Map of Ireland

History of Ireland (1801-1922)

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

From 1801 to 1922 the whole island of Ireland formed a constituent part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland (UK). For almost all of this period Ireland was ruled directly by the UK Parliament in London.

The nineteenth century saw considerable economic difficulties for Ireland, including the Great Famine of the 1840s. 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 War of Independence, twenty-six southern counties of Ireland seceded from the United Kingdom as the Irish Free State. Northern Ireland remained within the United Kingdom.

Flag of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, adopted in 1801. Unlike the earlier Union Flag, it incorporated Saint Patrick's cross (a red saltire on a white field), to represent the inclusion of Ireland in the Union.
1 Act of Union
2 Economic problems in the 19th century, The Famine
3 Home rule movement
4 Militant separatism
5 War of Independence (1919-1921)
6 Civil War (1922-1923)
7 Population changes (1801-1921)
8 See also

Act of Union

In 1800 the Irish Parliament and the Parliament of Great Britain passed the Act of Union which, in 1801, abolished the Irish legislature, and merged the Kingdom of Ireland and the Kingdom of Great Britain to create the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.

Part of the agreement which led to the Act of Union stipulated that the Penal Laws then in force, which discriminated against Roman Catholics, would be repealed and Catholic Emancipation granted. However King George III blocked emancipation, arguing that to grant it would break his coronation oath to defend the Anglican church. A campaign under lawyer and politician Daniel O'Connell led to the conceding of Catholic emancipation in 1829, thus allowing Catholics to sit in parliament. O'Connell then mounted an unsuccessful campaign for the repeal of the Act of Union and the restoration of Irish self-government.

Economic problems in the 19th century, The Famine

Ireland underwent major highs and lows economically during the nineteenth century; from economic booms during the Napoleonic Wars and in the late nineteenth century (when it experienced a surge in economic growth unmatched until the 'Celtic Tiger' boom of the 1990s), to severe economic downturns and a series of famines, the latest threatening in 1879. The worst of these was the Great Famine of 1846-1848, in which about 750 thousand people died and another million were forced to emigrate.

Ireland's economic problems were in part the result of the small size of Irish landholdings. In particular, both the law and social tradition provided for subdivision of land, with all sons inheriting equal shares in a farm, meaning that farms became so small that only one crop, potatoes, could be grown in sufficient amounts to feed a family. Furthermore many estates, from whom the small farmers rented, were poorly run by absentee landlords and in many cases heavily mortgaged.

When potato blight hit the island in 1846, much of the rural population was left without food. Unfortunately at this time British politicians such as the Prime Minister Robert Peel were wedded to a strict laissez-faire economic policy, which argued against state intervention of any sort. While enormous sums were raised by private individuals and charities (American Indians sent supplies, while Queen Victoria personally gave the equivalent in modern money of €70,000) British government inaction (or at least inadequate action) led to a problem becoming a catastrophe; the class of cottiers or farm labourers was virtually wiped out.

Irish settlement in Britain as of 1851

The famine spawned the first mass wave of Irish emigration to the United States. There was also a large amount of emigration to England, Scotland, Canada, and Australia. This had the long term consequence of creating a large and influential Irish diaspora, particularly in the United States, whose members supported and financed the Irish independence movement. In 1858, the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB, also known as the Fenians) was founded as a secret society dedicated to armed rebellion against the British. A sister organisation was formed among Irish in the United States as the Fenian Brotherhood, which several times invaded the British Province of Canada. However support for Irish republicanism was minimal in Ireland in the period; as late as the 1860s, mass meetings of Irish nationalists ended with the singing of "God Save the Queen" while royal visits drew cheering crowds.

