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Irish History

Located just off a much larger island (Britain) to the northwest of the European continent, Ireland has often been perceived as a remote, distant and isolated backwater. Historically, this is far from the truth. Since early prehistory, in Europe sea-lanes mattered as much as, and often more than, land-routes and Irish prehistory and history exemplify this fact. Throughout history, Ireland has tended to be part of complex long-distance networks and cultural contexts, sometimes but not always centred on Ireland’s close proximity to Britain (especially Scotland). Too often, Irish history is discussed simply as an offshoot of British history.

This is to say that Ireland has its own distinctive historical character, dynamic and trajectory, which are central to any understanding of Irish history. The connection with Britain is close for obvious reasons, has had profound influences on Ireland in many ways – even though the flow of cultural influences tends to go both ways – but eventually remains just one aspect of a diverse and fascinating history featuring multiple links in many directions, including for example very significant connections with Scandinavia, France and Spain.

For the visitor to Ireland, one of the country’s most striking aspects is the constant and high visibility of her long history. It is present not just in its townscapes and cityscapes, but also scattered throughout the landscape in the form of innumerable archaeological and historical monuments. Even the landscape itself, at a closer look, reveals the human imprint that made it what it is today.

In Ireland, it is not uncommon to see a prehistoric tomb, a Celtic ringfort, a medieval castle or monastery, an 18th century estate and a living town or village all within the same view-shed. In contrast to most of Europe, where the physical heritage of one era tends to supersede that of its predecessors, in Ireland we often find them side by side, permitting us to literally walk through history, an experience that is fascinating, humbling and intensely enjoyable.

Below, we offer an overview of some of the key moments in the history of Ireland – hoping to strike a balance between the necessary generalisations such an undertaking requires and the respecting for detail, even nuance that any history deserves.


Ireland: A Brief Timeline

Late Palaeolithic: After the retreat of the last Ice Age’s glaciers, Ireland is initially connected by landbridge to Southwest Scotland and thus indirectly to the European continent. The link to Scotland is flooded around the 12th millennium BC, making Ireland an island. Scant evidence suggests a presence of Paleolithic hunter-gatherers around 10,000 BC.

Circa 8000-4000 BC: Mesolithic foragers arrive in Ireland and establish impermanent encampments. The overall population is very low, concentrating on riverine and marine resources and producing stone tools.

Circa 4000-2400 BC: The Neolithic era is characterised by agriculture, animal husbandry, permanent settlement, pottery and polished stone tools. These developments have started reaching north-western Europe from the East by about 6,000 BC. Although there is some earlier evidence for experimentation with aspects of the “Neolithic package” (cattle-raising) in Ireland, by about 4,000 BC the whole island is affected and the population begins to increase. The introduction of the Neolithic may entail natives as well as newcomers, it certainly indicates contact with Britain and Northern France. The most strikingly visible aspect of the Irish Neolithic is the appearance of Megalithic Tombs, with close parallels in France, Wales and Scotland. Over 1,200 such monuments are known in Ireland, separated into five types: Court Tombs, Passage Tombs, Portal Tombs and Wedge Tombs. Their exact chronological relationships remain unclear, but Court Tombs appear to be the oldest (beginning a little after 4000 BC), and Wedge Tombs the youngest (3rdmillennium BC), while passage tombs (probably c 3500-3000 BC), fewest in number, are the most elaborate type, often decorated with characteristic rock carvings.

Circa 2400-500 BC: The arrival of a new culture, the “Beaker People” around 2400 BC (probably from the Continent via Britain) marks the beginning of the metal ages. Initially, only copper, available in south-western Ireland, is used, but by 2,000 BC it is alloyed with tin (not available in Ireland): the Bronze Age begins. During this era, Ireland is an important source of both copper and gold and an elaborate tradition of metalwork develops. Little is known of Irish Bronze Age society, but it appears that population further increases and contacts with the outside world are maintained. Irish-made gold objects are found as far away as Scandinavia and Germany. A characteristic type of Bronze Age monument are the Stone Circles found throughout the island.

