A Not-So-Brief History of Ireland

Posted on
Oct 29, 2012

Sculpture at Castle Leslie, near the border of Ireland and Northern Ireland.

If my recent posts have seemed more pithy than usual, it is because I am skirting around an issue that I’m not sure I have the blogging chops to tackle, and talking about banal things like cryptic showers and trendy restaurants is far easier.

Hell, writing about how I turned my bathroom into a vomitorium (in one easy step!) is easier than tackling this.

But I really can’t keep avoiding it, since I can’t fully tell you about our visit to Ireland without addressing its history.

That’s right: today’s post will be an incredibly long, dull, and somewhat inaccurate history lesson. I’ll be discussing the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland, and I might touch on the issue of The Troubles, if my brain isn’t too scrambled.

Let me say right now: I’m going to do a crap job of explaining it. I just am. There’s no way around this. I took a bunch of tours, I read a bunch of articles, and we even visited the Northern Irish Parliament. I spoke for long hours with individuals from both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. I got a rudimentary understanding of the island’s history, and how things are now, and I want to share it with you.

But it’s probably going to be woefully wrong. Feel free to call me out on anything I really muck up. And feel free to openly disagree with me. Ireland’s history is not an impartial one – even for an outsider, even for a self-proclaimed recovering Catholic who is happily married to a non-practicing Jewish man – it’s virtually impossible not to put your own spin on things.

And so, with all those caveats and disclaimers, here we go.

There are currently several places in Europe with “Ireland” in their name.

One is The Republic of Ireland. It is its own sovereign state, and part of the European Union. Citizens have passports that read “Republic of Ireland”. The country is part of the European Union, and the currency is the Euro. It consists of  26 counties, which make up the major part of the large island commonly referred to as Ireland.

The other is Northern Ireland. It makes up the northern portion of the island, and shares a border with the Republic of Ireland. The six counties of Northern Ireland are part of the United Kingdom. The residents there are British citizens (though that statement is up for debate amongst some who live there; more on that later). Though part of the U.K., Northern Ireland has its own local government and is largely autonomous. However, there are limits on what the Northern Irish Parliament can do – for example, they can’t declare war, or pass any laws with regards to foreign states (no signing of treaties or anything like that).

The Republic of Ireland is outlined in pink. Northern Ireland is at the top right. Notice there are parts of the Republic which actually extend further north than Northern Ireland. Contrary to popular belief, this was NOT done just to screw with cartographers.

How did this all come to pass? For that, we’ll have to go back in time a little.

Make that waaaay back in time. 1166, to be specific. This was the year of the Norman invasion, when England took over the island of Ireland (derived from the name given to the island by the Romans – Hiberne, meaning “land of endless winter”. According to one tour guide I had, that’s why the Romans never tried to conquer Ireland. It was waaay too cold for togas).

Prior to the Norman Invasion, Ireland was divided into regions led by local kings (or “petty kings” as they are often referred, but that term sounds judgmental to me). The local kings were all fighting for control of the entire island.

King Henry the II of England was worried that if all the fighting within Ireland ended and a single king emerged, he’d have a new, viable threat to contend with, so he headed out to gain control of the island.

This was how the entire island of Ireland (all 32 counties – encompassing present day Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland) came to fall under British rule. The Brits were fairly laissez-faire about Ireland until the reign of Henry the VIII.

Speaking of Henry, here’s something Medieval-type thingy going on at the Tower of London.

Henry’s wishes to have his first marriage (which produced a daughter, Mary, but no male heir) annulled led to his split with the Catholic Church, and brought about the Reformation. As a result, England became a largely Protestant nation.

The Reformation didn’t quite catch on over in Ireland; folks there were, and remained, Catholic. Henry was not down with that, and so he sent a large number of Protestant settlers over to Ireland. They displaced the Catholic landowners, and as numerous new regions were created, populated entirely by the Protestant settlers, they were able to overthrow the Catholic majority in the Irish Parliament, and eventually banned Catholics from Parliament altogether.

