Map of Ireland

History of Ireland

History of Ireland
Early history
Protestant Ascendancy
Union with Great Britain
History of the Republic
History of Northern Ireland
Economic history

Irelandis an island in north-western Europe. The first settlers arrived between 8000 and 7000 BC; these were followed by the first Celtic-speaking people between 700 and 500 BC and Viking settlers in the ninth century AD. Until the fifteenth century Ireland was a patch-work of competing kingdoms and over-kingdoms. English involvement in Ireland began with the arrival of the Normans in the tenth century, but England did not have full control until the whole island had been conquered in 1653.

Prior to 1801 Ireland enjoyed a self-governing status under the Parliament of Ireland, but was ruled by its Anglo-Irish, Protestant minority. In 1801 this parliament was abolished and Ireland became an integral part of a new United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland under the Act of Union. In 1922, after the War of Independence, the southern twenty-six counties of Ireland seceded from the United Kingdom (UK) and became the independent state known today as the 'Republic of Ireland'. The remainder of the island, known as 'Northern Ireland', remained part of the UK.

After independence in 1922 the southern state suffered from economic difficulties and mass emigration for many decades. However since the 1990s the Republic has been enjoying economic success. Since its establishment the history of Northern Ireland has been dominated by sectarian conflict between Catholics and Protestants. This conflict erupted into the Troubles in the late 1960s.

1 Early history (c8000 BC - 800 AD)
2 Early medieval era (c800 - 1100)
3 Norman invasion and aftermath (1169-1536)
4 Reformation and Protestant Ascendancy (1536-1801)
5 Union with Great Britain (1801-1922)
6 History since partition

6.1 Irish Independence: The Irish Free State, Éire/Ireland, The Republic of Ireland
6.2 Northern Ireland

7 Footnotes
8 Sources
9 Further reading
10 See also
11 External links

Early history (c8000 BC - 800 AD)

Main article: Early history of Ireland

Ireland during the Ice Age.

What little is known of pre-Christian Ireland comes from a few references in Roman writings, Irish poetry and myth, and archaeology. The earliest inhabitants of Ireland, people of a mid-Stone Age, or Mesolithic, culture, arrived sometime after 8000 BC, when the climate had become more hospitable following the retreat of the polar icecaps. About three or four millennia later, agriculture was introduced from the continent, leading to the establishment of a high Neolithic culture, characterised by the appearance of huge stone monuments, many of them astronomically aligned (most notably, Newgrange). This culture apparently prospered, and the island became more densely populated. The Bronze Age, which began around 2500 BC, saw the production of elaborate gold and bronze ornaments and weapons.

The Iron Age in Ireland is associated with the Celts, a people who spread across Europe and the British Isles in the middle of the first millennium BC. The Celts colonised Ireland in a series of waves between the eighth and first centuries BC. The Gael, the last wave of Celts, conquered the island and divided it into five or more kingdoms, in which, despite constant strife, a rich culture flourished. The society of these kingdoms was dominated by druids: priests who served as educators, physicians, poets, diviners, and keepers of the laws and histories.

The Romans referred to Ireland as Hibernia. Ptolemy in AD 100 records Ireland's geography and tribes. Ireland was never formally a part of the Roman Empire but Roman influence was often projected well beyond formal borders. Tacitus writes that an Irish tribal chieftain was with Agricola in Great Britain and would return to seize power in Ireland. Juvenal tells us that Roman "arms had been taken beyond the shores of Ireland'. If Rome, or an ally, did invade, they didn't leave very much behind. The exact relationship between Rome and the tribes of Hibernia is unclear.

Tradition maintains that in AD 432, St. Patrick arrived on the island and, in the years that followed, worked to convert the Irish to Christianity. Patrick preserved the tribal and social patterns of the Irish, codifying their laws and changing only those that conflicted with Christian practices. He is credited with introducing the Roman alphabet, which enabled Irish monks to preserve parts of the extensive Celtic oral literature.