Circa 500 BC-AD 432: The Iron Age. Many scholars believe that the beginning of this era sees the arrival of Indo-European “Celts” in Ireland, while others place it with the “Beaker Culture” two millennia earlier. It is certain, however, that during the second half of the first millennium BC, elements of “Celtic” culture are firmly established in Ireland, including language, religion and aspects of material culture, especially the “La Tène” style of decorating metalwork, of which Ireland produces fine, if rare, examples. Irish society is organised in tribal units, most likely ruled by local strongmen or “petty kings”. Larger political units probably begin to come into existence. Unlike its neighbours, Ireland is never conquered by the Romans, but spends several centuries existing alongside the Roman Empire, especially Roman Britain, engaging in trade and perhaps other forms of contact with the Roman World. Most of the Irish mythology recorded in later eras relates stories and events that must originate from the Iron Age. Thousands of ringforts (fortified farmsteads) scattered throughout Ireland indicate the main form of rural settlement of the time; a handful of much larger and more elaborate “royal” sites represent political and ceremonial centres; there is no evidence of cities. Around 140 AD, the Roman geographer Ptolemy produces the earliest known map of Ireland. Although later Irish tradition notes AD 220 as the year when Cormac mac Airt became the first “High King” of Ireland, the island is never politically united in this era and tribal warfare is virtually constant; the four (or five) historical Provinces also date from this era. From the 4th century onwards, Irish raiders start hassling the shores of Britain.

432-795: AD 432, the year that Saint Patrick is said to have returned to Ireland, is the benchmark for the advent of Early Christian Ireland. Whatever the historical/legendary nature of the saint, all of Ireland appears to be converted quite swiftly and without producing martyrs within the 5th century. This major religious shift also affects politics and culture, opening Ireland to Graeco-Roman influences and catapulting it from prehistory into history, as a written record is established, starting with Patrick himself. During this era, a complex monastic culture develops; the new faith is also expressed through elaborate metalwork and the new tradition of illuminated manuscripts; a rich literature in Latin and Gaelic starts to develop, as does a distinctive system of “Brehon” law. During the same period, tribes from Ulster gain control of South-western Scotland, bringing Christianity there. Missionaries from both Ireland and the Gaelic parts of Scotland, collectively known as “scoti” play a major role in the re-Christianisation of much of Central Europe. Politically, Ireland remains divided between over 150 smallish kingdoms, with a handful or two of regional over-kingships, controlled by various clans. The role of “High King”, a ceremonial “primus inter pares” among the over-kings is a major prize to gain. Various sects of the clan of the Uí Néill (O’Neill) dominate that title for many centuries.

795-980: In 795, the first Scandinavian “Viking” raids affect Ireland. They remain an ongoing threat for most of the subsequent century, especially on the eastern coast. By the 840s, a Viking base exists at Dublin; by the 860s, the Vikings or Norse begin to settle more permanently. Ireland’s first cities, including Dublin, Waterford and Limerick, come into existence and adopt Christianity; especially Dublin, now a Norse kingdom allied with York, thrives in the 10th century: in 997, Sitric Silkbeard, King of Dublin, will mint the first coinage in Irish history. In the areas less affected by these newcomers, Gaelic culture and tribal infighting continue as before. Altogether, the era is violent one, seeing much fighting between Vikings and Gaels, but also amongst Gaels and amongst Vikings, in various alliances.

