A (Very) Brief History of Ireland Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

A (Very) Brief History of Ireland

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A shamrock

For much of the last million years, Ireland was buried and crushed underneath thick masses of ice. The story of Ireland really only gets interesting after the end of the Ice Age. At this time, Ireland was still connected by land to Britain and mainland Europe via land bridges. As the seas warmed and expanded, these land bridges began to disappear into the sea, and Ireland gradually assumed its present form. People arrived in Ireland 9,000 years ago and for many centuries afterwards people lived, loved, fought and died, but we know very little about them apart from the fact that they built some fairly impressive monuments like Newgrange and Knowth, and that they fashioned beautiful items from gold and silver.

The Celts

Then, about 2,500 years ago, the Celts invaded. They introduced many things that persist to this day, including their language1, their games, their music, and a typically Irish attitude towards life. It appears that they were seen from the outside as a scary group of people, because the Romans gave them a wide berth, despite their partial occupation of Britain during the 1st Century AD.

Christianity (5th Century AD)

However, the influence of Roman Britain was to make its mark in a very different way. It arrived by means of a preacher called Patrick, and he brought Christianity with him. Very soon, the people of Ireland had taken the religion to their hearts. Christianity became the dominant religion of the entire island, so much so, that it became the island's greatest export. Ireland became known as a land of saints and scholars, a creative land with great relics, majestic books, and magnificent golden ornaments. In other words, a nice easy target for anyone with a bent for looting and plundering.

The Vikings (8th Century)

Enter the Vikings. These boys were not educated in the niceties of Christian teaching, so for quite a few years they raided, burned, murdered and stole what they could until they started to fall for the island's charms. The Vikings, for their part, founded the cities of Dublin, Cork, Waterford and Limerick and they were the first to introduce the concept of money to the island.

The Normans (12th Century)

By the turn of the first Millennium, Ireland was a heady mix of Celts and naturalised Vikings, when along came English warriors, armed to the teeth, who gave themselves the rather unimpressive name 'Normans'. They built imposing castles and constructed a few roads, but within a generation or so they too had fallen for the Irish lifestyle. One can't help conjuring up the image of a Norman soldier, peering through a slitted window in his cold, wet, miserable castle and watching the Celts and Vikings having the craic2, singing, dancing and laughing, then promptly rushing out and joining in the fun, and successfully urging more of his mates to do the same. Whatever happened, by the end of the 14th Century from the point of view of the Normans' more austere English cousins, the place was a mess.

The Religious Wars (16th Century)

And so it remained, until Henry VIII arrived on the throne in England, and began to stir things up a bit. Henry had found religion, in the form of Protestantism, and decided that if it was good for the king, it was good for everybody under the king. So, he set about changing the rough, carefree ways of the Irish with little success, as English influence had dwindled to an area surrounding Dublin, known as the Pale. His daughter Elizabeth made more progress. Concerned that her enemies, the Spanish, would set up a base in Ireland, she borrowed a few tricks from the Vikings before her, and sent armies of her lads in to 'sort the populace out', while at the same time supplanting the locals with British settlers. The Irish chieftains fought back, only to be vanquished by British forces in the Battle of Kinsale. By 1607 these chieftains had left the country for good, and England had won control of the entire island.

Green and Orange (17th Century)

To consolidate its power, England started to move lots of people into Ulster3, mainly thousands of poor Protestants from Scotland. This caused resentment among the locals, who organised a rebellion in 1641, showing that, when it came to the atrocity stakes, they could easily match the brutality of their English cousins. This petrified the life out of the new settlers, who got their own back when the recently appointed Lord Protector of England, Oliver Cromwell, arrived in the autumn of 1649. Fuelled by religious zealotry and a bloodthirsty determination to eliminate all opposition to his rule, he succeeded in killing as many Catholic natives as possible before the year was out. Subsequent events in England, where Catholic kings gained control, to be replaced once again by a Protestant Dutchman called William of Orange4, ensured that Protestants and Catholics would fight like cats in a basket until the end of the century. The fighting culminated in the Battle of the Boyne, a key event in Irish history, where the forces of William defeated the forces of the Catholic King, James.

Penal Times and Rebellion (18th Century)

The first years of the 18th Century saw an attempt to rid Ireland of Catholicism, by implementing laws that restricted Catholic practice while making it extremely advantageous to become a Protestant. However, like most laws, the Irish ignored them, and life went on much as before. It wasn't until the end of the century that Irish people, both Protestants and Catholics this time, started to look for greater freedoms from England (it was the style of the time; just look at what happened in America). In 1798, agitation led to rebellion, a failed invasion of Ireland by the French, and finally suppression of the rebels by English forces. The violence was particularly grotesque in the 1798 Wexford rebellion, where over 40,000 people were killed in bitter fighting.

The Famine (Early 19th Century)

In 1801, Ireland became part of the United Kingdom, and for a while, this arrangement worked well. Restrictions on Catholic practice were eased, and relations began to normalise. However, events were to take place that would shake the relationship between both countries to their foundations. In 1845 a potato disease hit the country, causing all the crops to fail. This would not have been a problem, only for the fact that a substantial proportion of the population ate nothing but potatoes. They simply could not afford anything else. People began to starve. Over the following four years, the potato crop failed completely each time. Starvation and disease took a grip over the country. The English government were so slow to react to the crisis that by the time the famine was over, an estimated one million people had died, and a further one million had left Ireland, arriving in the US and Britain, penniless and desperate. The Irish potato famine created a legacy of emigration from Ireland that did not stop until the late 20th Century. By 1960, the population of Ireland had dwindled to 4.3 million from an 1841 population of over eight million.