The druid tradition collapsed in the face of the spread of the new faith, and Irish scholars excelled in the study of Latin learning and Christian theology in the monasteries that shortly flourished. Missionaries from Ireland to England and Continental Europe spread news of the flowering of learning, and scholars from other nations came to Irish monasteries. The excellence and isolation of these monasteries helped preserve Latin learning during the Dark Ages. The arts of manuscript illumination, metalworking, and sculpture flourished and produced such treasures as the Book of Kells, ornate jewellery, and the many carved stone crosses that dot the island. Sites dating to this period include clochans, ringforts and promontory forts.

Early medieval era (c800 - 1100)

Viking raids in in 850.

This 'golden age' of Christian Irish culture was interrupted in the ninth century by the beginning of two-hundred years of intermittent warfare with waves of Viking raiders who plundered monasteries and towns.

Thorgest (in Latin Turgesius) was the first viking to attempt an Irish kingdom. He sailed up the Shannon and the River Bann, and forged a kingdom spanning Ulster, Connacht, and Meath which lasted from 831 to 845. In 845 he was killed by Malachy (Maelsechlainn), king of Meath.

In 848 Malachy, now High king, defeated a Norse army at Sciath Nechtain. Arguing that his fight was allied with the Christian fight against pagans, he requested aid from the Frankish emperor Charles the Bald, but to no avail.

In 852, the Vikings Ivar Beinlaus and Olaf the White landed in Dublin Bay and established a fortress, on which the city of Dublin (from the Irish Gaelic Án Dubh Linn meaning the "black pool") now stands. This moment is generally considered to be the founding of modern-day Dublin, although Greek and Roman records mention a settlement called Eblana (or Deblana) on the same site as early as the 1st century AD. The Vikings founded many other seacoast towns, and after several generations a group of mixed Irish and Norse ethnic background arose (the so-called Gall-Gaels, Gall then being the Irish word for "foreigners" - the Norse). This Norse influence is reflected in the Norse-derived names of many contemporary Irish kings (e.g. Magnus, Lochlann, and Sitric), and in the appearance of residents of these coastal cities to this day.

In 914 an unstable peace between the Irish and the Norse devolved into a long and drawn-out war. The descendants of Ivar Beinlaus established a long dynasty based in Dublin, and from this base succeeded in dominating much of the isle. This rule was ultimately broken by the joint efforts of Malachy, king of Meath and the famous Brian Boru, who afterwards became 'High King of Ireland'. Although the Irish were subsequently free from foreign invasion for 150 years, interdynastic warfare continued to drain their energies and resources. In 1150, Christian Malone, Abbot of Clonmacnoise, wrote a famous book entitled "Chronicum Scotorum". It is a chronology of Ireland from the Flood to the twelfth century.

Norman invasion and aftermath (1169-1536)

Early Ireland was divided politically into a shifting hierarchy of petty kingdoms and over-kingdoms. During the second half of the first millennium a national kingdom emerged as power concentrated into the hands of three regional dynasties contending against each other for control of the whole island. After losing the protection of Muirchertach MacLochlainn, a King of Ireland who was killed in 1166, a Leinster dynast named Diarmuid MacMorrough decided to invite a Norman knight to aid him against his local rivals. This invitation to Richard de Clare caused consternation to King Henry II of England who, fearing the establishment of a rival Norman state, invaded Ireland to establish his authority.

In 1155 a Papal Bull had been issued by Adrian IV (the first English pope, in one of his earliest acts) giving Henry authority to invade Ireland as a means of curbing ecclesiastical corruption and abuses. Adrian's successor, Pope Alexander III ratified the grant of Irish lands to Henry in 1172.

Meanwhile, Henry landed with a large fleet at Waterford in 1171, becoming the first English king to set foot on Irish soil. Both Waterford and Dublin were proclaimed Royal Cities. Henry awarded his Irish territories to his younger son John with the title Dominus Hiberniae ("Lord of Ireland"). When John unexpectedly succeeded his brother as King John, the "Kingdom of Ireland" fell directly under the English Crown.

