Ireland’s History



Ireland is beautiful – so beautiful that it is overwhelming.

It is blessed with natural beauty: beautiful land; abundant rivers, streams, harbors; hilltops and long views everywhere.

It is also blessed with what history has added: lovely villages, great ports, winding roads, castles and saved remnants of its proud past.

As the visitor moves from county to county, a few will ask: “What is Ireland’s history?”

The answer, of course, is complex – and every Irish man, woman and child proudly feels all the glory and all the pain. It is a rich heritage. And it is by no means monolithic.

Ireland’s heritage is conquest, first by Celts, then by Irish Kings, then by Vikings, then Anglo-Normans, and finally by English Kings. From conquest comes rebellion – the Irish are rebels to the core. With rebellion comes, way too frequently, crushing defeat and retribution.

In spite of this, using today’s lens, Ireland looks resilient and proud – the Irish always come back! And they look victorious – ultimately triumphing. It is an exciting history of leaders, their shifting lands, their shifting allegiances, treacheries and betrayals, and evolving forms of government and administration of justice.

The history below starts from the beginning. This overview starts from the end, today, and goes backward, from present-day Ireland to first evidence of human activity.

Today, Ireland is split into two – the Republic of Ireland (4.8 million population) and Northern Ireland (1.8 million). The split is the legacy of the Irish War of Independence in 1919-1922. It’s end culminated in this compromise, which neither side liked and which has been contentious ever since.

The Republic of Ireland in independent, and joined the EU in 1973. Northern Ireland is part of Great Britain. It was created in 1920, and the War of Independence left it unchanged.

From 1798 to 1922, Ireland lost population and failed to recover from two brutal events: the crushing defeat of the the Irish rebellion in 1798, and the devastating Potato Famine of 1846-1848. The English rulers were not kind during this period, and it exacerbated the simmering hatred that the Irish felt for the English.

Why such hatred? Because, from 1541 to 1798, the English attempted to impose their laws and customs, and the Irish resisted, and sometimes the resistance became open rebellion. These rebellions were often brutally crushed, and retribution was swift. The Irish hated them for it. The English brought to Ireland hated movements of all kinds. There were movements to take away Irish religion; to take away Irish land; to take away Irish rights; and to invoke cruel forms of genocide (for example, look at the history of the decimating Irish potato famine of 1846-8). Henry VIII kicked off this horrible period when he declared himself King of Ireland in 1541, with the Pope’s blessing.

From 1169 to 1541, England was in the hands of Anglo-Norman lords and Irish Kings. The lords were the result of the successful conquest of much of Ireland by “Strongbow”. The conquest began with his landing in 1169. Strongbow was himself an English Earl, but he brought with him a coalition of English and Normans.

From the eighth century until the end of the twelfth century – 400 years – Ireland was ruled by Irish Kings and Vikings. It was also a period of early christianity, with monasteries being built throughout the country. Viking influence faded as Irish Kings began to dominate.

Before the fifth century, Ireland was an island of farmers. Amazingly, the Island missed a period of Roman Empire domination. Historians have reported discussion by Roman leaders to invade Ireland, but those ideas were never implemented. As a result, Ireland is one of the few countries in Europe without legacies from the Roman Empire.

The intrigue, the conquest, the rebellion, the retribution: is Ireland, this small island of six million people, a microcosm of the world? Does it provide universal insights?

Possibly. Here are two:

Incentives to control land and expand reach are powerful.

The story of Ireland is a story of powerful men exploiting opportunities. Any Irish King, or Norman Lord, or English Kings encouraged loyalists to to form alliances which bound them to fight for land. Once victorious, the loyalist would bring that victory back to the King, add – more often than not – the King would grant that land back to the loyalist (Lord) who had conquered the land. This, of course, was only done with a pledge of continuing loyalty from the loyalist, and a pledge to give back to the king payments in the form of taxes, armies, or whatever the king required.

