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Ireland - History

There is no history which has been represented in such different lights as that of Ireland, or which contains so large a proportion of controversial matter. 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.

Ireland is a small island nation, a divided island that since the middle ages has witnessed war and conflict and sectarian strife. Ireland is an island lying west of Great Britain, and forming with it the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. It is encircled by the Atlantic Ocean, and on the east is separated from Great Britain by narrow shallow seas, towards the north by the North Channel, the width of which at the narrowest part between the Mull of Cantire (Scotland) and Torr Head is only 132 m.; in the center by the Irish Sea, 130 m. in width, and in the south by St George's Channel. Ireland is divided territorially into four provinces (Ulster, Leinster, Connaught, and Munster) and thirty two counties.

Ireland remained outside the pale of the ancient Roman world, and a state of society which was peculiarly favorable to the preservation of national folk-lore survived in the island until the 16th century. The jealousy with which the hereditary antiquaries guarded the tribal genealogies naturally led to hope that the records which have come down to the present may shed some light on the difficult problems connected with the early inhabitants of these islands and the west of Europe.

The earliest inhabitants -- people of a mid-Stone Age culture -- arrived about 6000 BC. The first settlers, mostly hunters from Britain, brought with them a Mesolithic culture. They were followed around 3000 BC by farmers who raised animals and cultivated the soil. After these Neolithic settlers, around 2000 BC, came prospectors and metalworkers. Tribes from southern Europe arrived and established a high Neolithic culture, leaving behind gold ornaments and huge stone monuments. The Bronze Age people, who arrived during the next 1,000 years, produced elaborate gold and bronze ornaments and weapons.

Of the classical writers who notice Ireland Ptolemy is the only one who gives any very definite information. The legendary origins first appear in Nennius and in a number of poems by such writers as Maelmura (d. 884), Cinaed Uah Artacain (d. 975), Eochaid Ua Flainn (d. 984), Flann Mainistrech (d. 1056) and Gilla Coemgin (d. 1072). They are also embodied in the Leabhar Gabhala or Book of Invasions, the earliest copy of which is contained in the Book of Leinster, a 12th-century MS.

It was not until well on in the Bronze Age, perhaps about 600 or 500 B.C., that the Goidels, the first invaders speaking a Celtic language, set foot in Ireland. By the Sixth Century BC 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 newcomers probably overran the whole island, subduing but not exterminating the older race with which they doubtless intermarried freely, as pre-Celtic types are frequent among the populations of Connaught and Munster at the present day. What the language was that was spoken by the neolithic aborigines is a question which will probably never be settled. The division into provinces or "fifths " (Ulster, Leinster, Connaught, E. Munster and W. Munster) appears to be older than the historical period, and may be due to the Goidels.

The Iron Age arrived abruptly in the fourth century BC with the invasion of the Celts, a tall, energetic people who had spread across Europe and Great Britain in the preceding centuries. The Celts, or Gaels, and their more numerous predecessors divided into five kingdoms in which, despite constant strife, a rich culture flourished.

Greek and Roman writers seemed to have possessed very little definite information about the island, though much of what they relate corresponds to the state of society disclosed in the older epics. Strabo held the inhabitants to be mere savages, addicted to cannibalism and having no marriage ties. Solinus speaks of the luxurious pastures, but the natives he terms an inhospitable and warlike nation. The conquerors among them having first drunk the blood of their enemies, afterwards besmear their faces therewith; they regard right and wrong alike.

Knowledge of the beliefs of the pagan Irish is very slight. The belief in earth spirits or fairies (Ir. aes side, sid) forms perhaps the most striking feature of Irish belief. The sagas teem with references to the inhabitants of the fairy mounds, who play such an important part in the mind of the peasantry of our own time. These supernatural beings are sometimes represented as immortal, but often they fall victims to the prowess of mortals.

The coming of Christianity from across the Irish Sea brought major changes and civilizing influences. 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. Tradition maintains that St. Patrick arrived on the island in AD 432 and, in the years that followed, worked to convert the Irish to Christianity.

