*** Ireland Irish history

Irish History

Kilmainham Gaol
Figure 1.-- Here two Irish boys in 1966 praying in the execution yard at Kilmainham Gaol. The press caption read, "Two young boys bow their heads in prayer before a simple cross. sparsely adorned by flowers, in the execution yard at Kilmaibham Jail here. The hail, the Bastille of Ireland, has been restored with loving care by the hands of Irishmen who wish to perpetuate the memory of heroic suffering behind its damp and forbidding walls."

Ireland is one of the smallest countries in Europe. Despite its size, Ireland has played an important role in world history. Irish history is often depicted as a morality play with the good-hearted English and evil English. As is often the case, it was developments from abroad that since the Christiniztion of the Island that have molded the country's history and fate. The Irish was one of the few Celtic peoples not overwealmed by Rome. It was after the fall of Rome Christinized. And thus it was also one of the few corners of Western Europe not overwelmed by the barbaric German invasions of Western Europe after the fall of Rome. Thus Christian Ireland was one of the rare centers of learning during the Dark Ages and helped to preserve the precious classical and early Christian heritage. Much of Ireland's history during the 2nd Millenium was associated with England, becaues of the English conquest that began with the Normans. The history of the English Supremecy is a long and brutal one which left the disenfranchised Irish people, who clung to their Catholocism, largely landless peasanys eeking out a precarious existence. The bloody 17th century European relgious wars left it mark on Ireland. And Ireland hs lefts its mark on America and other countries of te Diaspora. The modern Irish population has never recovered from the Potato Famine and the disasterous English response to it. This caused not only a collapse of the population, but an Irish diaspora throughout the world. Ireland today is virtually the only country with a larger 19th century population than a 21st century population. As a result, of the Famine, one of Europe's smallest countries became one of the main ethnic groups in America. The Potato Famine changed the dynamic of this relationship with England and convinced many Irish people that the English had no right to rule. Despite Ireland's eventual separation from Britain and apauling British actions in Ireland, the English as in other areas they ruled, left a prescious heritage of law, democracy, and free markets.

Neolithic Period

We are not sure where the original stone age people of Ireland came from. We know there were contacts with Iberia. Stone age people begin to build elaborate Irish passage graves (3000 BC). Newgrange is a fine example.