Conquest breeds resentment, and even hatred.

The story of Ireland is a story of conquest, followed by new rules and retribution for the conquered. We know change is hard, and culture change is the hardest of all. In all cases, imposed changes fostered resentment, and retribution, often harsh, bred hatred. When it.surfaced, it became rebellion.


Early Irish History
Ireland’s early settlers trace to about 10,000 years ago – a relatively late stage in European terms. Farming began around 4000 BC. Celts came to Ireland from mainland Europe around 300 BC. Ireland’s language. Irish (or Gaeilge), stems from Celtic language.

Early Christian and Viking Ireland – 600 AD
Saint Patrick and other missionaries brought Christianity in the early to mid-5th century, replacing the indigenous pagan religion by the year 600 AD. The Rock of Cashel stands today as a testimony to this long history of missionaries for Christ, led by Saint Patrick.

At the end of the 8th century, Vikings from Scandinavia began to invade and then gradually settle into and mix with Irish society. The Vikings founded Dublin, Ireland’s capital city in 988. Following the defeat of the Vikings by Brian Boru, the High King of Ireland, at Clontarf in 1014, Viking influence faded.

The Anglo-Norman Era and “Strongbow” – 1166
The English and Normans arrived in the twelfth century (1166), driving out the Vikings. They brought walled towns, castles, churches, and monasteries. They also increased agriculture and commerce in Ireland.

They were actually invited. The then-King of Leinster visited England and met with King Henry there, as well as many noblemen. His mission: garner support to retake his lands. The king demurred,, so he sought the support of Anglo-French noblemen in re-establishing his prior dominance (he had been badly defeated in a battle by the “High King of Ireland”, who was from Connaught).

Several noblemen offered help. They were led by the Earl of Pembroke, also known as Strongbow. Strongbow’s army landed in 1169 and quickly re-took Leinster.

Importantly, they went further and also defeated Dublin, exiling its Viking king. In 1171, the existing King of Leinster (Mac Murchada) died, and and Strongbow became King of Leinster.
The English King Henry decided to sail to Ireland in 1171. Strongbow pledged his loyalty to Henry, and every major Irish king did as well (other than O’Connor of Connacht and O’Neill in the north).

In the next period of years, the Anglo-Normans consolidated their new lands by building castles, setting up market towns and engaging in large-scale colonisation. Prince John arrived in Waterford in 1185 and initiated the building of a number of castles in the South East region. An example is Dungarvan Castle (King John’s Castle).

Importantly, the Anglo-Normans did not move the native Irish from their land in any major way.

Ireland became a Kingdom in 1199 with Papal approval. All English laws were extended to Ireland in 1210. By 1261, most of Ireland was ruled by Anglo-Norman lords, under the watchful eye of the King of England. This was to be short-lived.

In fact, by 1316, the King has essentially lost control of Ireland, except for Dublin. Cleverly, the few remaining Irish Kings (The Irish Lords in Ulster, O’Neill and O’Donnell) allied with Robert Bruce of Scotland, whose military prowess had become so legendary that he actually was crowned King of Scotland in 1314. With Bruce’s help, they together essentially defeated the Anglo-Normans in 1315. Edward Bruce was named King of Ireland until he was assassinated by Normans in 1318.

From 1261 to 1541, several major attempts were made by English Kings to regain control. Several invasions by English kings during this period were deeply resented by all locals, including the lords. They were hailed as successes at the time, but were also short-lived. By 1450, English control of Ireland had been reduced to Dublin.

Meanwhile, across centuries, many Norman lords and their ancestors essentially “went native” – increasingly adopting Irish customs and culture through inter-marriage, etc.

Anglo-Norman Feudalism – Counties, Liberties and Charters
The Irish adventure of English Kings can be best understood by studying incentives – the motives by which men went to war, to win land, and to then subjugate themselves to the King.

