Discover & Explore Ireland’s Great History
- The Ice Age and the first Settlements
- The Bronze Age and the Coming of the Celts
- Medieval Ireland and the arrival of St. Patrick
- Early Christianity, the Druids, and the Viking Raiders
- Norman Control
- The British are slowed by the Black Plague… the British Return and Conquer
- The Irish Rebellion
- The Society of United Irishmen
- The Great Famine
- Irish Nationalism and the Civil War
- Irish Independence
- World War II—Better Known in Ireland as “The Emergency”
- Ireland, the Celtic Tiger
The Ice Age and the first Settlements
Until the ice receded, in about 9000 BC, Ireland and Britain were joined and part of Europe. We know that the people of the Mesolithic Stone Age arrived sometime after 8,000 BC, although there is little trace of these first Irish. Agriculture arrived with the Neolithic people sometime between 4500 and 4000 BC. These people, along with their sheep, goats, cattle, seeds, and cereals, arrived from the European mainland in boats. At the Céide Fields in County Mayo, the oldest system of farming in the world has been preserved under the peat bogs. The Céide Fields were farmed, the crops were mostly wheat and barley, between 3500 and 3000 BC.
The Bronze Age and the Coming of the Celts
The Bronze Age began around 2500 BC. Intricate gold and bronze ornaments have been found in Ireland, as well as ordinary tools and weapons. This is the era usually associated with the Celts. We think the Celts came to Ireland in waves of immigration between 800 BC and 100 BC. The Gaels were the last group of Celts who colonized Ireland. When the Gaels arrived, they divided Ireland into five or more kingdoms. (The Romans referred to Ireland as Hibernia or Scotia.) In 100 AD Ptolemy recorded Ireland’s geography and tribes; native Celt records are of Irish poetry, myth, and archaeology.
Medieval Ireland and the arrival of St. Patrick
A High King ruled over the Irish provinces. Each one of these provinces had their own king who was, in name at least, subject to the High King. (The High King held his court at Tara.) The medieval Irish had a set of judicial laws known as the Brehon Law. This system was administered by well-trained, highly educated jurists called the Brehons. According to early medieval records, Bishop Palladius arrived in Ireland in 431 AD on a mission from Pope Celestine I to minister to the Irish who had already been converted to Christianity. The other goal was to convert the Celts to Catholicism. Palladius went to Leinster, while St. Patrick went to Ulster to save the heathens from themselves and to minister to the true believers.
Early Christianity, the Druids, and the Viking Raiders
Druid society collapsed as Christianity spread through Ireland. Irish Christian scholars became masters of Greek, Latin, and Christian theology. Monasteries were built and they flourished. (Some believe the monks preserved Latin and Greek knowledge during the early Middle Ages. See the book, How the Irish Saved Civilization.) Manuscript illumination, metalworking, jewelry used during ceremonies, and sculpture were of a particularly high standard. (The Book of Kells is undoubtedly the best example of manuscript illumination in the world, and it can be viewed in Dublin.) Many Celtic crosses were carved anew, lengthening one leg of the cross from the original four that were equal in size in order to symbolize the Christianized cross. New crosses were also built, many having elaborate carvings depicting Biblical stories. Both Celtic and Christian, these crosses cover Ireland.
In the 9th century Viking raiders arrived, plundering Ireland. Eventually the Vikings either went home or settled in Ireland, intermarrying and establishing towns that include Dublin, Cork, Limerick and Waterford. (The word Norse in Irish means “stranger.”)
Ireland was stormed by the Normans in 1149, led by the 2nd Earl of Pembroke, otherwise known as Strongbow. This misstep was due to an invitation from the King of Leinster—his invitation opened a very wide door to invasion. In 1171, King Henry II of England came to Ireland and claimed sovereignty over the island, forcing the Norman warlords and some of the Gaelic Irish kings to accept him as their High King. English law was introduced in the 13th century. By the late thirteenth century, the Norman-Irish had established a feudal system throughout most of lowland Ireland. They set up barons, manors, townships, and large land-owning monasteries. Dublin, Cork, Wexford, Waterford, Limerick, Galway, New Ross, Kilkenny, Carlingford, Drogheda, Sligo, Athenry, Arklow, Buttevant, Carlow, Carrick-on-Suir, Cashel, Clonmel, Dundalk, Enniscorthy, Kildare, Kinsale, Mullingar, Naas, Navan, Nenagh, Thurles, Wicklow, Trim and Youghal were all under Norman-Irish control during this time.