Meanwhile, back in England, Henry went through several more wives and went from being rather charismatic and handsome (if The Tudors is to be believed. Frankly, HBO has lied to me before. New York is nothing like Sex and the City made it out to be) to looking just a weensy bit like Jabba, minus the sex appeal. He died, and Mary, his estranged Catholic daughter from his first marriage, took the throne.

During her reign, she went about killing a lot of Protestants and earned herself the nickname “Bloody Mary”. (I realize that statement sounds like I’m judging her, and I’m not. I’m sure she had her reasons to go about murdering a bunch of people because their take on Christianity was slightly different than hers.)

Because getting really drunk is apparently a lot like being killed for your religious beliefs, the hungover can now enjoy a drink named a Bloody Mary. (Look, if you have a better explanation than that, I want to hear it.)

After Mary died, her Protestant half-sister, Elizabeth, took the throne, and went about undoing a lot of Mary’s work (though she was less into systematic murdering than Mary, so she mostly just reinstated a bunch of laws). She was on the throne for more than forty years, and while there is no cocktail named in her honor, she was able to tie the Protestant Church to England’s national identity.

Several centuries later, Judi Dench portrayed her opposite Colin Firth, and IT WAS AWESOME.

After a thousand words, let’s do a brief recap: we’ve got Ireland, populated largely by Catholics, but ruled over by a small group of Protestants (on behalf of the crown), and we’ve got England, largely populated and ruled by Protestants. And we’ve got a lot of bad blood on both sides.

So, the tension and animosity continued for quite a while. Like, a few hundred years. In Ireland, there were a bunch of laws on the books that limited the rights of Catholics. Many of these were not repealed until a lawyer named Daniel O’Connell founded the Catholic Association in the 1820s. By mobilizing a base, they were able to get the Catholic Relief Act of 1829 passed.

Statue of Daniel O’Connell in Dublin’s city hall.

So now Catholics could hold office in Ireland (but only wealthy Catholics could vote – a concession of the agreement).  This was the start of the push for Home Rule in Ireland.

At this time, there were two distinct groups within Ireland, largely determined by religion. There were Unionists, who identified themselves as British, and wanted to continue being united with Britain (this group was predominately Protestant). And there were Nationalists, who wanted Ireland to be its own nation (and were predominately Catholic).

(Obviously, there are exceptions to this huge generalization I’ve made, and there were much smaller groups within these larger ones, but I’m not going to go into that right now for the sake of my own sanity and my limited understanding of the issue. Feel free to elaborate/correct my statements in the comments. But for the love of Pete, be merciful.)

Home Rule was what many Nationalists were seeking up until WWI (a few bills were drafted, but weren’t passed into law by the U.K. government). Home Rule means that while you are still part of a larger country (in this case, the United Kingdom), you are basically self-governed.  The government of Scotland (while still technically part of the U.K.) falls under Home Rule. And many people consider the individual fifty states to be under home rule of the United States (though I would argue that’s a bit different).

Just when the plans for Home Rule seemed to be making some headway with the U.K., WWI broke out, and things were placed on the back burner. Britain was greatly preoccupied with the war effort, and during Easter of 1916, a few Nationalists in Ireland saw an opportunity.

The leaders of a handful of different Nationalist groups banded together and drafted a Proclamation (known as the Easter Proclamation) which declared Ireland’s independence from the U.K. It was read aloud on one of the main thoroughfares in Dublin. This marked the beginnings of the Easter Rising.

It didn’t quite go as planned. Although there was a lot of support for the idea of being separate from the U.K. among Nationalist groups in Ireland, there wasn’t one unifying group to bind them all together. And many folks were still pursuing Home Rule, which had almost been attained. More than 200,000 Irishmen were also fighting in WWI as part of the U.K. Things were not calm at home to begin with, and now a small group had declared independence, but it wasn’t a widespread, coordinated effort.

