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 heros 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.
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 rivaled 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 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 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.
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.
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 polics. 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 a 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.
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.