A Wee Bit o' Irish History

Immediate source: Brian Bell's introductions in Ireland (APA Publications, 1989). See also R. F. Foster, Modern Ireland, 1600-1972 (New York: Penguin, 1988).

For a general discussion of anti-Irish race prejudice in England in the nineteenth century, see the Victorian Web.

Note also that the political situation of the Irish Free State is still unstable. There is an ongoing battle over Northern Ireland. The most recent news is that the cease fire that was supposed to be a prelude to a lasting peace between Britain and Ireland was just broken on February 9, when the Irish Republican Army set off a bomb in London that killed two and wounded many others. This event is a dramatic setback for the peace process. You might want to look at the Framework Document that was signed by both parties in late 1994; this is what was on the negotiating table until the bombing.

432 St. Patrick brings Christianity (Catholicism) to Ireland after having traveled in France and Italy. Monasteries are established as preservers of church doctrine and places of learning. Eventually the monasteries are plundered by Vikings--but since they cannot read, they do not destroy what we now know as valuable illuminated manuscripts, such as the Book of Kells. Ireland's storytelling tradition begins in this period.

1014 Viking rule is destroyed in the Battle of Clontarf by High King Brian Boru.

1100s Norman adventurers come seeking land. One Norman called Strongbow--really named Richard, second Earl of Pembroke--responded to a request for help from local chieftain Dermot MacMurrough. (MacMurrough had caused trouble by stealing another prince's wife--see Yeats' "The Dreaming of the Bones.") When the Normans began to establish themselves in Ireland, the English king, Henry II, became alarmed and sent in settlers.

1200s-1400s Normans intermarry with native Irish and expanded their influence. Meanwhile English authority dwindles to the area around Dublin, called "the Pale" (as in the expression, "beyond the Pale").

1500s English King Henry VIII declares himself "King of this land of Ireland as united, annexed and knit for ever to the Imperial Crown of the Realm of England." He asserts control of all land ownership; landowners are asked to turn over their lands to him, in exchange for which he re-grants them limited rights to use the land. Those who refuse pay for it by having their lands seized--new settlers from England and Scotland take their place.

Henry VIII's daughter, Elizabeth I, fights a series of wars in Ireland. The two main objectives are to change the culture from Catholic to Reformation Protestant, and to enhance England's position against nearby Catholic Spain, England's main political enemy.

James I, following Elizabeth, establishes more Protestant settlements.

1649 James' son and successor, Charles I, is beheaded as a result of English civil war; a non-monarchical Protectorate is established, with Oliver Cromwell as its head. The new Puritan Parliament takes severe measures to suppress Catholicism. A revolt began among the Irish, but Cromwell's 20,000 soldiers devastated the land. By 1652, about one-third of the Catholics in Ireland were killed; their land fell mostly to the Protestants.

1660 The British monarchy is restored with Charles II, followed by James II. Irish Catholics hoped for better treatment under James II, because he was Catholic. But James II was defeated in 1690 in the Battle of the Boyne, near Dublin, by William of Orange, who had been appealed to by the English to intervene against James II's "Popish ways." As a result, Catholics underwent more harsh treatment. New legislation, the "penal laws," barred them from public life; further, they were not allowed to buy land or even to rent it for reasonable profit. (By mid-18th century, only seven percent of the land was owned by Catholics.) The Irish were not allowed to trade their goods with England; they could only live off the land. Even that was difficult because the English landlords kept the rent exorbitantly high.

Trouble was the inevitable result of all this. Violent groups of Irish men began to take to the roads at night, working vengeance on the British. Secret societies such as the Whiteboys and the Ribbon-men expended their energy in such acts as maiming their landlords' cattle and burning the barns, rather than taking straightforward constructive political action. One exception was Jonathan Swift, who vocally called for a separate parliament for Ireland, though still under British rule.

Eventually pressure mounts for the separate parliament, and such a thing was established. But: Catholics--three-fourths of the population--are barred from participation. The fact of political oppression is not really changed.

1790s The French Revolution fuels the nationalist movement. The first Society of United Irishmen (consisting mostly of Protestant Irish nationalists) is established in Belfast, followed by one in Dublin; it was suppressed by British prime minister William Pitt, who was justifiably concerned about an alliance between the Irish and the French (another enemy of England). The United Irishmen go underground.

