An Exciting Brief History of Ireland

Updated On: November 25, 2022

A Brief History of Ireland - Ireland Coast

Ireland, the land of fairies and folktales, Christians and pagans, beer and whiskey, has a somewhat troublesome history that propelled the Irish to the world stage in the 1960s. Ireland has been home to successive groups of settlers: Celts, Vikings, Normans, Anglo-Scots, and Huguenots.

Even its own culture and identity have stayed strong, most obviously in literature with a magnificent tradition of writing from the Book of Kells to the modern masters: Joyce, Yeats, Beckett and Heaney.

We took it upon ourselves to establish a timeline of the most important periods in Irish history; call it a brief history of Ireland.

A Brief History of Ireland

Ireland, as we know it today, is a single island entity and has been united for almost its eternity. This only changed in the 20th century when it became split between two nations: Ireland, the country, and the United Kingdom. Most of the Emerald Isle’s modern citizens did not live before the split, which is why it still tends to be some bitterness about it on both sides.

A Brief History of Ireland - Stunning Seashore View to Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge in Northern Ireland
Stunning Seashore View to Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge in Northern Ireland

First Ground and Living Creatures

Ten thousand years ago, there wasn’t a single solitary human being in the whole of Ireland. Even though, there is evidence that Irish ancestors began spreading out of Africa around 100,000 years ago. In fact, this part of the world was inhibited very late in all the time that man has roamed the earth. The reason? The last Ice Age.

People simply could not get there because of the severe weather conditions. The first Ice Age started two million years ago. From that time, northwestern Europe was subject to long cycles of warm and intense cold. Today, Ireland is a detached fragment of the continents of Europe and Asia. It is separated only by shallow seas, but then it joined Britain and the European mainland.

During one Ice Age’s cold cycle that started 200 thousand years ago and lasted 70,000 years, Ireland was covered with two elongated domes of ice in places that were miles thick. This period was followed by a warm spell of around 15,000 years when the woolly mammoth and the musk ox roamed over grasslands.

Age After Age

Then came the last Ice Age. The ice spread over the northern half of the country with additional ice caps in the Wicklow Hill and Cork and Kerry mountains. The ice sheets finally began around the same amount of time, 15,000 BC.

They left behind a landscape scarred and smooth by the retreating glaciers which gouged U-shaped valleys and deep-sided quarries. Soil and rocks had been shifted enormous distances and dumped as rubble in massive mines of boulder clay known as drumlins.

A brief history of Ireland
Baltic Seashore in Snowy Winter at Sunset

Drumlins in Ireland

There are tens of thousands of drumlins in Ireland; many of which are stretching in a belt across southern Ulster from Strangford Lough to Dungloe. Melted water flowing under the ice left behind sinuous ridges of gravel, often several miles long and up to 20 meters in height. These provided vital pathways later on across the boggy midlands.

Further History

The bare earth was first colonised by woody plants that were able to survive the harsh cold. Reindeers and the giant Irish deer grazed over this tundra. Then, these pioneering species were all but killed off by a 600-year cold snap. So, around 10,000 years ago, the process of colonisation had to begin all over again.

As the permafrost melted, the tundra grasslands attracted willow, juniper, birch, and hazel. The larger trees soon followed. It was now a race against time and the rising scenes for plants and animals to reach Ireland.

At first, so much water was still locked up in ice further north that land bridges with the European mainland remained open and possible. Afterwards, sea levels which had been about 16 meters lower than they are today, began to rise, swelled by the melting ice. Many rising plants made it to Ireland in time. The last land bridges across the Irish Sea were almost certainly swept away by the cold fearsome nature in 8,000 BC.

The Arrival of People

The first people also travelled across the land bridges running across the Irish Sea. They probably got as far as the Isle of Man before having to make the last leg of the journey in coracles and dugout canoes.

The climate which greeted the first humans who would have looked much like us was similar to the current Ireland climate, but the landscape was dramatically different. A dense forest canopy covered Ireland so completely that a red squirrel could travel from the northern to the southern tip of the island without ever having to touch the ground.

Christianity in Ireland

St. Patrick was definitely an important early figure in Irish Christianity, but Christianity existed in Ireland decades before St. Patrick’s mission ever started. So, the questions remain: When did Christianity first arrive in Ireland? What religion was practised there before Christianity? And what role did St. Patrick play anyway?

Before Christianity

During the centuries before the advent of Christianity, a people group called the Celts had settled much of northern Europe and the British Isles, including Ireland. They bring with them the Celtic language and many beliefs and practices of the Celtic religion that were familiar elsewhere in Europe. For example, the Celts of Liberia/Gaul/Britain had a god named Lugus while the Irish Celts had a god named Lugh. The Gaulish Celts venerated another god called Ogmios while the Irish Celts worshipped a god named Ogma.