Celtic Ireland

The Celts dominated northern Europe in the early classical period. Somewhat more is known about early-Celtic Ireland than the first Nolithic people, thanks to both archelogical, liquistic, and now DNA evidence. Ireland was the furthest expansion of the Celts which they finally reached Ireland. The date here is uncertain. The first wave of Celtic peoples to reach the British Isles are called the q-Celts and spoke a Celtic language known as Goidelic. It is widely believed that this occurred some time between 2000 to 1200 BC. Some estimates are as early as 2400 BC. They arrived late in Ireland because of its geographical isolation. The label q-Celtic stems from the differences between this early Celtic language and Italic which developed into Latin. Some of these early Britanic Celts may have crossed over to Ireland, but the major Celtic population in Ireland seems to have come from Iberia. This was a second wave of immigrants. They were a wave of Celts referred now rferred to as the the p-Celts speaking Brythonic. Goidelic led to the formation of the three Gaelic languages spoken in Ireland, the Isle of Man and later Scotland. Brythonic gave rise to two British Isles Celtic languages, Welsh and Cornish, and also survived on the Continent in the form of Breton which is spoken in Brittany. Much of this second wave as it came from the sea landed in Ireland rather than what is now England, Wales and Scotland. The British Isles have a substantial influence from western seaboard peoples, many of whom originate from Iberia. The analisis of Bronze Age graves show people with teeth hat show they originated in the Iberian Peninsula. DNA evidence confirms this. The number of Celtic invaders seems smaller than the rest of the British Isles, presumably because the seaborn invasions from Iberia involved fewer people than the cross-Channel invasions. The Iberian Celts had fifferent origins that the Britanic Celts who came from northern and central Europe. The invading Celts did not kill off the people they found in the British Isles, but they did Celtanize them including the introduvtion of Celticlangauages and other cultural forms. The Irish have the highest percentage of 'native' genes. The Scots have a similar genetic make up. They descend from the Scoti (an Irish tribe) with a Pictish admixture and perhaps a limited neolithic Scandinavia migration. Several continental Celtic tribes from Gaul and Belgium did reavh modern England, but this was not the area seen as Celtic today. The Celts dominated northern Europe and threatened the emerging clasical civilizations in the south. The Celts invaded and sacked Rome (390 BC). The history of pagan Celtic Ireland is limited because the Celts were a pre-literate people and unlike Britain, there was no Roman invasion. (The Romans are our principal cource of information about the Celts.) Thus the early history of Celtic Ireland has to come from archeological work. Celtic Ireland experienced a notable cultural and population decline decline (1st century BC- 4th century AD). There is no written record as the Celts were a pre-literate people. This decline has been found by archeologists. One historian refers to what the archeolgical record had brought to life as the Irish Dark Ages. [Charles-Edwards] The Celtic population entirely rural and widely dispersed. Small ringforts were the largest populated settlements. Archeologists have found 40,000 such settlements and there is beieved to be more. Most appear to be farm enclosures built by the most properous Celtic farmers. Archeologists have also found souterrains, underground passages and chambers presumably used for hiding or escaping marauders. Women played a greater role in political life tha in the classical Greek and Roman civilizations. Medlb is queen of Connacht (100 AD) and Bouducca led a rising against thge Romans Britain. Celtic gender roles were unlike any thing in the classical or even German cultural areas. More advanced Britain, especially after the arrival of the Romans, proved an attraction amd marauding bands crossed the Irish Sea for booty and slaves. We are not sure when this raiding began, but it appears to have been a continuing problem for Roman Britain. Archeologists have also found lakeside enclosures which are called 'crannogs' which seem to be associated with crafts in an otherwise primarily agricultural economy.

Roman Invasion of Britain (2nd centuary AD)

England's written history began with the Roman invasion of Celtic Britain. The Roman conquest of Brition ws characterically brutal. Julius Ceasar landed in Britain, but did not persue an actual conuest (1st century BC). Roman armies during the reign of Emperor Claudius did conquer Celtic Britain with the exception of the north (modern Scotland). Britain became a prosperous corner of the Roman Empire and as Christianity spread within the Empire, so did it reach Britain. The Romans after conquering Briton, never attempted to conquer Ireland. As a result, Celtic Ireland was not Chritianized during the Roman era. There were contacts. There was trade between Roman Briton and Celtic Ireland and the Irish conucted raids into prosperous Roman Britain. More importantly, the Christianity that the Romans brought to England did conquer Ireland, several centuries before English armies appeared in Ireland..

Christian Ireland (5th-9th centuries)

Ireland was Christianized by St. Parrick and other Christian missionaries. Scholars disagree about St. Patrick, but Christian missionaries did convert the country (5th century). Ireland like pre-Roman Britain was not literate. As result it is only with Christianity that Ireland became a literate country, at least a small part of the Irish population, mostly churchmen. It does mean that Ireland begind to have a written historical record. This was at first Latin, but gradually written Irish (Gaelic) also appears. The Irish seem to have been especially interested in the intelectual pursuits that literacy brought. The Irish produced some of th the earliest, and perhaps the richest, vernacular literature in early-medieval Europe. Ireland proved to be one of the few corners of Europe not overwealmed by the Germanic tribes which overwealmed Western Europe with the fall of the Western Roman Empire. Gradually Ireland became an important Christian center. Located on the perifery of Europe, it never felt the force of the barbarian invasions and the resulting Germanic political and cultural influence. While Christianity was asaulted by the Germanic barbarians, the Celtic kings and nobles in Ireland promoted a vibrant Christian culture. Irish monks, pilgrims, explorers. illuninists, and scholars became renowned throughout Western Christendom. Irish monks helped preserve great literary treasures. Thus during the height of the Dark Ages, Irish monastaries were centers of learning and respositories of knowledge. One of the jewels of medieval Irish Christianity was the famed Book of Kells, one of the most remarkable manuscripts of early-medieval Europe. Irish missionaries played an important role in converting the pagan Anglo-Saxon tribes that had invaded and conquered most of England.