Before the “feudal” system of government and tex collection is discussed, a simple method of keeping score is useful. The score in questions is: how can you easily measure how much control England had at any given moment in time? The answer lies in counting how many of three. jurisdictions existed at any point in time:

“counties” were areas in Ireland that were under the complete control of the King and his feudal system.
Liberties were areas in Ireland that were loyal to the King, but did not participate in tributes to the king via feudal arrangements.
Charters were areas in Ireland that were independent of the King, completely under Irish Kings and Lords. However, importantly, these areas had treaties with the King that specified how they could co-exist.

Knowing this, the King had every incentive to create counties, which would pay taxes and pledge their allegiance to the Crown. The King’s men would conquer lands that were Charters, and make them Liberties or Counties. Then, they would slowly evolve any remaining Liberties to be Counties. This describes the first three centuries of evolving Irish Government. In 1250, vast majorities of northern Ireland were chartered lands, while counties were mostly strong on the east coast.

So how did it come to pass that Ireland was mostly counties by the 16th century?

The incentives for the warrior noblemen were enormous. The King, on seeing that Irish land had been conquered by his loyal subject, would frequently make a land grant back to that noblemen (mostly of the land that had just been conquered) – in return for feudal arrangements discussed below.

Anglo-Norman society was based on the “feudal” system of government, a standard practice though-out Europe in the day. Under this system, the king owned all land. He in turn granted it to Lords. In return, the Lords agreed to pay an annual “tribute” to the King. This could take the form of money, goods, or even armies in times of war.

The Lords, in turn, granted parcels of their lordships to peasants (ordinary people) in return for money, a soldier at time of war or some goods. Many lords set up market towns in their lordships to encourage trade and to convert goods into money. At the bottom of the hierarchy were landless peasants who were granted a plot of land on another peasant’s plot in return for manual labour on the farm.

The Irish system, by contrast, saw no overall ownership of land, but rather each individual Lord had absolute ownership of their land. The commoners worked on the Lord’s land in return for accommodation and food.
Peasants were granted land by a lord in return for annual payment of crops. The lords, in turn, were granted land by the King.

Henry VIII, “Plantations” – 1534
King Henry VIII declared himself head of the Church in England in 1534. He also ensured that the Irish Parliament declared him King of Ireland in 1541, with the support of the Pope.

There followed 250 years of brutality that culminated in a deep hatred by the Irish for the English.

From 1541 to 1798, Ireland had been in the grip of the English Crown. Those 250 years – from 1541 to 1798 – are scandalous, because the English brought to Ireland hated movements of all kinds. There were movements to change their religion (from Catholic to Anglican; to steal Irish land; to take away Irish rights; and in many ways to invoke on the Irish people a peculiar form of genocide (for example, look at the history of the decimating Irish potato famine of 1846-8). Henry VIII kicked off this horrible period when he declared himself King of Ireland in 1641, with the Pope’s blessing. The English brutally ruled from 1541 to 1798, and the Irish hated them for it.

Enforcing his will, to change England and Ireland from Catholic to Protestant (he named himself the head of the Anglican church), the King adopted a “plantation” policy. Under this policy, Protestants would get massive land grants, displacing Catholic land-holders. Thousands of English and Scottish Protestant settlers arrived during his reign. Catholics lost their land.

From this period on, a common theme became Irish rebellion followed by crushing defeat followed by retribution. The victors, England, understandably attempted to impose their will. In the process of doing so, though, it became a hated history – of depriving catholics of their land, and then their rights, and then their very lives.

Bloody 17th Century and “Penal Laws”
The 17th century was a bloody one in Ireland. England imposed the “Penal laws” on Ireland. These laws took away rights from Catholics. They took away the right, for example, to rent or own land above a certain value. They outlawed Catholic clergy,. They forbid Catholic higher education, entry into the professions. During the 18th century, Penal laws eased but by then resentment and hate dominated the country.