So, this was the religious context of Ireland when Christianity first came to the scene: Celtic polytheism with an intellectual elite called the Druids. The process during which the Roman empires slowly turned into a Christian empire is called Christianisation. As you can imagine, the edges of the Roman empire were among the last to be Christianized.

The Beginning of a Christian Presence in Ireland

And so, even though the major urban centres of the Roman empire like Ephesus and Rome had Christian communities as early as the 1st century, Ireland didn’t really have a Christian presence until around the 4000s. We know this because according to the early Christian author Prosper of Aquitaine, writing around 431 CE, a bishop by the name of Palladius was sent to Ireland by Pope Celestine.

431 CE predates St. Patrick at least by a few decades, but notice what Prosper of Aquitaine indicates; that Palladius was sent to Christian communities that already exist there. This means that Christianity predates even Palladius. Unfortunately, this is about as far as our evidence goes. We can’t say for certain when these Christians first made it to Ireland.

The Possibility that Christians Came to Ireland as Slaves

One historian of ancient Ireland thinks that maybe they came over as slaves when Irish raiders were pillaging the western coast of Britain. However, it’s just as likely that they came over via trade.

There was a great deal of cultural exchange between Ireland and Britain, including Irish settlements along the aforementioned western coast of Britain, and certain Latin loanwords making their way into the old Irish language.

Thomas Charles Edwards’s Thoughts

It’s evidence like this that convinces the historian Thomas Charles Edwards that the main base of influence for the Christianisation of Ireland came from the Roman province of Britannia. He mentions in his book titled “Early Christian Ireland”: that “the conversion of Ireland is perhaps the surest evidence that Britain itself was now dominated by Christianity.”

It was domination unlikely to have been established before 400. Absolutely worth noting that archaeological evidence from the 3rd and the 4th centuries showed that Christians were already prominent members of society in Britain. Subsequently, this is the best theory that was introduced. Ireland was Christianized in tandem with Britain, at least before 431 when Palladius first started his mission, but possibly much earlier in the 4th century.

St. Patricks Role

So if Christianity was already in Ireland by 400 CE, what is the deal with St. Patrick who wasn’t doing his missionary work until a few decades later? Most historians think that St. Patrick was active in the late 5th century. Most of what we know about St. Patrick comes from two texts that historians agree that he wrote. One is called Confessio and another one is called Letter to the soldiers of Coroticus.

St. Patrick doesn’t really talk much about his career though in these texts, what we get instead is an insight into his fiery personality and some biographical details. Remember, these texts were written for audiences that kind of already knew about his mission so he didn’t really need to go into detail. Yes, there are a lot of legends that pop up every now and then about St. Patrick in the 7th and 8th centuries, but these probably don’t have much basis in history.

Whatever the nature of this missionary work was, it made a much longer-lasting impression than Palladius. From a very early date, the people of Ireland revered St. Patrick as their spiritual father. A hymn from the 7th century called Hymn of Secundinus referred to St. Patrick as the Saint Peter of Ireland which is to say that the foundation upon which the church of Ireland was built.

Consequently, this perception of St. Patrick as the top apostle to the Church of Ireland is very early. The tradition was widespread only two hundred years after his death and possibly much earlier.

Viking Age in Ireland

It’s true that the Irish lived a few centuries in peace and without any disturbances to their serenity, but that didn’t last long. A new power was to loom out of the northern seas. In 795, monks on an Island near Dublin saw a fleet of ships approaching. The longships with a dragon’s head carved on the bow carried a force of warriors who would plunder the treasures accumulated by the monastery for over two centuries.

A monk wrote later of the terror of the Viking attack. There were a hundred steeled iron swords slinging around the monastery with voices of defenceless adults and children screaming and begging for help. There is some kind of snippets of Irish poetry testifying to the fear that people had. Something along the line of “Lord protect us from these foreigners coming in and taking our people away.” There is even an early 11th-century tale about an Irish poet who’s said to have been taken captive by Vikings and then raped by them. This all meant the dawn of the Viking Age in Ireland.

Vikings in Ireland

The Vikings offered us the earliest examples of those figures who will dominate the written and spoken stories of Ireland of foreign invaders, but where did the raiders come from? and what drove them to Irish shores?

The Vikings who would eventually descend on Ireland had their ancestral roots in Norway. From the Norwegian fjords, they created a maritime empire that stretched from the shores of America in the west to central Russia in the east.

Vikings in the 7th & 8th Centuries

The Viking world of the 7th and 8th centuries was in a state of flux. Warrior clans fought for control of the best land. Land meant wealth and power, but there was too little to go around. In an early Norse poem, a mother says to her son: “get thee a ship and go out on the seas and kill men.” Their lines reflect a society where man’s worth was defined by his skill with the sword.

