The Irish Journey
Had I heaven’s embroidered cloths
Enwrought with golden and silver light
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-night
I would spread the cloths under your feet
But I, being poor, have only my dreams
I spread my dreams under your feet
Tread softly, because you tread on my dreams
Aedh wishes for the cloths of Heaven by WB Yeats.
Ireland is an island, but it hasn’t always been one.
At the peak of the last Ice Age about 10,000 years ago, it was connected by causeway to the west coast of Scotland. Mainland Britain could then be reached by foot from what is now France. This allowed people to travel to Ireland from continental Europe. The first settlers in Ireland were cut off when world sea levels rose as the ice steadily melted. Stone-age crop-growers arrived by boat about 6,000 years ago. Metal-workers later used Irish copper and imported gold to make ornaments and jewellery. The Celts, who probably originated from northern Spain, came with the iron-age 600 years before the birth of Christ. At that time, Celtic civilisation extended across Western Europe.
The Irish were then nomadic tribespeople who did not build permanent dwellings. They lived on the milk and meat of cows, sheep and goats and followed their herds in search of better grazing in an island where a mild climate allowed grass to grow most of the year. In long cross-country walks, the Irish developed an oral culture based on story-telling, poetry and song. Since everything was memorised, there was no need to write anything down and nothing to write it on anyway. Ireland, like all Celtic societies, was originally illiterate.
The economic system was equally uncomplicated. Wealth was stored in ornaments and jewellery not coins. Trade was done by barter. Men that weren’t priests were warriors, though wars were seasonal, limited and about livestock and the best grazing. The idea of owning land was alien since there was no purpose in claiming territory if it was overgrazed and no way permanently of enforcing a claim anyway.
The pinnacle of Irish society was occupied by kings, in reality tribal leaders. They were classified into three categories: kings of local kingdoms of which there were more than 100, over-kings that ruled several kingdoms, and high kings, who were rulers of entire provinces which varied in number from five to almost a dozen. The title of High King of all Ireland was nominal since provincial kings held most power. The most persistently-dominant Irish dynasty until the middle of the 11th century was the Ui Neill or O’Neil. They were based in the north and had their ceremonial capital at Tara in Meath in the centre of Ireland. Here, a massive earthwork fort was built similar to structures created by Celts in England at Maiden Castle and elsewhere. Tara was to acquire a mystic significance for the people of Ireland as visitors will immediately understand. From its top, it is as if you can see the whole of the island of Ireland.
The Irish government accepts the contemporary existence of 21 ancient Irish titles and dozens of secondary Irish clans. Clan Irish names are constructions based on the identity of an original patriarch or leader. The origin of O’Sullivan is obscure. According to Dr Daithi O hOgain, associate professor at University College Dublin, a 10th century Munster prince Eochaidh mac Maol Ughra who was noted for his generosity was nicknamed Suildubhain (the dark-eyed). There is a myth that a greedy poet visiting Eochaidh asked for his eye, which the prince handed over. This story originally long predates Eochaidh but it was applied to him because his nickname was misunderstood to mean blind (literally Suillebhan). Eochaidh’s grandson was the first to be called O Suildubhain. Due to a softening of the d into v after the l, the name was soon pronounced O’Suilleabhain (o soo-li-vaw-in). This means son of the one-eyed. At this point, the O’Suilleabhain clan held land in the south of what is now County Tipperary.
Following the Norman invasion, the O’Sullivans were forced further southwest and finally occupied land on either side of Kenmare Bay which separates the modern counties of Cork and Kerry. Two O’Sullivan brothers established separate areas of dominion. Giolla (Irish for Servant of) Mochuda O’Suilleabhain occupied most of the Iveragh peninsula and were based at Dunkerron. His younger brother Giolla na bhFlann O’Suilleabhain held almost all the Beare peninsula and had his headquarters at Dunboy. Mochuda is the patriarch of the main branch of O’Sullivans knows as O’Suilleabhain Mor (O’Sullivan, The Great). Na bhFlann is the founder of the O’Suilleabhain Bearra. The O’Suilleabhain Mor divided into two. The junior branch became the MacGillycuddy O’Sullivans with their base at the castle of Bauneclune on the river Laune. A further division of the O’Sullivan Mor produced the McGrath O’Sullivans of Cappanacush near Dunkerron. The O’Sullivan Beare divided as well and produced subsidiary divisions: the O’Sullivan Clann Labhrais, who settled near Bantry Bay, and the O’Suilleabhain Maol (The Bald).
The O’Suilleabhains competed with neighbouring clans: the MacCarthys, who were the mediaeval kings of Munster, the O’Donoghues and the O’Donovans.English invaders from the 12th century capitalised on Irish tribal rivalries to divide and rule south-west Ireland. The spread of English led to the Anglicisation of clan Irish names. O’Suilleabhain became O’Sullivan. The process has been accelerated by removing O’ and Mc. O’Connor (O Conchobhair) became Connor, O’Donovan (O Donnabhain) became Donovan, O’Kelly (O Cellaigh) became Kelly, O’Flynn (O Flainn) became Flynn, O’Hanlon (O hAnluain) became Hanlon and O’Sullivan became Sullivan. The inconsistent Anglicisation of Irish names and the influx of non-Irish people over the centuries have resulted in the people of Ireland having on a per capita basis more family names than any other people on earth.
The Irish spread. Bands called Scots settled in the west of the British mainland. They bequeathed the name by which Scotland is known.
The centre of gravity in tribal, nomadic Irish society changed with the arrival of Christian missionaries during the 4th century when mainland Britain south of Hadrian’s Wall and Wales were under Roman rule. The pope appointed a bishop to the Irish in 431, suggesting conversion was already taking place. St Patrick, the most celebrated missionary and Ireland’s patron saint, was first brought to the island as a slave but later returned in the middle of the 5th century, when he was a bishop, to preach the gospel. A church associated with St Patrick was established in Armagh. It is the basis for the town’s claim to primacy over the rest of the Irish church.
Christian missionaries founded self-contained communities comprising a church and a few dwellings. Bringing learning from Europe, they provided healthcare and education. This attracted the wandering Irish and facilitated conversion. The missionaries in turn were affected by the culture they encountered. They learned and wrote down the Irish language. A literate society emerged that has left many manuscripts in Latin and Irish and beautiful craftsmanship in metal and stone. The Book of Kells is recognised as the supreme example of Irish ecclesiastical manuscript illumination from this period, which is sometimes called Ireland’s Golden Age. Young men were educated. Some became priests and monks. Remote from the Roman pontiff, the Irish Celtic church developed distinct religious practices.
As Irish monasteries grew in wealth and influence, Ireland became known as the island of saints. Irish monks helped bring Christianity back to Britain and Europe and led missions throughout the continent until the start of the 12th century. A shining example was St Colum Cille (Columba), who founded a Christian community on the island of Iona in the Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland in the second half of the sixth century. St Aidan, the first bishop of Lindisfarne in north-east England, was another. St Benedict, a Roman nobleman who founded isolated religious communities including the monastery at Monte Cassino, is regarded as the founder of Western monasticism. The Irish monk St Columbanus, who originated from Bangor on the north-east coast of Ireland, is often ranked with him as a co-founder of a movement that was to change the face of Europe. Columbanus first left for France in 591 where he founded monasteries in Peronne in central France and, finally, at Bobbio in northern Italy where he died in 615.
