This article was first published in the June 2011 issue of BBC History Magazine
An island people the Irish may be, yet the history of Ireland has never been insular or inward-looking. Instead, it is a story of a people profoundly aware of the wider world – its threats, its possibilities and its advantages.
In addition, while the English and British connection will always remain key to any reading of Irish history, an array of other powers, including Spain, France, the papacy and the United States, have left their mark on the nation. In its turn, Ireland has reached out to influence the world: playing a part in Europe’s bitter power struggles; influencing the evolution of British parliamentary democracy; and helping to shape the growth of the United States into a global superpower.
Here are just a few key moments that have helped to define the course of Irish history…
The coming of the gospel to Ireland
The spread of Christianity in fifth-century Ireland is inextricably linked in the public mind with the iconic figure of Patrick: miracle-working missionary, canny politician and snake-banishing national saint. Yet the historical facts are rather different – for Christianity had in fact taken root in Ireland well in advance of Patrick’s mission. The Irish were in the habit of plundering the long western seaboard of Roman Britain in search of booty – and the first Christians in Ireland, therefore, were most likely Britons carried across the sea as slaves.
In AD 431, Rome dispatched a bishop to minister to these “Irish believing in Christ” – and this was not Patrick but the shadowy Palladius, an aristocratic Briton or Gaul who has been elbowed by Patrician hagiographers out of the Irish story.
The development of Christianity was fundamental to the evolution of an Irish cultural identity, led to the creation of such glories of early Irish art as the Book of Kells and the Ardagh Chalice, and helped to maintain the flame of learning and education in Europe during the chaotic centuries that followed the fall of Rome.
The arrival of Henry Plantagenet in Ireland
In the summer of 1167, a small band of Anglo-Norman adventurers sailed from Pembrokeshire and landed on the County Wexford coast. Within two years, the Norse ports of Wexford, Waterford and Dublin had fallen; and the Gaelic Irish were mustering against these potent newcomers on the Irish political scene.
In October 1171, Henry Plantagenet – King Henry II – himself arrived in Ireland, anxious to underscore his authority, and to add this promising new dominion to his extensive Anglo-French empire.
It was a seismic moment in Irish history, marking the establishment of the Lordship of Ireland: in effect, the first English colony. Three decades later, Henry’s successor John lost control of Normandy – after which the attention of the English crown became even more focused on its Irish possessions.
The Lordship itself survived for almost 400 years – in the process enduring the ravages of a Scots invasion, the Black Death and an indigenous Irish resurgence – until Henry VIII proclaimed himself king in 1541, thus formally uniting England and Ireland under one crown.
The Plantation of Ulster
In the spring of 1606, a wave of Scots settlers – farmers, craftsmen, artisans – crossed the narrow waters of the North Channel and came ashore at the port of Donaghadee in County Down. This was the beginning of the Plantation of Ulster: a systematic British and Protestant settlement of the northern half of Ireland – which until this point had remained the most obdurately Gaelic and Catholic part of the country.
With the defeat of a Spanish expeditionary force at Kinsale in County Cork at Christmas 1601 came the definitive victory of English military power in Ireland – a fact emphasised by the ‘Flight of the Earls’ in 1607, when a large proportion of Ulster’s Gaelic aristocracy fled Ireland for the continent. The Plantation set the seal on this new order: by 1640, some 30,000 colonists had arrived in Ulster; and many of the remaining Gaelic landowning families had been expelled from their lands.
The Plantation represented the onset of a cultural cataclysm for Gaelic society, and marked the beginning of a chaotic and violent century in Ireland. Most significantly, sectarian tensions became an intrinsic aspect of life in Ulster – with consequences that continue to be felt to this day.
The sack of Drogheda
In August 1649, Oliver Cromwell and his New Model Army landed at Dublin. The Civil War in England had come to an end with the execution of Charles I, and Cromwell was eager now to settle affairs in Ireland, where anarchy reigned and the royalist faction retained significant support.