In the beginning of the 4th century there was an organized Christian church in Britain; and in view of the intimate relations existing between Wales and Ireland during that century it is safe to conclude that there were Christians in Ireland before the time of St Patrick. While the mass of the people practically still continued in heathendom, Patrick was enabled to found churches and schools and educate a priesthood which should provide the most effective and certain means of conversion. It would be a mistake to suppose that his success was as rapid or as complete as is generally assumed.

The pagan druid tradition collapsed before the spread of the new faith, and Irish scholars excelled in the study of Latin learning and Christian theology in the monasteries that flourished. Missionaries went forth from Ireland to England and the continent, spreading news of the flowering of learning, and scholars from other nations came to Irish monasteries. The excellence and isolation of these monasteries helped preserve Latin and Greek learning during the Dark Ages. The arts of manuscript illumination, metalworking, and sculpture flourished and produced such treasures as the Book of Kells, ornate jewelry, and the many carved stone crosses that dot the island.

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 AD.

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.

Brian Boru, brother of Mahon, king of the province of North Muma, or Munster, was recognized as the High King in the year 1002. The semi-usurpation of Brian Boru, which broke through the old prescriptional usage (according to which the Highkings of Ireland had, for the preceding five hundred years, been elected only from among the northern or southern Ui Neill, that is, from the descendants of Niall of the Nine Hostages), produced no evil effects, but much good so long as Brian himself lived; yet his action was destined to have the worst possible influence upon the future of Ireland, an evil influence comparable only to that caused by the desertion of Tara four centuries and a half before.

The High-kingship being thus thrown open, as it were, to any Irish chief sufficiently powerful to wrest it from the others, became an object of constant dispute and warfare, the O'Neills kings of Ulster, the O'Conors of Connacht, the O'Briens of Munster, and the princes of Leinster, all contended for it, so that from the death ot Malachy, Brian Boru's successor, there was scarcely a single High-king who was not, as the Irish annalists call it, "a king with opposition." Hence despite the immediate revival of art and literature which followed the defeat of the Northmen, the country was in many ways politically weakened, the inherent defects of the clan system accentuated, and the land, already much exhausted by the Danish wars, was left open to the invasion of the Normans.

In 1155 Pope Adrian IV, the only Englishman who has ever occupied the papal chair, granted to the first Plantagenet king of the English King Henry II [r. 1154-1189] the hereditary lordship of Ireland. But Irish customs admitted no estates of inheritance, and soon began the conflict between feudal and tribal law which was destined to deluge Ireland in blood. It was in May, 1169, that the first force of these new invaders landed, and, aided by the incompetence of a particularly feeble High-king, they had so thoroughly established themselves in Ireland by the close of the century, that they succeeded in putting an end to the Irish Highkingship, under which Ireland had subsisted for over a thousand years. Then began that permanent war — very different, indeed, from what the Irish tribes waged among themselves—which, almost from its very commencement, thoroughly arrested Irish development, and disintegrated Irish life.

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 centralised 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.

The natives did not understand that this invasion was quite different from those of the Danes. They made alliances with the strangers to aid them in their intestine wars. They did not take in the grave significance of doing homage to a Norman king, and becoming his "man." There was no general effort of the natives, and their total incapacity for national organization forbade the idea of a native sovereign.

The coming of the Normans to Ireland from 1169 onwards is one of the most fundamental events in Irish history. The Norman colonists established themselves successfully in the relatively small area around Dublin and part of Leinster known as the Pale, where they introduced the same type of feudal society, laws and parliament as they had already established in 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 Gaelicisation of the Norman settlers. From 1172 until the early modern period, traditional Irish society successfully co-existed alongside the areas of Norman rule, with the native Irish possessing almost total independence in their political organisation and day-to-day affairs.

The king's arm was short in Ireland. Edward III [r.1327-1377] being busy with foreign wars had little time to spare for Ireland, and the native chiefs everywhere seized their opportunity. In two expeditions to Ireland Richard II at first overcame all opposition, but neither had any permanent effect. The brilliant reign of Henry V was a time of extreme misery to the colony in Ireland, and half the English-speaking people fled to England. Poyning's Law of 1494 required all Irish acts to be approved by the crown. Occupied in pleasure or foreign enterprise, Henry VIII [r. 1509-1547] at first paid little attention to Ireland.

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Page last modified: 06-02-2013 19:00:57 ZULU