Irish revolutionary Wolfe Tone persuades the French to help the nationalist cause by sending forces over by ship. They send 43 ships, but bad weather makes their landing almost impossible; and the few Frenchmen who do land on the rugged coast of southwest Ireland receive an unwelcome greeting from the Irish, who mistake the French for northern Protestants out to get them. The United Irishmen are eventually defeated again, in Ulster, by a British Protestant group called the Orangemen (after William of Orange).

1798 The Irish nationalists stage a major rebellion, although so many United Irishmen had been arrested that the effort was badly organized. And the native yeomanry (landowners) turned on their countrymen. In six weeks some 50,000 of them died, leading to many ballads and stories of their heroism.

At Wolfe Tone's urging, Napoleon agrees to send another expedition that August. (This is the incident that Yeats' "Cathleen ni Houlihan" involves.) When one crew lands at Killala, expecting Irish reinforcements in great numbers, they found hardly a dismal few. Tone, meanwhile, lands with another ship at Donegal, was captured, and died in prison after he tried to kill himself.

1801 William Pitt, the British prime minister, decides it would be better to get rid of the Irish Parliament and instead to give the Irish (and Welsh and Scottish) certain numbers of seats in the Imperial Parliament in London. But this new solution doesn't really solve anything. The peasants still have no land rights, no new employment opportunities.

1803 Another rebellion is instigated, this one by Robert Emmett. He tries to seize Dublin Castle, Britain's administrative headquarters in Ireland. But this one is such a well-kept secret that it fails for lack of momentum. Emmett is captured and executed. For his last words, Emmett said, "Let no man write my epitaph." Later, Padraic Pearse, a leader of the 1916 Easter Rising that led to the establishment of the Irish Free State, said of his death, "It is the memory of a sacrifice Christ-like in its perfection."

1828 Thanks to the effort of Daniel O'Connell, the British government is pressured into passing a Catholic Emancipation Bill, which gave Catholics the right to vote and sit in Parliament.

1845 The great "potato famine" strikes. With the potato crop failing disastrously, the Irish peasants suffered starvation conditions. They had no ability to trade other goods, as the English did, and they had little money to afford anything but the potato. Moreover, the population of the country was doubling to eight million. A million people died, and over a million set out in ships (often dangerously overcrowded) for America.

1848 Another attempted rising, in Kilkenny, is put down. Various other wild plans are afoot, such as one to kidnap Queen Victoria during an Irish visit--there is an element of theatricality in these plans. As one discouraged person is supposed to have said, "God knows, if eloquence could free or save a people, we ought to be the freest and safest people on the face of the globe."

1858 On St. Patrick's Day, James Stephens founds a radical society that became the Irish Republican Brotherhood, later the Irish Republican Army (it included an American branch, called the Fenians). A couple of attempted risings fail.

1868 A new British prime minister, William Gladstone, sets a more liberal tone by doing such things as making it harder for Irish landlord to evict their tenants and abolishing the Church of Ireland's position as the "established" church of Ireland (which had not been a very meaningful position for most of the Irish people, anyway). Gladstone's match in Parliament is the Irish statesman Charles Stewart Parnell.

1885 Parnell has control of 85 of the 103 Irish seats in the House of Commons; Irish Home Rule becomes a major legitimate political issue. (Home Rule would mean that Ireland had some self-governing privileges but still would be part of the United Kingdom, like Wales and Scotland.) But this solution is not appealing to the Irish who live in the Ulster area, in the North. These people are Protestants, mostly Presbyterian; if they were to be absorbed within an Irish government, they would be in a distinct minority.

Meanwhile a literary revival is happening, leading to a new appreciation of Celtic culture and stories and a new interest in Gaelic, the Irish language that had been all but eradicated by British expansion.

W. B. Yeats participates in this revival by publishing collections of folk tales such as The Celtic Twilight. The Gaelic League is formed to preserve and foster this literature and this new national self-image.

1889 Parnell loses his power base when a scandal occurs over his affair with Kitty O'Shea, a married woman. Two years later, he dies (after catching an illness during the pouring rain at a political rally in Galway).

1893 Gladstone retires, without having passed his second attempt at a Home Rule bill for Ireland. The next phase of British government is more conservative, less promising for Irish independence.

1913 In further efforts toward Home Rule, the counties around Ulster (those Presbyterians with British sympathies) are granted "temporary" exclusion from any settlement--a state of affairs that became permanent.

