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Irish stories of famine, mass emigration, division and struggle have entered the collective consciousness of the western world, often eliciting a sympathetic response. When I first thought about travelling to Ireland, I realized that my knowledge of the country, its culture and history was rather piecemeal and uncertain, so much so that in order to plan the trip I had to gather a lot of information. However, at the beginning of my journey, I was concerned that I hadn’t gained enough understanding or insight to support my visit.
Fortunately, my two week long trip became a memorable visit thanks to the many fantastic Irish people who hosted me and offered me a valuable insight into the country. Of course, the fact that the August weather was just about ‘Irish perfect’ made my appreciation of the incredible landscapes even more memorable.
For this visit, I decided to write three blogs: one introducing the island’s history and natural landscapes; one briefly presenting some of the urban landscapes and one addressing historical monuments. Contrary to my usual practice of writing synoptic historical notes, I felt that those about Ireland called for the inclusion of key details needed to address its historical complexity.
History to partition
Evidence indicates that Neolithic settlers reached Ireland around 6500 years ago and introduced cereal (wheat and barley) cultivation as well as stone housing and monuments.
During the Iron Age a Celtic language and culture emerged on the island; its origin and development (including the ogham script) is still a subject of debate amongst archaeological historians. Some early historical information is contained in the writing of Ptolemy (~100 CE) while the presence of Roman coins on the island indicates contacts with the occupants of the territories of the Roman Empire.
The ‘Chronicle of Ireland’ records that Bishop Palladius arrived in Ireland in 431 CE, that Saint Patrick arrived the following year and that the older Druid tradition gradually collapsed in the face of the new religion.
In the monastic culture that followed the Christianisation of Ireland, Latin and Greek learning was preserved throughout the Early Middle Ages, in contrast to elsewhere in Europe. The arts of manuscript illumination, metalworking, and sculpture flourished and produced treasures such as the Book of Kells, ornate jewellery and the many carved stone crosses that still dot the island today. A mission founded in 563 on Iona by the Irish monk Saint Columba began a tradition of Irish missionary work in Scotland, England and the Frankish Empire.
Although historical records indicate the presence of a “High King” of Ireland beginning in about the 7th century CE, the achievement of a unified kingdom is uncertain. From the 9th century, waves of Viking raiders plundered Irish monasteries and towns and established coastal settlements (Dublin, Limerick, Cork, Wexford,Waterford, etc.).
The Irish king Dermot Mac Murrough sought the assistance of the Angevin king of England, Henry II, in recapturing his kingdom. In 1171 Henry successfully imposed his authority over Strongbow and the Cambro-Norman warlords and persuaded many of the Irish kings to accept him as their overlord; an arrangement confirmed in the 1175 Treaty of Windsor. In 1172, the new pope, Alexander III, further encouraged Henry to advance the integration of the Irish Church with Rome. Henry accepted the title of Lord of Ireland (later conferred on his son in 1185) and this defined the Irish state as the Lordship of Ireland. In 1199, John inherited the crown of England and retained the Lordship of Ireland.
By the late 13th century the Norman-Irish had established a feudal system throughout much of Ireland. Norman settlements were characterised by the establishment of baronies, manors and towns. The ‘Great Charter of Ireland’ was published in 1216 and the Parliament of Ireland was founded in 1297.
By the end of the 15th century central English authority in Ireland had all but disappeared and a renewed Irish culture and language, albeit with Norman influences, was dominant again. English Crown control remained in a foothold around Dublin known as The Pale.
The title of King of Ireland was re-created in 1542 by Henry VIII, the Tudor King of England and English rule of law was reinforced and expanded in Ireland during the latter part of the 16th century following the Nine Years’ War and the Flight of the Earls.
Since the Irish Rebellion of 1641, most of Ireland had been under the control of the Irish Catholic Confederation. In early 1649 the Confederates allied with the English Royalists. By 1652, Cromwell’s Parliamentarian army had defeated the coalition and occupied the country—bringing to an end the Irish Confederate Wars (or Eleven Years’ War). Cromwell passed a series of Penal Laws against Roman Catholics (the vast majority of the population) and confiscated large amounts of their land.
With the victory of the forces of the dual monarchy of William III (of Orange) and Mary over the Jacobites (James II), Roman Catholics and nonconforming Protestant Dissenters were barred from sitting as members in the Irish Parliament and later on deprived of various civil rights in favour of the new ruling class of Anglican conformists (the Protestant Ascendancy).
The famine of 1740, caused by a climatic shock known as the “Great Frost”, deeply affected the Irish population and about one in eight of the population of 2M died from pestilence and disease.
In 1782 the Poynings’ Law was repealed, giving Ireland broad legislative independence from Great Britain for the first time since 1495. However, in 1798, members of the Protestant Dissenter tradition and Roman Catholics joined forces in an unsuccessful republican rebellion which quickly lead to both parliaments passing the “Acts of Union” (1801). The Act merged the Kingdom of Ireland and that of Great Britain with Ireland ruled directly by a united parliament at Westminster in London.
The introduction of the Acts of Union saw the rise of modern Irish nationalism, primarily among the Roman Catholic population. Daniel O’Connell was the pre-eminent Irish political figure of that time. Elected as Member of Parliament but unable to take his seat as a Roman Catholic, he spearheaded the campaign for the Catholic Relief Bill (1829) taken up by the Prime Minister, the Duke of Wellington. O’Connell also led an unsuccessful campaign for the repeal of the Acts of Union.
The Great Famine of the 1840s brought great upheaval to the island with the deaths of one million people, the emigration of over a million and the beginning of the civil unrest referred to as the “Land War”.