980-1169: The defeat of Dublin at the 980 Battle of Tara puts an end to Norse dominance in the region, but does not end the Norse presence. In the aftermath, Brian Boru, member of a little-known Western clan, gradually gains control first of Munster, then of Leinster. By 1011, all regional kings as well as the Norse recognise him as High King; his is the first attempt to redefine the “High King” as a true “King of Ireland”. At the 1014 Battle of Clontarf, an aged Brian defeats a rebellious alliance of Norse Dublin and its Gaelic Allies, but loses his own life. His lasting legacy is the establishment of his descendants as the Ua Briain (O’Brian), henceforth a force to be reckoned with. Brian’s successors attempt to use the role of High King according to his ambitions, always against major infighting among the many kings. Gaelic culture thrives. During the 12th century, the Roman Papacy takes a more active interest in Ireland, leading to a reform of the monastery-based “Celtic” church into a more mainstream episcopal one with its archbishop at Armagh in Ulster.

1169-1366: A little over a century after the Normans take control of England in 1066, they set their sights on Ireland. Invited by the ongoing local infighting, Anglo-Normans invade Leinster in 1169 and 1171, the latter foray led by the English King, Henry II, making England a major player on Irish soil for 800 years or more. The “Lordship of Ireland” is instituted as subservient to the English King, ostensibly controlling the entire island. Initially welcomed by many local rulers, the Anglo-Normans take control of choice parts of the island and exert lasting cultural influence. The last accepted High King, Ruaidrí Ua Conchobair, dies in 1198. By the 14th century, the Anglo-Normans face multiple rebellions, English power wanes and the influence reverses: many of the Norman nobles fall into Gaelic habits, adopting the local language, law and tradition. Gaelic culture continues to thrive. The Lordship, and thus English dominance, is gradually reduced to “the Pale” an area including the East Coast between Dublin and Drogheda and reaching inland from there (the modern English expression “beyond the Pale” preserves its memory). In 1297, the first Irish Parliament is instituted in Dublin, representing the landed Anglo-Normans of the Pale and convening at times in Dublin, at others in Drogheda. In 1320, the first Irish university is founded in Dublin: its languishing and ineffective existence lasts for two centuries.

1366-1542: In 1366, recognising the waning English influence, the Irish (Anglo-Norman) Parliament passes the “Statutes of Kilkenny”, forbidding intermarriage and other connections between English and Irish: this is the beginning of a long and tragic history of segregation and of attempts at oppressing or sidelining Irish culture. Initially, it fails: the now Hiberno-Norman establishment (Hibernia is the Latin name for Ireland) continues in its ways and Gaelic culture still thrives, maintained by both Hiberno-Norman and native Gaelic potentates. From 1494 onwards, the Irish Parliament’s decisions can be sidelined or overruled by English legislation. The cultural distance between England and Ireland is exacerbated by Henry VIII’s split with Rome and establishment of the Church of England in 1534, leading to rebellions that are crushed. Most monasteries in Ireland are dissolved. In 1542, Henry establishes the “Kingdom of Ireland”, a separate realm in personal union with the English monarchy. Henry’s and his successors’ attempts at converting the Irish populace to English Protestantism see little success.

1542 -1641: The Tudor and Stuart realms are a violent era for Ireland, continuing and exacerbating conflict, permanently changing the demographics of entire regions and effectively destroying Gaelic culture. Before his death in 1558, Henry VIII, having consolidated the Pale, sets in motion the “Tudor (re)conquest“ of the entire island. The policy of “surrender and regrant” forces the Gaelic and Hiberno-Norman (“Old English”) chiefs, one by one, to accept their ancestral lands as feudal grants from the monarch, rather than belonging to the tribe as they did under Brehon Law. The process is a slow and bloody one, continued by Henry’s successors Elizabeth I and James I. During Elizabeth’s reign, a series of rebellions occur, first in Munster (1569-1583), led by the Fitzgeralds, Earls of Desmond, then in Ulster (1594-1603), led by Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone, and supported by Spain. Both rebellions entail heavy fighting and the English use of “scorched earth” tactics, leading to widespread famine. of After their eventual defeat, O’Neill, his ally, Rory O’Donnell and many of their followers leave Ireland for the continent in 1607, an event remembered as the “Flight of the Earls”. In both Munster and Ulster, the rebellions are followed by “plantations”, the forcible confiscation of the formerly tribal lands and their redistribution to British settlers who must be English-speaking Protestants. Especially the “Plantation of Ulster”, beginning in 1609, has enormous impact: over 2,000km² (775 sq mi) of land are dispossessed and within two decades, over 20,000 male “planters” and their families, mostly Scottish Presbyterians, live in a province that previously had a population numbering around 40,000. During the same era, English policy in Ireland becomes openly discriminatory of Catholics, restricting their political and property rights. In 1592, Trinity College Dublin is chartered as a Protestant university.