Home rule movement

Until the 1870s most Irish people elected as their Members of Parliament (MPs) Liberals and Conservative Party (UK) who belonged to the main British political parties, with the Conservatives, for example, winning a majority in the 1859 general election in Ireland. A significant minority also elected Unionists, who championed the cause of the maintenance of the Act of Union. In the 1870s a former Conservative barrister turned nationalist campaigner, Isaac Butt, established a new moderate nationalist movement: the Home Rule League. After his death, under William Shaw and in particular a radical young protestant landowner, Charles Stewart Parnell, turned the home rule movement, or the Irish Parliamentary Party as it became known, into a major political force, dominating Irish politics, to the exclusion of the previous Liberal, Conservative and Unionist parties that had existed. The party's growing electoral strength was first shown in the 1880 general election in Ireland, when it won 63 seats (2 MPs later defected to the Liberals). By the 1885 general election in Ireland it had captured 86 seats (including one in the heavily Irish-populated British city of Liverpool. Parnell's movement proved to be a broad church, from conservative landowners to the Land League which was campaigning for fundamental reform of Irish landholding, where most farms were held on rental from large aristocratic estates.

A radical fringe among Home Rulers associated with militant republicanism, particularly Irish-American republicanism. Parnell's movement also campaigned for the right of Ireland to govern herself as a region within the United Kingdom, in contrast to O'Connell who had wanted complete independence subject to a shared monarch and crown. Two home rule bills (in 1886 and 1893) were introduced by Liberal Prime Minister William Gladstone, but neither became law. The issue divided Ireland, for a significant minority (largely though by no means exclusively based in Ulster), opposed home rule, fearing that a Dublin parliament dominated by Catholics and nationalists would discriminate against them and would also impose tariffs on trade with Britain; while most of Ireland was primarily agricultural, the six counties of north-east Ulster were the location of heavy industry and would be affected by any tariff barriers imposed.

In 1912 a further home rule bill passed the House of Commons but was defeated in the House of Lords, as had been the bill of 1893, but by this time the House of Lords had lost its power to veto legislation and could only delay the bill for two years. During these two years the threat of civil war hung over the island of Ireland, with the creation of the Unionist Ulster Volunteers and their nationalist counterparts the Irish Volunteers. These two groups armed themselves by importing rifles and ammunition and carried out drills openly. In 1914 the Imperial House of Commons finally adopted a home rule bill but the sudden outbreak of the First World War meant the bill never became law and effectively put the home rule question on hold for the duration of the war. The Unionist and nationalist volunteer forces joined the British army in the thousands and suffered crippling losses in the trenches.

Until 1918 the Irish Parliamentary Party remained the dominant Irish party, though it was for part of that time divided by the O'Shea Divorce Case, when it was revealed (as many already knew but pretended they hadn't), that Parnell, nicknamed the 'Uncrowned King of Ireland' for his popularity, had been living with the wife of one of his fellow MPs for many years and was the father of a number of her children. When the scandal broke, religious non-conformists in Britain, who were the backbone of the pro-Irish Liberal Party, forced leader W. E. Gladstone to abandon support for the Irish cause as long as the 'adulterer' Parnell remained in charge. The Party and the country split between pro- and anti-Parnellites, who fought each other in elections1.

Militant separatism

In 1916, a small band of republican rebels staged an attempted rebellion, called the "Easter Rising", under Padraig Pearse and James Connolly. Initially their acts were widely condemned in nationalist Ireland, much of which had sons fighting in the British army at the urging of Irish Parliamentary leader John Redmond. Indeed major newspapers such as the Irish Independent and local authorities openly called for the execution of Pearse and the Rising's leadership. However the government's handling of the aftermath, and the execution of rebels and others in stages, ultimately led to widespread public sympathy for the rebels.

The government and the Irish media wrongly blamed Sinn Féin, then a small monarchist political party with little popular support, for the rebellion, even though in reality it had not been involved. Nonetheless Rising survivors, notably Eamon de Valera, returning from imprisonment in Britain joined the party in great numbers, radicalised its programme and took control of its leadership2.

Up until 1917, Sinn Féin, under its founder Arthur Griffith had campaigned for a form of repeal championed first by O'Connell, namely that Ireland would become independent as a dual monarchy with Britain, under a shared king. Such a system operated under Austria-Hungary, where the same monarch, King Charles IV reigned separately in both Austria and Hungary. Indeed Griffith in his book, The Resurrection of Hungary, modelled his ideas on the manner in which Hungary had forced Austria to create a dual monarchy linking both states.