The British are slowed by the Black Plague… the British Return and Conquer
In the 14th century, English settlements went into decline and large regions of Ireland such as Sligo were taken back by the Gaels. The Black Death arrived in Medieval Ireland in 1348, and it rocked English rule—they were hardest hit because they lived in the densely populated areas of Ireland. But, in the late 15th century, with the plague gone, English rule was expanded. By 1603 the British had conquered Ireland, and the collapse of Gaelic society happened by the end of the 17th century. This was brought about by English and Scottish colonization of plantations in Ireland, the Wars of the Three Kingdoms, and the Williamite War in Ireland. 600,000 people, half of the Irish population, died as Cromwell blazed through Ireland between 1650 and 1651.
The Irish Rebellion
90% of the people who lived in Ireland were native Irish Catholic, but under the penal laws of 1691 none of them could hold a seat in the Parliament of Ireland. In 1703 and 1709 more laws were passed against the Irish Catholic and those who were Protestant dissenters. But, toward the end of the 18th century, the Irish Parliament started distancing themselves from Britain.
The Society of United Irishmen
The Society of United Irishmen’s goal was to create an independent Ireland with its own constitution. They were aided by France, but still the rebellion was put to a halt by the British in 1798. The British and the Irish Parliament passed the Act of Union and, in 1801, the Kingdom of Ireland and the Kingdom of Great Britain were joined to create the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. The Act passed in the Irish Parliament with a majority. In many cases this was due to bribes, awarding of peerages and other honors in exchange for votes. And so, Ireland became part of the United Kingdom and it was ruled by the Parliament in London.
The Great Famine
The Great Famine began in the 1840s. Over one million Irish died, and over one million Irish emigrated. At this time, half of all immigrants to the United States came from Ireland. In 2005, over 35 million Americans reported that they had Irish ancestors—12% of the US population.) Mass emigration became a way of life in Ireland, and the population continued to decline into the late 20th century. Before the famine, in 1841, Ireland had a population of over 8 million. Its population would never again be so great.
Irish Nationalism and the Civil War
During the 19th and the early 20th centuries Irish nationalism grew among the Irish Catholics. Daniel O’Connell successfully led a campaign for Catholic Emancipation, and it was passed by the UK Parliament. The next campaign would be to repeal the Act of Union, but this failed.
A treaty was signed by the British Government and the leaders of the Irish Republic in 1921. Northern Ireland, with its Protestant majority, opted out and chose to remain part of the UK. Disagreements over the treaty led to a split in the nationalist movement and then to the Irish Civil War. The Civil War ended in 1923. The anti-treaty forces had been defeated.
The Anglo-Irish Treaty was ratified by the Dáil (Irish Parliament) in January 1922 by a vote of 64 – 57. The minority refused to accept the results, and the Irish Civil War began, lasting until 1923. In December, 1922, in the middle of the Civil War, the Irish Free State became a reality. During its early years the new state was governed by those who had won the Civil war. But, in the 1930s, Fianna Fáil, the party opposed to the treaty, was elected into government. The party proposed, and the electorate accepted in a referendum in 1937, a new constitution which renamed the state “Éire or in the English language, Ireland.”
World War II—Better Known in Ireland as “The Emergency”
Ireland was neutral during World War II, which was poetically called “The Emergency.” It offered assistance to the Allies, especially Northern Ireland. 50,000 volunteers from Ireland joined the British armed forces during the Second World War, and in 1949 Ireland declared itself to be a republic.
Ireland, the Celtic Tiger
After World War II, and again in the 1980s, Ireland experienced emigration on a huge scale. During the 1990s Ireland saw economic success of the sort that hadn’t occurred in modern history. This strong, economic force became known as the Celtic Tiger. By 2007, Ireland was the second richest nation in the European Union.