1641-1691: The remainder of the 17th century is one of the most violent periods in all of Irish history. While a crisis of the British monarchy leads to Civil War in England and Scotland, the Irish Catholic landowners, tired of increasing restrictions, stage the Irish Rebellion of 1641, starting in Ulster, where many Protestants are massacred. They gain control of two thirds of the island, ruling it as the Irish Catholic Confederation, a quasi-parliamentary government representing the Catholic gentry of the Four Provinces and ostensibly loyal to King James I. The Confederation is in constant warfare with English and Scottish armies. Ruthless sectarian conflict is the order of the era, causing resentments that last to the present day. In 1649, Oliver Cromwell invades Ireland with his New Model Army, ending the Confederation and engaging in a four-year campaign of re-conquest and retribution that entails multiple massacres against Catholics throughout Ireland. In the aftermath, Penal Law is instituted, ratcheting up anti-Catholic discrimination: Catholics are barred from the Irish Parliament, most remaining Catholic-owned land is confiscated and given to English settlers, the Catholic clergy are persecuted and 12,000 Catholic Irishmen are sold into “indentured servitude” (a euphemism for slavery) to the British colonies across the Atlantic. In 1685, James II becomes the last Catholic to be crowned King of England; the more extreme anti-Catholic measures are briefly suspended during his short rule. His deposition by Parliament in 1688 (the Glorious Revolution), followed by his replacement with William (III) of Orange leads to the Williamite Wars: James enters Ireland with French support, but is eventually defeated at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. The 1691 Treaty of Limerick is meant to allow for members of the Catholic Gentry to preserve their rights by declaring allegiance to William, but the Protestant-dominated Irish Parliament rejects these terms and reinstitutes Penal Law (against Catholics and Presbyterians alike) in even harsher form: Catholic landownership is virtually extinguished. For a hundred years, France raises Irish regiments (the “Wild Geese”), posing a theoretical threat to British-held Ireland. Gaelic culture is now a sub-culture, but continues in music and poetry.

1691-1801: Ireland’s 18th century is the Age of the Anglican Ascendancy, an age of ostensible peace, but actually hardening conflict. Virtually all Irish land is in Protestant hands; but a split grows amongst the Protestant landlords. The vast majority are absentee landlords, using their income from Irish tenants, collected by whatever means, to live their aristocratic lives in London unconcerned with conditions on their Irish estates. Only a minority chooses to live on their estates, shows concern in local conditions and increasingly develops an allegiance to the country and its fate, constantly disappointed by London’s lack of interest in Irish affairs, especially the fact that England raises tariffs on Irish imports, but not vice versa. In 1740/41, a severe winter causes a major famine, exacerbated by absentee landlordism and killing nearly 40 per cent (!) of Ireland’s rural population. The American and French revolutions, obsessing London with vain efforts to preserve the global status quo, inspire a new movement, the United Irishmen, aiming to unite Anglicans, Presbyterians and Catholics in the interest of Ireland as a whole. In spite of easing of the Penal Laws – as of 1793, some Catholics are permitted to vote, but not to stand for election – the situation comes to a head with the United Irishmen’s rebellion of 1798; it is a chaotic event, including a failed French invasion and much sectarian violence, ending with the execution of its leader, Theobald Wolfe Tone. For the first time, undesirables are deported to Australia. London finally reacts to the ongoing Irish misery by forcing through the 1800 Second Act of Union (the First was with Scotland 93 years earlier), incorporating Ireland into Britain/England and abolishing the Irish Parliament by its own agreement (through bribes). Ireland is now simply part of Britain and Irish voters elect members of the Westminster Parliament, which still won’t permit Catholics.

