As everywhere, the first people in Ireland were hunters/gatherers. It is thought they arrived around 10,000 years ago. 4,000 years later, farming was introduced in Ireland. This led to the establishment of some fairly developed cultures. Remains of this are still to be seen today: Newgrange is a passage tomb located in the Boyne Valley in Ireland’s Ancient East. Its mound is 85m in diameter and 13m high, an area of about 1 acre. A passage measuring 19m leads into a chamber with 3 alcoves. The passage and chamber are aligned with the rising sun on the mornings around the Winter Solstice. This shows that the farmers of the Stone Age were very advanced astronomers and builders!
Celtic culture arrived around 300BC. It is not thought that this was not an invasion of new peoples, but rather the spread of the Celtic language, culture and trade. This was based on their mastery of producing iron, which replaced bronze as the material to manufacture tools, jewellery, and weapons from. The Irish language has evolved from Celtic, making it one of the oldest languages in the world.
The Romans never invaded Ireland, but there was plenty of contact with them. This was both peaceful – trade – and less peaceful – e.g. piracy. It was the latter that brought Patrick to Ireland. He was snatched from Britain and brought to Ireland as a slave. He did make it back to his homeland but returned to Ireland as a missionary. He was not the only one, but definitely the most famous. This was around 600 BC. Ireland took to the new religion. What was different from the Roman lands, was that Ireland did not have any cities. This was the reason why Ireland developed monasteries, which in time became centres of learning. The arts of manuscript illumination, metalworking and sculpture flourished and produced such treasures as the Book of Kells, ornate jewellery, and the many carved stone crosses that can still be seen across the country. When the Roman empire disintegrated, the Christian Church and its knowledge survived in Ireland thanks to these monasteries.
The monasteries also attracted the attention of the Vikings, who started to arrive at the end of the 8th century and during the 9th century Vikings. They did not just rob and pillage though; Vikings founded, Dublin, Ireland’s capital city in 988. As a matter of fact, most Irish cities started as Viking settlement. The Irish – for once – united against the invaders under Munster King Brian Boru, and at Clontarf in 1014 were defeated. Irish unity did not survive, however, and quickly returned to its former condition of competing kingdoms.
When one of these Kingdoms, Leinster, suffered a catastrophic defeat, its King allied himself with a Norman Welsh noble: Richard de Clare, 2nd Earl of Pembroke. He is better known as Strongbow. He helped the deposed King Diarmait Mac Murchada regain his throne. But after the latter’s death, Strongbow would become the de facto ruler of Leinster. He would not become King however as the Norman English King was growing restive of the growing power of his count. A compromise was reached, and as a result, Leinster became officially part of the Norman English King’s lands. Strongbow’s tomb is in Christchurch Cathedral in Dublin. The Normans would slowly increase their hold on Ireland and built walled towns, castles and churches. They also increased agriculture and commerce in Ireland. This culminated in King Henry VIII getting the Irish Parliament to declare him King of Ireland in 1541.
Henry already had declared himself head of the Church in England in 1534. From this time up to the late 17th century, an official English policy of ‘plantation’ led to the arrival of thousands of English and Scottish Protestant settlers. The most successful plantation occurred in Ulster. This, of course, led to a lot of conflict, which in turn caused the imposition of the harsh regime of Penal laws. These laws set about disempowering Catholics, denying them, for example, the right to take leases or own land above a certain value, outlawing Catholic clergy, forbidding higher education and entry to the professions, and imposing oaths of conformity to the state church, the Church of Ireland. By 1778 Catholics held only about 5% of the land in Ireland. At this stage, a wealthy, protestant, Anglo-Irish middle class had formed. Having lived in Ireland for generations, they were often said to be “more Irish than the Irish themselves”. They did not have much power either, with London controlling much of what was happening in Ireland. A Parliamentary faction led by Henry Grattan (an Anglo-Irish Protestant) successfully agitated for a more favourable trading relationship with England and for greater legislative independence for the Parliament of Ireland.
Union with Britain
Then the French Revolution broke out. This spooked the English rulers, esp. when in Ireland a movement called the United Irishmen was formed with the ideal of bringing Irish people of all religions together to reform and reduce Britain’s power in Ireland. Its leader was a young Dublin Protestant called Theobald Wolfe Tone. They attempted a failed rebellion in 1798. The movement never had a huge popular following, but the revolt was used an excuse to roll previous reforms back and in 1801 the Act of Union was passed uniting Ireland politically with Britain.
Growing political freedom in all of Britain allowed Daniel O’Connell to organise “monster” meetings and in getting the Act of Catholic Emancipation passed in the parliament in London. He succeeded in getting the total ban on voting by Catholics lifted and they could now also become Members of the Parliament in London. He did not succeed however to cancel the Act of Union and re-establish an Irish parliament.
The Great Famine
Potatoes were the staple food of a growing population at the time. When blight (a form of plant disease) struck potato crops nationwide in 1845, 1846 and 1847 disaster followed. Potatoes were inedible and people began to starve to death. The response of the British government also contributed to the disaster – trade agreements were still controlled by London. While hundreds of thousands of people were suffering from extreme hunger, Ireland was forced to export abundant harvests of wheat and dairy products to Britain and further overseas. It is estimated that between 1845 and 1851 one million people died and another million was forced to emigrate. This led to a chain reaction: large Irish communities in the USA, Canada, UK, Australia and New Zealand made it possible for others to follow in their footsteps. This is a process that still happens today! As a result, population numbers have never recovered: before the Famine, Ireland had had 8 million people Even today, the island of Ireland has less than 7 million.
