A Brief History of Ireland

A Brief History of Ireland

by
John Holwell

An estimated 70 million people world-wide can claim Irish heritage. This article attempts to provide some insight into Ireland's long and complex history.

The island or Ireland, some 89,000 sq. km (32,000 sq. mi.) is comprised of the Republic of Ireland (Eire) which occupies almost 85% of the total land-mass, and Northern Ireland which is part of the United Kingdom. Within the traditional four ecclesiastical provinces of Ulster (north-east), Leinster (south-eastern Ireland including the ancient kingdom of Meath), Munster (south-west), and Connaught (or Connacht, north-west) there are 32 counties, 26 of which are within the Republic. The partition of the island dates from 1920-22, before which the whole island was under British rule.

The first settlement of Ireland took place sometime around 6000 BC by hunters and fishers along the island's eastern coast. The Gaels, a Celtic-speaking people from western Europe, found their way to the island sometime between about 600 and 150 BC and subdued the previous inhabitants.

About the time of Christ the island was organised into five kingdoms, the traditional "Five Fifths of Ireland". By AD 400 seven independent kingdoms had evolved. The kings of these kingdoms often allied their armies to raid neighbouring Roman Britain and the Continent. On one of these raids a lad of 16 was captured, returned to Ireland and sold into slavery. During his enslavement the boy turned to religion and some six years later at the age of 22 escaped. The young man studied theology in the Roman church and in 432 returned to Ireland, and began a lifelong quest of converting the Irish to Christianity. This was none other than Ireland's patron, Saint Patrick.

In the 9th and 10th centuries, Ireland came under fierce attacks from the Vikings. Monasteries suffered great atrocities at the hands of these aggressors. In 853 the Danes invaded the island and were followed by Danish settlers who gradually assimilated with the local population and adopted Christianity. When the four ecclesiastical provinces (Ulster - north-east, Leinster - south-eastern Ireland including the ancient kingdom of Meath, Munster -southwest, and Connaught, or Connacht - north-west) were created in 1152, both Gaelic and Danish elements helped form a united Church. This reform, and others advocated by the Irish church were frowned on by some, including Pope Adrian IV, an Englishman. In 1155 he conferred on Henry II of England the lordship of Ireland with hopes of curing some of Ireland's perceived ecclesiastical ills. In 1168 the English invaded the island and soon thereafter began invoking reforms, many dealing with the granting of land, and many of which violated the traditional political and social structure.

From the latter twelfth century to about 1400, many Norman's from England moved to Ireland and settled the eastern areas, particularly around Dublin. Some assimilated but strife persisted between the native Irish and the colonists. In 1367 a law was enacted to keep the two populations separate.

In 1495 Henry VII extended English law over the entirety of Ireland, and assumed supremacy over the existing Irish parliament. When Henry VIII became king, he tried to separate the Irish Church from the Papacy much as he had done in England. Instead he intensified Irish resolve toward the English. By the time that Queen Elizabeth ascended to the English thrown, Roman Catholicism became linked with Irish sentiment and the Irish refused to accept English imposed ecclesiastical change. Mounting English domination was also being met with greater Irish resistance. In the 1560s the English suppressed a revolt in Ulster and Queen Elizabeth took the opportunity to expropriate all lands and settle the province with Englishmen. By 1660 they had become well seated and English law prevailed throughout the land.

During the reign of James I (ruled 1603-1625), Catholic schools were closed and children were taught in Protestant institutions. Soon the old distinctions of Irish, Anglo-Irish, and English became realigned to Catholic and Protestant, although the island remained overwhelmingly Catholic. It was about this period that the emigration trend began.

When Cromwell took firm control of England, he also invoked strict rule over Ireland and confiscated all Catholic holdings. Following his death, however, the Irish renewed their claims on their historic lands. After some successes, in 1690 they defeated the English at Londonderry and signed a treaty with London that granted them a number of rights, only to see it rejected by the Protestant dominated Irish parliament.

The rift between adherents of the two religions broadened. In 1727, Catholics were excluded from all public office and denied the right to vote. Although some measured attempts at reconciliation were made nearing the end of the century, for the most part relations between the two factions remained poor.

In 1798, a revolt in Ireland set in motion a series of events that led the Irish to relinquish their own parliament. On 1 Jan 1801, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland came into existence. Not surprisingly, the union in Ireland was highly unpopular and relations continued to deteriorate between the Catholic and Protestant populations. In the 1830s, a movement began to repeal the union. It found little favour in Protestant Ulster, though, where growing prosperity kept many committed to the legislative union with Britain. Catholic areas of Ireland fared less well and when the potato crops of the 1840s failed, a devastating famine resulted. Between 1841 and 1851, Ireland's population fell from 8.2 million to 6.6 million through starvation, disease, and emigration, particularly to the United States.

Following the famine, Catholic Ireland slowly increased in prosperity but there became a growing awareness of the greater affluence enjoyed by the industrialised Ulster and British people. Demand for national self-government came to the fore. The Catholics gradually gained parliamentary power and "home rule", a separate Irish parliament within the Union, gained popularity. Using their leverage in the British parliament, a home rule bill was enacted in 1914, but not put in effect until the end of World War I.

In the twentieth century, Ireland's situation has remained unsettled. In 1920, the "Government of Ireland Act" set up separate parliaments for both the north and south, although only the former ever functioned. In 1921 a treaty between southern Ireland and Britain established the Irish Free State, a self-governing dominion within the British Commonwealth of Nations. This allowed the Northern Ireland Parliament to take the six northern counties out of the dominion. A subsequent civil war broke out between pro-treaty and anti-treaty factions but ultimately the treaty stood.

In 1937 southern Ireland drafted and adopted a new constitution creating the new state of Eire. A republic in all but name, it remained formally within the British Commonwealth. It lasted only eleven years until 1948 when the ties with the Commonwealth were severed completely and the Republic of Ireland was born. In the north, the Protestants and Catholics continued their unsettled relationship with one another. In 1972, the Republic of Ireland joined the European Economic Community (EEC) along with the United Kingdom and Denmark. That same year, the Northern Irish State was dissolved and the six counties were put under direct rule from London.


This article originally appeared in the September 1997 issue of the Journal of Online Genealogy.



genealogyPro

Copyright © 2001
By the Author
All rights reserved