- Your island? You mean Ireland?
- Yeah. It's mine.
- You're a madman.
- I've come to the right place then.
Ireland occupies a special place among countries and territories where people have been divided in the course of history. These include North and South Korea, West and East Berlin, North and South Cyprus, North and South Vietnam, to name just a few. Spanning more than eight centuries, Ireland’s struggle for independence subsided and erupted time and again.
Like many other European countries, medieval Ireland was split into several disunited kingdoms whose rulers constantly fought for power. In the 12th century, Dermot MacMurrough, one of these local kings, solicited help from the Normans who inhabited the neighbouring island in the hope of finding a strong ally. At his request, King Henry II of England, Richard the Lionheart's father, landed with his army in Ireland in 1171, capturing Dublin and conquering the eastern part of the island known as the Pale. His youngest son, Prince John, was crowned as King of all Ireland, and the country was incorporated into the Angevin Empire. The new government confiscated the ancestral lands of Irish lords and turned them over to English colonists.
Since the English failed to invade the western part of Ireland, they spent the next two centuries trying to expand their possessions. Help arrived in Ireland from an unexpected quarter: the Black Death broke out in 1348. The plague devastated towns primarily populated by the English. As a consequence, Ireland enjoyed relative independence throughout the 14th century. The Irish even had a parliament, although its decisions still had to be approved by the English Crown.
Catholics and Protestants
In 1536, Henry VIII decided to launch a new invasion of Ireland to consolidate his control over the island. The English king began by summoning Gerald Fitzgerald, the Lord Deputy of Ireland, to London, where Henry VIII had him executed. Gerald’s son Thomas (or "Silken Thomas") retaliated by rising up in open revolt. This gave Henry VIII complete freedom of action, so he launched a military campaign that resulted in the execution of Thomas Fitzgerald and his followers. Henry VIII proclaimed himself Lord of Ireland and Sovereign of all lands. The Irish language and national dress were banned. Thousands of colonists arrived in Ireland from England, Scotland and Wales. All administrative posts were occupied by the English.
On top of all the Irish troubles, Henry VIII introduced Protestantism (or Puritanism), a new religion that he practiced. Consequently, loyalty to Catholic traditions became the driving force of Irish dissent. The schism between Protestants and Catholics has endured for centuries. As for the division of Ireland’s population into two opposing groups, it is worth remembering that even today, the division is not so much along national lines, that is, the Irish versus the English. It is mostly along religious lines – Catholics versus Protestants.
Religious rebellions in the 16th and 17th centuries
Religious differences between Catholics and Protestants reached a boiling point at the end of the 16th century when several revolts erupted across Ireland. These included the Desmond Rebellions (1569-1583) and Tyrone and Tyrconnel’s Rebellion (1594-1603). The latter was later called the Nine Years' War. The Protestant English put down all the revolts with the utmost savagery. The English sacked Irish villages, burning fields and killing Irish peasants. However, the struggle against England’s colonial rule continued.
Lasting more than a decade, the Irish revolt of 1641 was the most violent rebellion against English rule. Catholic rebels even formed their state, the Irish Catholic Confederation. The Irish rebels were no angels either. For instance, in a town in County Armagh, Catholic rebels killed or drowned more than 4,000 Protestants in the River Bann. The English response was swift: Oliver Cromwell invaded Ireland in August 1649 and what followed was a massacre of the rebels. The English invaders were especially cruel towards Catholic priests, who were burned alive in churches.
Under the punitive terms of the Act of Settlement of 1652, Catholic landowners lost their possessions and were forced to move to the barren lands of western Ireland under penalty of a death sentence. More than 12,000 Catholics, including women and children, were sent into slavery to England’s colonies in Barbados and North America. Those who stayed in Ireland were deprived of freedom of religion, education, and the right to vote and hold public office. These measures enabled Britain to gain complete control of Ireland by the beginning of the 18th century.
The catastrophe at Ballinamuck
The largest armed rebellion in Ireland broke out in May 1798. Encouraged by the success of the American and French Revolutions, the Society of United Irishmen led a new revolt against British rule, with some support from the Directory of the French First Republic. Alas, the rebellion did not last long. On August 22, 1798, a force of 1,000 French troops landed in Ireland, where about 5,000 Irish volunteers joined them. The combined army was commanded by French Brigadier General Hubert. During the historic Battle of Castlebar on August 27, 1798, British troops suffered a devastating defeat. Castlebar was liberated and declared the capital of the Republic of Connacht, with John Moore appointed as president. Although the Republic of Connacht lasted only two weeks, John Moore is still considered "the first president of Ireland".
The Battle of Ballinamuck. The rebels’ army surrenders
The British recovered from their defeat fairly quickly. As early as September 8, 1798, during the Battle of Ballinamuck, a 26,000-strong British army crushed a small rebel army. France sent several warships to help the Irish rebels, but the French fleet was sunk by the British near Tory Island. John Moore and General Humbert surrendered with the rest of their army. The French prisoners were deported to their homeland, and the Irish rebels were hanged in Dublin. This battle went down in Irish history as the "catastrophe at Ballinamuck".
Much to the United Irishmen’s disappointment, the rebellion resulted in the 1800 Act of Union, with Ireland becoming part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. This was followed by the Great Famine of the 1840s, which claimed more than a million lives across Ireland. Initially triggered by a large-scale potato blight, the famine was exacerbated by the inefficient economic policies pursued by the government and landowners.
The Irish famine – peasants at the gate of a workhouse
More than a million and a half fled to the United States, searching for a better life. As a result, Ireland’s population declined by 50%: by the beginning of the 20th century, it was just over 4 million people. Undeterred, the Irish continued their struggle for independence. Several underground organizations emerged in the country, for instance, the Irish Republican Brotherhood, the Irish Land League and the Irish Citizen Army.
A pivotal moment in Irish history occurred on Easter 1916. On April 24, seven members of the military council of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) issued the Irish Independence Proclamation and declared Ireland an independent republic. Supported by James Connolly’s Citizens Army and the Irish Volunteers led by the Irish poet Padraic Pierce, the IRB took over several administrative buildings in Dublin and held them during six days of violent street fighting.
The British rushed troops to the city and suppressed the uprising using artillery. 90 republicans were sentenced to death, although the British executed only 15 leaders of the uprising, including Pierce and the seven council members who had signed the Independence Proclamation. James Connolly, severely wounded in the leg, was first tied to a chair and then shot because he was unable to stand before the firing squad.
Streets of Dublin in the aftermath of the Easter Rising
Although the Easter Rising failed, guerrilla warfare continued in many parts of Ireland until 1922. Finally, the British backed down and agreed to make some political concessions.
The Irish Free State
In December 1921, Britain and Ireland signed a new treaty, which made Ireland a self-governing dominion, a status similar to the Dominion of Canada at that time. However, Northern Ireland (Ulster), the most economically advanced part of Ireland dominated by Protestant and pro-British sentiment, chose to remain within the United Kingdom. Following the conclusion and ratification of the treaty, a civil war ensued between pro-treaty and anti-treaty forces, and it lasted until 1923.
It was not until 1949 that Ireland gained full independence by announcing its withdrawal from the British Commonwealth.
Read more: Ulster versus Northern Ireland.