The competition was actually a key element in this society. Who would travel the furthest? Who was the bravest in battle? Who could hold a bigger feast? Whoever had any titles as answers to these questions is considered a prince among his own people.

The main dynamic that drove the Vikings to harrow the sea and travel to Ireland is simple in its concept. It was important for the local chieftain to be able to give good gifts to the followers, the friends, or throw big parties, and there was not enough wealth in Norway. Subsequently, they left for Ireland and other parts of the world to plunder the monasteries and shelters and steal the goods.

Raided Ireland’s Villages and Monasteries

For over 40 years, the Vikings raided Ireland’s coastal villages and monasteries, carrying off slaves and materials in their longboats. They struck suddenly and caught the Irish unawares. So, the Vikings became bolder and began to sail down the rivers of Ireland. The raiders were to become settlers. The east coast of Ireland was strategically well placed for trading with an expanding Viking world.

Vikings During the 10th and 11th Centuries

In the 10th century, Dublin would become a boomtown with the largest slave market in Europe. The Vikings had a huge trading network that spread all the way down the Russian river systems to the Middle East, Constantinople, and all the way across the North Atlantic. Dublin was quite centrally placed within these long-distance routes. It’d become a cosmopolitan place where traders from all across Europe went and this is followed by a series of royal intermarriages and a lot of cultural interchanges.

By the 10th century, Dublin underwent a new cultural evolution that instigated a hybrid of Irish and Scandinavian blood and that’s what makes it very distinctive. You can see this exchange in arts, buildings, and a lot more things around the city.

By the 11th century, the Vikings had settled in Ireland for almost a century and a half. Most of them became Christians and formed local alliances. They’d founded thriving port cities like Waterford, Cork, Wexford, and Limerick. They became indulged in Irish politics and society. In the end, their presence in Ireland diminished and by time no one feared the Vikings anymore for they ceased to exist.

The Normans in Ireland

Many Irish people suggest that England’s long period of dominance over Ireland began in the 12th century when the Anglo-Normans (or just Normans) arrived. However, this group of well-trained invaders didn’t just turn up one day in a massive invasion force. In fact, they were invited to Ireland.

Ireland in the 12th century was technically a one, united kingdom. It was realistically divided into different small kingdoms, each hustling for power and influence. One of the most important kingdoms was Leinster.

Ruling in Leinster – The History of Dermot MacMurrough

Leinster was ruled by Dermot MacMurrough who took over after his father was murdered. Dermot reportedly fell in love with a woman named Dervorgilla, but there was a problem. Dermot was already married, with children. Not just that; Dervorgilla was the wife of a rival king, the king of Briefne, One-Eyed Tiarnan O’Rourke.

Dermot sent love letters to Dervorgilla and when he heard that Tiarnan was on a crusade, he thought it was time to act. He raided Tiarnan’s fort and took many of his possessions and Dervorgilla. When Tiarnan returned, he was furious and filled with anguish. So, he teamed up with Rory O’Connor, the High King of Ireland, and together they forced Dermot out of Ireland to exile in Wales.

Dermot was in agony over his defeat and banishment, but he was a determined man and was dedicated to getting his kingdom back. He had one thing in his favour; he was on good terms with the most powerful king in the world at that time, Henry II, the Norman king of England, Wales, and the Norman Empire.

Dermot’s Loyalty to Henry II

Dermot pledged allegiance and loyalty to Henry II. In return, Henry promised Dermot support and arms by allowing him access to his well-trained Norman knights. One such knight was Richard De Clare, better known as Strongbow. Strongbow helped assemble a small but very powerful and highly-trained army to travel to Ireland.

Richard De Clare aka Strongbow’s Power on Leinster

By 1170, Strongbow had recaptured all of Leinster. Dermot rewarded him by allowing Strongbow to marry his daughter Aoife. When Dermot died in the same year, Strongbow inherited the title of the king of Leinster. However, Henry did not want Strongbow to get too powerful. He commanded a fleet of over 400 ships and thousands of soldiers to Ireland.

Strongbow was made to declare allegiance to King Henry. In exchange, Strongbow was later announced as Governor of Ireland.

Anticlimactic as it may seem, it would take hundreds of years for the English to fully control Ireland. Norman control was confined to an area that became known as The Pale (it was centred on Dublin).

The Normans strengthened the control of the Catholic Church. They built monasteries like Greyabbey and cathedrals like Christ Church in Dublin. They also built castles across their territories. One last fun fact is that Belfast is a city with (later) Norman origins.

The English Plantation of Ireland

As the 16th century swayed in, England was on its way to becoming the dominant household of almost all the known regions of the world. And why would England want to control Ireland? Well, for the same mission that was deeply engraved in the English mind; to seize and control before it’s too late.

