Ireland’s location as an island to the west of continental Europe and close to Britain has, in large measure, shaped her history. Ireland, which has been inhabited for about 7,000 years, has experienced many incursions and invasions, resulting in a rich mixture of ancestry and traditions. The first settlers, mostly hunters from Britain, brought with them a Mesolithic culture. They were followed around 3000 B.C. by farmers who raised animals and cultivated the soil. After these Neolithic settlers, around 2000 B.C., came prospectors and metalworkers.
By the Sixth Century B.C. waves of Celtic invaders from Europe began to reach the country. While Ireland was never unified politically by the Celts, they did generate a cultural and linguistic unity. The introduction of Christianity in the fifth century A.D. is traditionally credited to Saint Patrick, though there is evidence that there were Christians on the island before his arrival. Unlike most of western Europe, Ireland never experienced the barbarian invasions of the early medieval period and, partly as a result, the sixth and seventh centuries saw a flowering of Irish art, learning and culture centering on the monasteries. Irish monks brought Christianity to many parts of Europe in the period before 800 A.D.
During the ninth and tenth centuries, Ireland was regularly raided by the Vikings. They were also traders and did much to develop life in Dublin, Cork and Waterford. Following the defeat of the Vikings by Brian Boru, the High King of Ireland, at Clontarf in 1014, the Viking influence faded.
In the twelfth century, the arrival of the Normans, who had earlier settled in England and Wales, shattered such progress as had been made towards the creation of a centralized State under a single High King. They quickly gained control over large parts of Ireland, which then came under the political authority of the King of England.
For the next 400 years the Normans and their descendants were an influential presence in Ireland. However, many areas of the country remained in Irish hands and, by the early sixteenth century there were widespread fears in England that English influence was in danger of collapse, both as a result of Gaelic incursions and of the progressive Gaelicization of the Norman settlers.
Religious change in England at this time had a major impact on Ireland. The descendants of the Norman settlers in Ireland, who came to be called the Old English, were, by and large, hostile to the Protestant reformation which had led to the establishment of the (Anglican) Church of Ireland. In addition, the central strategic importance of Ireland, as an island close to both Britain and continental Europe, and hence a possible base for English malcontents or foreign enemies, gave Irish affairs an urgency that they had not had for centuries.
Following a series of revolts in Ireland – which arose in response to religious differences and to the English Crown’s policy of introducing new settlers from Britain, Gaelic resistance was worn down and in 1603, the last Gaelic stronghold, Ulster, was brought under Crown control. The Ulster plantation which followed brought many English and Scots settlers to Ulster and had a lasting impact on the religious and political complexion of the province.
Irish political history in the seventeenth century was intimately linked to events in England and Scotland, including the Civil War, the rise of Oliver Cromwell, the Red Hugh O’Neill restoration of Charles II and the Glorious Revolution of 1688 which placed William and Mary on the English throne. A struggle for supremacy between the Catholic Old English and Gaelic Irish on the one hand, and the Protestant New English (who included further new settlers) on the other, was, after numerous ebbs and flows throughout the period, finally settled at the Battles of the Boyne (1690) and Aughrim (1691). The Old English and the Gaelic Irish were crushed and many of their leaders and followers (‘The Wild Geese’) left Ireland to pursue military, religious or commercial careers abroad. The Protestants of the Established Church monopolised political power and ownership of the land, and penal laws discriminated against Catholics.
In the eighteenth century, there was much economic development. The linen industry flourished, particularly in Ulster, and Irish wool, beef, butter and pork were important exports. The Protestant Ascendancy came to see itself as the Irish nation and developed a vigorous and distinctive parliamentary tradition. Sustained Irish emigration began in the eighteenth century, as many thousands of Ulster Presbyterians and a lesser number of Catholics departed for the New World.
The developing dispute between Britain and her colonies in North America from the 1760s helped create a tradition of radical patriotism that was ultimately, under the impact of the French Revolution, to produce the Society of United Irishmen.
In 1798 the United Irishmen staged an insurrection in Ireland, with the objective of establishing an independent Irish republic in which all religions would be equal, though the rebellion was marked by some episodes of sectarian violence. This rebellion was crushed and the Act of Union of 1800 created a full parliamentary Union between Britain and Ireland.