The Anglo-Saxons, who were farmers, colonised Roman Britain but made no attempt to conquer Ireland. Their mixed arable and dairy system could not cope with Ireland’s continuous rainfall and the Irish had little that they wanted to buy. The Vikings, who originated from what is now Denmark and other parts of Scandinavia, brought radical change. They were, essentially, traders who made long-boats capable of vast sea journeys and lived in towns. Viking settlements were established in Iceland and on the north-east coast of America. To the east, they founded Moscow, reached Constantinople and traded with China.The first recorded Viking raid on Ireland in 795, which targeted a monastery settlement, began more than 150 years of attacks and colonisation. They founded several of Ireland’s largest settlements, including Dublin and Limerick, and introduced coinage. They also brought a new generation of Irish names including Doyle.
By the end of the 10th century, the Viking challenge across Europe was fading as they integrated with host communities and defences against Viking war bands improved. Irish kings fought back against the invaders. The greatest was Brian Boru who became High-King of Ireland in 1002. He defeated the Vikings at the battle of Clontarf north of Dublin in 1014 but was killed at the moment of victory. Boru was the last High King to extend his effective rule across the whole of the island of Ireland.
In the Middle Ages, Irish rulers were increasingly influenced by developments in Europe. Under powerful popes starting with Gregory III in the second half of the 11th century, the Vatican started to assert itself. The Irish church conformed to Roman practices and discipline. Irish kings began to adopt the feudal system refined by Norman rulers who by the end of the 11th century controlled what are now northern France, England, southern Italy and Sicily. They had seized land in the Middle East during the 1st Crusade which climaxed in the capture of Jerusalem in 1099.The Irish political system at this time was unstable with a tendency to degenerate into war. In 1166, Diarmit MacMurchada (Dermot MacMurrough), the king of Leinster, which encompassed much of the east of Ireland, was expelled from Ireland by the new Irish High-King Ruaidri Ua Conchobair (Rory O’Connor). Seeking support to recover his lands, MacMurchada went to Bristol, where he already had contacts among English merchants. He then travelled to France to see Henry II of England, great grandson of William the Conqueror. MacMurchada acknowledged Henry as his lord and was granted in return the right to recruit fighters for a campaign to regain Leinster.The first were found among the lords of the border lands between England and Wales. They were veterans of a century fighting the Celtic Welsh. The leader of the Norman knights who pledged their support was Richard Fitzgilbert de Clare, Lord of Pembroke in Wales. He is known to history as Strongbow. MacMurchada returned to Ireland with Norman knights in 1167. Strongbow joined him three years later with a larger force. Together, they captured Waterford in south-east Ireland and then Dublin. The partnership between the Irish king and the Norman adventurer was sealed when Strongbow married MacMurchada’s daughter Aoife. In 1171, MacMurchada died without legitimate male heirs. Strongbow, as husband of his eldest daughter, secured control of Leinster. Henry II, concerned that Strongbow might seek to found an independent kingdom, landed in Waterford in October that year. Strongbow made obeisance to the king, who then visited Dublin. In return, Strongbow’s control of Leinster received King Henry’s blessing. The Norman conquest of the rest of Ireland was completed by the middle of the next century.
The invaders were colonisers. Their names are their greatest legacy and include Barry, Butler, De Burgh (Burke), De Lacy, Dillon, Fitzgerald, Montgomery, Plunkett, Power, Prendergast and Roche. The conquerors recruited English peasants and craftsmen, mainly from the west Midlands and south-west England, to work on their Irish estates. Their legacy is in names common across Ireland such as Bagenal, Bermingham (after Birmingham), Bruton (after a town in Somerset), Edgeworth, Fleetwood, Goldsmith and Spring. The countryside, particularly in the drier east of Ireland, was transformed. New towns were created including Dundalk north of Dublin, Sligo in the north-west and Kilkenny in the south-west. The Norman nobles established a parliament which met in Dublin. The native Irish had no effective answer to the invaders’ use of armoured knights. A campaign to make Brian O’Neill Ireland’s high-king ended in defeat in 1260 at the Battle of Down where O’Neill was killed. But a new factor had already been introduced into the Irish power balance. The previous year, the son of the king of Connacht, Aed O’Connor, had married a princess from the west of Scotland. She brought with her 160 mercenary fighters from the Hebrides called Gall-Oglach (foreign fighter), or Galloglass, by the Irish. Galloglass swordsmen were heavily armoured and well-armed and were an effective counter to Norman military tactics. They were used by other Irish kings against the invaders and helped reduce the Norman advantage in Ireland. The Galloglass fighters bequeathed another set of Irish names including MacDonnell, MacSweeney, MacSheehy and MacCabe.The settlers’ self-confidence was also undermined in 1315 when Edward Bruce — brother of Scotland’s Robert I (Robert the Bruce), the victor at the Battle of Bannockburn — invaded Ulster. He joined forces with the O’Neill family in a campaign against the Norman English. The Scottish threat was only finally ended in 1318 when Bruce was defeated and killed at the battle of Dundalk.
The weather was the invaders’ most formidable foe. Their system of mixed arable and pastoral farming couldn’t flourish in Ireland’s damp climate. There were famines and migrants returned to England. The settler population was further reduced by the Black Death in 1348-49. Ireland’s Norman lords turned for labour and support to the native Irish. They began to adopt Irish customs and culture. Some married into noble Irish families. They were described as Hiberniores Hibernis Ipsis (More Irish than the Irish).
Concern about the loss of English influence in Ireland led to futile attempts to halt the process of integration. Laws were imposed, starting with the Statutes of Kilkenny of 1366, that made it illegal for the English to speak Irish, marry Irish people or foster their children with Irish families. In an effort to bring his subjects to heel, King Richard II came to Ireland twice at the end of the 14th century. He was deposed by King Henry IV in 1399 and eventually murdered. His successors accepted the increasing independence of the leading Norman families of Ireland. These included the Butlers, who were earls of Ormond in south central Ireland, and the twin branch Fitzgeralds, who were earls of Desmond in the south-west and of Kildare in the east. By the end of the 15th century, effective English power was confined to an area north of Dublin. In the rest of the Ireland, traditional tribal leaders were dominant. But it was to be a final flourish for old Celtic Ireland. The 16th century was to be a turning point for the people of Ireland and their rulers.
Native Irish control had been reduced to pockets in remote or inaccessible parts of the island. The lands of the Ui Neill (O’Neil) were the most extensive. The land of the O’Sullivans was in Munster in the far south-west. All the big towns and cities were in Norman areas. The city of Limerick in west central Ireland was on the frontier between Norman Ireland and the land of the native Irish.The Old English, as the descendants of the Norman lords of Ireland were called, supported the Yorkists in the English civil war, known as the Wars of the Roses, in the 15th century. Henry Tudor defeated King Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485 and was crowned Henry VII, the first of the Tudor monarchs. The Earl of Kildare rejected the new Tudor regime and used the Irish parliament to legitimise the claim for the English throne of Lambert Simnell, who was presented as one of the Princes in the Tower and crowned in Dublin as King Edward VI. The Princes in the Tower were the sons of the Yorkist King Edward IV who many historians agree were murdered by their ambitious uncle King Richard III when their father died.
Simnell’s supporters were decisively defeated in the final battle of the Wars of the Roses at Stoke Field in 1487. King Henry decided it was time to assert his authority over the Old English. In 1494, he dispatched Sir Edward Poynings to Ireland as his chief governor in Ireland. Later that year, Poynings forced the Irish parliament to pass legislation known as Poynings Law that asserted that it was subordinate to the English parliament in London. But the Tudor grasp on Ireland was precarious.