For a lot of folks, it meant that they simply woke up, saw a great deal of fighting and bloodshed in the streets, and were suitably horrified. They weren’t about to take up arms and fight, because it wasn’t even clear what the hell was going on.

After a few weeks, the uprising came to an end. Hundreds of people had died, and there were many civilian casualties, as the fighting had happened on city streets. Dozens were imprisoned (including a man by the name of Eamon de Valera, who went on to be one of the most important political figures in Ireland. More on him later). The leaders of the uprising who had signed the document were tried and sentenced to death.

Initially, the uprising had little support in either Ireland or England (those pushing for Home Rule felt that the uprising had damaged all the headway they had made). But the treatment of the prisoners was so terrible, and the execution of the Easter Rising leaders so brutal (one man, James Connolly, was so ill from his wounds, that he was unable to stand in front of the firing squad. So they brought him a chair, but he was too ill even to sit. So they tied him to a chair and then shot him. Another leader of the uprising was allowed to marry his fiance the day prior to his execution. His bride, Grace Gifford, went from being a wife to a widow in the span of 24 hours), that by the time the rest of the prisoners were released, the Irish public opinion had turned in their favor.

The spot where James Connolly was executed.

Okay – we’ve nearly hit 2,000 words. Are you still with me? After initially castigating them, The Irish public has now sided with the individuals who took part in the Easter Rising. Ireland was still a part of the U.K. There were Unionists in the north, who wished to remain part of the U.K., and there were Nationalists pretty much everywhere else, who did not.

This led to much more cohesiveness among Nationalist groups in Ireland. Several groups came together under the title of Sinn Féin – a political party which had already existed prior to the Easter Rising, but hadn’t been nearly as strong or large as it now was. The party was able to take control of Irish Parliament, winning 73 of Ireland’s 105 seats in the 1918 election (Sinn Féin continued to be a minority in Ulster, to the north, where seats were still controlled by Unionists.) Rather than meet in Westminster, representatives (known as MPs) set up their own Parliament in Ireland and met there. This new Parliament was known as the First Dáil.

The Ulster Unionists did not join them.

Now the Irish Nationalists had a cohesive party and significant control of Irish Parliament. They were able to better pursue the goal of Ireland as a sovereign nation. In 1919, Sinn Féin once again repeated the Declaration of Independence originally made during the Easter Rising, and noted that it considered Ireland to be at war with England. The Irish Republican Army emerged during this time, as a means of taking a militant stand against what they considered to be British occupation.

Thus began the Irish War of Independence, which ended in a truce two years later. Per the terms of the Treaty, the six predominantly Protestant Unionist counties to the north voted on whether they wanted to be part of the new Irish Republic. They stuck with the U.K.

In December, 1921, The treaty was signed by several of the members of the Irish Parliament – most notably, a gentleman by the name of Michael Collins – who were supposedly representing the interests of all Irish Nationalists.

The 26 southern counties of Ireland were now a free state.

There was a problem, though. Not all the Nationalists – indeed, not all the members of the First Dáil – agreed with the treaty. They wanted a unified Ireland – one that included the six counties to the north. Eamon de Valera, one of the men imprisoned during the Easter Rising, was anti-Treaty, and he had many supporters. They felt that signatories of the Treaty had forced them into an agreement that they didn’t support. (Though Michael Collins would argue that Eamon de Valera had sent him to sign the treaty, knowing that Collins would face the backlash for it).

The growing anger between those who were Anti-Treaty (Eamon de Valera and the Irish Republican Army) and those who were Pro-Treaty (Michael Collins and others), led to the Irish Civil War.

The Civil War went on for a year – ending in May, 1923 – and arguably killed more people than the Anglo-Irish War (Michael Collins was among the casualties).

The war between the Nationalist factions in Ireland left deep wounds that lasted for generations. The only thing it seemed to accomplish was that it gave Northern Ireland time to consolidate itself – the six counties that were still part of the U.K. wanted nothing to do with the new republic.

By the 1950s, things had more or less calmed down in the Republic of Ireland. Eamon de Valera was now a key political figure, serving several terms as President.