Cromwell marched 30 miles north along the coast to the royalist-held port of Drogheda. By 10 September, the town was surrounded; on the next day, its walls were breached, and there followed the dreadful sack of Drogheda, in which much of the town’s population – Catholics and Protestants, English and Irish – were indiscriminately put to the sword.
Later, the town of Wexford was similarly sacked, and by 1660, up to a quarter of the Irish population had died from the effects of war and disease. The events of these years help to explain why Cromwell, viewed in English history as a democrat, is remembered in Ireland as a genocidal maniac. One Englishman, however, fully understood the profound impact of the siege of Drogheda. Winston Churchill remarked that it “cut new gulfs between the nations and the creeds. Upon all of us there still lies the curse of Cromwell.”
The battle of Aughrim
The Battle of Aughrim was fought on the flat landscapes of County Galway in July 1691. It epitomised the final defeat of Catholic Ireland, and the beginning of an uncontested Protestant ascendancy in Ireland. The battle, however, was also part of a much larger geopolitical process that encompassed a ferocious struggle for supremacy in Europe between the French crown and a grand alliance of England, Holland and a cluster of other powers. William of Orange had usurped the British crown in 1689, forcing his father-in-law, James II, to flee to France and on to Ireland. As a result, Ireland became the scene of a series of battles, the ripples from which would be felt across Britain and Europe.
The Williamite Wars were fought at Derry/Londonderry, Enniskillen and on the fords of the river Boyne, where William emerged victorious in a clash with James. But it was at Aughrim that Ireland’s remaining Catholic elite, together with its French allies, was cut down in the boggy fields. Here, both the fate of the country and William’s hold on the throne were settled, once and for all.
An Argument on Behalf of the Catholics of Ireland
Wolfe Tone stands as one of Ireland’s most compelling and charismatic national leaders. Born in Dublin in 1763, his political vision was sharpened as he watched revolutionary events unfold first in America and then France. He dreamt of a radical, non-sectarian Irish republic – and his 1791 pamphlet An Argument on Behalf of the Catholics of Ireland was envisaged as a necessary first step, calling as it did for the emancipation of Ireland’s disenfranchised Catholic majority.
The pamphlet drew the attention of many: soon, the Society of United Irishmen was established in Belfast by a group of (equally disenfranchised) Presbyterian merchants and manufacturers who thrilled to Tone’s revolutionary vision. This was a moment when disparate elements in Irish society looked beyond the confines of sectarian politics and towards the politics of a wider world. Yet the failure of the Rising of 1798 – and the sectarian element that once more rose to the surface during that violent Irish summer – ensured that such a vision never became a reality.
Tone himself committed suicide in November 1798, while held in military custody. Two years later, the Act of Union bound Britain and Ireland even closer together.
Daniel O’Connell and Catholic Emancipation
By the 1830s, a new leader had emerged onto the national stage. Daniel O’Connell was as Catholic as Wolfe Tone had been atheist. His vision was of an Ireland in which Catholicism and national identity were folded into one; and he understood the importance of enlisting the mass of the population as a means of achieving his vision of the repeal of the Act of Union.
O’Connell probed the limits of constitutionality, appreciating how the threat of popular unrest could be deployed to achieve his ends. His Catholic Association, for example, rapidly became a disciplined mass movement working towards the initial goal of Catholic Emancipation. This duly came about in 1829, as the British government recognised the possibility of anarchy in Ireland – and took fright.
And yet O’Connell never achieved his dream of repeal. His legacy instead lies in the lessons he presented on the possibilities inherent in mass politics – lessons absorbed by observers abroad as well as at home. Furthermore, he never forgot the opportunities offered by a modern media and a shrinking world. After O’Connell, the Irish Question was debated not only in Ireland and in Britain – but with passion too in America.