By this time however, Britain and Ireland were moving apart, especially in economic and demographic terms. As Britain industrialized and urbanized, Ireland, outside Ulster, in effect de-industrialized, with the bulk of its rapidly growing population becoming ever more dependent on the potato for sustenance. In the late 1840s, as a result of the wholesale failure of the potato crop in successive years, a terrible famine occurred: one million people died of starvation and epidemic disease and some two million emigrated in the ten year period 1845-1855. The population had fallen by more than a quarter from 8 million to less than 6 million by 1856, and would fall further as emigration became a dominant feature of Irish society. Comparison with other modern and contemporary famines establishes beyond any doubt that the Irish famine of the late 1840s, which killed nearly one-eighth of the entire population, was proportionally much more destructive of human life than the vast majority of famines in modern times.
In politics, the nineteenth century was dominated, initially, by the pursuit of Catholic emancipation. The penal laws were gradually loosened from the late eighteenth century on, and in 1829 Catholics, led by Daniel O’Connell, won the right to sit in parliament. Thereafter, there was a succession of efforts to reform or undo the Union between Great Britain and Ireland. The Great Famine (1845-1848) was not just an immense human tragedy and a socio-economic watershed, but had far reaching political repercussions. The British Government stood indicted in the popular mind and the desire of a majority of Irish voters for some form of self-government was strengthened. Irish landlords, too, came under political and economic pressure in the post-Famine decades. By the early twentieth century, after sustained agrarian unrest, legislation was in place inducing the great landlords to sell land to their tenants. The tenants were offered loans to enable them to purchase their holdings.
The question of self-government, or ‘Home Rule’ had not, however, been settled: attempts by Daniel O’Connell and Isaac Butt in the 1840s and 1870s came to little, but under the leadership of Charles Stewart Parnell in the 1880s, the Irish Parliamentary Party placed the Irish question at the centre of British politics. In 1886, the Liberal party under W.E. Gladstone came to support a limited form of self-government for Ireland.
The prospects of Home Rule galvanized the Unionists in Ireland, who were predominantly Protestant, and were a majority in the province of Ulster. Along with their allies in England who feared that Home Rule for Ireland would lead to the break-up of the Empire, Unionists set out to prevent the granting of Home Rule. Nonetheless, a Home Rule Bill was finally enacted in 1914.
In an increasingly militarized atmosphere, private paramilitary armies (the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Irish Volunteers) marched and drilled, and hostilities between the two were only averted by the outbreak of the First World War and the consequent postponement of Home Rule. The war changed everything: in 1916 a republic was declared in Dublin and an armed insurrection took place. This rising, which initially enjoyed little public support, was suppressed but its supporters, capitalizing on public revulsion at the execution of its leaders, and on opposition to the introduction of military conscription to Ireland in the First World War, were successful in the General Election of 1918, when they swept aside the Irish Parliamentary Party who had campaigned for Home Rule.
Sinn Féin (‘Ourselves’), the election victors, set up the first Dáil (Parliament) and a war of national independence ensued. By the time an Anglo-Irish Treaty was concluded in 1921, six counties in North-East Ulster, with a roughly two-thirds Unionist majority at that time, had already been constituted as Northern Ireland. As a result of the Treaty, the remaining twenty-six counties formed the Irish Free State, which had dominion status within the British Empire. The establishment of the Free State was followed by a short civil war between those who accepted the Treaty as offering effective self-government and those who held out for a full republic. Despite its brevity (from June 1922 – May 1923), the Civil War was to colour attitudes and determine political allegiances for decades.
The first government of the new State was headed by W.T. Cosgrave of Cumann na nGaedheal, later the Fine Gael party. From the 1930s onwards the Fianna Fáil party, founded by Eamon de Valera, dominated Irish politics. In the first two decades after Ireland achieved independence in 1922, the institutions of the State were consolidated and a tradition of political stability was established. The Constitution of 1937 and the Republic of Ireland Act 1948 severed Ireland’s last formal links with Britain. Ireland remained neutral during the Second World War.
Ireland was admitted to the United Nations (UN) in 1955, and joined what is now the European Union (EU) in 1973. New economic development policies led to substantial and rapid growth. As elsewhere in Europe coalition governments have become quite common and have normally involved one of the two larger political parties.