A radical new English attempt to dominate Ireland began during the reign of Henry Tudor’s son King Henry VIII. The assertion of royal supremacy over the English church and the programme of dissolving religious houses precipitated by Henry’s determination to divorce his wife Katherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn were extended to Ireland which was given the status of kingdom in 1541. In return for accepting King Henry’s sovereignty, Irish chiefs were granted titles. But attempts to impose Protestant doctrines were resisted. Most Irish people rejected the Reformation and remained Catholic. Under Henry’s daughter Queen Elizabeth I, Ireland was seen as an opportunity and a threat. The opportunity was land that could be profitably exploited. The threat was the Old English with their Catholic Irish allies that defied the crown and refused to conform to the Anglican Church. Elizabeth was desperate for money to finance war with Catholic Spain, leader of the European Counter-Reformation. Spain was benefitting from gold produced from its South American empire. The solution involved seizing Irish land and selling it to English merchant adventurers. Their first plantation was created in Laois and Offaly in the centre of Ireland in the 1550s on the seized estates of rebellious O’Connors and O’Moores. Other plantations were attempted in the south-west and in Ulster. But the biggest project came after the Fitzgerald (or Geraldine) rebellions led by the Earl of Desmond. His land was confiscated and used in more ambitious plantation projects.
The plantation policy and other provocations eventually led to all-out rebellion. In 1595, Hugh O’Neill — the 2nd Earl of Tyrone, clan chief of the O’Neills and head of a rebel confederacy — declared war against English rule. He won a decisive victory at the Battle of the Yellow Ford in Armagh in 1598. Queen Elizabeth responded by sending an army to Ireland under the Earl of Essex, a favourite of the English queen. The climax of the rebellion came in 1601 when a Spanish army sailed to Kinsale in Ireland’s far south to support the rebels. O’Neill’s forces marched south but were comprehensively defeated outside Kinsale on Christmas Eve that year.
The rebellion sputtered on against increasing odds. Donal O’Sullivan Beare, chief of his clan since deposing his uncle in 1593, joined the rebellion and led his clansmen from his castle in Dunboy on the Beare peninsula to Kinsale. He then retreated to Dunboy. After the castle was taken, O’Sullivan Beare turned to guerilla warfare against the English and their Irish supporters. In December, he led his followers to find protection with allies in Leitrim 200 miles away in the north of Ireland. More than 1,000 set out but only 35 arrived at the end of a 14-day march. Some settled on the route and are called the Beares. Their suffering is remembered in the Irish folk song, The March of the O’Sullivans. After the death of Elizabeth and the succession of King James I in 1603, Donal joined a delegation of Irish leaders that went to England to plead for the return of their land. They were rebuffed. Donal travelled secretly back to Cork and left for Spain where he was murdered in 1618 in what some say was an English assassination plot. Head of the O’Sullivan Mor, Eoghan, did not join the 1596-1603 rebellion and retained his lands.
The end of the rising destroyed the political effectiveness of the Irish clans and the traditional system of Irish (Brehon) law. O’Neill signed a compromise peace treaty with the English government in March 1603. But he was a marked man. On 3 September 1607, he finally fled Ireland with his family, retainers and allies including Rory O’Donnell, the 1st Earl of Tyrconnell, in an event remembered in Irish history as “The Flight of the Earls”.
By leaving without royal permission, the fugitive lords were deemed to have relinquished rights to their lands. These comprised the modern Irish counties of Armagh, Fermanagh, Derry and Tyrone, in what is now Northern Ireland, and Cavan and Donegal in what is now the Irish Republic. They were confiscated by the state. The following year, the crown announced a plan to offer the counties to Scottish and English settlers, the Church of England and what were described as “deserving Irish”.
There was one adjustment to the settlement mandate for the Coleraine region in county Derry (Daire, Irish for oak tree). This was awarded to London merchants. They renamed the county and its county town as Londonderry. The plantation process was less successful than envisaged. But there were almost 20,000 settlers, mainly Presbyterian Scots, in Ulster by the death of King James I and the succession of his son King Charles I in 1625.Native Catholic Irish were forced out of plantation areas, though some remained to work as labourers and formed a sullen underclass. The view of the colonisers was that if the natives would not embrace Protestant enlightenment, then Protestant settlers should take over Ireland and turn it into the new Israel. Their methods presaged those used by English settlers in North America. Sir Walter Raleigh, a West Country merchant who was given lands in south-west Ireland as reward for his involvement in repressing the Desmond rebellions, made two failed attempts to found settlements in Virginia during the reign of Queen Elizabeth. In 1607, the year of the Flight of the Earls, a third Virginia settlement was established in circumstances that echoed the Irish experiment. Investors, backed by the crown, were given a mandate to create American plantations. Farmers and artisans were lured to the new world by the promise of work and wealth. The intrusion met, as it did in Ireland, violent resistance from the native population and led to war and growing confiscations of land by the newcomers. The settlers discovered that tobacco, which originated in the West Indies, flourished in Virginia. The colony’s labour shortage was eventually solved by using African slave labour. Ireland in turn was to benefit from the introduction from the Americas of the potato, a nutritious root vegetable that flourished in the island’s damp, temperate climate. It’s said that Raleigh brought it to his Irish estates, but it is probable that Spanish traders had already introduced the prolific tuber.
Britain was peripherally affected by the 30-years’ war which started in Bohemia in 1618, pitted Protestants against Catholics and devastated much of Germany. Nevertheless, the passions of conflict between Catholic and Protestant in Europe contaminated British politics and shaped its actions in Ireland. In 1631, Charles I appointed Sir Thomas Wentworth as his Lord Deputy to Ireland. He stepped up the plantation programme but alienated the loyal Old English by including their lands in the confiscations. Wentworth enraged many of the settlers by trying to force Presbyterian leaders to conform with the practices of the Church of England. Wentworth was loved by King Charles and made Earl of Strafford, but he fell foul of the king’s foes in parliament. He was charged and convicted of treason and executed for high treason in May 1641 in a sign of parliament’s increasing restiveness. Sensing England’s government was weakening, Ulstermen led by Sir Phelim O’Neill, a member of the Irish parliament, rose in rebellion on 22 October 1641. They had several motives including the wish to recover land confiscated under Strafford and prevent further sequestrations. The rebels also wanted to repeal Poynings Law and the enshrinement in law of The Graces. This was a concession granted to Old English families that involved them paying money in return for the right to retain land.
They declared their loyalty to King Charles, but denounced “Evil Counsellors” that had him in their power. The rebels quickly seized the government strongholds of Newry, Armagh, Charlemont and Mountjoy. A plan to take Dublin Castle failed because the conspirators’ plans were leaked. O’Neill declared that there should be no attacks on Protestant settlers. But fury festering for decades exploded across Ireland. Thousands of Protestants were killed as the native Irish took revenge. Exaggerated tales of monstrous brutality spread across Britain. The consequences were to be appalling. The rebel leaders meanwhile built on their early gains. O’Neill’s forces took large parts of Tyrone, Armagh and South Down and had captured Dundalk by the end of October 1641. On 29 November, the rebels defeated government forces in the first pitched battle of the war at Julianstown in County Meath. By then, Leinster had fallen and Drogheda was under siege. The government counterattack began in March 1642 when Scottish units under the king’s command arrived in Ulster. By the middle of May, most of Down had been recovered for the crown amid much indiscriminate violence. As conditions degenerated, leaders of the insurgency reached an agreement in Kilkenny with Old English families and the native Irish to form a Confederacy. This would act as an alternative to the existing system of Irish administration. Its supporters asserted their rights as subjects of the crown and pledged to restore Catholicism to Ireland. The Confederacy’s first general assembly in October 1642 elected a 24-member council. Owen Roe O’Neill, a veteran of Spain’s European wars, was the Irish Confederates’ best commander. The forces of the crown inflicted defeats on the rebels in set-piece battles, but could do little against guerilla warfare in the countryside.