In September 1845, as the first potatoes were being lifted in fields across Ireland, word began to spread of a disease affecting the new crop. The potatoes were coming out of the ground rotten and putrid. Blight was spreading across the countryside. The famine would continue until 1849 – and its effects upon Irish society were cataclysmic.
Of a pre-famine population of some eight million, over a million died of hunger and famine-related diseases – and for Irish nationalists, it became a truism that “the Almighty sent the potato blight but the English created the famine”.
It was perhaps inevitable that the collective trauma brought about by the years of hunger would be distilled and heaped, in rage and grief, onto the heads of the British government. The truth was that government inaction, willfulness and incomprehension did indeed exacerbate the effects of the famine – although these facts did not, as claimed by many Irish nationalists, imply an intention to create famine in order to diminish Ireland.
A century later, the Irish population was still in decline. Emigration was a wound that simply could not be staunched, and the consequent growth of a vast Irish diaspora abroad changed for ever the relationship between Ireland and the rest of the world.
Fifteen leaders of the Easter Rising are executed
In the course of nine days in May 1916, 15 men were escorted from their dank cells at Dublin’s Kilmainham Gaol to the stonebreakers’ yard on the edge of the prison to be executed by firing squad.
The men were leaders of the Easter Rising, which had exploded across central Dublin in late April. One of them, the labour activist James Connolly, had had his ankle injured by a sniper’s bullet and was executed while being strapped to a chair. The Rising had been defeated in a matter of days. Much of central Dublin was left shattered by fire, gunfire and bombardment, and most of the casualties of the fighting were civilians.
As a result, public opinion was not especially supportive of the rebels – but the decision of the British authorities to execute the ringleaders proved decisive, altering the public mood overnight. The 15 men became heroes and political opinion was radicalised. The scene was now set for five tumultuous years that resulted in the end of British rule across most of Ireland, and the establishment in 1922 of the Irish Free State.
On 30 January 1972, a civil rights march was winding slowly from the western suburbs of Derry towards the Guildhall Square in the city centre. Such marches were commonplace: since 1968, Northern Ireland had become accustomed to the sight of public demonstrations demanding equal rights for the province’s Catholic minority; and an end to Unionist-majority rule. On this day, however, the march ended in tragedy as British soldiers opened fire on the crowd. Soon, 13 men lay dead; a 14th died later of his injuries.
The army claimed that IRA operatives in the crowd had fired first, and the resulting public inquiry accepted this version of events. Bloody Sunday was by no means the most violent day of the Northern Ireland Troubles – but the fact that the 14 men had been killed by the forces of the state itself lent a ghastly distinction to the event. The effects of Bloody Sunday continued to be felt for years. Catholic public opinion was inflamed, and support for the IRA and other terrorist groups grew apace.
Thirty eight years would pass before a new British government inquiry exonerated the victims, finding that the army’s actions had been “unjustified and unjustifiable”.
The Good Friday Agreement
For many, a solution to Northern Ireland’s 20th‑century Troubles seemed impossible. The taproots of the conflict appeared sunk too deeply into a history of sectarian bitterness and economic rivalry, political differences were insurmountably great, and the wider context of grievance between the British and Irish states added yet further layers of difficulty to an already fraught situation.
Throughout the years of the Troubles, however, conversation and negotiation had continued – usually under deeply unprepossessing circumstances – and ultimately a political solution was indeed found. In April 1998, the Belfast or ‘Good Friday’ Agreement was signed, setting out a framework for future political progress in Northern Ireland. The key to progress had been the internationalisation of the discussions – and in particular the close involvement of the Bill Clinton White House in the protracted negotiations.
The political process in Northern Ireland has continued to be dogged by failures of trust, communication and negotiation. But there is a sense that the past is now definitively past, and that there can be no return to the years of violence.
Neil Hegarty is the author of Story of Ireland (BBC Books, 2011) and Dublin: A View from the Ground (Piatkus, 2008).