Irish History (in a Nutshell)

Irish history is long and complex — most of it revolves around the right to self govern. Having a quick overview of the country’s history, a few of the people of Ireland, and their role in this history will help with posts on the many places we saw during our trip.

People are thought to have crossed over to the island at the end of the last ice age when the ice receded and boats were able to make their way easily from Scotland. Archaeological evidence shows a mostly farming existence until the late Bronze Age when the Celts arrived.

The Celts arrived around 500BC and established themselves before Christianity. These fierce warriors kept the Romans out of Ireland and had a lasting influence on the Irish language, art, architecture, industry and religion.

Along a similar vein (and in the mythical world), stories tell of the Tuatha Dé Danann, who are the fae of legend and the heroes of Ireland; these are not the small fluttery fairies of children stories, but tall warriors that kept invaders off the island. They are said to have arrived around 2000BC from the hidden island of Tír na nÓg. Stories of the Tuatha Dé Danann are still told today.

Christianity arrived in the 5th Century. The arrival is often associated with St. Patrick and St. Palladius and the Rock of Cashel, but archaeologists have found evidence on the southern islands that Christianity arrived before the arrival of Christian missionaries.

The next people to arrive after the Celts are the Vikings, who first invaded in the late 8th Century. They brought commerce, violence, and slavery to the country. It’s thought that the Norse slave trade out of Ireland rivalled that of the Romans.

The Norse ruled Ireland until 1014 when they were defeated by the Irish Kings Brian Boru, Diarmaid Mac Murchadha, and a Norman mercenary army led by Richard De Clare (Richard Strongbow).

The next 700-year period is defined by fighting amongst the Irish Kings and the growing control of Britain in Irish politics. By 1177, the English King John (then a Prince) was named Lord of Ireland. This role existed until 1542 when Henry VIII created the Kingdom of Ireland and named himself King.

During this next era, thousands of English and Scottish Protestant settlers arrived in Ireland and displaced the existing Catholic landholders. These new settlers were given powerful positions in Irish Parliament and the Act of Uniformity placed draconian restrictions on Roman Catholics. They were eventually banned from the government and by the end of the seventeenth century, the Protestant minority ruled a mostly Catholic population.

In the late 1700s and early 1800s, an ambitious lawyer named Daniel O’Connell entered the Irish legal and political scene. He spent most of his career fighting (peacefully) for the rights of Catholics, emancipation, and removal of restrictions imposed on Catholics in the Act of Uniformity.

As such, he was not well-liked in British circles but became a hero to the people of Ireland. By the end of his career, he had achieved emancipation, won the right for Catholics to hold a seat in parliament, but couldn’t reinstate a parliament for Ireland. O’Connell’s ancestral manor is in Derrynane and he is buried in Glasnevin Cemetery.

The battle for Irish home rule continued with Charles Stewart Parnell, an Irish landlord who became the leader of the Nationalist Party. He later founded the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) who’s members strived for legislative independence in Ireland and land reform.

Parnell was instrumental in laying the groundwork for Irish self-government in three Irish Home Rule bills. Later in his political career, a marriage scandal caused Parnell’s political party to split and prevented him from ever achieving Irish Home Rule. He was imprisoned at Kilmainham for 6-months and later died unpopular and penniless. He was buried in a common cholera grave with thousands of other people.

The next two politicians to enter the scene are Michael Collins and Éamon de Valera. Collins was the Irish Minister of Finance, Director of Intelligence for the IRA, and President of the Irish Republican Brotherhood; he was young, passionate, intelligent, and a charismatic speaker who rallied people to fight (using guerrilla tactics) against British rule.

De Valera is said to be the most hated person in Irish politics. He was the leader of Ireland’s struggle for independence from Britain during the War of Independence. He survived this war and the Irish Civil War to become one of the longest-running politicians to rule the country (1917-1973). As an Irishman, you either hated or loved de Valera.

Initially, both Collins and de Valera were united in their desire for a free and independent nation. However, after the War of Independence and the Anglo-Irish Treaty negotiations, both became split in their views. Under pressure, Collins accepted the British offer of the establishment of the Free State of Ireland (which left Northern Ireland to the British), knowing this was a stepping stone towards home rule and would stop the fighting.

De Valera wanted to continue to fight for the right to self govern and a unified country because a free state was not enough. This caused a split in the Irish government and an Irish Civil War followed, which left brother and comrades fighting against each other. The Civil War lasted less than a year and accomplished little. Ironically, years later during World War II, Churchill gave de Valera the opportunity to unite Ireland as one nation and de Valera rejected this offer.

Valera was imprisoned at Kilmainham for a time and is considered the last prisoner of the gaol before it closed. Both Valera and Collins are buried in Glasnevin. Collins’ grave is one of the most visited graves in Glasnevin. People rate their importance by how close they are buried to Collins.

Today, two of the main political parties of the Republic of Ireland are the Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. Both are direct descendants of the two opposing parties that existed during the Irish Civil War.

4 comments on “Irish History (in a Nutshell)Add yours →

  1. Excellent ! I’ve always wondered why Irish music contained so many references to war. Now I know why. I wanted something I could read in 10 minutes to give me the background. Now I’m going to expand my reading on the subject.

  2. A few blatant inaccuracies in this piece. For one you state that DeVelera was the most hated man in Ireland at one time. Not true, almost half the nation loved and followed him, even into a civil war. You missed out the Danes coming to Ireland before the Vikings.

    1. Thanks for the troll! Your comment is fair!! It made me laugh because rather ironically, during my tour, when we got to DeVelera’s grave — one of the men on the tour leaned over and spit on it. I didn’t mention this in the post because I thought it rather rude. But, being a descendant from both Northern and Southern Irish, I can understand the passion. The tour guide said it was a pretty common occurrence — that and people hugging the stone or weeping at the sight of it. Oh! And, depending on who you ask… the Danes are Vikings. If you study the archaeology of language and it’s spread across Europe, this is the group that spoke Old Norse.

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