1801-1845: A second United Irishmen rebellion is crushed in 1803, its leader, Robert Emmett, executed. The Union fails to solve Ireland’s political, religious or economic issues, absentee landlordism continues. Following much agitation led by popular leader Daniel O’Connell, the Catholic Relief Act of 1829 finally restores Catholics’ and Presbyterians’ right to vote and stand for election (O’Connell becomes the first Catholic MP at Westminster in over a century), but the subsequent Reform Act of 1832 disenfranchises the poor. There is much tension throughout Ireland: secret organisations are formed to sabotage and threaten landlords, Catholics, representing 85 per cent of the population, resent having to pay a tithe to the Anglican Church, sectarian strife begins to rear its head in Ulster. During the same period, Belfast and Ulster begin to be affected by industrialisation. The first railway in Ireland opens in 1834. O’Connell’s highly popular campaign to repeal the Union falters in the 1840s. Universities are founded in Galway, Belfast and Cork in 1845.

1845-1849: The Great Irish Famine, technically a natural disaster caused by a fungus (“the “blight”), but aggravated by economic policies, is an event of enormous demographic, cultural, political and psychological impact. During half a decade of successive crop failures, at least a million die from starvation and epidemics, especially in Ireland’s overpopulated western regions, and another million emigrate, mostly to England and North America, reducing the island’s population from 8 to 6 million and starting a trend of depopulation that is only to be halted in the late 20thcentury. Absentee landlordism, inheritance law and tradition, over-dependence on a single crop and the government’s adherence to a principle of economic laissez-faire conspire to harshen the effects, in spite of various relief efforts. A failed rising (Young Irelanders) in 1848 does nothing to improve the situation. Among many, the famine results in a severe and permanent loss of trust in England’s ability to look after Irish affairs.

1849-1916: A period of competing political and cultural movements that eventually lead to rupture with England. Emigration continues. There is much agitation about the rights of agricultural tenants, leading to a series of reforms beginning in the 1880s and eventually ending the Ascendancy. The era also sees the beginning of the “Gaelic revival”, a cultural movement eager to rediscover the country’s Celtic roots, including folklore, mythology and the Irish language itself, which has suffered much from demographic changes, ceasing to be the majority’s spoken language around 1900. The newly-founded (1854) Catholic University of Dublin plays an important role henceforth. In the 1870s, the Home Rule Movement is founded, arguing for Ireland’s right to self-govern as a region within the Union: it is a dominant force in Irish politics until the 1910s, represented in Westminster by the Irish Parliamentary Party, most famously led by Charles Stewart Parnell. Any form of rule from Dublin is fiercely opposed by the Unionists (most of them in Ulster), who refound the 18th century Orange Order to press their point. The early 20th century also sees increasing industrial confrontations and the beginnings of trade union and socialist movements. On the cultural front, Irish writers have considerable impact on English-language literature during this era and beyond. During the early 1900s, the outbreak of open conflict within Ireland becomes more and more inevitable: organisations like the Irish Republican Brotherhood or the Irish Volunteers on the nationalist side, or the Ulster Volunteers on the Unionist one, take on an openly paramilitary character. A Home Rule Act is passed in 1914, providing for an Irish government in Dublin, but also for a number of Ulster counties to opt out. It is suspended at the outbreak of the First World War. Irish divisions suffer crippling losses in the fighting.

