1970s that the nationalist, predominantly Roman Catholic organization regrouped and began a terrorist campaign to oust the Unionists, who were the Protestant majority controlling the region. After twenty years of violence on both sides, the Belfast Agreement (Good Friday Agreement) was signed in 1998. In 2005, the IRA dismantled their weaponry nucleus, bringing the power of the vote to decide its fate. The Republic of Ireland boomed throughout the 1990s and into the twenty-first century, and the Celtic Tiger (representing Ireland's economic boom) purred to the rhythm.