Initially the Normans controlled much of Ireland, securing the entire east coast, from Waterford up to eastern Ulster and penatrating as far west as Galway and Mayo. The most powerful forces in the land were the great Anglo-Norman Earldoms such as the Geraldines, the Butlers and the Burkes, who controlled vaste swathes of land almost independent of the governments in Dublin or London. However, Anglo-Norman power in Ireland was deeply shaken by two events of the 14th century.

The first was the invasion of Ireland by Edward Bruce of Scotland, who rallied many of the Irish lords against the English presence in Ireland in 1315. Although Bruce was eventually defeated at the battle of Faughart, near Dundalk, his troops caused a great deal of destruction, especially in the densely settled area around Dublin. In this chaotic situation, local Irish lords won back large amounts of land that their families had lost since the conquest and held them after the war was over.

The second calamity for the medieval English presence in Ireland was the Black Death, which arrived in Ireland in 1348. Because most of the English and Norman inhabitants of Ireland lived in towns and villages, the plague hit them far harder than it did the native Irish, who lived in more spread out rural settlements. The plague was a catastrophe for the English inhabitations around the country and after it had passed, Gaelic Irish language and customs came to dominate the country again. The English controlled area shrunk to the Pale, a fortified area around Dublin.

The native Irish regained some more territory and outside the Pale, the Norman lords adopted the Irish language and customs, becoming known as the Old English, and in a popular Irish historical saying, "more Irish than the Irish." Over the following centuries they sided with the indigenous Irish in political and military conflicts with England and generally stayed Catholic after the Reformation. The authorities in the Pale grew so worried about the "Gaelicisation" of Ireland that they passed special legislation in a parliament in Kilkenny (known as the Statutes of Kilkenny) banning those of English descent from speaking the Irish language, wearing Irish clothes or inter-marrying with the Irish. Since the government in Dublin had little real authority however, this did not have much effect.

Throughout the 15th century, these trends proceeded apace. The monarchy of England was itself in turmoil - being fought over in the Wars of the Roses. As a result, English interest in Ireland diminished further. The kings of Ireland effectively delegated their power over the Lordship of Ireland to the power Fitzgerald Earl of Kildare, who dominate the country by means of military force and alliances with lords and clans around Ireland.

Ireland in 1014: a patch-work of rival kingdoms.
The extent of Norman control of Ireland in 1300.

Reformation and Protestant Ascendancy (1536-1801)

The Reformation, during which, in 1536, Henry VIII broke with Papal authority, fundamentally changed Ireland. While Henry VIII broke English Catholicism from Rome, his son Edward VI of England moved further, breaking with Papal doctrine completely. While the English, the Welsh and, later, the Scots accepted Protestantism, the Irish remained Catholic, a fact which determined their relationship with the British state for the next four hundred years.

Ireland was upgraded from a lordship to a full kingdom under Henry VIII. From the period of the original lordship in the twelfth century onwards, Ireland had retained its own bicameral Parliament of Ireland, consisting of a House of Commons and a House of Lords, although it was restricted for most of its existence in terms both of membership (Catholics were barred after 1641) and powers, notably by Poynings Law of 1494, which said that no bill could be introduced into the Irish Parliament without the approval of the English Privy Council. Henry VIII's officials were tasked with extending the rule of this new Kingdom throughout Ireland, something it took nearly a century to achieve. See also Tudor re-conquest of Ireland.

In the Elizabethan era, the English re-conquered Ireland, after bloody conflicts such as the Desmond Rebellions and the Nine Years War. However, the English were not successful in converting the Irish to Protestantism, alienating much of the native population. In the early seventeenth century, Scottish and English Protestants were sent as colonists to the north of Ireland and the counties of Laois and Offaly (see also Plantations of Ireland). A series of Penal Laws discriminated against all Christian faiths other than the established (Anglican) Church of Ireland. The principal victims of these laws were Roman Catholicism and (to a lesser extent) Presbyterianism.