1914 A bigger issue than Irish statehood asserts itself--World War I. Distracted by events in Europe, the British government quickly passes a Home Rule Act and then immediately suspends its operation for the duration of the war. Many Irishmen, particularly from the North (the Ulster area), volunteer and die in the war, thus strengthening the feeling among the Irish that the British government owes them something. The Ulstermen want to be taken in as part of Britain--the nationalists to the south have a different goal. At this point, the nationalist movement called Sinn Fein (pronounced "shin fayne," meaning "We Ourselves") begins.

James Connolly, a labor organizer, establishes the Irish Citizens Army to defend striking workers against police brutality.

Padraic Pearse develops a mystical belief that the shedding of blood is necessary to "cleanse" Ireland, as Christ had shed his blood to redeem humankind.

1916 On Easter Monday (April 24), a major uprising occurs at the General Post Office in Dublin; this is famously known as the Easter Rising (see Yeats' "Easter 1916"). Pearse, with about 150 others armed with agricultural tools as well as rifles, takes over the Post Office and read out (to rather apathetic bystanders) a proclamation of a new Irish Republic. The total showing of revolutionaries is about 800, a far cry from the 3,000 they had hoped for. (And even many Irish can't figure out what the fuss was about, what with a quarter million Irishmen fighting in France, with the British forces in World War I, at the time.) Nevertheless, they hold the Post Office until Saturday, when the British set fire to the area around the GPO and drive the rebels out. By then some 64 rebels, 134 police and soldiers, and 220 civilians are dead. The city's center is laid waste; martial law is imposed and 4,000 people jailed.

If most of the Irish people are not behind this revolt, things change after the British get through with the rebels. One by one, they execute the leaders of the rising, including Pearse and Connolly. This turns the tide of public opinion in Ireland from skeptical derision to sympathetic support. As Yeats writes, things were "changed, changed utterly. A terrible beauty is born" ("Easter 1916").

1918 The war in Europe isn't going so great for Britain, so they decide to draft soldiers from Ireland. As a concession to this dramatic move, Britain offers a new Home Rule legislation based on a plan of partitioning the island so that the North part is separate. The Catholic Church in Ireland condemns the draft, and the Irish Party walks out of the House of Commons in London. This event opens the door for the radical Sinn Fein party to get its own candidates elected--which they do, in great numbers, in the postwar general election of December 1918.

The newly elected politicians boycott the House of Commons and formed their own parliament in Dublin. They elect Eamon de Valera, one of the principals of the Rising, as their president (he was in jail, at the time).

This is the time when the Irish Republican Army takes to the countryside with violence that looks as much like a civil war as a war against England. Anyone who is thought to have consorted with the British police, for example, is likely to be attacked, even if they are Irish. The reaction of the British government is to proclaim the Irish nation "illegal." Things get really ugly after this.

1920 "Bloody Sunday," November 21. Irish leader Michael Collins has 12 British soldiers shot dead, mostly in their beds. Later the same day at a Gaelic football game in Dublin, police shoot 12 civilians. Guerilla warfare spreads out of control.

1921 Britain decides to hold two elections for Irish parliaments, one in the north and one in the south. Predictably, Sinn Fein takes the South and the Unionists the North.

On December 5, rather than going to war against each other, the Irish and the British sit down and work out a settlement. The treaty gives the nationalists more than just Home Rule--Ireland becomes the Irish Free State, on dominion status similar to what Canada had at the time. The six counties of Ulster were kept within the British union, a point that rankled with some of the Irish nationalists who had hoped to unite all of Ireland as separate from England.

1922 More fighting breaks out in Dublin and elsewhere over the final drawing of the boundary of the Irish Free State. What had by this point become an Irish civil war ends in 1923, when de Valera, an advocate of total Irish union, surrenders.

1927 De Valera is elected to the Irish parliament as a party leader and makes the bold move of proposing to reinstate the old Gaelic language. In a famous St. Patrick's Day address, he said, Ireland should become "a land whose countryside would be bright with cozy homesteads, whose fields and villages would be joyous with the sounds of industry, with the rompings of sturdy children, the contests of athletic youths and the laughter of comely maidens, whose firesides would be forums for the wisdom of serene old age." But alas, this noble vision came a bit late--by the time Ireland was ready to embrace the industrial revolution, the rest of the developed world was already moving on to other things. By this point, many of the best and brightest were setting off for England and America to live their lives. Even the once well-off Anglo-Irish (the Protestant "Ascendancy," of which Yeats and Lady Gregory were a part) fell on hard times, and the "big houses," such as Lissadell--home of Con Markiewicz and Eva Gore-Booth, political friends of Yeats--began to crumble.