The rebellion in Ireland was quickly overshadowed by the start of the Civil War in England which began on 22 August 1642 when King Charles raised his standard in Nottingham against parliament. The war turned the Irish conflict into a three-way struggle involving the Confederates, dominant in the west and south-west, the forces loyal to the king and the armies of parliament. A peace negotiated between the Irish Lord Deputy, the Duke of Ormond James Butler, and the Confederates in September 1643 was unpopular with the settlers.
Another peace offer made by Ormond in August 1646 was rejected by the Confederates for not providing sufficient guarantees for the Catholic Church. Finally, an alliance between the king’s supporters and the Confederates was agreed in 1647. It brought calm to much of Ireland.The interlude was brief. King Charles surrendered to parliamentary forces later that year. He tried, convicted and executed in January 1649. The king’s execution united the monarchy’s Irish supporters of all faiths. Britain’s new republican government sent Oliver Cromwell to reinforce parliamentary units already in Ireland and decisively end Irish resistance. Cromwell’s large army arrived in Dublin in August 1649 and marched north. The following month, he captured Drogheda where the garrison, Catholic priests and many civilians were massacred. In October, Wexford in the south-east was captured and a similar atrocity perpetrated. Kilkenny, the headquarters of the Confederacy, capitulated in March. Clonmel was taken after a hard fight in May.Cromwell then left Ireland, never to return. Irish nationalists regard him as a bigot who hated Catholics, a genocidal war criminal and a hypocrite who pressed for the deposition and execution of a king on the grounds of his tyranny yet dissolved parliament, ruled as a dictator and even considered having himself crowned. There is some truth in all these charges. But there is no doubt that Cromwell is a significant figure in British history. His memory is celebrated with a statue in his likeness outside the Houses of Parliament in London. It is just one example among many of the conflicting interpretations of Irish history that continue to weigh on any debate about Ireland’s future.
The parliamentary army continued the campaign in Ireland. Limerick surrendered in October 1651. Roscommon and Galway gave up in the spring of 1652. Resistance finally ended with the surrender of Inishbofin Island off the coast of Mayo on 14 February 1653 and of an island fortress on Lough Oughter in April. The British government then set about taking revenge and recovering the cost of the war. An Act of Settlement passed in August 1652 divided Irish landowners into two groups. Those that had taken part in the 1641 rebellion were sentenced to death or had their land confiscated. Those that did not had to give up their existing property and were granted land in Clare and Connacht. Cromwell is said to have declared that the Irish had two options: to go to hell or to Connacht. A contemporary Irish saying was that in Connacht there were neither trees on which to hang a man nor water in which to drown him. Of Ireland’s 20 million acres, 11 million were confiscated by the state. Four Irish counties were set aside for the government: Carlow, Cork, Dublin and Kildare. Ten went to those who supported the campaign against the Irish rebels. These were Antrim, Armagh, Down, Laois, Limerick, Meath, Offaly, Tipperary, Waterford and Westmeath. Head of the O’Sullivan Beare clan Donal Cron had joined the war against Cromwell and was forced to go into exile. Most of his land was taken over by English settlers including Sir William Petty, a supporter of Cromwell who was tasked to produce detailed maps of Ireland, and his son-in-law the Marquess of Landsdowne. Daniel O’Sullivan Mor, leader of his clan, had also joined the war against the Cromwellian forces. He was eventually surrounded at Dunkerron, but managed to escape, also to France. His lands were mainly lost to Petty and other Cromwellian settlers.
In this period, whole clans were transported west. They included the Ulster family of the O’Hanlons who finished up in Clare. Thousands of Irish people were sold as slaves to work in West Indian plantations. Their descendants in Barbados are named Red Legs because, it is believed, of the sun burn their ancestors suffered on their exposed lower limbs while working the sugar cane fields. Barbadian planters became extremely rich but were brutal. Their 1661 slave code, which was exceptionally harsh, was adopted by Jamaica then transferred to the United States when Barbadian planters founded what became the states of North Carolina and South Carolina. It is, perhaps, no coincidence that the Confederate rebellion against the Union government began in North Carolina.Catholic worship was outlawed, Catholics were banned from public life and priests were banished, imprisoned or executed. Those harbouring priests were subject to the death penalty. The ban on the use of Irish imposed by previous law was enforced. The aim was to encourage Irish Catholics to become Protestants or face physical elimination. But this early attempt at ethnic cleansing was impractical and economically damaging. Some of the harsher effects of parliamentary rule in Ireland were ameliorated after Oliver Cromwell’s younger son Henry became Ireland’s Lord Deputy in 1657 and Lord Lieutenant the following year. Oliver Cromwell, who was made Lord Protector of England, Scotland and Ireland in December 1653, died in 1658. He was succeeded by his son Richard.The new Lord Protector was forced to resign in May 1659. Army leaders decided to restore parliamentary government. The first elections in 20 years for the English parliament, held under rules that granted votes to less than 10 per cent of the male population, took place in April 1660. The majority of those elected wanted an end to instability and war. One way was to restore the monarchy.
Meanwhile, Charles I’s eldest son Charles had signaled in a statement issued from Breda in the Netherlands that he was prepared to compromise. On 25 May, responding to an invitation from parliament, he landed at Dover and was crowned King Charles II in April 1661. The new king was a Protestant, but promoted tolerance of Catholics while taking measures to limit the freedoms of non-conformist Protestant sects. Some Cromwellian Irish land confiscations were reversed, Catholic priests were released and there was a relaxation on the ban on the Catholic Mass. But Irish leaders were obliged to sign a document of loyalty in order to secure reparations. Those that didn’t were harassed.
Charles II, who converted to Catholicism on his deathbed, died with no legitimate heir in February 1685. He was succeeded by his brother James II, a Catholic convert with a Catholic wife, Mary of Modena. James further relaxed restrictions on Catholics and promoted his Catholic supporters. Protestants began to fear a Catholic restoration. When James tried to end laws against Catholics, leaders of the Church of England protested. In May 1688, his wife bore a male heir: James Edward. He was bound to be raised a Catholic, thereby ensuring a Catholic king for the indefinite future.
Conspirators contacted William of Orange, who was married to James’ Protestant daughter Mary. They asked him to intervene to save parliament and the Protestant faith. William landed at Torbay in November with a large army made up mainly of Dutch and German soldiers in the last successful foreign invasion of the UK. The conspirators, who included some of Britain’s most powerful figures, started to seize key cities. Others, including John Churchill who was to become the first Duke of Marlborough, switched sides to support William. The army was effectively in rebellion and James decided to flee London. He was intercepted but was allowed to leave at the end of the year. In exile in Paria, he plotted to recover his throne with French support.