“Ireland is our neighbour but it’s also a threat! A Catholic enemy like France or Spain could use Ireland to invade England! We want to civilise the wild people of Ireland, and maybe make them Protestant too! What about increasing our trade?.”  These were probably questions and demands on the mind of every Englishman who wanted nothing but conquest and glory for their country.

How Henry VIII Tried to Control Ireland

Moving on. Henry VIII was the king of England (and the illegitimate ruler of Ireland) back then. He tried to control Ireland in many ways. He put Englishmen in charge of key positions, sent English soldiers to watch the streets, made the church in Ireland officially Protestant, and eventually declared himself the Lord of Ireland.

Most importantly, Henry had a policy called “surrender and regrant.” So, the Irish would surrender their land to him. In return, Henry will regrant their land based on conditions. They will call him Lord of Ireland, and they have to speak English and obey English laws.

This seemed to be successful at first as many Irish chieftains took up the offer. It’s true that many went along with Henry when he was in Ireland, but they went back to their own ways when he left Ireland.

Queen Mary

Fast forward to one of the insanely popular queens of modern English history, Queen Mary. She was a devoutly Catholic queen, but she still wanted to rule Ireland. She hatched a new plan and it was called “Plantation.”

What Was Plantation?

The English aimed at ‘planting’ English families in Ireland. They would then grow and thrive as loyal supporters, gradually increasing in population and power. Mary aimed to plant two counties, king and queen counties (now officially Offaly and Laoise). This could have been a cheap and easy way to control Ireland. However, it never worked though as nobody came. They were too scared.

Munster Plantation

On the other hand, Queen Elizabeth was really determined. She started by sending soldiers to fight in the Nine-Year War in Ulster. She also tried the method of the plantation. This time, it was the Munster plantation. Munster is the fertile southwest corner of Ireland. Elizabeth encouraged settlers to go to Munster to set up homes and settlements. They indeed came and settled and thrived.

However, angry Irishmen would chase the settlers out of Ireland. This proved third time lucky for a new king. James I, King of England and Scotland, came to the throne. He set about a new vast attempt to control the wildest part of Ireland, Ulster. From this period on, sectarian conflict became a common theme in Irish history.

Ulster Plantation

The plantation of Ulster took place around 1610. The Ulster plantation was another attempt by Great Britain to control Ireland. This time it was concentrated in the Northern Irish province of Ulster. The plantation began over 400 years ago when thousands of settlers from Scotland and England moved across the Irish sea to Ulster on the encouragement from the king of Great Britain, James I.

James I had become king of England and Scotland in 1603 after Elizabeth died. He believed he could control Ulster (traditionally the hardest part of Ireland to control). He aimed to plant loyal English and Scottish families in there. He also believed that these communities would grow and thrive over time.

Where Were They Planted?

Not all of Ulster was officially planted. Antrim and Down counties already had significant Scottish and English populations. The actual counties that were planted were Londonderry, Donegal, Armagh, Fermanagh, Cavan, and Tyrone.

Back to James I, he initially wanted the plantation of Ulster to happen because, well, he had the opportunity. The Flight of the Earls saw the native Ulster noblemen leave Ireland for Europe ─ to get Catholic help. They never returned, however, and James felt that this left Ulster legally free to be taken over. Moreover, James hoped the planting of loyal Scottish and English would prevent the very real threat of rebellion in Ulster.

Of course, the plantation was a much easier process to take over land than war. James also feared that Spain would use Ulster as a base to work on ways to defeat England, which made him all the hastier to control it.

The reasons apparently didn’t stop there. James hoped trade would begin to increase between Ulster and Britain as a result of the plantation. In addition, James, as a Protestant king, wanted to spread Protestantism all over Ireland.

Who Was Involved in the Ulster Plantation?

Servitors: They were old soldiers who had often fought in Ireland and were paid off by giving them land in Ulster.

Undertakers: They were Scottish and English settlers who were awarded land on the condition that they would undertake to bring a large number of additional people to Ireland. They would originally come to Ulster for adventure, wealth, and prestige.

Church: The Protestant Church of Ireland was also given land and encouraged to grow in Ulster.

What Happened to the Native Ulster Settlers?

For the native Irish settlers of Ulster, life was no longer as it is. Many were moved out of their lands and onto the poorer lands in the mountains and marshy bogland. Others rented land from the new settlers ─ many of whom needed help and shelter. Disaffected native Irish would hide in the woods and forests. They would often ambush settlers unannounced. They were nicknamed Woodkerne.

What Changes Did Plantation Bring?