Defeated During Rebellion – 1798
In 1782, Henry Grattan (a Protestant) successfully agitated for a more favourable trading relationship with England and for greater legislative independence for the Parliament of Ireland. Inspired by the French Revolution, in 1791 an organisation 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. The United Irishmen were the inspiration for the armed rebellion of 1798. Despite attempts at help from the French the rebellion failed and in 1801 the Act of Union was passed uniting Ireland politically with Britain.

Catholic Emancipation and Daniel O’Connell – 1829
In 1829 one of Ireland’s greatest leaders Daniel O’Connell, known as ‘the great liberator’ was central 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.

After this success O’Connell aimed to cancel the Act of Union and re-establish an Irish parliament. However, this was a much bigger task and O’Connell’s approach of non-violence was not supported by all. Such political issues were overshadowed however by the worst disaster and tragedy in Irish history – the great famine.

The Great Famine – 1845 – 1847
When a potato blight destroyed the crops of 1845, 1846, and 1847, disaster followed. During this decade, Ireland’s population plummeted from 8 to 4 million. Two million died. Others left – seeking refuge in America. Potatoes were the staple food of a growing population at the time. The response of the British government also contributed to the disaster. While millions of people were starving, Ireland was forced to export abundant harvests of wheat and dairy products.

The famine brought death. But, with lasting consequences, it also brought resentment and more hate.

First Move to “Home Rule” defeated – 1877- Irish Home Rule Party and Charles Stewart Parnell
“Home Rule” became the cry of all who wanted self-government in Ireland. Until 1877, there was no effective challenge to Britain’s rule over Ireland. Then, at the age of 31, Charles Stewart Parnell (1846-91) became leader of the Irish Home Rule Party, which became the Irish Parliamentary Party in 1882.

Parnell failed to achieve Home Rule. For his efforts, though, he was widely recognised as ‘the uncrowned king of Ireland’. His efforts gave the idea of Home Rule legitimacy.

Irish Unionists – led by Sir Edward Carson in Northern Ireland
In Ulster in the north of Ireland the majority of people were Protestants. They favoured the union with Britain – fearing that they would suffer retribution and a loss of rights as a minority in a Catholic controlled country. 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.

Second Move to Home Rule Successful – 1912 – but not enacted because of WWI
A Home Rule Bill was passed in 1912 but crucially it was not brought into law. The Home Rule Act was suspended at the outbreak of World War One in 1914. Many Irish nationalists believed that Home Rule would be granted after the war if they supported the British war effort. John Redmond the leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party encouraged people to join the British forces and many did join.

However, a minority of nationalists did not trust the British government leading to one of the most pivotal events in Irish history, the Easter Rising.

Declaration of Independence I – Easter Rising – Irish rebels defeated – 1916
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” (the Irish Declaration of Independence). The. Proclamation declared an 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.

Declaration of Independence II – 1919
Two of the key figures who were involved in the rising who avoided execution were Éamon de Valera and Michael Collins. In the December 1918 elections the Sinn Féin party led by Éamon de Valera won a majority of the Ireland based seats of the House of Commons. On the 21 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 – 1919-1921
What followed is known as the ‘war of independence’ when the Irish Republican Army – the army of the newly declared Irish Republic – waged a guerilla war against British forces from 1919 to 1921. One of the key leaders of this war was Michael Collins.

Michael Collins led and initiative that ended with the label “Bloody Sunday”. It was one day of violence in Dublin on November 21, 1920, during the Irish War of Independence. In total, 32 people were killed, including thirteen British soldiers and police, sixteen Irish civilians, and three Irish republican prisoners.

The day began when Michael Collins led the IRA to assassinate the ‘Cairo Gang’ – British undercover intelligence agents. IRA members went to a number of addresses and shot dead fourteen people.

Later that afternoon, members of the Auxiliary Division and RIC opened fire on the crowd at a Gaelic football match in Croke Park, killing eleven civilians and wounding at least sixty.That evening, three IRA suspects being held in Dublin Castle were beaten and killed by their captors, who claimed they were trying to escape.