Backing for his cause was found mainly in Ireland and among the Catholic Highlanders of Scotland. Supporters of James II (called Jacobites) seized most major Irish towns, though the gates of Derry were closed against them in December 1688. James landed in Ireland in March 1689. In June, he summoned the Irish parliament which voted to restore more confiscated land to its original owners. William’s army arrived in Ulster in August 1689 and William himself followed almost one year later. Derry, besieged by James’ army, was relieved. William and James met at the Battle of the Boyne in July 1690. James was decisively defeated and left Ireland for ever at the end of the year. The Jacobite cause in Ireland was finally crushed at Aughrim in Galway, in the bloodiest battle in Irish history, on 12 July 1691. Limerick, the final Catholic stronghold, surrendered at the end of the year. Under the terms of the treaty that ended the fighting, Irish soldiers loyal to King James were given the option of leaving Ireland and joining the French army. More than 10,000 did, forming a core of experienced fighters that served France throughout the continent. Some went on to fight for the Austrian Emperor, the King of Prussia and other European rulers.
The exiled Irish soldiers of this period were called the Wild Geese. An Irish Brigade comprising soldiers of Irish descent fought at the Battle of Fontenoy in which France defeated the British Army in 1745. Its motto “Faugh a Ballagh” was later adopted by the Royal Irish Fusiliers who were called the Faughs as a result. Descendants of the Wild Geese and other Irish exiles that subsequently fled Ireland rose to illustrious heights in their adopted country. Patrick MacMahon, whose family left Limerick after the Battle of the Boyne, became in 1873 the first president of the French third republic. Richard Hennessey from County Cork joined the French army in 1740 and subsequently founded the cognac distillery that bears his name. Robespierre, the French revolutionary leader and author of the terror to crush the enemies of the republic who was guillotined in 1794, claimed he was of Irish descent, though this has been challenged by modern historians. Charles De Gaulle, French president in 1959-69, was of part Irish descent.
The defeats at the Boyne and Aughrim were a further disaster for O’Sullivan clan leaders. Daniel O’Sullivan Mor, who had left for France following the Cromwellian wars, had returned to Ireland with his son Eoghan Rua to support King James. They went back into exile in France following the defeat. Eoghan Rua’s grandson Rory had some of the O’Sullivan Mor lands restored by Queen Anne, who succeeded William and Mary. His son Donal died in 1754 and was the last of his line. The only real survivors of the O’Sullivan clan leaders were the McGillycuddys, a name they took from the part of Kerry they lived in. Despite fighting the English in the Geraldine, Cromwellian and Williamite wars, the McGillicuddy O’Sullivans managed to retain their title and some of their lands.
The Irish exiles dreamed of returning as part of a campaign to restore Stuart rule. The first, failed Scottish Jacobite rebellion of 1715 was inspired by James’ eldest son Charles Edward, known as the “Old Pretender”. In 1745, the “Young pretender” Bonnie Prince Charlie, grandson of James II, landed in Scotland and led a Scottish army including some Irish officers on a campaign south. At Derby, the prince decided to retire to Scotland. In April 1746, his army was butchered on Culloden Field near Inverness.
Bonnie Prince Charlie’s adjutant and quartermaster was General John O’Sullivan of the Cappanacush O’Sullivan branch and the leader of a contingent of Irish cavalrymen in the Jacobite army. He followed the prince back into French exile. His son Major Thomas Herbert O’Sullivan served in the French, English and Dutch armies. The last of that line Louis O’Sullivan was US ambassador to Portugal in 1854-68. Descendants of other O’Sullivan exiles to the US include John Sullivan (1740-95), who was descended from the O’Sullivan Beares. He was a leading general in the American War of Independence. An island off the South Carolina coast is named after him. John Louis O’Sullivan, an American journalist born in Ireland, coined the phrase Manifest Destiny in an article about the future of the US which is sometimes seen to be the inspiration of contemporary ideas that the US has the right to global dominance.
Following the fall of Limerick, discrimination against Catholics was intensified by the Protestant Irish parliament, which was given additional powers by King William. Catholics were excluded from business and politics and were prevented from bequeathing land to other Catholics. Jacobite sentiment flared following the accession to the British throne in 1714 of George I, the protestant ruler of the German state of Hanover. The Dublin parliament voted in 1728 for the disenfranchisement of the small number of landed Catholics with the vote.
The early 18th century is sometimes called the peak of the Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland. Large urban schemes transformed Dublin, Limerick, Cork and Waterford. Canals and roads were built. Fabulously wealthy Protestant landowners built great houses that are still a feature of the Irish countryside. Dublin challenged London as Britain’s cultural capital. Protestant Irish writers including Jonathan Swift, author of Gulliver’s Travels, and Richard Sheridan, who created The Rivals and other celebrated theatrical works, defined the era.
Confident in the permanency of their dominance, the Protestant ruling class started to relax the penalties on Catholics. British government attitudes to Catholicism changed following the Vatican’s recognition of the Hanoverian dynasty in 1766. The penal laws were eventually rescinded. Most restrictions on Catholics were repealed in 1778-92 as new challenges emerged to British rule.
The discriminatory religious laws which weighed on Irish Catholics had been applied to Presbyterians who were systematically excluded from public life. Protestants of all sects and wealthier Catholics also found common cause in their opposition to Ireland’s subordination to the English economy. Britain’s defeat in the American war of independence inspired fresh thinking. London’s approach to governing Ireland was evolving at the same time. The French revolution of 1789 and attacks on the Catholic Church in France had turned the Vatican into a possible ally in Britain’s wars with the new French republic. Thousands of French royalists, including some of the descendants of The Wild Geese, found refuge in the UK. The ban on Catholics voting in Irish parliamentary elections was removed at London’s insistence. In 1795, the British government financed the establishment of the St Patrick’s Seminary in Maynooth to train Irish men for the priesthood. It was an example among many of the contradictions in British governance of Ireland which makes it difficult for a dispassionate historian to reach clear conclusions about this period of Ireland’s history.
But Irish discord persisted and was expanded by new grievances. Secret rural associations carried out raids against settler farms. The Irish Protestant establishment resented the remaining political limitations imposed on them by London. Life was difficult for Protestant settlers and hundreds of thousands of Scots-Irish people left Ulster for North America in the 18th and 19th centuries. Their descendants included US presidents Andrew Jackson, Ulysses S Grant and Woodrow Wilson. Celebrated Civil War general Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson was of Ulster Protestant stock. Successful Ulster migrants to the US included the Dunlop family. The Mellon family, which originated in Tyrone and founded the Mellon Bank and Gulf Oil, has memorialised its Ulster connection in the Ulster American Folk Park near Omagh. Ireland exported labourers to the British mainland, many to work seasonally on farms and on canal and railway building projects in the 19th century. Irishmen were press-ganged into the Royal Navy. Thousands joined the British Army, establishing a tradition of service for the British crown that helps explain why hundreds of thousands of Irish men voluntarily chose to fight for the UK in the 1st and 2nd world wars. When the 13 colonies broke free from British rule, sending convicts to North America became impossible. Irish prisoners, including political ones, were transported to Australia, where the first penal colony had been established in 1789 in Sydney Cove.
