Irish History - a Short Introduction

Irish history is convoluted, often complicated, sometimes highly inconsistent, and nearly always involves some sort of bloodshed. That would be the common perception, at least. But it can be quite easy to get a primer. In chronological order, as outlined below …

01 of 07

Foundations – Prehistory, Christianity, Power Struggles

The Vikings ... fresh blood for Ireland
© Bernd Biege

c. 12,5000 BCE - first definite signs of a human presence in Ireland.

c. 3700 to 3000 BCE - the New Stone Age begins and sites like Newgrange (c. 2500 BC) are constructed, a farming lifestyle leads to woods being cut down.

c. 2000 BCE - "Beaker People" in Ireland, the Bronze Age begins. Later, metalworking becomes a prominent art form, impressive finds are displayed at the National Museum of Ireland).

c. 600 BCE - a Celtic culture is established in Ireland, a few decades later the concept of High King (ard ri) becomes important, royal seats like the Hill of Tara are established.

c. 80 - trade contacts with Roman Britain exist, later Ptolomy writes about Ireland in his geographical works.

367 - Irish tribes, known as “Scots”, invade northern parts of Britain.

c. 430 - Christianity becomes established, Palladius is sent from Rome to Ireland as a bishop, in 432 Patrick starts his Irish mission. His fast of 40 days on Croagh Patrick becomes legendary. Monasticism becomes the Christian lifestyle per se.

563 - the Irish monk Columba establishes his own monastery on Iona in the Hebrides.

around 600 (lasting to around 800) - Irish "Golden Age", illuminated manuscripts like the "Book of Kells" (on display in Trinity College) and metalware like the "Ardagh Chalice" (today in the National Museum Kildare Street) are created.

664 - the Synod of Whitby decrees Roman supremacy over the Irish church in a conflict over the correct date of Easter. In reaction, the cult of St. Patrick is established through hagiographic "Lives" (mostly fictional biographies).

795 - Viking raids on Irish monastic sites (sometimes attracted by the prominent round towers) and settlements begin. A few years later the Vikings start to explore Ireland, using the Boyne, the Liffey, Dublin Bay and even Lough Neagh as winter quarters, and from 842 establish diplomatic relations and alliances with the Irish, colonizing parts of the island.

967 - the sack of Limerick by Irish tribes starts the backlash against expanding Viking rule.

975 - Brian Boru becomes King of Munster in 999 he defeats his main Irish opponents and accepts the surrender of the Viking King of Dublin, Sitric Silkenbeard, becoming High King in 1002. In 1014 Brian Boru defeats a Viking alliance (with Viking help) during the Battle of Clontarf ... but is murdered immediately afterwards.

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02 of 07

The Neighbors Come Calling – the Middle Ages

Knight of the Middle Ages
© Bernd Biege

1142 - with the establishment of the first Cistercian house at Mellifont a new form of monasticism enters Ireland, and in 1155 Pope Adrian IV (an Englishman) grants possession of Ireland to Henry II of England (the papal bull Laudabiliter may be a forgery).

1166 - Mac Murchada (Dermot McMurrough), King of Leinster, emerges as the loser in inner-Irish power struggles. He promptly flees to Britain and starts to raise a mercenary army to conquer Ireland, mainly from Cambro-Normans. This army conquer vast parts of Ireland, and the adventurer "Strongbow" establishes himself (through marriage) as next King of Leinster. Henry II of England in the aftermath accepts the submission of most Irish kings and bishops, thus starting the English rule. Around 1175 Rory O'Connor holds the title of "High King of Ireland" is allowed to rule the unoccupied parts as a vassal of Henry II.

1177 - Prince John, younger brother of Richard the Lionhearted, is made Lord of Ireland. In 1210, now King John, he confiscates all of Ulster and assorted other lands during his (second) visit, graciously accepting the submission of numerous Irish kings.

1333 - following internal unrest, English control over Connacht and Ulster is lost. A few years later the "Black Death" kills around one third of the total population of Ireland.

1366 - sensing that the established Anglo-Normans are becoming "more Irish than the Irish themselves", the crown acts … the Statutes of Kilkenny ban the use of the Irish language by settlers, as well as “interracial” marriages.

1494 - "Poynings' Law" makes all legislation passed by the English parliament automatically applicable to Ireland as well.

1541 - parliament makes Henry VIII King of Ireland, all lands have to be surrendered to him, to be regranted (if applicable and/or convenient).