The Vikings Raids and Impacts (800-1169)

The Norsemen were one of many foreign groups that have powerfully affected Irish history. The Irish like the English were devestated by the Viking raiders (9th century). Viking raids begn in the 9th century at the same time the raids began in Britain. The Vikings devestated Christian Ireland. The first scattered raids were followed by sustained raids that struck throughout the island. Great monastaries with their accumulated wealth and lack of defenses were priority targets for the Vikings. Great monastaries like Bangor were abandoned. The Normans also mase their contribution to Ireland. The first real towns in Ireland were founded by the Vikings (Dublin, Waterford and Limerick). Efforts occurred to unite Ireland politically, but did not succeed. There were major changes in the Irish Church. The Synod of Ráth Breasail/Rathbreasail) led to major changes (1111). The Irish Church befan the transition from a monastic base to the Catholic diocesan and parish organisation and governance. Many modern Irish dioceses can trace their boundaries to the work of the synod. This procss was finjally sccomplished by the Synod of Kells (1152).

England and Ireland (12th-20th centuries)

Irish history is often depicted as a morality play with the good-hearted English and evil English. The 20th century Troubles in Ulster were rooted in the centuries old effort of England to control Ireland. The conflict assumed religious overtones after the Protestan Revolution in England with the Irish peasantry stradfastly clining to the Catholic Church. Supression of the Irish and Catholic Church varied in entensity over time. Cromwell ruthlessly supressed Irish attempts at independence. James II did not have the caution of his father. He attempt to restablish the Catholic Church in England. Without a Catholic heir, however, most English were willing to await the natural course of events. The birth of a Catholic heir radically upset the situation. English piers invite William of Orange, a Protestant prince from the Netherlands married to James' protestant daughter Mary. The result was the Glorious Revolution. William quickly deposes James who is forced to flee. James makes his last stand in Ireland with Catholic loyalists. This was the last real Irish resistance to English rule occurred with the defeat of James II at the Battle of the Boyne (1692). The Protestants who fought under William against James became known as Orangemen. The Boyne was the last major Irish effort at independence until the Easter Rebellion (1916). The English through a series of anti-Catholic law disenfrangized the Irish and sized the land, making the Irish poverty-striken land-less tenants in their own country. Most Irish subsisted on small plots where they grew potatos. The English were firmly in control of England in the 19th century. The horrendous English response to the Potato Famine (1845-50), however, probably meant that Ireland could not continue to be part of Britain. Largely constitutional efforts aimed at gaining Home Rule were persued in the late-19th and early-20th centuries.

Ireland and America

Irish histories are dominated by the nearly millenium-long struggle with the English. Interstingly, the relationshp with America may be even more important, at least on the interntional plane. Especially important has been the impact of the Presbeyterian Scotts-Irsh on America. The sucess of the Revolution was in large measure dependent on the Scotts-Irish who also powerfully shaped Americn democracy. They are sometines called the Ulster Scotts or the 'other' Irish. Some might question whether they are really Irish. The Catholic Irish also played an importnt role in America. They were the first Catholics who came in large numbers. They had an important impact on Americam culture, preparing the way for other European Catholics. They had an especially important political impact, schooled as they were in the methods of Danniel O'Conner's mass politcs. [Hegarty] And America in turn has affected Ireland. The American and French Revolutins help to revive Irish nationalism as well as the idels of liberty and independence. The independence movement was supported by Irish Americans. And ultimately the 9-11 Attack affected the Peace Process in Irelnd making continued militant volence unthinkable. [Hegarty]