The perspective from London was that Ireland was of limited economic value but vital to the security of the British mainland, particularly from France. The priority was to keep the country weak and dependent. A divided community made ruling Ireland easier. But some middle class Protestants, encouraged by the successful American rebellion and the French revolution, developed an alternative non-sectarian vision for Ireland’s future. In 1791, they created the United Irishmen inspired by the assertion of their leader Theobald Wolf Tone that it would only be possible for Ireland to overcome its difficulties if Catholics, Protestants and Non-Conformist Protestants united and broke the connection with England. The United Irishmen formed an alliance with the Catholic Defenders who gathered weapons in anticipation of an Irish republican revolution. Wolfe Tone, under threat of arrest for treason, left Ireland in 1794 and fled to the US and then France. He convinced the French government to support the United Irishmen. A French invasion fleet was unable to land at Bantry Bay in December 1796 because of bad weather. The British government got wind of an impending rising and started to crack down on the United Irishmen. Their principal leaders, including its military leader Edward Fitzgerald, were arrested in March 1798. Rebellion finally broke out in May 1798, but it was fragmented. Armed with pikes and pitchforks, Irish peasant rebels were butchered in set-piece battles by the British Army, which included significant numbers of Irish soldiers. To extract information, rebel suspects were publicly tortured. Some were flogged and others subjected to half-hanging, which involved suspending the victim by a rope tied around the throat. On occasions, pitch was pasted on a victim’s head and set alight. But Ireland was divided. Many Irish Catholics and the Catholic hierarchy itself condemned the rebellion.
A French force was landed near Sligo in August 1798. But it arrived too late and was too small to affect the course of the rising. The French were quickly taken prisoner. Any Irish found with them were summarily hanged. Another expedition carried on French ships landed in west Donegal in September but left a few days later. Wolf Tone was intercepted off the coast of Donegal before he could land in October. After a botched suicide attempt, he died in prison (nationalists say he was murdered by the British). It is estimated that about 100,000 Irish people, mainly civilians, died violently during the rising. The first large-scale deportation of Irish political prisoners to Australia began.
But there was little satisfaction in London about the course of Irish events. The British government persuaded the Irish parliament, comprising houses of commons and lords, to vote itself out of existence, which it did in 1800 in the Act of Union. This created the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland which came into existence the following January. The act stipulated that 28 Irish peers and four bishops would sit in the House of Lords and provided for 100 Irish MPs in the House of Commons. The British government under William Pitt the younger secured the support of leading Catholic families for the abolition of the Irish parliament by promising political and religious concessions. But these were blocked by Protestant conservatives in Ireland and the mainland. Ireland remained an unsettled place. Robert Emmet led a second failed republican rebellion in July 1803. He was sentenced to death for treason, executed and his body quartered.
Following the end of the Napoleonic wars in 1815, Irish discontent about being ruled from London by a parliament in which Catholics were not allowed to sit produced a new political movement. The Catholic Association, led by the Irish Catholic lawyer Daniel O’Connell, was founded in 1823. In the parliamentary general elections of 1826, Catholic voters returned sympathetic MPs. O’Connell himself won a Clare by-election in 1828.The law forbade Catholics sitting in parliament. But the new Conservative parliamentary majority produced by general elections earlier that year recognised that concessions had to be made. The Duke of Wellington, victor of Waterloo who had been born in Meath, was made prime minister. He realised that a militant mood was gripping the Irish majority and convinced King George IV to concede the right to sit in parliament to Catholics. The Catholic Emancipation Act, which also allowed Catholics to become judges and take commissions in the armed forces, was passed in 1829. O’Connell’s next target was the law that obliged Catholics to pay a tithe to the Protestant Church of Ireland. He co-operated with the reforming Whig government, formed after further elections in 1835, to curb the worst excesses of the tithing system. Elementary education and a system of poor relief, established in England in 1834, were extended to Ireland. O’Connell remained dissatisfied. In 1840, he formed the Repeal Association to campaign for the end to Catholic grievances by scrapping the Act of Union and restoring an Irish parliament, which would (with Catholics voting) be dominated by native Irish. The Tories were re-elected in 1841. O’Connell’s co-operation with London ended. He adopted innovative tactics and started a campaign that appealed to the Irish people directly. A series of huge open-air meetings were held across Ireland in 1843 to apply popular pressure on London. Alarmed, the British government banned a meeting planned for Clontarf. O’Connell and his principal supporters were prosecuted for treason and sentenced to a year in prison. Without O’Connell’s energetic leadership, the Catholic Association foundered, but the demand for self-government had become the dominant factor in Irish politics.
Strong Irish economic growth in the 18th century and the improved diet brought by the extensive planting of the potato encouraged an Irish population boom. In 1821, Ireland had almost 7 million people, more than the population of England. A successful linen industry had been established in the north, but the majority of the Irish people were labourers with no land or small plots. The economy was weak and the majority depended on the potato for food. In 1800-1845, there were 18 Irish food crises. In 1845, Phytopththera Infestens, an incurable fungal disease, destroyed much of the Irish potato harvest. It struck again in three of the four subsequent years. The impact was disastrous. Weakened by hunger, tens of thousands of Irish families were unable to pay rent and were evicted. The system of relief which forced the destitute into workhouses to secure financial assistance collapsed as hundreds of thousands of rural Irish left the land to seek aid in towns.
It is estimated that about 1 million people died from starvation and hunger-related diseases in Ireland in the second-half of the 1840s. The west and south-west were most heavily affected. About 300,000 people died in Munster, which had an estimated population of 3 million people before the famine. A further 1 million left Ireland. Hundreds of thousands of migrants sailed for the US. The largest number, however, headed for the British mainland, adding to the already substantial numbers that had left Ireland in previous generations. Liverpool was the principal port used by Irish migrants fleeing starvation, but large communities developed in Manchester, Glasgow and London. The famine’s impact is indicated by the fact that the population of Ireland in 1851 had fallen to little more than 6 million from 8.5 million in 1845. It remains the most controversial topic in Irish history.
The charge that Britain deliberately allowed famine and disease to devastate Catholic Ireland for selfish political and economic reasons has been repeated by Irish nationalists. There are compelling arguments in the charge sheet. The enfranchisement of Irish Catholics in 1829 could eventually have led to their representatives becoming a dominant factor in the Houses of Parliament or, even, caused the distintegration of the UK. English landlords wanted to increase the profitability of their Irish estates by clearing people out and replacing them with grain and livestock, a process applied in England, Scotland and Wales in previous centuries. The British government was then in the grip of the pessimistic thinking of Thomas Malthus, author of the Principle of Population published in 1798. He forecast that the poor and uneducated masses would always reproduce up to the point of starvation. If that was the case, the Malthus argument went, the best policy was to let nature take its course and allow death to bring stability back to the social system. Government action would be pointless, in the long-term.
Defenders of British government policy at the time say there was no conspiracy. Once the scale of the catastrophe was recognised, efforts were made to alleviate its effects. The neutral view is that the potato blight and politics lethally coalesced to deal a crushing blow to Ireland. But it is undeniable that — lacking political representation, considered an obstruction to Irish rural improvement and viewed with a mixture of fear and contempt by Protestant England — the Catholic Irish were without effective defenders when disaster struck.