1916-1923: During the most turbulent seven years in Irish history, the Irish Free State gains independence from the United Kingdom. In 1916, the Irish Volunteers stage the Easter Rising, primarily in Dublin, defeated within six days. Initially, the Rising is immensely unpopular, but the immediate execution of its leadership, including Patrick Pearse and James Connolly, leads to a widespread shift in opinion: the days of the Union with England are counted. In the General Election of 1918, the hitherto fringe and radical Republican party Sinn Féin wins 73 out of 105 Irish seats in Westminster, but the Sinn Féin MPs decline to attend the London Parliament. Instead, they convene in Dublin as Dáil Éireann, the revolutionary Irish Parliament, declaring the Irish Republicand adopting the tricolour as its symbol. From 1919 to 1921, the Irish War of Independence is fought between the Irish Republican Army (the “Old IRA”), and various British forces, mostly as a guerrilla war. Fighting is hard and cruel, but overall casualties (civilian and combatant) are little over 2,000. An exodus of Anglo-Irish Protestants from the 28 “southern” counties begins. A ceasefire is agreed in June 1921, followed by negotiations between the British Government (including David Lloyd George and Winston Churchill) and the Irish Provisional Government, its representatives famously including Michael Collins. The agreed Treaty entails a dominion status modelled on Canada’s, the partition of part of Ulster (the six counties forming Northern Ireland) and an Oath of Fidelity to the monarchy to be sworn by Irish deputies. Although Ireland is now de-facto independent, a large proportion of Sinn Féin, led by Éamon de Valera reject the deal, leading to the 1922-1923 Civil War. After hard fighting and the loss of over 4,000 lives, Collins’s pro-treaty forces (the “Free State”) win; Collins himself is killed. Resentments about the conflict last to the present day. Meanwhile, a Northern Irish Parliament has been founded in 1920.

1923-present: As Sinn Féin and the IRA continue to reject the Irish state, De Valera breaks with them in 1926 to found the Fiánna Fail party, entering Dáil Éireann in 1927 and gaining power in 1932. He himself is to dominate Irish politics until his death in 1975, his party until at least 2011. In 1936, the IRA is made illegal. In 1937, De Valera introduces a new constitution, abolishing the term “Free State” simply naming the country Éire or Ireland, claiming the whole island, removing all references to the monarchy and recognising Roman Catholicism as the main religion. There are two houses of parliament, the country is governed by the Taoiseach (Prime Minister) and officially represented by the Uachtarán (President). Irish is the (nominal) first official languageIreland remains neutral during the Second World War, although many Irishmen fight on the Allied side. Ireland becomes officially a Republic in 1949. Until the 1980s, the Republic is beset by economic issues such as poverty, high unemployment and emigration. Meanwhile, Northern Ireland has been the venue of increasing sectarian violence since its foundation, its government, parliament and industry dominated by Protestants. By the late 1960s, this turns into the Northern Irish “Troubles”.  “Provisional” Sinn Féin and the IRA fight the Northern Irish and British state, which fight back with the aid of various Unionist or Loyalist organisations: an extensive period of outright violence follows, claiming over 3,500 lives, half of them civilians. The Northern Parliament is abolished in 1973. Also in 1973, Ireland (both parts) joins the EEC. From the 1970s onwards, Irish musicians achieve considerable international success. In the 1990s, the phenomenon of the “Celtic Tiger” is marked by extensive economic growth in the Republic, accompanied by rapid social and cultural modernisation. The Northern “Troubles” end (?) with the Good Friday Agreement of 1998: Ireland cancels its constitutional claim on the North; Britain accepts that if a majority in Northern Ireland wish unification with the Republic, it will be let go; an elected assembly is reinstituted, as is a power-sharing government including both ethnic/religious groups. In 1999, Ireland (not including Northern Ireland) joins the Eurozone. In 2008/09, the international financial crisis leads to a collapse of the Irish economy; Ireland enters a bailout deal in 2010, ending in 2013.

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