A Brief History of Ireland
In 1014, the High King of Ireland, Brian Boru, was killed by Norse invaders in battle at Clontarf, ending Ireland’s brief history as a (relatively) united political entity. The next 150 years were marked by conflict and alliances amongst regional chieftains in attempts to succeed Brian Boru as an unchallenged High King. Some came close, but none were able to create a lasting dynasty with authority over the entire island. In 1170 however, the dynamics of Irish history were to change forever. The Earl of Pembroke, Richard fitz Gilbert de Clare (Strongbow), landed a large force in Leinster on the invitation of its King, Dermot MacMurrough, who had been exiled following a dispute with the High King and his vassals. Militarily speaking, his forces, technology and tactics were far superior to those of native Irish warriors, who found themselves unable to resist the invaders. Strongbow was motivated by personal power, having been offered MacMurrough’s daughter in marriage, and hence the Kingdom of Leinster after his father-in-law had died. This was a concern for Strongbow’s own master, King Henry II of England, who soon made the invasion a royal enterprise so as to keep the Earl under his control. As a result, some historians have argued that England’s entrance into Irish politics was little more than an accident, undertaken merely to guarantee that rebel lords would not create a powerful rival Kingdom across the Irish Sea. Nevertheless, although Henry II had been unwilling to initiate an invasion of Ireland, he proved extremely quick to act once one of his vassals had started the process for him. In addition, the invasion coincided with the pontificate of the only English pope in history. That this pope immediately congratulated Henry II and granted papal approval for the invasion must raise serious questions of the “accidentalist” theory for the Anglo-Norman invasion of Ireland.
Once in Ireland, the royal troops soon began to consolidate control thanks to their superior forces. Native Irish warriors lacked armour, archers, cavalry, or permanent fortifications. Irish ring forts were poor substitutes for Norman motte-and-baileys, tower houses and castles. Heavy Norman cavalry units were able to decimate light Irish skirmishers and the rapid construction of castles soon obliged the majority of Irish chieftains to seek peace agreements with Henry II. The process of heavy encastelation was not unique to Ireland, even if it had not taken place in England following the Norman conquest of 1066. The rapid construction of permanent and semi-permanent fortifications was common in most areas of near constant conflict, most noticeable in Spain and in western France. Castles provided an element of stability, and their presence alone was often enough to dissuade revolts and uprisings. However, the drawback from a King’s point of view was that he could not afford to pay for the construction of hundreds of castles, and so this task was often delegated to his Earls and Barons. These lords soon began to feel secure not only from the threat of their native “subjects”, but also from that of their King back in England. Ironically, by 1200, this had led to King John granting concessions to native Irish lords at the expense of the Anglo-Norman aristocracy who had conquered them. This sparked off another period of intense castle building, as tensions rose between the King, his Anglo-Irish subjects and his Irish subjects. After a number of senior lords had been dispossessed and exiled, the majority of the Anglo-Norman nobles were close to a state of rebellion by 1208. In 1210, King John personally led an army of over 1800 troops to Ireland. Just like his father in 1170, John’s intention was not to crush Irish resistance, but that of his own subjects, whom he believed to be becoming too powerful and too independent.
As some Irish chieftains sought to ingratiate themselves with the English monarchy, so some Anglo-Normans began to identify with their new Irish subjects. As these social groupings moved closer together, a new “Anglo-Irish” ruling class developed, which saw itself as being distant both from the English aristocracy and from the Irish peasants over whom they ruled. Many of these new lords embraced the Irish language and culture, much to the embarrassment of many back in England. In 1366, the Statutes of Kilkenny were passed, banning Norman lords from adopting Irish language, music, dress or hairstyles. This proved very difficult to enforce however, and many Anglo-Irish lords continued to patronise Irish culture, with some even inviting musicians and poets to perform in their homes. Others established centres of education and adopted Irish laws, continuing to exist somewhere between the two cultures on either side of the Irish Sea. To their Anglo-Norman associates, these “English born in Ireland” became mocked as “degenerates” and “Irish Hobbes”. By the turn of the fifteenth century, the area of royal authority had shrank to the area around Dublin which became known as “the Pale”. The changing attitudes of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy reached their apex with the ascendancy of the Earls of Kildare. These men ruled Ireland independently of England, and whilst they still saw themselves as being above the average Irishmen, they also were keen to distance themselves from the King of England. By 1534, Kildare was in open revolt, as the Earl seized the armaments from Dublin castle and used them to fortify his personal stronghold. His numerous enemies flocked to Henry VIII, and the brief rebellion was ended when the last Earl of Kildare received a mortal wound from a crossbow bolt in Birr, County Offaly. He died shortly afterwards in his castle in Maynooth. After this threat had ended, English rulers were keen to ensure that a similar problem was not allowed to develop again.