But in Northern Ireland, the Troubles were just beginning. Literally.

Aaaand … you know what? I’m exhausted. If you are somehow still reading this, I suspect you’re probably knackered, too. The Troubles were a significant part of Northern Irish history in the 1900s, and pertain directly to many of the places we visited in Belfast. They deserve their own blog post. So I’ll tackle that issue later in the week.

In the meantime, I hope this post, despite what I’m sure were some glaring omissions and errors, gave a smidgen of insight into what happened in Ireland over the last century or so. It would be near impossible to discuss anything we saw without first laying out this groundwork.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need a whiskey. And possibly some toffees.

Leave a Comment

  • I’m sure this post caused the eyes of some otherwise stalwart Everywhereist followers to glaze over, but I completely understand why you HAD to do this post. I have been blogging about a trip to the Irish Republic in May and it is impossible not to devote more space than usual to the history which just hangs over the place, informing much of what you see and feel. I tried to incorporate relevant history into each post. I’d be curious to know if you think I succeeded in that endeavor.

  • Colleen

    That was so much more fun than reading about it somewhere online. I can’t wait to hear about ‘The Troubles’, which continued until the 1990s (or at least that’s what I remember being a kid).

  • Mark Davidson

    A good summary!

    One thing that you haven’t mentioned is the intensity of hatred and the depths of bitterness running through all these conflicts.

    Also many, many Irish rebellions over the centuries, which were put down with great harshness. And Oliver Cromwell, and King William and the Battle of the Boyne, and…

    But it’s difficult to write about centuries of messy and complex history in one short article.

    • Everywhereist

      Totally right on that point – I skipped over a lot of the ugliness. Particularly the Great Famine – the details of which I had never understood up until I visited Ireland.

  • Liz Randal

    Thjank you for writing this! My God, my husband and I have wondered for YEARS what the hell it was all about, esp. while watching vidlit and other PBS programs. So confusing. Carry on!

  • Andres.Red

    Great post, I loved the history lesson it was a great way to summarize the history of Ireland.

  • Kyla

    If you want to gain a better idea of the conflict without reading some boring articles, there is also a 1996 movie called Michael Collins which I actually watched while visiting Ireland. I thought it was very interesting and it stars Liam Neeson.

    And I realize he technically wasn’t even old enough to reign when Henry VIII died and didn’t really accomplish anything during his “reign” but Henry did have a son, Edward VI who took the throne between his father and Mary. I just wanted to clarify that since you insinuated that Mary took the throne immediately after her father’s death.

    Overall a good summarization of a very complex history.

    • Everywhereist

      Rand and I really need to rent Michael Collins. So many people recommended it to us.

      And yes, you are right – Mary’s half-brother reigned for a bit. I kind of skipped over him, since the wee lad seemed a bit inconsequential. Thanks so much for reminding me of him!

  • I would be curious to hear what people in Belfast are saying these days, as I haven’t heard much about the area recently. Still surprises me that Northern Ireland is not independent.

  • Better than Wikipedia.

  • James

    As someone born and bred in Belfast I can say this is a very good summary. Really looking forward to your post about The Troubles ( I was 5 at the time that the 1994 ceasefire was declared)

  • Claire

    Well done, really good summary. I’m Irish, from the republic, and this is the first time I have read such a concise and easy description of the country’s history. Also, a lot more fun than the many history classes on Irish history I daydreamed my way through in school!

  • Melissa

    Really enjoyed this–thanks! It certainly held my attention; looking forward to part two : )

  • At first glance I was a bit intimidated by the length of the blog post but became so wrapped up in reading that it ended up feeling rather short. I’ve read a few books and seen movies about Henry XIII and Queen Elizabeth I but it was interesting to read about things from the perspective of the Irish. You did a really great job and I’m looking forward to your followup blog posts. In addition to covering The Troubles could you possibly touch on the the famine? You mentioned it but didn’t go into detail and now I’m curious.