In the mid seventeenth century, Ireland was convulsed by eleven years of warfare, beginning with the Rebellion of 1641, when the Irish Catholics rebelled against English and Protestant domination. The Catholic majority briefly ruled the country as Confederate Ireland during the subsequent Wars of the Three Kingdoms until Oliver Cromwell re-conquered the country in 1649. As punishment for the rebellion, almost all lands owned by Irish Catholics were confiscated and given to British settlers. Ireland played a crucial role in the Glorious Revolution of 1689, when the Catholic James II was deposed by the English Parliament and replaced by William of Orange. Irish Catholics backed James to try and reverse the Penal Laws and land confiscations, whereas Irish and British Protestants supported William. James and William fought for the English, Scottish and Irish thrones in the Williamite War, most famously at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, where James was beaten. The Penal laws were re-applied with great harshness after this war, as the Protestant elite wanted to ensure that the Irish Catholic landed classes would not be in a position to repeat their rebellions of the 17th century.

Subsequent Irish antagonism towards England was aggravated by the economic situation of Ireland in the eighteenth century. Throughout the century English trade with Ireland was the most important branch of English overseas trade1. The Protestant Anglo-Irish absentee landlords drew off some £800,000 in the early part of the century, rising to £1 million, in an economy that amounted to about £4 million. Completely deforested for timber exports and a temporary iron industry in the course of the seventeenth century, Irish estates turned to the export of salt beef and pork and butter and hard cheese through the slaughterhouse and port city of Cork, which supplied England, the British navy and the sugar islands of the West Indies. The bishop of Cloyne wondered "how a foreigner could possibly conceive that half the inhabitants are dying of hunger in a country so abundant in foodstuffs?"2. In the 1740s, these economic inequalities led directly to the Great Irish Famine (1740-1741), which killed about 400,000 people. In the 1780s, under pressure from salted meat exported from the Baltic and from America, the Anglo-Irish landowners rapidly switched to growing grain for export, while the Irish themselves ate potatoes and groats.

By the late eighteenth century, many of the Irish Protestant elite had come to see Ireland as their native country and a Parliamentary faction led by Henry Grattan agitated for a more favourable trading relationship with England and legislative independence for the Parliament of Ireland. Many of their demands were met, in part through a campaign led by Grattan amongst others. However, reform in Ireland stalled over the proposals of some radicals to enfranchise Irish Catholics. When this failed, some in Ireland were attracted to the more militant example of the French revolution. They formed the Society of the United Irishmen to overthrow British rule and found a non-sectarian republic. Their activity culminated in the Irish Rebellion of 1798, which was bloodily suppressed. Partly in response to this rebellion, in 1801 Irish self-government was abolished altogether.

Union with Great Britain (1801-1922)

Main article: History of Ireland (1801-1922)

In 1800 the Irish Parliament passed the Act of Union which, in 1801, merged the Kingdom of Ireland and the Kingdom of Great Britain to create the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. The whole island of Ireland would remain within the United Kingdom, rule directly by the UK Parliament in London. The nineteenth century saw considerable economic difficulties for Ireland, including the Great Famine of the 1840s in which about 750,000 people died and another million were forced to emigrate.

The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw a vigorous but unsuccessful campaign for Irish home rule, followed by the eclipse of moderate nationalism by militant separatism. In 1922, following the Anglo-Irish War, the twenty-six counties of Ireland seceded from the United Kingdom as the Irish Free State. The remaining six, in the north-east, remained within the Union as Northern Ireland. Secession for southern Ireland led directly to the Civil War, as militant nationalists split into two factions and turned against one another.