Under Henry VIII and his daughter Elizabeth, royal authority in Ireland began to be enforced to an unprecedented degree. Irish laws and customs would no longer be tolerated, whilst all lands were seized and would only to be returned upon the acceptance of absolute royal authority. The new Irish administration was staffed by English born bureaucrats and politicians, whilst an increased number of Englishmen were also transferred to the military forces stationed in Ireland. Far from stabilising Ireland, this shift in policy prompted countless rebellions by both the Gaelic chiefs and the Anglo-Irish nobles. Political unrest was accompanied by religious unrest after Elizabeth’s failed attempt to extend the Reformation to Ireland. However, the potential threat of interference by a Catholic third party such as Spain led to Elizabeth wisely scaling back her attempts to convert Ireland to Protestantism. The final Gaelic revolt came form the Earl of Tyrone, Hugh O’Neill in 1595. After a few early victories, he gained allies in both Ulster and Spain, before finally facing the main royal force at Kinsale in 1601. O’Neill was defeated, and although he was pardoned, he eventually went into voluntary exile in 1607, an event known as the “Flight of the Earls”. Once the Earls of Tyrone and Tirconnell had left, the counties of Donegal, Tyrone, Derry and Armagh were forfeited to the crown and, along with Cavan and Fermanagh, became the focus for a plantation of English and Scottish settlers.
It would not be long before tensions arose between the native inhabitants of Ulster and the new settlers. In many ways, the plantation of Ulster was the culmination of centuries of efforts to subdue Ireland by destroying Irish culture. Attempts to outlaw Irish culture had previously proven difficult to enforce with Anglo-Irish nobles ruling over Irish peasants. Hence the simple but brutal solution was simply to replace the Irish peasants of Ulster with settlers from England and Scotland. By 1641, Irishmen in Ulster had joined with the old Anglo-Irish aristocracy of the south in open rebellion against the plantation. Political unrest in England polarised religious divides in Ireland, uniting these twos groups which had so often been at war with one another. Atrocities were committed by Anglo-Irish, Irish, settler and English alike, and the tragedies only escalated when a victorious Oliver Cromwell crossed the Irish Sea in 1649. Beginning with Drogheda, Cromwell made good use of the cannon crews which had fought for him in the English Civil War. Half a millennium beforehand, lightly armed Irish troops had been crushed by Norman cavalry and suppressed and intimidated by the great castles and fortifications which crept across the country. However, by the time of Cromwell, these once high-tech developments were almost rendered obsolete by the development of artillery. Nobles in Ireland once felt secure in their fortified homes, but little was now left standing in the wake of Cromwell’s forces sweeping across the country. The ruthlessness of Cromwell’s campaign culminated with the expulsion of all Catholic landowners to Connaught.
By 1685 however, the Catholic James II was on the English throne, and Catholics once more were able to reach high office in Ireland. Furthermore, the Catholic dominated Irish Parliament passed an Act revoking Cromwell’s land settlement. Before this act could be enacted however, rumours began to circulate suggesting that James II be overthrown and replaced by William of Orange. Derry shut its gates on royal troops in 1688, and endured a siege which was eventually only broken by a number of ships breaking through the King’s artillery and bringing supplies to the city. In 1690 William of Orange arrived in person and was victorious at the Battle of the Boyne. The last Catholic armies surrendered the following year. In 1695, the first penal laws were enacted against Irish Catholics. Considering the historical precedents for Ireland under English rule, a harsh reaction to the unrest of previous years was quite predictable. The penal laws dominated much of the eighteenth century, and had not really ceased to be in effect until the 1790s. By that time, the Parliament in Dublin had won back legislative independence from Westminster, largely as a result of the work of the “Patriot” Party led by Henry Grattan. However, these moderate reforms were soon overwhelmed by the change in thinking which followed the American and French revolutions. Armed rebellion once more became the focal point for Irish nationalists, most notably Theobald Wolfe Tone, who in 1796 landed at Bantry Bay with a French Republican force. Wolfe Tone was captured and committed suicide in captivity, but inspired other violent and equally unsuccessful attempts at revolution.