World War I

Putting aside their political differences, thousands of Irish Catholics and Protestants joined the British fighting forces in World War I. The situation in Ireland was dramatically inflamed, however, by the Easter Rising of 1916 and its immediate and harsh suppression. The south was becoming radicalized, and it began to appear that, however offensive the third Home Rule Bill was for Protestant Ulster, it was too late and too little to satisfy separatist sentiment in Catholic Ireland. In the 1918 election Sinn F�in (the republican party led by Eamon de Valera) ousted the Home Rule Party, refused to take their seats in the Westminster Parliament, and instead established their own alternative parliament, D�il �ireann, in Dublin, which was supported by the Irish Republican Army (IRA) in the Anglo-Irish War of 1919�21 (Irish War of Independence).

Independence Struggle (1919-21)

Although the British quickly supressed Easter Rising in Dublin (1916), the Rising had a profound impact on Irish public opinion. Undoubtedly the losses on the World War I Western Front were another factor. The execution of the rebellion leaders significantly affected Irish opinion. A vicious civil war occurred in Ireland after World War. By the end of the War, an increasing number of Irish people wanted to break their ties with Britain. Irish resistance was centered in the Irish Republican Army (IRA) which assasinated British officials, British landlords, and their Irish supporters. One IRA leader not executed after the Easter Rebellion was Daniel O'Conner. He was arrested, but the British did not realize who he was. After he was released, he played a central role in organizing the IRA terror campaign against the English and their Irish supporters. The English response was the Black and Tans. The IRA was made into an effective group in large measure through the leadership of Michael Collins. It was Collins who set out to undermine the Brirish system of spies and informers ans wear diwn the British security forces with a sustained guerilla campaign. British intelligemce was reorganized after World War I (1919). This was precisely the time that Collins launched his campaign. The British authorities in Ireland saw the IRA as a military and law enforcement matter. Intelligence ws seen as of secondary importance. The War Office moved to strengthen its intelligence effort (1920), but by that time the IRA was well entenched throughout Ireland. [Hittle] What is surprising is that this was accomplished by an unimposing bank clerk with no training in revolution or intelligence. Eventually the British tired of the struggle and agreed to a political sentiment--the Anglo-Irish Treaty (1921). The British turned over to the Irish Republicans all but the six counties largely Protestant counties of northern Ireland.

Irish Free State

The Government of Ireland Act sets up two parliaments, one in Dublin and one in Belfast. This created the Irish Free State, ruled by the Dublin parliament, but nominally still under the British crown. It also left Northern Ireland part of the UK. Violence escalates as Catholics oppose partition.

Civil War (1922-23)