Faced with an impending split between its monarchists and republicans, a compromise was brokered at the 1917 Ard Fheis (party conference) whereby the party would campaign to create a republic, then let the people decide if they wanted a monarchy or republic, subject to the proviso that if they wanted a king, they could not choose someone from Britain's Royal Family (Pearse during the Rising had suggested having Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany's youngest son, Prince Joachim as King of Ireland).

Throughout 1917 and 1918, Sinn Féin and the Irish Parliamentary Party fought a bitter and rather inconclusive electoral battle; each won some by-elections and lost others. The scales were finally tipped Sinn Féin's way when the government, which ironically had received vast number of soldiers from Ireland, tried to impose conscription on the island. An infuriated public turned against Britain over the Conscription Crisis. Even the Irish Parliamentary Party was forced to withdraw its MPs from the British Parliament in Westminster.

In the December 1918 general election, Sinn Féin won the vast majority of seats, many of which were uncontested. Sinn Féin's new MPs refused to travel to Westminster and sit in the British House of Commons. Instead they assembled as 'TDs' in the Mansion House in Dublin and established Dáil Éireann (a revolutionary Irish parliament). They proclaimed an Irish Republic and attempted to establish a system of government.

War of Independence (1919-1921)

Main article: Irish War of Independence

For several years, from 1919 to 1921, the Irish Republican Army (IRA), notionally the army of the Irish Republic, engaged in guerrilla warfare against the British army and a paramilitary unit known as the Black and Tans. Both sides engaged in brutal acts; the Black and Tans deliberately burned entire towns and tortured civilians. The IRA carried out ethnic cleansing of Protestant communities in the Munster region, as well as burning historic homes. This clash, for which it appears one third sided with the IRA, one quarter with the British while the vast majority kept their heads down and avoided involvement, came to be known as the 'War of Independence' or the 'Anglo-Irish War'.

The Fourth Home Rule Act, known as the Government of Ireland Act, 1920, attempted to partition Ireland into two semi-autonomous states: Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland, with what was hoped to an embryonic all-Ireland parliament, a Council of Ireland, joining them. Northern Ireland did come into being. The institutions of Southern Ireland, however, were boycotted by nationalists and so never became fully functional. Eventually a cease-fire was called and negotiations between delegations of the Irish and British sides produced the Anglo-Irish Treaty. Under the treaty Southern Ireland was to be given a form of dominion status far in excess of what Parnell and the Irish Parliamentary Party had sought, modelled on the Dominion of Canada.

Northern Ireland was given the right to opt out of the new state, which was to be called the Irish Free State and a Boundary Commission was to be established to work out the final details of the border. Northern Ireland comprised the six traditional counties of north-east Ulster, while the remaining twenty-six formed the Free State.

Civil War (1922-1923)

Main article: Irish Civil War

The Dáil narrowly passed the Anglo-Irish Treaty in December 1921. Under the leadership of Michael Collins and W.T. Cosgrave it set about establishing the Irish Free State, a national, fully re-organised army to replace the haphazard paramilitary IRA and a new police force, the Civil Guard (quickly renamed as the Garda Síochána) which replaced one of Ireland's two police forces, the Royal Irish Constabulary. The second, the Dublin Metropolitan Police merged some years later with the garda.

However a minority led by Eamon de Valera opposed the treaty, on the grounds that did not create a fully independent state, or a republic, that it imposed the controversial Oath of Allegiance and Fidelity on Irish parliamentarians and that it provided for the partition of the island. De Valera led his supporters out of the Dáil and a bloody civil war, between pro and anti-treaty sides, followed, only coming to an end in 1923. The civil war cost more lives than the Anglo-Irish War that preceded it and left divisions that are still felt in Irish politics today.

Population changes (1801-1921)

year population
1801 5.2
1811 6.0
1821 6.8
1831 7.8
1841 8.2
1851 6.9
1861 5.8
1871 5.4
1881 5.2
1891 4.7
1901 4.5
1911 4.4
1921 4.4

(Figures are from (

See also

  • History of Ireland
  • History of the United Kingdom
  • Timeline of Irish history
  • History of the Republic of Ireland
  • History of Northern Ireland
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Map of Ireland