History since partition

Irish Independence: The Irish Free State, Éire/Ireland, The Republic of Ireland

Main article: History of the Republic of Ireland

The Anglo-Irish Treaty was narrowly ratified by the Dáil in December 1921 but was rejected by a large minority, resulting in the Irish Civil War which lasted until 1923. In 1922, in the middle of this civil war, the Irish Free State came into being. For its first years the new state was governed by the victors of the Civil War. However in the 1930s Fianna Fáil, the party of the opponents of the treaty, were elected into government. The party introduced a new constitution in 1937 which renamed the state to simply "Éire or in the English language, Ireland" (preface to the Constitution).

The state was neutral during World War II but offered some assistance to the Allies. In 1949 the state declared itself to be a republic and that henceforth it should be described as the Republic of Ireland. The state was plagued by poverty and emigration until the 1990s. That decade saw the beginning of unprecedented economic success, in a phenomenon known as the "Celtic Tiger". By the early 2000s, it had become one of the richest countries (in terms of GDP per capita) in the European Union, moving from being a net recipient to a net contributor and from a population with net emigration to one with net immigration.

Northern Ireland

Main article: History of Northern Ireland

From its creation in 1921 until 1972 Northern Ireland enjoyed limited self-government within the United Kingdom, with its own parliament and prime minister. However the Protestant and Catholic communities in Northern Ireland each voted almost entirely along sectarian lines, meaning that the government of Northern Ireland was dominated by the Unionist majority which did not permit Catholics to participate in the government.

Nationalist grievances at Unionist discrimination within the state eventually led to large civil rights protests in 1960s. It was during this period of civil unrest that the Provisional IRA, an extra-legal paramilitary group favouring the creation of a united Ireland, began its campaign of bombings and shootings. Other groups on both the Unionist and nationalist side also began to participate in the violence and the period known as the "Troubles" began. Owing to the civil unrest the British government suspended home rule in 1972 and imposed direct rule.

In 1998, following a Provisional IRA cease-fire, the Good Friday Agreement was concluded and attempts began to be made to restore self-government to Northern Ireland on the basis of power sharing between the two communities. Violence has greatly decreased since the signing of the accord.


  1. See: Braudel, F, 1979.
  2. See: Plumb, J.H., 1973.


  • Braudel, Fernand, The Perspective of the World, vol III of Civilization and Capitalism (1979, in English 1985)
  • Plumb, J.H., England in the 18th Century, 1973: "The Irish Empire"

Further reading

  • S.J. Connolly (editor) The Oxford Companion to Irish History (Oxford University Press, 2000) [a must for all students of Irish history]
  • Tim Pat Coogan De Valera (Hutchinson, 1993) [worth reading, though deeply hostile to de Valera]
  • Norman Davies The Isles: A History (Macmillan, 1999) [fascinating read, but with some inaccuracies when dealing with the 20th century]
  • Nancy Edwards, The archaeology of early medieval Ireland (London, Batsford 1990).
  • R. F. Foster Modern Ireland, 1600-1972
  • Joseph Lee The Modernisation of Irish Society 1848-1918 (Gill and Macmillan) [classic small history of the period]
  • FSL Lyons Ireland Since the Famine [old, but still a classic]
  • Dorothy McCardle The Irish Republic [old but impressive text, written from a pro-de Valera perspective]
  • James H. Murphy Abject Loyalty: Nationalism and Monarchy in #Ireland During the Reign of Queen Victoria (Cork University Press, 2001) [fascinating new book that puts 19th century Ireland in a new perspective]
  • John A. Murphy Ireland in the Twentieth Century (Gill and Macmillan) [good source of information]
  • Frank Packenham (Long Longford) Peace by Ordeal [The definitive account of the Anglo-Irish Treaty negotiations]
  • Alan J. Ward The Irish Constitutional Tradition: Responsible Government & Modern Ireland 1782-1992 (Irish Academic Press, 1994)

See also

  • Timeline of Irish history
  • History of Dublin
  • History of Limerick
  • History of rail transport in Ireland
  • History of the United Kingdom
  • Irish Historians

External links

  • Source of maps (
  • Ireland Under Coercion ( - "The diary of an American", by William Henry Hurlbert, published 1888, from Project Gutenberg
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Map of Ireland