Several different conflicts were touched off by World War I. All pailed in the comparioson with the War itself, but several were quite large, such as the Russian Civil War. The Irish Civil War was one of the smaller of these conflicts. Only about 3,000 people were killed during the height of the violence, about a 1 year period (June 28, 1922 - May 24, 1923). This was less than the death toll during a week on the western front when major battles were not being fought. But Ireland was a small country and major issues in human history have not infrequently been resolved by relatively small bttles. The Irish Civil War (Cogadh Cathartha na h�ireann) followed the War of Independence launched by the Easter Rebellion and began with the establishment of the Irish Free State, a compromise entity which was independent from Britain but still within the British Empire. The conflict involved two opposing factions of Irish republicans who differed over the the Anglo-Irish Treaty which brought the Irish Free State into existence. The adherents of the Provisional Government (which officially became the Free State in December 1922) supported the Treaty. The Republican opposition saw the Treaty as a betrayal of the Irish Republic as proclaimed during the Easter Rising. Many of the combatantants in the Civil War had fought together as comrads in the Irish Republican Army (IRA) during the War of Independence. The Irish Civil War determined the nature of independent Ireland and the relationship with Britain. Spymaster Michael Collins who had played a central role in brining Britain to the negotiating table become President of the Irish Republican Brotherhood eventually accepted the British offer knowing it was the best deal he could get at the time. He calculated that independence would eventually follow. He also realized that there would be a terrible reaction among his former colleagues. The Free State forces prevailed in large part because of the heavuy weapons s provided by the British. The conflict resulted in higher losses than the War of Independence against the British. The result was the creation of the Irish Free State which eventually became the Irish Republic. There was considerable Catholic opposition to partition in both the Irish Free State and Ulster. An IRA faction opposing an end to the armed struggle without gaining Ulster assasinated Collins. The provisional Irish Government eventually supresses the IRA violence. More than 1,000 IRA supporters were arrested asnd inprisoned without trial. The Civil War generated the intense emotions that often acompanies civil war. It left Irish society divided and embittered for generations. The wounds inflicted during the Civil War would surface again during terrible The Trobles i Northern Irelans (1970s-80s). The two main political parties in modern Ireland, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, are the descendants of the opposing factions in the Civil war. Partition was an established fact at onset of the Civil War, but the conflict in the South made reunification a remote possibility.


The history of Ulster was essentially the same as the rest of the island until the Irish Plntations (17th century). The introduction of Scotts Protestant into the north helped estabivelish a distinctness that resulted in a very different hidtorical experiernce. The Protestants resisted King James II in his effort to recli hisd throne and unlike the Catholic South showed no desore to separate from the rest of Britain. The majority Protestant province of Ulster or Northern Ireland remained part of the United Kingsom rather than joining the Irish Free State. . The British insisted on boundary lines that insured a strong Protestant masjority. The Ulster Government was partially self-governing and from the beginning treated Cathlolics as second-class citizens. The Protestants became known as Unionists, meaning they wanted to retain ties with Britain. The Catholics became known as Nationlists meaning they wanted union with the rest of Ireland. Ulster was an unstble creation. About 70 percent of Ulster were Protestants, but the 30 percent Catholic minority had no real loyalty to the state and wanted to join the Irish Free State.

World War II (1939-45)

Ireland was neutral during World war II. It was still technically a member of the British Empire. The Irish Republican Army (IRA) fought a vicious guerilla war against the British (early 1920s). The campaign was led by Michael Collins who was later assinated when he negotiated a settlement with Britain. Eamon de Valera who opposed the settlement became president of the Irish Free State. At the time that war broke out, the Irish Free State was moving toward independemce. There was considerable bitterness about continued British control of Ulster--the primary reason for Collin's assasination. The IRA conducted a bombing campaign in London (Summer 1939). The Irish government denied responsibility for IRA actions. With the outbreak of war (September 1939), there was no desire to join with Britain to fight the NAZIs. There was great anti-British sentiment combined with the memories of losses during the last war. There was even some sentiment for the Germans, primarily a artifact of the anti-British feeling. The Irish government ignored reports of German attrocities. The Chamberlain Government considered offering Ireland Ulster and unification if Ireland joined the Allies. Ulster protestants were outraged. President Eamon de Valera at any rate rejected the offer. At the very end of the War de Valera sent condolences to the Germany government upon Hitler's death.

The Troubles in Ulster

Since World War II most violent conflicts have occurred in the Third World. An exception to this was the conflict between Catholics and Protestants. The conflict has been described as the last religious war in Europe. It also has the halmarks of the tribal conflicts of Africa. The conflict is rooted in the centuries old effort of England to control Ireland. A vicious independence struggle and civil war occurred in Ireland after World War, resulting in the creation of the Irish Free State which eventually became the Irish Republic. The majority Protestant province of Ulster or Northern Ireland remained part of the United Kingsom. The Ulster Government treated Cathlolics as second-class citizens. A civil rights movement began in the 1960s, but unlike the American Civil Rights movement, the conflict in Ireland led by the Orish Republican Army turned violent, resulting in three decades of killings and reprisals. The British attempted to prevent the violence, but soon became seen as favoring the Protestants by most Catholics. The Irish seemed to have turned the corner on this and a peace process seems to have ended the violence, although there is still considerable ill will between the two communities.