By 1800, the English government had had enough, and so manipulated the Irish Parliament into voting itself out of existence. Thousands of pounds disappeared from secret funds and anonymous Irish parliamentarians suddenly received titles, lands and peerages. In return, they committed political suicide and returned full authority over Ireland to Westminster. However, beyond Robert Emmett’s abortive revolt in 1803, there was little in the way of violent resistance to this move, certainly when contrasted with the response of Northern settlers to James II’s reforms in 1688. Instead, Daniel O’Connell emerged as the driving force in Irish politics. O’Connell had utterly condemned Robert Emmett in 1803, and was opposed to all forms of violence. Although most of the penal laws were gone by the time O’Connell came to prominence, Catholics were still prevented from being elected to Parliament. This was in spite of the fact that this had been promised to the Irish Parliament as another part of the deal leading to the Act of Union in 1800. Successive British governments proposed Catholic Emancipation repeatedly between 1800 and 1828, only to be foiled either by the House of Commons or the House of Lords. O’Connell’s solution was quite simple: he put himself up for election in County Claire and won a seat. He simply turned up at Westminster in 1829 and as a de facto member of Parliament was admitted with an amended oath. Once more however, methods of political reform were once more to be undermined by tragedy in Ireland. When the Great Famine struck in 1845, living standards dropped disastrously and the previously dormant disputes over land ownership flared up once more. Agrarian violence became commonplace, as did the formation of numerous secret organisations which resolved to organise the intimidation and killing of landlords and rent-collectors.
It was in this context that the Fenian movement developed. Organised by the Irish Republican Brotherhood, the Fenian Uprising of 1867 exploited agrarian unrest whilst drawing on the support of Irish immigrant communities in America and England: yet another consequence of the famine. Nevertheless, a lack of coordination resulted in failure, and the IRB resolved to temporarily abandon the principle of armed revolt in favour of any means towards Irish independence. Charles Stewart Parnell was a man who sympathised with the Fenians, although like O’Connell he thoroughly detested violence in all its forms. Parnell’s popularity as an Irish nationalist politician is remarkable for the fact that he was a Protestant landowner. Such an example must throw serious doubt over the importance of religion in Ireland’s “troubles”, even in relation to present day unrest in Ulster. Parnell held together an Irish political body which was able to wield a heavy influence over parliaments in which the government held only a slim majority. In addition, he used his famous “Obstructionist” tactic by which he thoroughly disrupted the House of Commons by making rambling speeches for hours on end, often on topics which were of no relevance to the debates of the House. Ultimately, Parnell’s successes in pushing Ireland closer to political independence were undermined by something as mundane as a personal affair with a married woman. Political outrage in Westminster was accompanied by pressure from the Catholic Church, both of whom were keen to eliminate Parnell as an enemy and a rival.
Even without Parnell, the Home Rule party did struggle on until the General Election of 1910, when they found themselves deciding the balance of a House split almost equally between the Liberals and the Tories. In return for Irish support, the Liberal leader Asquith removed the Lords’ veto over the Commons in the Parliament Act of 1911, before finally passing the Home Rule Bill in 1912. John Redmond, leader of the home Rule Party, seemed to have secured more than any other Irishman since 1800. However, not to be beaten, the Conservatives decided that if the Liberals were to espouse the cause of House Rule, then they would support the Unionist movement in Ulster. What followed was one of the most shameful episodes in British history, when the Parliamentary Opposition went unhindered as they illegally supplied arms to the newly founded Ulster Volunteer Force and incited the British garrison in Ireland to mutiny. Combined with the outbreak of the First World War, this threat caused the British Government to suspend the Home Rule Bill, ostensibly until the end of the war.