  • The Protestant religion began to strengthen in Ulster in particular.
  • New towns were built, such as Londonderry and Coleraine.
  • English was spoken more widely.
  • New businesses were started.
  • English law and customs were introduced to the Irish.
  • Plantation family names became centred on Ulster, such as Johnston – Armstrong – Montgomery – Hamilton.
  • Ulster went from being the most Irish-like province to perhaps the most influenced and controlled by Britain.

Of course, the legacy of this plantation is also one of the causes of the division in Northern Ireland today. Protestant communities have strong connections with Great Britain and want Northern Ireland to remain a part of the United Kingdom. On the other side, Catholic communities see the plantation as an event in which they suffered. They see themselves as part of the island of Ireland and with limited connection with Great Britain.

The Act of Union 1800

In December 1779, Sir George Macartney, a Ulsterman and a former Irish Chief Secretary in the middle of a distinguished imperial career was sent to Ireland on a secret mission. The Prime Minister, Lord North, had instructed him to ascertain what the reaction might be to a proposal to unite the Dublin and Westminster parliaments.

After giving the assurance that even the Lord Lieutenant ‘has not the smallest suspicion of my real errand in this kingdom,’ Macartney reported bluntly: ‘The idea of a union at present would excite a rebellion.’

Britain was at that time fighting a war with its American colonists who, with the assistance of France and Spain, inflicted damaging defeats on the Crown forces. Stripped of troops who had been sent to fight on the other side of the Atlantic, Ireland was defended by some 40,000 Volunteers who feared invasion from France.

The island was not invaded by the French and the Volunteers, paying for their own equipment and uniforms and therefore not under government control, forced a beleaguered and near-bankrupt administration to grant concessions. Working closely together, the ‘Patriot’ opposed MPs and the Volunteers triumphed by gaining ‘legislative independence’ in 1782.

Legislative Independence

‘Ireland is now a nation,’ the leader of the Patriots, Henry Grattan, declared. What had been won? The Irish Parliament was nearly as venerable as its English counterpart: its first clearly documented meeting had been as far back as 1264.

For most of its history, the knights and burgesses of the Commons and the peers in the Lords had overwhelmingly represented colonial Ireland. After the final defeat of the Jacobites at Aughrim and Limerick in 1691, Catholics had been permanently excluded from Parliament.

The legislative independence won in 1782 involved the removal of restrictions. Under Poynings Law, enacted in 1494 and subsequently modified, Irish Bills could be altered or suppressed by the English Privy Council: now Irish legislation merely required the consent of the monarch.

The Declaratory Act of 1720, also known as ‘the Sixth of George I’, was repealed ─ this ‘act for the better securing of the dependency of the Kingdom of Ireland upon the Crown of Great Britain’ had given Westminster the power to legislate for Ireland.

Irish Parliament and the British Parliament to Unite

Despite the fact that the 1798 Rebellion had ended in utter failure, it had nevertheless made the British cabinet very much aware of the Irish Question. William Pitt had already conceived the idea of abolishing the Irish Parliament completely and uniting it with the British parliament in what would be termed “The Union” with Britain.

Lord Cornwallis had also been sent to Ireland as Lord Lieutenant and Commander-in-Chief of the army, with a dual purpose in mind: to quell the Rebellion and to pave the way for the proposed Act of Union. With the first of those tasks successfully completed, he could now turn his full attention to the second.

Act of Union

First efforts at getting the Irish aristocracy and members of the Irish parliament to agree to a complete Union with Britain met with complete failure. However, Cornwallis now began to employ other methods. With Lord Castlereagh, the Chief Secretary, taking the lead in what only can be described as despicable practices, votes were bought.

At the same time, titles and bribes were offered in lavish amounts to those who might be likely to vote against the motion when it came before them. In due course, this disgraceful practice proved hugely successful. The recipients of titles and bribes were even described by Cornwallis as “the most corrupt people under heaven.” All objections to the proposed Union gradually evaporated.

The success of the Union

Their endeavours were successful and on 15th January 1800, after a very lively debate accompanied by street fighting in Dublin, the bill was passed with a majority of 60 by the Irish Parliament. The Union was also ratified by the British parliament. On 1st January 1801, the two kingdoms joined together becoming The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.

End of the Irish Parliament

The Act of Union between Ireland and Britain brought the end of the Irish Parliament and created a new political unit known as the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. This union completed the process of political unification of England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. Following that, those states were now governed by one parliament at Westminster in London.

The members of the new parliament were exclusively Anglican. Neither Catholics nor members of other religions could be members of the Parliament. In addition, it was forbidden for peasants or lower class people to vote, as well as women could not vote or be elected as members of the parliament.

The Irish Potato Famine

In September 1845, farmers in Ireland were devastated to find that their potato crops had suddenly turned black and begun to rot. What was causing this? No one knew. What they did know was that whatever was causing this was somehow spread through the air. The farmers didn’t know what to do.