Celtic Tiger Economy (1995-2005)

Ireland after independence was a quiet, backwater of Europe. It comntinued to be reltivly poor with income levels well below English and other prpsperous Western European countries. And as a result, the Irish continued to emigrate in search of decent paying jobs even after World War II. One author describes Dublin in the 1950s, "I have to make a mental effort to remember the Dublin of the 1950s, which is in many ways a Third World city," recalls Garvin. "Horses, no motorcars, children in bare feet, dirt everywhere, people living in slums, no television, no bathrooms - a really impoverished European country that really didn't seem to be going anywhere." [Gavin] Since the 1840s Potato famine, Ireland had one principal export--its people. The population of the Republic is about 3.5 million and with Ulster added on, the total population is only about 4.0 million. Yet an astonishing 70 million people in American and oher countries identify as being Irish. No other small country has such a huge diaspora abroad. In recent years the emigration has finally declined and when rising immigration, the popiulation flow balance has shifted. Some of the new immigrants are indiuviduals of Irish ancestry returning to the Old Sod. The reason is that Ireland has become the Celtic Tiger--a reference to the Asian Tigers--countries which adopted free markets economics and created roaring economies. All of a sudden high-tech companies began springing up in villages that were previously dieing. The town of Leixlip in County Kildare, is famous as the birthplace of Guinness beer. But prosperity in Leixlip now comes from Intel, which built a $5 billion plsant there. But many smaller compsanies are active. Ireland has become a leading exporter of computer software. Ireland was never industrialized like England. As a result, the country with a basicvally pristine environment is mocing from a largely agricultural economy directly into the information technology era. Many of us were apsauled by rank McCourt's description of Limerick in Angela's Ashes. He came to America because jobs were so difficult to find. Now Limerick workers are making computers. The recipie for Ireland's success is fairly simple--the same recipie used by other modern success stories. A shift away from socialism toward a business friendly environment and low taxes. The European Union Transfer Psayment to poor countries may have been a factor, but some econonmists believe they were inefficent sand even counter productive. Most economists do believe that Government subsidies and investment capital did play an important role. Here the IDA was particularly important. Major American corporations (Dell, Intel, and Microsoft) were attracted to Ireland. Many of these companies were fleeing California's Silicon Valley because of California's policies which punish business ans businessmen. European Union membership meant that production had access to the emnernse EU market. Entreprise Ireland, another a state agency in business friendfly Ireland, provides financial, technical and social support to start-up businesses. Following the U.S. investments, the International Financial Services Centre in Dublin led to the creation of many high-paying jobs in the expanding financial sector. [Flanigan] And as strange as it may seem, these policies have resulted in greater tax reveue that the Government can use to address social problems. And of course the jobs created help solve many of those social problems by raising per capita income. A well educated population and an English speaking work force were also important factors. Americans will no doubt note that the policies that Ireland followed are just the oposite what the now bsankrupt state of California followed. Of course, Ireland was not imune from the worldwide 2008-09 recession. But the increasingly diversified Irish economy is well position for the future.


Charles-Edwards, Thomas. Early Christian Ireland (Cambridge, 2000).

Flanigan, James. "Entrepreneurship takes off in Ireland," The New York Times (January 17, 2008).

Garvin, Tom.

Hegarty, Neil, The Stry of Ireland: A History of the Irish People (2012).

Hittle, J.E.B. Michael Collins and the Anglo-Irush War: Britain's Counterinsurgency Failure (2011), 336p..


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Created: 5:33 PM 11/21/2007
Last updated: 11:29 PM 12/29/2023