1557 - the Catholic Queen Mary ("Bloody Mary") initiates plantations in Irish counties of Offaly and Laois.

1558 - Elizabeth I takes the throne and starts ambitious reformation and reorganization schemes in Ireland, including widespread settlement of English and Scottish colonists on the island. Until 1576 this is run as a private scheme, government-sponsored colonization follows. In 1592, Elizabeth initiates the foundation of Trinity College.

1579 to 1607 - widespread and initially successful Irish rebellions occur, in 1601 a Spanish army lands at Kinsale (to be soon defeated). Ultimately, Ireland stays under the control of the English crown.

1608 - the Plantation of Derry starts new wave of enforced colonization.

1641 to 1658 - Catholic rebellions, the English Civil War, and the bloody re-conquest of Ireland under Oliver Cromwell leads to further colonization, and ethnic cleansing: "To Hell or to Connacht!"

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03 of 07

Religious Grievances on a Small Island

Revolting Irish ... a growing problem
© Bernd Biege

1660 to 1688 - during the Restoration period "innocent" Catholics are re-granted lands given to Cromwell's colonists, and after the accession of James II (1685), Protestant officials are replaced by Catholics. This policy is part of the grievances leading to the deposition of James II in England in 1688, the "Glorious Revolution". Following his loss of power, James tries to establish a power base in Ireland, building an army based (partially) on conservative and Catholic sentiments.

1689 - minutes before the occupation of Derry by Catholic troops the now legendary Apprentice Boys shut and barricade the city gates, leading to the long Siege of Derry.

1690 - James II is defeated by William of Orange at the Battle of the Boyne. James flees Ireland, and William goes on to conquer the island.

From 1695 - anti-Catholic Laws come into force, becoming ever more restrictive in the years following. In 1728 the Catholics lose the franchise.

From 1731 - the “Age of Enlightenment” arrives, he "Belfast Newsletter", the world's oldest continually published newspaper, prints its first issue, the Royal Dublin Society is founded. In 1741 Georg Friedrich Händel premieres his "Messiah" in Dublin, in 1751 Dublin's Rotunda becomes the first maternity hospital in the British Isles, and in 1759 Arthur Guinness leases a brewery at St. James' Gate, Dublin.

1775 - Henry Grattan becomes leader of the "Patriot" opposition in the Irish parliament, and in 1782 the Irish parliament gains legislative independence.

1791 - inspired by the French Revolution (1789), the Protestant Wolfe Tone writes his "Argument on the Behalf of the Catholics of Ireland", the United Irishmen are founded according to Wolfe Tone's principles. From 1792 Catholics are allowed to practice law again, a year later they are granted (limited) emancipation. In a backlash to this, the Orange Order is founded in 1795.

1796 and 1798 - rebellions inspired by the United Irishmen, in August 1798 a French army lands in Killala, but the 1798 Rebellion and French intervention end in total defeat, Wolfe Tone is captured, tried and commits suicide.

1800 - the Irish parliament votes itself out of existence, the Act of Union establishes direct rule from Westminster.

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04 of 07

Emancipation and the “Irish Question”

Emigration to America, often the only solution
© Bernd Biege

1823 - Daniel O'Connell founds and leads the Catholic Association, in 1828 he is elected as MP for County Clare, the very next year Catholic emancipation begins.

1840 - O'Connell founds the Repeal Association to dissolve the union with England, from 1843 onwards so-called "Monster Meetings" are held in support, one of the largest takes place on the Hill of Tara.

1845 to 1849 - a potato blight, encouraged by primitive farming methods, destroys the potato harvest and leads to the "Great Famine". Mass starvation and emigration follows.

1858 - the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) is founded in Ireland, parallel to the foundation of the Fenian Brotherhood in the USA. In 1867 the first attempt at a Fenian Rising in Cork and Dublin is unsuccessful … mainly due to atrocious weather.

1870 - Gladstone's Land Act recognises tenant's rights, and the Home Government Association is established.

1875 - County Meath elects Charles Steward Parnell as MP.

1879 to 1882 - the threat of a new famine leads to unrest and the forming of the Irish National Land League, evictions and the "Land War" begin - both civil disobedience and terrorism being actions of choice.

1886 - Gladstone sponsors the first Home Rule Bill, defeated in Parliament.

1907 - a dockers' strike and severe sectarian riots interrupt life in Belfast.

1912 - Northern Protestants rally around Edward Carson, signing a "Solemn Covenant" against any Home Rule.