Potatoes were their main source of food because potatoes were cheap and easy to grow. The farmers were too poor to grow much else. This meant that they would not have much to eat that year. It was too late to plant a new crop and it was nearly impossible to control the spread of this horrible plant disease.

Things got even worse the following year. The potatoes still wouldn’t be grown. The poor farmers had no money to pay their landlords because they didn’t have any potatoes to sell. Many landlords kicked them out. With no food, no money, and no place to live, many were forced to take their families and live in workhouses or migrate to America.

The Workhouses

No one really wanted to live in a workhouse, though. They may have looked large and spacious from the outside, but they were crowded and dirty on the inside. They fed people buttermilk and oatmeal two times a day. Children had to work as well as the adults. If a workhouse was full, it’d turn the people away. As bad the conditions were, for many, it was better than nothing.

Leaving for America

As for those who migrated to America, it wasn’t an easy journey at all. Even after the tiresome and hectic trip there, malicious people intercepted them. In most cases, the landlords had tricked them with promises of jobs and places to live. Many of the Irish people didn’t even make it to the shore. The ships were so bad that they were known as coffin ships.

Tough Times in Ireland

Lastly, those who weren’t kicked out of their homes were forced to survive on what little they had. Lots of them have sold their families’ precious heirlooms and even their clothes just to gather enough money for food. That still wasn’t enough; many people starved to death.

If you think those two years were terrifying, then wait till you know what happened in 1847. It was the worst of them all. People became sick with deadly contagious illnesses. Their bodies were already weak from starvation and couldn’t fight off the diseases as most of them died.

The good news came in 1850. The crops were once again plentiful and disease-free. Sadly, by that time, it was too late. In total, around one million people passed away during the famine from either disease or starvation. At least another million had left Ireland for America. Today, a memorial stands in Dublin to remember the victims of the Great Famine as it’s called in Ireland.

A Brief History of Ireland - The Famine Statues in Custom House Quay in the Dublin Docklands
A Brief History of Ireland – The Famine Statues in Custom House Quay in the Dublin Docklands

Ireland from Home Rule to Easter Rising

By the beginning of the 20th century, Ireland was divided. Irish nationalists wanted Ireland to be either established as a fully independent nation or with its own home rule parliament in Dublin. At the same time, the unionists, mostly concentrated in Ulster, wanted to remain part of the United Kingdom.

The Government of Ireland Bill

Traditionally, the British had been disinterested in the aims of Irish nationalism. However, in 1910, when the liberals failed to win a majority in the general election, they turned their attention to the issue. The liberal leader, Herbert Asquith, had an idea. The Irish would support liberal reforms, and in return, a home rule bill for Ireland would be enacted.

In April 1912, the government of Ireland bill was introduced to parliament. The Commons passed the bill, but the Lords vetoed it. Their veto, however, would expire after two years, meaning that in 1914, home rule would become law.

So, there were great celebrations in Dublin when the Commons passed the home rule bill and the Irish leader John Redmond was heralded as a hero.

Campaign Against Home Rule

However, the unionists hated the whole idea. Led by Sir Edward Carson, they started a vehement campaign against home rule. In September 1912, half a million unionists went to Belfast City Hall and signed Ulster’s Solemn League and Covenant, pledging themselves to use all means to defend themselves and to defeat the present conspiracy to set up a home rule parliament in Ireland.

While singing a piece of paper was symbolic, the unionists sought a more powerful way to demonstrate their opposition. In December 1912, The Ulster Volunteer Force was formed to defend the union by force of arms. The nationalists responded the following year by founding The Irish Volunteers to ensure that the home rule bill would be implemented.

Industrial Dispute in Dublin

At the same time, Dublin was the scene of a fierce industrial dispute between workers who wanted to be unionized and their employers. The union leader, James Larkin, formed the Irish Citizen Army to defend the workers and later to align them with the pursuit of Irish independence.

Patrick Pearse was a schoolteacher, as well as a key figure in the Irish Volunteers and a member of the secret of the Irish Republican Brotherhood. In March 1914, Pearse predicted that before this generation has passed, the volunteers will draw the sword of Ireland. He was right. In fact, only a month later, as the Ulster Volunteer Force lined up against the Irish Volunteers, guns were landed in Ireland for both forces.

Good and Bad of Home Rule

As the pros and cons of Home Rule were weighed up by nationalists and unionists, armed groups prepared for a fight. Prime Minister Asquith came up with another plan. He proposed that any Ulster county that didn’t want home rule could excuse itself from the bill for six years, but it did little to appease Carson who stated that “unionists don’t want the sentence of death with a stay of execution for six years.”