The Late 19th Century

Following the famine, strong, highly organised Irish political movements were born, some violent, some democratic: some (the Nationalists) agitating for greater rights and greater autonomy from Britain; others (the Unionists) vehemently arguing for greater integration into the Union. Despite Britain's growing status as a world power during the latter part of the 19th Century, the 'Irish Question' was rarely far from the top of the agenda5. Britain considered giving Ireland autonomy many times, but, partially as a result of Ulster Protestant concerns, they always stopped short of making it a reality.

Partial Independence

In 1912, a bill to permit Home Rule in Ireland was passed in the British Parliament, but before it could be enacted, Europe was plunged into the nightmare of the First World War, and Irish autonomy was deferred. While the war was still raging in Europe, a relatively small group of Irish republicans opportunistically attempted to seize power in Dublin in the Easter of 1916. This rebellion was suppressed very quickly, but it was to re-open many of the old wounds between Britain and Ireland after British forces executed many of the rebel leaders. Within a short period, the Irish population outside of Ulster were actively demanding full independence from Britain, and a vicious guerrilla war ensued when a government, openly republican, was elected in 1919. Britain's attempts to fight the war through crude means of suppression only made matters worse. British counter-insurgency forces, known locally as the Black and Tans, fought a bitter war of attrition with the Irish forces, resorting at times to attacks on the civilian population. In this increasing climate of violence, Britain decided to press ahead with Irish Home Rule. Ireland signed a treaty allowing for limited independence, but with some strings attached. One of those strings was that the country would be split in two - the Irish Free State and Northern Ireland. The limitations of the treaty were hugely controversial (the negotiator for the Irish side, Michael Collins, announced after signing the Treaty, that he had signed his death warrant), and in the Free State it led quickly to a vicious civil war between both sides; those who agreed with the Treaty, and those who disagreed. The Irish Civil war accounted for 3,000 deaths on both sides. Most of today's political parties of the Irish Republic originate from this deeply divisive political split.

The Republic of Ireland Since the Split

Eventually things settled down, and the Irish Free State became an independent republic in 1948. Since this time, the newly-born Republic of Ireland (√Čire) has moved slowly from an inward-looking, church-dominated, impoverished state to an outward-looking, open, relatively prosperous, democratic economy6 ideologically positioned 'somewhere between Boston and Berlin'7. √Čire joined the EEC (now the EU) in 1973, and over the past few years it has integrated further into the European Union.

Northern Ireland and the Troubles

Things in the sister state, Northern Ireland, did not go so smoothly. After the split, Northern Ireland continued to maintain its position within the United Kingdom. A large Catholic community lived side by side with a larger, dominant, Protestant community. Catholics had little representation and almost no political power in this state. During the 1960s, Catholics began to organise themselves to agitate for civil rights. This led to rioting and civil violence between Catholics and Protestants, whereby the government of Northern Ireland requested that soldiers be brought in from mainland Britain to keep the peace. However, the British military was drawn quickly into the conflict. To the Catholic population of the time, here was history repeating itself. What ensued was a period of 25 years of vicious low-intensity warfare, between the IRA (a Catholic, armed, separatist movement), and the British security forces, with Protestant paramilitaries adding fuel to the fire each time Protestant police, soldiers or civilians were killed. In total, over 3,000 people died. This cycle of killings, bombings and violence was eventually broken by the signing and ratification of an historic accord (The Good Friday Agreement) in 1998. Since then, normal life in Northern Ireland has improved, if somewhat imperfectly and slowly8. Northern Ireland now has a devolved government where Nationalist and Unionist ministers share power.

1The Irish Language, or Gaelic, is an official language of southern Ireland. It is taught in most schools, and is supported by specialised television and radio stations. It is not spoken as a primary language, apart from certain areas on the western seaboard (the Gaeltachts).2Common Irish word for 'a hell of a good time'.3The historical province of Ulster consists of the nine northernmost counties of Ireland. The modern state of Northern Ireland accounts for six of these counties.4The Orangemen, who march every summer around the roads of Ulster take their name from William of Orange.5The most eminent Irish Nationalist of this time was Charles Stuart Parnell, ironically a wealthy Protestant landlord, who wrenched a commitment to Home Rule (Irish Autonomy) from the British government. The most eminent Irish Unionist was James Carson, who succeeded in creating strong opposition to Home Rule, particularly in the North of the island.6Many would argue that the country is still in transition, as evidenced by its strong negative stance on moral issues. Divorce, contraception and homosexual acts have only recently been legalised. Abortion is still opposed by a large section of the population.7This refers to Ireland's fulsome embrace of the EU, while also maintaining strong economic links to the US.8A tragic reminder of the bad old days resurfaced in August 1998, when a bomb, planted by republican opponents of the agreement, detonated in a crowded shopping street in Omagh, indiscriminately killing 29 people.

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