Later in the century, Charles Stewart Parnell and others campaigned for “Home Rule” or autonomy within the Union. Unionists, especially those located in Ulster, were strongly opposed to the proposal but, in 1914, it looked almost certain that the bill would pass. To prevent this from happening, the Ulster Volunteers had been formed in 1913 followed by the establishment of the opposing Irish Volunteers in 1914. The Act was passed but with the “temporary” exclusion of the six counties of Ulster. The Act was, however, suspended for the duration of WWI.
The suspension of the Act led to a split in the Irish Volunteers group. The National Volunteers under John Redmond supported Irish involvement in WWI, the small splinter group (which retained the Irish Volunteers’ name) opposed it.
The Irish Volunteers carried out the failed Easter Rising of 1916 in alliance with a smaller socialist militia, the Irish Citizen Army. The British response to the rising was the execution of fifteen of its leaders and imprisonment of more than a thousand people.
The repression, as well as the Conscription Crisis of 1918, increased the support for Irish republicanism and Sinn Féin (the pro-independence Republican Party) received overwhelming endorsement in the general election of 1918. In1919 a revolutionary proclamation established the Irish Republic with the setup of its own parliament (Dáil Éireann) and government. The Volunteers, which became the Irish Republican Army (IRA), launched a three-year guerrilla war, which ended in a truce in July 1921. In December 1921, the “Anglo-Irish Treaty” was concluded between the British Government and representatives of the Second Dáil. It gave Ireland complete independence in its home affairs and practical independence for foreign policy, but it allowed Northern Ireland to exercise an opt-out clause to remain within the United Kingdom, which it immediately endorsed.
The Treaty caused a split in the nationalist movement and a subsequent Irish Civil War between the new government of the Irish Free State and those opposed to the treaty, led by Éamon de Valera. The civil war officially ended in May 1923 when de Valera issued a cease-fire order.
The newly formed Irish Free State was initially governed by the victors of the civil war. When de Valera achieved power, he struggled to also achieve greater sovereignty, gradually he obtained the abolition of the “oath to the King” and in 1937 a new constitution was adopted. This process of gradual separation from the British Empire was not, however, concluded until 1949 when the state was officially declared the “Republic of Ireland”.
Northern Ireland become part of the United Kingdom through the “Government of Ireland Act 1920” and until 1972 it was a self-governing jurisdiction within the United Kingdom with its own parliament and prime minister.
Although Northern Ireland was largely spared the strife of the civil war, in the decades that followed partition there were sporadic episodes of internecine violence. Nationalists, mainly Roman Catholic, wanted a united republican Ireland, whereas unionists, mainly Protestant, wanted Northern Ireland to remain in the United Kingdom. Since Protestant and Catholic communities in Northern Ireland voted largely along sectarian lines, the Government of Northern Ireland was controlled by the Ulster Unionist Party. The minority Catholic community felt, over time, increasingly alienated and discriminated against.
In the late 1960s, nationalist grievances were aired publicly in mass civil rights protests, which were often confronted by loyalist counter-protests. The government’s reaction to confrontations was seen to be one-sided and heavy-handed in favour of unionists. Law and order broke down as unrest and internecine violence increased. The Northern Ireland government eventually requested the British Army to aid the police. In 1969, the paramilitary Provisional IRA, which favoured the creation of a united Ireland, emerged from a split in the Irish Republican Army and began a campaign against what it called the “British occupation of the six counties”.
Other groups, on both sides, participated in violence and a period known as “the Troubles” began. Over the subsequent three decades of conflict more than 3,600 people were killed. The British government suspended home rule in 1972 and imposed direct rule.
There were several unsuccessful attempts to end the Troubles politically, such as the Sunningdale Agreement of 1973. In 1998, following a ceasefire by the Provisional IRA and multi-party talks, the Good Friday Agreement (formally referred to as the Belfast Agreement) was concluded as a treaty between the British and Irish governments. The substance of the Agreement was later endorsed by referenda in both parts of Ireland.
The Agreement restored self-government to Northern Ireland on the basis of power-sharing in a regional Executive drawn from the major parties in a new Northern Ireland Assembly, with entrenched protections for the two main communities. The Executive is jointly headed by a First Minister and deputy First Minister drawn from the unionist and nationalist parties. Violence had decreased greatly after the Provisional IRA and loyalist ceasefires in 1994 and in 2005 the Provisional IRA announced the end of its armed campaign and an independent commission supervised its disarmament and that of other nationalist and unionist paramilitary organisations.
The Assembly and power-sharing Executive were suspended several times but were restored again in 2007. In that year the British government officially ended its military support of the police in Northern Ireland and began withdrawing troops. On 27 June 2012, in a symbolic reconciliation between the two sides, Northern Ireland’s deputy first minister and former IRA commander, Martin McGuinness, shook hands with Queen Elizabeth II in Belfast.
The Republic of Ireland
The Republic of Ireland is a parliamentary democracy based on the Westminster model with a written constitution and a popularly elected president who has mostly ceremonial powers. The Government is headed by a prime minister, the Taoiseach, who is appointed by the President on the nomination of the lower house of parliament, the Dáil. Members of the government are chosen from both the Dáil and the upper house of parliament, the Seanad. Its capital is Dublin.
Northern Ireland is a part of the United Kingdom with a local executive and assembly which exercise devolved powers. The executive is jointly headed by the first and deputy-first minister, with the ministries being allocated in proportion with each party’s representation in the assembly. Its capital is Belfast.
Northern Ireland elects 18 of the UK House of Commons’ 650 MPs. The Northern Ireland Secretary is a cabinet-level post in the British government.
Along with England and Wales and Scotland, Northern Ireland forms one of the three separate legal jurisdictions of the UK, all of which share the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom as their court of final appeal.
The Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland share an open border and both are part of the Common Travel Area. The two official languages are: Irish and English.