The British government, alarmed at the rapid escalation of the situation in Ireland, started considering its military options. However, those options became somewhat limited when army officers at the main military headquarters threatened to resign their commissions if they were ordered to move against unionists.

Creation of an Organisation that Supported Irish Volunteers

In April 1914, an organisation for women that would support the Irish Volunteers should they decide to break with Britain was formed in Dublin. Its name is Cumann na mBan. And by July of that year, even the king was involved; he invited the home rule and unionist leaders to Buckingham Palace to find a solution. However, they agreed upon nothing.

Announcing the failure of the talks, the Prime Minister acknowledged that the situation in Europe, amidst the starting flames of WWI, was making situations difficult. The central powers of Europe had become unstable.

The crisis in Europe escalated further, and with nothing bringing the Irish parties together, the government announced on the 31st of July 1914 that the home rule amending bill would not be introduced to parliament. Days later, the Germans and Russians mobilized and Britain declared war in defence of Belgium.

The question of what the Irish volunteers should do was answered by John Redmond when he commanded Ireland to the best of its ability to go wherever the firing line extends in support of the right to freedom and religion in this war. Ultimately, 300,000 Irishmen, both nationalists and unionists, would volunteer to fight in the War while others would strike out against British rule in Easter 1916.

The Easter Rising

The Easter Rising transformed the political face of Ireland and would leave the country changed. Redmond was of the thinking that if Irish men were to fight for Britain, it would make Home Rule a reality as soon as the war ended.

This idea of constitutional nationalism was not shared by the remaining 12,000 members of the Irish Volunteer Force, who were becoming increasingly frustrated by British control in Ireland. Members of this branch, who kept the name Irish Volunteers, believed that physical force nationalism was the only means of eradicating British control from Ireland and, ultimately, a means of achieving the self-sufficient Irish Republic.

Opposed to Entering a War

Under the leadership of Eoin Mac Neill, the Irish Volunteer Force was completely opposed to entering the war. In fact, many members of the Irish Volunteer Force had other intentions now that Britain was preoccupied with the war. Additionally, the phrase ‘England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity’ became a slogan that was to forever be inextricably linked with the Irish Volunteers.

The Occupation of Buildings

On Easter Monday. the Volunteers occupied a number of strategic buildings within the city that commanded the main routes into the capital. As the week progressed, fighting became intense and was characterised by prolonged, fiercely contested street battles.

On Saturday, the insurgent leaders, based mainly in the General Post Office, were forced to agree to a surrender. Their decision was then made known to and accepted, sometimes reluctantly, by the garrisons still fighting.

The Irish Volunteers had fought intensively. Fifteen of the leaders of the Rising were executed between 3 and 12 May 1916.

Irish War of Independence

The Easter Rising also led to the creation of the Irish Republican Army or the IRA. Riots between the nationalists in the Royal Irish Constabulary, the British police force in Ireland, occurred over the next couple of years. Then, in December 1918, The Nationalist Party won in the general elections and they declared Ireland a republic.

The new parliament under president Éamon de Valera met in January 1919. On the same day in Tipperary, Irish Republicans killed two members of the RIC; beginning the war. The government recognised the IRA led by Michael Collins as an official army of the New Republic.

Hunger Strikes and Boycotts

The early years of the war were relatively quiet. Hunger strikes and boycotts were the order of the day. That is until early 1920 when the IRA began raiding RAC barracks for arms and raising many of them to the ground. In the summer of 1920, the Irish Republican Police replaced the RIC at many places like security facilities and law enforcement headquarters.

The British finally made a move and responded. New paramilitary police composed of WWI veterans, the Black and Tans, were sent to Ireland and they proved to be a brutal force. The violence quickly escalated afterwards.

On the 21st of November in Dublin, the IRA assassinated British Intelligence officers. In response, that afternoon, the RIC and the Black and Tans killed 15 civilians at a football match at Croke Park (dubbed Bloody Sunday).

The Division of Ireland

In the north, unionists formed The Ulster Special Constabulary and killed many Catholics. In the south, the centre of Cork was burned to the ground in retaliation for IRA attacks. 1920 also saw the British Parliament pass the fourth home rule act which divided Ireland into two: North and South.

By 1921, the British had increased the number of regular troops in Ireland and started sweeping the countryside and executing many as reprisals. However, they could not fight the guerilla tactics of the IRA effectively. By the end of 1921, there was dissatisfaction about the casualties, conduct, and cost of the war. There was no clear end in sight.

An End to War was Finally Made

Eventually, a truce was signed. Many thought it was just temporary, but the Anglo-Irish treaty made it permanent. The New Irish Free State only consisted of 26 out of Ireland’s 32 counties. The other six remained British. The treaty also didn’t grant Ireland full independence; it would remain an autonomous dominion of the British Empire.