Some nationalists were not willing to fight for Britain in this war however, nor were they willing to wait for the war’s conclusion to gain independence. Even if the Home Rule Bill had been enforced, which was looking increasingly unlikely, it was argued that it did not go nearly far enough in giving Ireland autonomy over its own governance. Over the next two years, the IRB and Irish Volunteers therefore planned an uprising centred on Dublin. This came to fruition in Easter 1916. However, although the rising had been planned in significant detail, this is not particularly apparent from its execution. For a start, there was an unreasonable assumption that once the rising had begun, sporadic rebellions would break out across the country culminating in the overthrow of British rule. Also, the targets for the rising in Dublin were not particularly astute. Although centres of communication are important in a coup, Dublin’s General Post Office was not a particularly important building, nor did it hold any real strategic value. No attempts was made to storm Dublin Castle. Nor did any volunteers attempt to seize Trinity College, in spite in the fact that it housed the army’s Officer Training Corps, had an armoury of several hundred rifles, and had very little in the way of security. The college would later be used as a base by British forces in organising overwatch positions on the Liffey and the Southern end of Sackville Street (O’Connell Street). The rising was soon crushed without having generated any momentum for revolution in the rest of the country. However, although most people had little sympathy for the rebels, they were outraged when the government began the summary executions of its leaders. Public support gradually shifted towards Sinn Fein, at the expense of Redmond and the other more moderate parties.
In 1918, Sinn Fein secured the greatest number of Irish votes in the general election, announcing this to be a mandate for self-governance. The Dail Eireann was created that same year, choosing simply to ignore the British authorities and govern Ireland as though they did not exist. This was accompanied by three major tactics. The first was to seek foreign recognition and support, particularly from the United States, and although the unofficial President Eamon De Valera did not gain recognition from President Wilson, he did at least raise the awareness of the cause of Irish Independence. The second was a reliance on guerrilla warfare. The IRA had learnt from history, and was not foolish enough to confront the British army in conventional battle. Brigades in Cork, Claire and Tipperary were particularly successful, with the creation of “Flying Columns” of fighting men providing the high manoeuvrability necessary for guerrilla warfare. Finally, there was the covert war run by the ‘Minister for Finance’ and ‘Minister without Portfolio’ Michael Collins. The vast majority of attempted rebellions in Irish history were destroyed by two factors: poor organisation and infiltration by British police and security services. Collins sought to negate the chances of similar failures by launching a campaign dedicated to targeting the police, intelligence services and their informers. He recruited republican sympathisers in the Dublin administration, whilst enforcing paranoid security protocols to make sure that the British could not do the same to him. At the same time, he recruited a full time squad of assassins to target members of the special branch and secret intelligence service. They operated in teams with large calibre revolvers, combining patience with an utter ruthlessness. It was largely their actions which finally drove Lloyd George to the harsh acts of retribution which horrified not only the ordinary Irish population, but also the rest of the world. In 1921, De Valera ordered the IRA to step up its campaigns in Dublin, which finally forced the British government to try a different approach: they offered to negotiate. However, only Collins and the IRA Chief of Staff Richard Mulcahy knew how weak the Dublin Brigade was by the end of 1921, and it is highly unlikely that any deal would have been offered had Lloyd George been aware of its status.
The deal reached in London gave Ireland independence in all but name. It would become a “Free State” instead of a “Republic” and its leaders would have to give an oath of allegiance to the King. In addition, the North was to remain, at least temporarily, under British control. Considering the alternatives to accepting this offer, it was not surprising that Collins promoted it keenly as “stepping stone to a republic”. Only a few rural brigades of the IRA would have been able to keep up the war for any prolonged period of time, and they were sufficiently isolated in the West that British government could have continued adequately in the main part of the country. The treaty was ratified in the Dail in January 1922, and control of the country was handed over shortly afterwards. Not all were content with this compromise, and Northern Ireland remains an issue of debate to this day. Nevertheless, 1922 was the biggest turning point in Irish history since 1170, simply because after more than 700 years, foreign influence had finally been removed from the vast majority of the island.
Graduate of the School of History, Trinity College Dublin
Please note, this is not to be taken as an authoritative guide to Irish History. It covers too wide a period to deal with any specific era or event in great detail. A reliable bibliography of works can be provided on request.
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