The potato famines of 1845-49 depopulated large areas of Ireland. The greatest impact was in the far west and south-west where figures show that at least 60 per cent of the population was dependent on soup kitchens and food handouts in 1847. But the figures show that practically the whole of Ireland was affected by the disaster. The famine and aspirations associated with O’Connell’s failed attempt to repeal the Act of Union by constitutional means produced the Young Ireland movement of nationalist radicals. It formulated a coherent demand for Irish self-government and launched a small-scale rebellion in the summer of 1848 led by Thomas Meagher, John Mitchel and William Smith O’Brien. It was easily repressed. The rebels were caught and convicted to transportation to Australia. Meagher subsequently escaped to the US where he played a prominent role in politics and organised the Union Army’s Irish Brigade. A new movement called the Fenian Brotherhood was formed in 1858 to organise rebellion against British rule. Following the end of the American Civil War, Irish migrants in the US financed and supported the Fenians who attempted to invade Canada from the US in 1866.Another Irish rising launched in March 1867 was again easily repressed. Four Fenians were caught and hanged for shooting a police guard in a failed attempt to free their comrades as they were being taken to court in Manchester. In December 1867, Fenians used explosives and caused 12 deaths in an attempted Fenian break-out from Clerkenwell prison. The Fenian rising failed but the events of 1867 started a new trend in British politics. Leader of the British Liberal Party William Gladstone concluded that the violence was a product of legitimate Irish grievances. His party fought and won the parliamentary elections of 1868 with reform in Ireland as a key element of its platform. Irish MPs also began to act with growing coherence in the final decades of the 19th century.
The Irish Parliamentary Party was formed and it won concessions from the British government, most notably in the area of land reform. The Church of Ireland was disestablished, all its lands except places of worship were taken away and tithes were abolished. The land taken from the church was distributed to tenants using a system of long-term government finance. But many of Gladstone’s most radical Irish reforms were blocked by the House of Lords. In 1870, Isaac Butt, an Irish MP and barrister from Dublin, founded the Home Government Association, better known as the Home Rule League, to campaign for the restoration of an Irish parliament. He advocated co-operation with London. More militant Home Rule supporters were elected to parliament in 1874. They pressed for confrontational tactics. The following year, Charles Edward Parnell was elected MP for Meath and he took over the leadership of the Home Rule Party when Butt died in 1879.
By then, conditions in Ireland had deteriorated. The collapse in farm prices due to cheap American grain imports and a further outbreak of potato blight led to emigration, death and evictions. A populist movement called the Land League was founded by the Fenian Michael Davitt to block evictions. There were attacks against landlords and their agents in what is called the Irish Land War. In October 1879, Parnell was invited to become the League’s president and establish a link between the parliamentary and non-parliamentary campaign for Irish reforms. By the end of 1880, large parts of Ireland were ungovernable. Gladstone introduced a new Land Law which addressed most of the Land League’s demands. Parnell was temporarily imprisoned for agitation but order had been restored to Ireland by the time of the 1885 elections.
The Home Rule Party won most Irish seats outside Ulster. But Gladstone and the Liberals had a slim parliamentary majority. Under pressure from Irish MPs, he submitted the 1886 Home Rule Bill which aimed to bestow limited powers to a restored all-Ireland parliament. The Conservatives opposed the bill and it failed to get through the House of Commons. Liberals opposing Home Rule founded their own party which supported the Conservatives on Irish policy. Irish MPs then divided when it emerged that Parnell had had a longstanding extra-marital relationship with Katherine O’Shea, the wife of an Irish Home Rule MP. Liberal support for Parnell also collapsed. The parliamentary environment for Irish Home Rule hopes worsened with the election of a Conservative government in 1886. The Liberals were returned to office in 1892. Gladstone submitted a second Home Rule bill the following year. It was vetoed by the House of Lords, which was dominated by Conservatives. The Conservatives and its Liberal Unionist allies won the elections later that year. The Liberal Party was to be out of office and Home Rule off the agenda for 14 years.
The Irish Parliamentary Party reunited under the leadership of John Redmond in 1900. Irish Republicans created Sinn Fein, which means Ourselves Alone, in 1905 to secure complete Irish independence. The rising demand for Irish autonomy produced the opposite effect among Ireland’s Protestant minority. They saw Home Rule as the instrument by which the Catholic Church, which was seen as repressive and backward, would dominate their lives. The Conservatives won the 1901 general election amid patriotic fervour about the 2nd Boer War. The British political pendulum swung again as the Conservatives split over a proposal for Dominion and Imperial territories to become a single market protected by a common system of tariffs. The Liberal Party, promising far-reaching economic and political reform, won the 1906 general election in a landslide. In 1910, the Liberal majority was demolished in two elections. UK Prime Minister Herbert Asquith secured his position by promising a new Home Rule bill which was put before parliament in 1912. Opposition to Home Rule among Northern Irish Protestants rose to boiling point. Hundreds of thousands signed a Solemn League & Covenant against the measure. The Protestant Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) militia was created and supplied with smuggled weapons. In March 1914, British Army officers based at the Curragh in county Kildare threatened to resign their commissions rather than suppress a unionist rebellion. The bill was passed by parliament in 1914 and became law in September but its implementation was suspended for the duration of the 1st World War which began in August that year.
Redmond, a moderate nationalist, had shown willingness to concede the temporary exclusion of Irish counties where Protestants were numerous to allow the passage of the bill as a whole. He also called on his supporters to back the war. More than 270,000 Irishmen served in the British Army during the conflict. They included Irish nationalists who believed their service would guarantee Home Rule for Ireland, and unionists who believed that fighting Germany would prevent it happening. Many in the UVF joined the 36th Ulster Division which was decimated on the first day of the Battle of the Somme on 1 July 1916.An Irish minority hoped for British defeat. Former British diplomat Roger Casement was arrested, tried and executed for treason after trying to smuggle German weapons into Ireland.
Festering discontent among nationalists erupted in the 1916 Dublin Easter Rising which was put down amid enormous carnage in Ireland’s capital. Scepticism about the rising among the Irish majority was replaced by dismay when 14 of its leaders were almost immediately tried, sentenced and shot. They included the poet Padraig Pearse and the socialist revolutionary James Connolly. The poet W B Yeats captured the mood of the time with A Terrible Beauty is Born, a hymn to the executed rebels. Irish disaffection increased when an attempt was made in 1918 to extend conscription to Ireland. The war ended in November 1918. In parliamentary elections in December, Sinn Fein won 73 seats, practically every one in Ireland outside the Protestant areas of Ulster. In January 1919, Sinn Fein MPs, who had refused to take their seats in Westminster, created the Dail Eireann, a republican assembly which sat in Dublin. Later that month, the Irish Republican Army (IRA), reorganised after the losses suffered in the Easter Rising, began a guerilla war. The government responded by forming specially-recruited units, including the notorious Black & Tans, to beat the rebels. The IRA retaliated by assassinating informers and members of the security forces.
By the summer of 1921, however, the British Army was winning the war against the IRA. But it was losing international support, particularly in the US. A truce was called in July 1921. The rebels were invited to send a team to London to agree a permanent settlement. Its negotiating team, including IRA commander Michael Collins and Sinn Fein founder Arthur Griffith, signed in December 1921 a treaty that accepted the exclusion of six of the nine Ulster countries from self-government and maintained the Irish Free State as part of the British Commonwealth.The terms of the treaty split republicans. They were rejected by Eamon de Valera, the leader of the underground government during the independence war who had been spared following the Easter Rising because he had been born in the US. A referendum, nevertheless, produced overwhelming support for the terms of the treaty, but radical republicans refused to accept partition. In June 1922, dissidents seized the Four Courts area of Dublin. It was recovered by the provisional government amid heavy fighting. The ensuing Irish civil war lasted for about a year and led to the death of prominent figures on both sides including Michael Collins.The Irish Free State delivered by the 1921 treaty was a poor country that had been stripped by partition of the industrialised north, the richest part of Ireland. The border between the 26 counties and Northern Ireland, which arbitrarily divided communities and trade routes, was ratified in 1925. It was rejected by republicans and nationalists on both sides of the frontier, but they did little to persuade the Protestant majority in the north that their rights and living standards would be protected if a united Ireland was created.