This was an attempt to meet the demands of both Irish nationalists and Irish unionists. While the Northern Irish government was successfully established, the Southern Irish government was not. The war continued and the Southern Irish government never functioned. Some were okay with the situation, but others were not. Many were unhappy that Ireland was still part of the British Empire and wanted total independence.

A New Government Army in the South of Ireland

In the Irish Free State, many weren’t satisfied with the deal and believed that they were sold short to a civil war breakout. De Valera opposed the treaty, but he lost the elections in 1922. So, he went on to lead the anti-treaty forces consisting of many IRA members.

Michael Collins, who won the elections, organised the new government army. In an attempt to assert authority, the new government bombed the Four Courts building in Dublin which was held by the IRA. They were able to gain full control over Dublin and then began to mop up opposition across the country.

In July 1922, with armed cars and artillery borrowed from the British, the Irish government was able to take the republican strongholds of Limerick, Waterford, and Cork. The IRA began to launch guerrilla attacks once again and in one of them killing Michael Collins. However, ultimately, they were unsuccessful.

The government’s execution of republicans downsized the fighting morale. Moreover, the killing of IRA leader Liam Lynch in 1923 forced the IRA to surrender. Although defeated, Éamon de Valera would go on to serve as the president of the new nation. The Irish Free State remained a dominion of the British Empire (and the Commonwealth) until after WWII when it was declared an official republic in 1948.

Dissimilarly, in Northern Ireland, tensions between Catholics and Protestants boiled over and fighting between the two tore the region apart for decades, and to a lesser degree, the problem still remained today.

Republic of Ireland – 20th Century to Present Day

The split between the two islands was intended to be a temporary solution to the war. So, Ireland would remain a part of the United Kingdom with Home Rule. However, instead of having one Irish parliament in Dublin, there would be two ─ one in Dublin for Southern Ireland and one in Belfast for Northern Ireland.

Pro-Treaty Nationalist and the Anti-Treaty Nationalist

So, the Irish nationalists were split between the pro-treaty nationalists and the anti-treaty Nationalists. The political party Sinn Féin split into two separate parties: Pro-treaty Sinn Féin which was happy with the status quo and the anti-treaty Sinn Féin which sought full independence.

In the 1922 Irish General Elections, the two political parties that won the most seats were the two Sinn Féin factions that we mentioned. Then, the Civil War would ensue.

The beginning of a New ‘Ireland’

In 1937, a referendum was held for a new constitution to remove all British ties with Ireland. 56% of people voted in favour of and Ireland adopted a new constitution, becoming a fully independent country. The country changed its name to… Ireland. Just “Ireland”. The country is often referred to as the Republic of Ireland to differentiate itself from the island of Ireland, but its official name is simply Ireland.

This was to reflect that Ireland’s claimed territory was the entire Island, believing the partition of Ireland to be illegitimate. Despite this claim though, Northern Ireland continued as normal, as a part of the United Kingdom. Ireland exercised their independence by choosing to remain neutral in WWII which started just two years later.

Ongoing Violence

While that should be the end of the story, there were three decades of ongoing violence from the late 1960s to the 90s, in a period known as The Troubles. The violence was mostly concentrated in Northern Ireland but occasionally spilt over into Ireland, England, and even mainland Europe. Although the majority of Northern Ireland’s population was Protestant and Unionist, there was a substantial minority that was Catholic and Nationalists and wanted Northern Ireland to join the Republic.

After three decades of conflict between various organisations, and thousands of casualties, a ceasefire was called to put a stop to the rage in 1998, with the Good Friday agreement. The agreement caused the Republic of Ireland to amend their constitution, removing its territorial claim over Northern Ireland. The British and Irish governments agreed that if the majority of people in Northern Ireland wish to leave the United Kingdom and join the Republic, the government will make it happen.

Impact of the Troubles

The lasting impact of The Troubles can still be seen today, especially in Belfast, in which there are walls separating Protestant-Catholic communities, and there is still occasional violence. However, the situation is improving, and the government has made a goal to remove the so-called “Peace Walls” by the year 2023.

The History of Ireland is a long and interesting one, the country has been through a lot but always seems to come out the other side better. The history of Ireland is what entices people to come to explore the Emerald Island as there is so much to see that offers historical value.

Plan a trip to Ireland and dive deep into its incredible history which is just one of many things it offers. Not forgetting its beautiful landscapes, amazing architecture and welcoming nature of the locals

More Worthy Reads:

The Fascinating History of Belfast | History of Gaelic Ireland Throughout the Centuries | Limavady: History, Attractions and Trails | Famous Landmarks in Ireland | Stories of Bravery on the RMS Titanic | Life in Celtic Ireland: Ancient to Modern CelticismExplore all Facets of Life Celtic Ireland |

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