Overall, while its events cost relatively few lives, Bloody Sunday was considered a victory for the IRA, as Collins’s operation severely damaged British intelligence, The net effect was to increase support for the IRA at home and abroad.

Third attempt at Home Rule adopted – 1920 Government of Ireland Act – Creates Southern and Northern Ireland under Home Rule
This Act of Parliament was intended to keep Ireland part of the United Kingdom – through Home Rule institutions. The Act establishes two new subdivisions of Ireland: the six north-eastern counties were to form “Northern Ireland”, while the larger part of the country was to form “Southern Ireland”.

Home Rule never took effect in Southern Ireland, due to the Irish War of Independence, which resulted instead in the Anglo-Irish Treaty and the establishment in 1922 of the Irish Free State. However, the institutions set up under this Act for Northern Ireland continued to function until they were suspended by the British parliament in 1972 as a consequence of the Troubles.The Government of Ireland Act of 1920 created the Irish Free State. At the same time, the Parliament of Northern Ireland was created. The Parliament consisted of a majority of Protestants and while there was relative stability for decades.

Anglo-Irish Treaty Ends War of Independence – Divides Ireland – Dec 1921
In December 1921 a treaty was signed by the Irish and British authorities. One of the key provisions of the treaty was a compromise. Ireland was to be divided into Northern Ireland (6 counties) and the Irish Free State (26 counties) which was established in 1922.

As in the Home Rule Act of 1920, most signatories of the treaty were hopeful that the division of the country into Ireland and Northern Ireland would be temporary. However, the division has stayed in place for almost a century.

While a clear level of independence was finally granted to Ireland the contents of the treaty were to split Irish public and political opinion.

Instead of bringing peace, the signing of the Treaty plunged the country into a three year Civil War.

Civil War – 1922-1923
A Civil War followed from 1922 to 1923 between pro and anti treaty forces, with Collins (pro-treaty) and de Valera (anti-treaty) on opposing sides. The consequences of the Civil war can be seen to this day where the two largest political parties in Ireland have their roots in the opposing sides of the civil war – Fine Gael (pro-treaty) and Fianna Fáil (anti-treaty).

Republic of Ireland – 1937 – Join EU
The 1937 Constitution re-established the state as the Republic of Ireland.
In 1973 Ireland joined the European Economic Community (now the European Union).

Northern Ireland Catholics Rebel – 1968
Stability in Northern Ireland ended in the late 1960s due to systematic discrimination against Catholics. 1968 saw the beginning of Catholic civil rights marches in Northern Ireland. These protests led to violent reactions from some Protestant loyalists and from the police force. What followed was a period known as ‘the Troubles’ when nationalist/republican and loyalist/unionist groups clashed.

In 1969 British troops were sent to maintain order and to protect the Catholic minority. However, the army soon came to be seen as a tool of the Protestant majority by the minority Catholic community.

Bloody Sunday – 1972 and “The Troubles”

This was reinforced 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.

Between 1969 and 1998 it is estimated that well over 3,000 people were killed by paramilitary groups on opposing sides of the conflict.

Peace with Belfast Agreement – 1998
The period of ‘the Troubles’ are generally agreed to have finished with the Belfast (or Good Friday) Agreement of April 10th 1998.

Since 1998 considerable stability and peace has come to Northern Ireland. In 2007 former bitterly opposing parties the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Féin began to co-operate in government together in Northern Ireland.

20th Century to present day
In the 1980s the Irish economy was in recession and large numbers of people emigrated for employment reasons. Many young people emigrated to the United Kingdom, the United States of America and Australia.
Economic reforms in the 1980s along with membership of the European Community (now European Union) created one of the world’s highest economic growth rates. Ireland in the 1990s, so long considered a country of emigration, became a country of immigration. This period in Irish history was called the Celtic Tiger.