A Brief History of Ireland

shamrock1 Most Americans today know that Ireland is a divided island and they know that in the south, there is the Republic of Ireland and that in the north is a region that is called Northern Ireland. However, within the confines of the Emerald Isle this region in the north goes by different names depending on the speaker. To some it is called the North of Ireland and when this is the case, the speaker has probably taken a neutral stance towards the issues raised by others. To the predominately-Protestant Unionists - those who favor the status quo of union with Great Britain - the region is known as Ulster (the province of Ulster). To those who reject or refuse to recognize this union - such as the Irish Republican Army (IRA) - the region is known as The Six Counties. At any rate, this is a region of the world that has had a long and troubled history. In fact, the most recent and most violent period of this region (1968-1994), is known to the inhabitants as "The Troubles" and one wonders if it has always been this way.

The island of Ireland, on the most western edge of Europe, has been inhabited by humans since pre-historic times. About seven hundred years before the Roman Empire, the island was home to a European culture known today as the Celts. The Celtic culture of Ireland forms the base for everything that is Irish today including the native language of Ireland - Gaelic. Starting around 400 AD and down to 1000 AD, a series of migrations and invasions began that eventually resulted in Danes, Christianized Britons, and finally Normans settling on the island and mingling with the native Celtic population of Ireland. As for my Irish ancestors, there is no way to determine when they first arrived in Ireland. It is probably safe to say that I am a mix of all the groups that settled in Ireland before the mid-19th century famine that caused the death of millions of Irish and the same number of Irish to sail to America to seek a better life. This could even include my being a product of the so-called Black Irish who are supposedly descendents of the thousand or so Spanish Armada sailors who sought refuge in Ireland after Spain’s failed attempt at an invasion of England in 1588. However, the Black Irish/Spanish Armada connection is somewhat of a historical myth, because most the Spanish sailors who landed at Ireland either died on the beaches and the majority of those who did not drown, escaped to Spain after a short time.

The modern history of Northern Ireland begins about the time of the Spanish Armada during the reign of England’s Elizabeth I. It was in this period (the late 1500s) that England and Ireland fought a war that is known as the Nine Years War. The cause of this war is of little consequence in light of the results and it is sufficient to say that it was a war between the Catholic nobility in the North of Ireland against the Protestant (Anglican) crown of England. The result of this long and bloody war was that in 1607, the Gaelic Catholic nobility of Northern Ireland that survived the war vacated their lands on the island and fled to refuge in Catholic Europe in what has come to be known as the Flight of the Earls. Starting around 1610, the crown of England instituted a plan for Ireland known as the migrations and the plantations. This was a program by which peoples from England and Scotland who were considered undesirable by the crown, but less dangerous than the Catholic Irish - that is, Presbyterians and other non-conformists - were forced to relocate and allowed to take possession of the lands that had been vacated or forfeited by the Gaelic nobles. In some areas of Northern Ireland, such as the counties of Antrim and Down, the ravages of the war had depopulated the area thus creating a vacuum that was filled by these groups from other parts of the British Isles.

In answer to this "Protestant Invasion", there was, in 1641, a Catholic uprising and from that time down through the fifties there was almost non-stop warfare that came as an overflow from the English Civil War and the reign of the two Cromwell’s. Unspeakable atrocities were committed by both sides of the religious question; creating a poisoned environment that exists even to this day. Following the Glorious Restoration there was a brief period of peace, but when James II, a Roman Catholic, assumed the throne after the death of his father, Charles II, the troubles began again. Forty years after the previous period of war, Catholics and Protestants were fighting each other once again. From 1688 to 1691, the Jacobites (supporters of James II) fought against the Protestants of Ulster who were supported by the Dutch Prince William, son-in-law of James II and husband of James’ daughter, Mary. In December of 1688, the Jacobites laid siege to the city of Derry, a major port on the north coast of Ulster. The siege lasted nearly eight months and was finally lifted by English forces sent by William. In a series of short but bloody battles fought in July of 1689, the Protestants defeated the Catholics. Today these victories - the lifting of the siege of Derry, the Battle of the Boyne, and the Battle of Aughrim - are celebrated annually by Unionists with marches through the streets of Ulster towns. In recent times, the marches have resulted in violent riots as the Protestant Unionists, through their pro-Union and anti-Papist displays, have antagonized the Catholic inhabitants of the poorer sections in cities and towns of the north.

The century that followed the Flight of the Earls and the Siege of Derry actually saw a spark of Irish unity that flared up in the later part of the 18th century. This came about from what occurred in the early part of the 1700′s when the English, first under William and then under Anne, began to enact and enforce a series of statutes known as the Penal Laws. These statutes were instigated by the Protestant conquerors of Ireland and were instituted and enforced by the crown of England. These laws were anti-Catholic laws that said that anyone who professed the Roman Catholic religion had no rights whatsoever. They could not own land, they could not sit in Parliament, nor could they vote in elections. It was forbidden for a Roman Catholic to bear arms, to attend school at a university, to join the navy, or even to go to school abroad. There was an elaborate set of laws that allowed for converts within a family to overtake the ownership of property from one’s relations. In other words, if a son were to become a Protestant, he could deprive his Catholic father of the father’s property. These laws caused such a problem for the whole of Ireland that by the end of the century many Protestants began to side with Catholics in opposition to these laws. The Age of Enlightenment and the revolutions in America and France, brought Presbyterians and Catholics together in calling for an end to the Penal Laws and also brought the whole of Ireland to the brink of an all out revolt against the British. The Irish "rebellion" of the early 1790′s was short lived as changes in the economy of the island cast as shadow over the political aspirations of Irish nationalists. The end of the decade saw a resurgence of sectarian violence. In what is known as the Rebellion of 1798, Irish Catholic nationalists known as the Defenders began to fight in the streets and in the countryside against the Anglican "Peep o’Dawn Boys". It would seem that just as the two opposing groups were about to overcome their ethno-religious differences in favor of national unity, their differences in religion and ethnicity had evolved into political differences spurned on by changes in the economy. This could be seen as a textbook example of the class warfare, predicted in the writings of Marx, which results from a failed revolution and an early example what is occurring today (2006) in Iraq.

At the start of the 19th century, Ulster was the most prosperous province of Ireland. This region saw the first introduction of industrialization to the island and in Belfast, the dockyards and shipyards in that port city were in high demand for both the building of ships and shipping commerce in general. It is in this period that the first of my known Irish ancestors were born.