The famine did lead to big changes in the balance of power in Ireland. Shortage of labour meant nobility needed to treat their people better. Political fallout also meant that – belatedly – Britain enacted legislation to buy out large estates and make it possible for Irish farmers to obtain rights to their own land. Then, a new party was formed, which became influential under Charles Stewart Parnell (1846-91). At the age of 31 he became the leader of the Irish Home Rule Party, which became the Irish Parliamentary Party in 1882. As its earlier name suggests, the party advocated a return to Home Rule, i.e. government by an Irish Parliament. He came very close, with an Act being adopted to implement Home Rule, only for it to be postponed due to the outbreak of the First World War. Many Irish nationalists believed that Home Rule would be granted after the war if they supported the British war effort. John Redmond, the new leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party encouraged people to join the British forces and many did join.
In Ulster (Northern Ireland) the majority of people were Protestants, and more importantly, identified themselves as separate from the Irish. At that stage, Northern Ireland was the richest part of the country, with Derry and Belfast being big industrial hubs. They were concerned that after Home Rule being granted, as a minority, their culture and wealth would be threatened. The Unionist Party was lead by Sir Edward Carson. Carson threatened an armed struggle for a separate Northern Ireland if independence was granted to Ireland.
Some nationalists did not agree with supporting the war effort. Instead, they saw Britain’s difficulties as an opportunity. On April 24 (Easter Monday) 1916, two groups of armed rebels, the Irish Volunteers and the Irish Citizen Army seized key locations in Dublin. The Irish Volunteers were led by Padraig Pearse and the Irish Citizen Army was led by James Connolly. Outside the GPO (General Post Office) in Dublin city centre, Padraig Pearse read the Proclamation of the Republic which declared the Irish Republic independent of Britain.
Battles ensued with casualties on both sides and among the civilian population. The Easter Rising finished on April 30th with the surrender of the rebels. The majority of the public was actually opposed to the Rising. However, public opinion turned when the British administration responded by executing many of the leaders and participants in the Rising. All seven signatories to the proclamation were executed including Pearse and Connolly.
The rebels re-organised under a new leader, Éamon de Valera. It took over the small Sinn Féin party until then led by Arthur Griffiths. In the December 1918 elections, the Sinn Féin party won a majority of the Ireland based seats of the House of Commons. On 21st January 1919 the Sinn Féin members of the House of Commons gathered in Dublin to form an Irish Republic parliament called Dáil Éireann, unilaterally declaring power over the entire island.
War of Independence
The new Irish government the Irish Republican Army which waged a guerilla war against British forces from 1919 to 1921. One of the key leaders of this war was Michael Collins. In December 1921 a treaty was signed by the Irish and British authorities. This treaty did not bring independence, but a large measure of autonomy, comparable to the Dominion status of Canada. It also left 6 Northern counties in the United Kingdom.
Michael Collins led the pro-Treaty side, whereas Eamon de Valera joined the anti-Treaty forces. The latter lost a new election but refused to accept the result. A Civil War followed from 1922 to 1923. The two – until recently main parties in Ireland have their roots in this struggle: Fine Gael (pro-treaty) and Fianna Fáil (anti-treaty). The predecessor of Fine Gael formed the first government and established the state.
Fine Gael lost heavily after the first election after the 1929 financial crash. A period of dominance by Fianna Fáil followed. They brought in a new constitution in 1937 and ensured Ireland stayed neutral in the Second World War. The party was also responsible for changes in economic policy. In the sixties, the economy was opened up leading to big foreign investments. These were however mostly in industries relying on low wages. Most of these businesses disappeared again during the economic crisis of the eighties. In this decade Ireland tilted successfully towards higher-value industries, such as finance, IT and medicines. These made Ireland a wealthy country. Fianna Fáil’s position as the pre-eminent party was however ended by another financial crash, that of 2008. Ireland needed a bailout from the European Union, which it has joined in 1973. It did bounce back very quickly after 2011 only to be hit by the global COVID pandemic in 2020.
Under the same Government of Ireland Act of 1920 that created the Irish Free State, the Parliament of Northern Ireland was created. The Parliament consisted of a majority of Protestants which ensured systematic discrimination against Catholics.
In 1968 Catholic civil rights marches in Northern Ireland led to violence. This period is known as “the Troubles” in which nationalist/republican and loyalist/unionist groups clashed.In 1969 British troops were sent to Derry and Belfast to maintain order and to protect the Catholic minority. However, the minority Catholic community considered the army to be a tool of the Protestant majority. This was not helped by events such as Bloody Sunday in 1972 when British forces opened fire on a Catholic civil rights march in Derry killing 13 people. An escalation of paramilitary violence followed with many atrocities committed by both sides. In the end, the British government ended Northern Irish autonomy and imposed direct rule.
The period of ‘the Troubles’ are generally agreed to have finished with the Belfast (or Good Friday) Agreement of April 10th 1998.
For a while, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Féin co-operated in government together. The last few years, however, the inability of both sides to compromise, has meant that Northern Ireland is yet again directly governed by London.
The instability has had big economic consequences. The old textile and shipbuilding industries have – as elsewhere in Europe – disappeared. The “Troubles” meant however that no replacement industries have developed and the economy is now heavily subsidised by the United Kingdom.