The Northern Irish parliament at Stormont was opened in 1921. It discriminated against Catholic and nationalist populations who were regarded as actually or potentially disloyal. There were outbreaks of sectarian intercommunal violence. A State of Emergency was declared that lasted until the 1960s. In the Free State, De Valera, who had played no role in the civil war, founded Fianna Fail in 1926. The party was able to form a minority government following the 1932 general election. De Valera’s protectionist vision of Irish development led to economic conflict with Britain. In 1937, a new Irish constitution was approved that maintained the claim on the whole island of Ireland. Eire was neutral throughout the course of the 2nd World War, though it co-operated with the Allies in many areas. The IRA was banned, but it continued to secure support from many Irish people. A by-product of the division was that conscription was not extended to Northern Ireland. After Belfast was bombed in May 1941, plans for conscription in the six counties were revived, but were again blocked as a result of the opposition by the Catholic hierarchy and the nationalist community. The British government realised that a larger number of Northern Irish Protestants were in reserved occupations and conscription would have fallen mainly on Catholics. The consequences might have been civil disobedience in a part of the UK that was vital for British defence. The conscription plan was dropped. The Republic of Ireland was declared in 1949, but the post-war era saw a continuation of the economic difficulties experienced before 1939. Emigration rose to levels not seen for more than 60 years. But a generation of politicians that came to power in the late 1950s set Ireland on a new path that would lead to its membership of the EU in 1973 and radical changes Ireland’s economic and social condition.
The biggest issue of the post-war period was the unsettled nature of Northern Ireland. In the early 1960s, a civil rights movement pressed for fairness in housing and votes for Northern Irish Catholics. The first killings in what are known as the troubles took place after Easter 1966 when a UVF gang shot two Catholics dead in Belfast. There was an angry response among Nationalists and demonstrations that led to clashes with the police. The tensions erupted into serious street violence in Belfast and Derry in the summer of 1969. The British Army was deployed to keep the peace. The IRA resumed its war against the Northern Ireland security forces. Seeking to neutralise the militants, the British government authorized the reintroduction of internment without trial in the summer of 1971. In January 1972, 13 civilians were killed by British soldiers during an anti-internment rally in Londonderry. Disillusioned young Northern Irish Catholics flocked to join the IRA which had by then split into two: the Official IRA, which was mainly Marxist in orientation, and the Provisional IRA, which drew its strength from working class Northern Irish communities. The majority Protestant Northern Ireland population formed their own paramilitary groups. republican and loyalist gunmen fought each other, the British Army and Northern Irish security forces. The British government lost faith in the Protestant-dominated Northern Ireland government, abolished the province’s Stormont parliament and introduced direct rule in 1972. A long war punctuated by bombings and killings ensued.
Following hunger strikes by republican prisoners in which 10 starved themselves to death in 1981, a new mood developed in the Northern Irish nationalist community which led to the re-establishment of Sinn Fein, a party connected to the Provisional IRA that sought to win local and national elections. The interest of the Republic of Ireland in Northern Irish affairs was formally accepted by British government in the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985. It echoed some of the themes of an earlier, failed attempt to involve the republic agreed in Sunningdale in 1973.
A new turning point was reached on 31 August 1994 when republican and loyalist groups declared temporary ceasefires. They were eventually made permanent. On 10 April 1998, the Good Friday Agreement set a new benchmark for reconciliation in Northern Ireland. It called for the creation of a devolved Northern Ireland Assembly which would be based on the principles of power sharing and representation for all the main parties, including Sinn Fein. The agreement, for which Official Unionist Party leader David Trimble and the leader of the mainly Catholic Social Democratic & Labour Party (SDLP) John Hume were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, was never implemented as planned. There followed almost a decade of wrangling as loyalists demanded the IRA give up all its weapons and baulked at sharing power with Sinn Fein. The process went into hibernation in 2002 following a high-profile bank raid in Northern Ireland blamed on the IRA, the murder in Belfast of a young father by men believed to be in the Provisionals and charges that Sinn Fein, which had by then emerged as the largest party supported by Catholics, was using its position in the power-sharing executive to secure confidential information.The British government made a new effort to restore the executive. At the start of 2007, Sinn Fein’s annual conference in Dublin voted to accept the conditions set by the British government for restored devolved government. On 26 March, Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams and Ian Paisley, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), announced they would work together in a new power-sharing executive. The DUP had benefited from Protestant disillusionment with the 1998 Northern Ireland agreement and had replaced the Ulster Unionist Party as the largest loyalist party. Some believe that the decision of the two most hardline Northern Irish parties to work together signals the troubles mat be finally over, though violent incidents during 2010 associated with extremists on both sides of a community that remains divided suggest that it there needs to be cautious optimism about the future.
Ireland today has emerged from the setbacks and disasters of its long history. Its economy has boomed in the last two decades due to the enterprise of its people, remittances from Irish diaspora communities, government policies that have attracted investment and promoted trade, a tourism boom and the benefits accruing from membership of the EU. Dublin became a financial centre. Ryanair is one of Europe’s best-known airlines. U2, Boyzone and West Life have transformed Ireland’s image. Anti-poverty campaigners Bono and Sir Bob Geldof are global celebrities. The Irish football team in the 1990 and 1994 World Cups were a source of national pride. The Irish rugby team consistently challenges in the Six Nation’s Championship. In a symbolic affirmation that new Ireland was willing to forget past grievances, Ireland for the first time played England at rugby at Croke Park, the hallowed national stadium for the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) where the British Army gunned down players and spectators in 1921. Ireland won comfortably.
Peace in Northern Ireland and a new sense of national identity has inspired confidence in Ireland’s future. Time will tell whether it will endure the social transformation being wrought by globalisation and the communications revolution. Irish church attendance, once almost mandatory, has declined in the past quarter century. In the Republic of Ireland, divorce is no longer unusual and abortion is legal under highly restricted circumstances. Ireland, for the first time in over two centuries, has recently attracted more people than it loses. Most Irish cities now have significant communities of new arrivals from Eastern Europe, Africa and the Middle East. A new Ireland is being born.
And yet, history is embedded in a culture that has shown a remarkable capacity to adapt to changing economic and social conditions. The sense of being the underdog that has prevailed is perhaps the steel in the Irish soul. This may explain why the Irish and their descendants so resolutely adhere to their nationality wherever they live. Today, more than 80 million people describe themselves as being of Irish descent. On 17 March each year, St Patrick’s Day is celebrated in practically every city on earth. The Irish have settled everywhere and have left their mark among many people. Che Guevara was of part-Irish descent and Irish blood flows in the veins of former World Heavyweight boxing champion Mohammad Ali. Chileans still celebrate Bernado O’Higgins, the son of an Irish immigrant who led the 19th century war of independence from Spain. But London has a special place in Irish history. It remains the one of the first places the people of Ireland choose when leaving their homeland.
Today, it is a journey of hope.
Not long ago, it was invariably a flight from despair.
One of the many who made it was Daniel O’Sullivan, the great grandfather of Ted O’Sullivan.