1913 - general strike in Dublin.

1914 - both the Ulster Volunteer Force (unionist and opposed to Home Rule) and the nationalistic Irish Volunteers smuggle large quantities of arms into Ireland, supplied by Germany. The outbreak of the First World War leads to a postponement of already decided Home Rule.

1916 - led by the IRB, the Irish Volunteers and the Irish Citizens Army (a trade union branch) rise in arms on Easter Monday, occupying the Dublin GPO. The rebellion ends in total failure, but the summary execution of most leaders swings public opinion behind the rebels.
A few weeks later the Ulster Division all but vanishes in the bloodbath of the Battle of the Somme.

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05 of 07

Partition and Independence

Carson, just one architect of partition
© Bernd Biege

1918 - Republicans sweep the elections but refuse to take their seats in Westminster. Instead they convene as the Dáil Éireann in Dublin.

1919 to 1921 - War of Independence.

1921 - the Anglo-Irish Treaty effectively establishes a Northern Irish Parliament in Belfast, partition and an "Irish Free State" ruled by the Dublin Dáil.

1922 to 1923 - Irish Civil War, the Anti-Treaty IRA and the Free State National Army are locked in open and guerilla warfare, ending with the surrender of the anti-treaty forces.

1923 - W.B. Yeats awarded Nobel Prize for Literature.

1925 - G.B. Shaw awarded Nobel Prize for Literature.

1937 - Constitution of Éire declares independence from Britain, the Irish Free State ceases to exist.

1939 - Éire opts for neutrality in the war, in 1941 major German air raids destroy parts of Belfast.

1945 - De Valera alienates almost everybody by personally offering his condolences upon the death of Adolf Hitler at the German Embassy.

1948 - the Republic of Ireland declares full independence, one year later the Ireland Act perpetuates partition. IRA activities restart a few years later.

1966 - the Anglo-Irish Free Trade Agreement makes cross-border trading easier and more profitable.

1967 - Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association established, targeting mainly the discrimination against Catholics. Civil Rights Marches lead to clashes with the police, especially in Derry.

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06 of 07

The Troubles and the Peace Process

Power-sharing in Stormont wasn'y always as peaceful as this picture suggests
© Bernd Biege

1969 - "People's Democracy" march from Belfast to Derry leads to violent clashes between sectarian extremists, and between civil rights campaigners and the police. The British Army is sent to Northern Ireland in a peacekeeping role.
Samuel Beckett awarded Nobel Prize for Literature, his reaction is "Catastrophe!"

1971 - internment is re-introduced, the IRA kills the first British soldier in Belfast.

1972 - " Bloody Sunday" in Derry, British paratroopers open fire upon demonstrators, killing 13. Direct Rule from Westminster is imposed upon Northern Ireland.

1973 - Ireland and the UK join the EEC (forerunner of today's European Union).

1981 - ten IRA and INLA hunger strikers die in British prisons.

1985 - the groundbreaking Anglo-Irish Agreement splits the Protestant community in Northern Ireland.

1994 - first ceasefire announced by IRA and loyalist paramilitaries.

mid-1990s - EU aid and an aggressive policy of wooing foreign investors creates the "Celtic Tiger", Ireland develops from an economic backwater with mass unemployment into the richest country in the EU within a decade.

1997 to 1998 - US Senator George Mitchell chairs peace talks in Stormont (Belfast), culminating in the Good Friday Agreement.

1999 - the devolved (power-sharing) government meets for first time in December; later breakdowns of the Northern Executive and elections result in a polarization of the vote towards either Sinn Fein or the Democratic Unionist Party lead to frequent political stalemates.

2005 - the IRA declares the end of the armed struggle and decommissions arms, loyalist paramilitaries follow suit later on.

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07 of 07

Quo Vadis, Ireland?

At least we know which way to the Leprechauns
© Bernd Biege

2008 - the worldwide economic crash hits Ireland hard, the Celtic Tiger expires, an austerity program is established in the Republic. Public purses are also tightened in the UK, and consequently in Northern Ireland.

Around 2012 - dissident Republican and Loyalist groups still pose a threat to the population (and especially security forces), on the other hand non-domestic terrorism is as good as unknown on the island.

2016 - the United Kingdom votes for a “Brexit”, with England and Wales carrying the vote, Scotland and Northern Ireland rejecting. The consequences of the decision to leave the EU, especially regarding the inner-Irish border, are not at all clear …

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