  • More! More!

  • Damien

    Great post, a history in a page is no easy task. You might have to dig a bit into the Williamite Wars for the troubles post though. Its still a massive point of focus over here.

  • Linda

    You did a fantastic job condensing and making it easy to understand. On a lighter side, you really should watch “Waking Ned Devine.” It’s not Irish history, but is a incredibly fun especially with a bottle of wine. It will surely soothe your head.

  • Took my two kids–16 and 6–to Ireland in the summer of 1987, where we self-toured. When we crossed the borders from southern Ireland, into the north, the guard approached and asked what the nature of our business was “in the South–business or pleasure?” When I answered “Pleasure,” he answered in a snarky tone: “Why would you ever do that?”

    Now, we didn’t find out til hours later that a bomb had exploded in that selfsame border crossing (I won’t hasten a guess as to why THAT particular station was chosen.) But I recall the uniformed man’s attitude–total hostility,

    As we coursed along, I saw dramatic difference–vast estates, beautfully-groomed, signature Brit. power, in direct contrast to small but charming thatched huts of the “real Irish” in the South. Those idyllic cottages are hardly charming in the cold winter blasts.

    The visual differences were astounding and told a great deal…Thx for the long-ish capsule summary. Good reading.

  • kokopuff

    I hope to get to Ireland (supposedly my home country, I’m adopted, so I have to take a lot of my personal history as mostly fiction with some truth sprinkled in) and this summary was VERY good. On a total derail, I though that first picture you posted was a giant cabbage until I scrolled down a bit.

  • I think you did a great job! I’m learning, and it’s not boring. That’s always a great. Looking forward to The Troubles. Sounds ominous.

  • Ah me darlin’ lass –
    You told your tale with the wit of a true son of the sod and the brevity of a Irish barman. Well said.
    My Great Grandfather Danial would be proud.

  • Anisa

    Wonderful job. You summed it up very well. I am looking forward to more of your posts.
    Especially any pertaining to your Ireland trip. Ireland is one of my all time favorite places to visit.
    I miss it and can’t wait until I can return.

  • Laura

    Fair play! I’m from Dublin, born and bred, and have studied Irish history all through school and college and that is a very decent, balanced and entertaining summary of why Ireland is the way it is without getting bogged down in the nitty gritty or personal politics.

    You earned that whiskey!

  • Ned of the Hill

    Domonick Behan, brother of Irish Poet/Playright/Author Brendan Behan wrote a few very simple but poignant and witty verses recounting his opinion on a selection of significant incidents in Irelands history, and he called it ‘The Sea that Surrounds Us’, here are a couple of lines

    The Danes came to Ireland with nothing to do (Viking invasions of Ireland circa 890 – 1030AD)
    Except dream of the plunder old Ireland lay slew
    Well, ‘You will in your Viking’, says King Brian Brú
    And he drove them back into the ocean

    Two foreign auld monarch’s in battle did join (Battle of the Boyne 1691) Each wanting his head on the back of a coin
    If the Irish had sence they’d have drowned both in the Boyne
    And partition throw into the ocean

    The sea, Oh the sea, Grá geal mo craoí (bright love of my heart)
    Long may it stay between England and me
    It’s a sure guarantee that somehow we’ll be free
    I’m glad we’re surrounded by water

    The Scots have their poets the Welsh have their leek (leek: vegitable, symbol of Wales)
    Their poets are paid about ten cents a week
    Provided no harsh words on England they speak
    Oh lord! what a price for devotion (reference to the Scottish & Welsh pacification)

  • Joe Robison

    I’ve been reading this stuff for years, and this is a very good casual synopsis that could be a Wikipedia entry in it’s own right! Ireland truly is a terrible beauty as they say, but the spirit and joy of the people in general shines through it all.

  • Can I recommend a page which offers an interactive visualisation of Irish history through images released by the Irish National Archive? They are juxtaposed with the same scenes today to illustrate how Ireland has changed and how it has stayed the same.


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