The island of Ireland has been inhabited since the Stone Age but it was the arrival of the Celts in around 500BC which created the basis of what we consider Irish culture today
- Ireland (Éire in Gaelic)
- Irish Gaelic (1.400.000)
- English (6.378.000)
- 6.378.000 inhabitants
- 32,595 sq miles
The island of Ireland has been inhabited since the Stone Age but it was the arrival of the Celts in around 500BC which created the basis of what we consider Irish culture today. Ireland under the Celts was divided into 5 provinces (of which 4 remain today) and about 150 small kingdoms.
Each province was controlled by a family or clan, and although it is true that the island was not united politically, it was united under a common language, a culture, a religion (Druidism) and an elaborate code of laws based on the community and the importance of families and clans.
The Vikings have also made their mark on the history of Ireland, building cities like Dublin and Wexford and bringing changes to Irish society such as the introduction of currency, the Celts having previously used the barter system to acquire goods and services.
Facing the growing power of the Vikings the warring Irish kings united and in the year 1014 under the command of High King Brian Boru the Irish defeated the Vikings at the Battle of Clontarf ending their military domain but not their commercial influence on the island.
But there is one invasion which has had more impact on Irish history than any other. It began in 1169 with the arrival of the Anglo Normans and marked the beginning of centuries of struggle between the Irish and their English invaders.
The English took vast swathes of land on which they built castles to protect their conquests. They also imposed the feudal system of social organization which clashed with the way the Celts organized their communities. The native Irish, particularly in the northern province of Ulster, never accepted the rule of the English and they mounted many attacks on the administrative capital of British rule in an area known as ‘The Pale’ which incorporated Dublin and the surrounding areas.
In an effort to stop these attacks being mounted from the North, King James 1 of Britain began the Plantation of Ulster in the early 1600’s. During the Plantation massive tracts of Irish owned land was expropriated to the hands of English and Scottish settlers. This led to an island wide revolt in 1641 that was brutally crushed by Oliver Cromwell.
In 1792 the establishment of the United Irishmen is considered the birth of Irish Republicanism. Their leader Theobald Wolfe Tone, a Protestant from Dublin, appealed the use of force to break ties with Britain and united all citizens under the name of Irishman irrespective of religion. The 1798 Rebellion was the bloodiest in the history of Ireland and created a myth in the figure of Wolfe Tone.
In the aftermath of this failed rebellion the London government ended the little autonomy that Dublin had and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland was created, with the Union Jack, which became locally known as the Butcher’s Apron, as a banner.
Several more uprisings occurred in the following decades however the national desire for freedom was decimated by the Great Irish Famine 1845-52 during which 1 million people died of starvation and 1 million more emigrated. The Famine was nominally caused by the failure of the Irish potato crop, on which the native peasants were dependant. However Ireland was still producing huge quantities of other grains for export during this period.
It wasn’t until 4th of April 1916 when the next watershed in Irish freedom took place. Irish nationalists took control of the GPO (General Post Office) in Dublin and proclaimed the Irish Republic. The savage British repression of this uprising and the execution of its leaders changed the history of Ireland.
In the 1918 elections Sinn Féin had a landslide victory, a parliament, known as the First Dáil, was set up and a series of events led to the Tan War or War of Independence (1919-1921).
This war culminated with the signing of the Anglo Irish Treaty, by Michael Collins and others, which partitioned the island, leaving six counties of Ulster in British hands and led to a bitter civil war and the establishment of the Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael political parties which dominate Irish politics to this day. The new 26 county ‘Free State’ would continue its path, proclaiming itself an independent state in 1949.
In the North the nationalist minority was disenfranchised and suffered discrimination in housing, work and the provision of services. These injustices paved the way for the civil rights movement in the 60’s, but the response of the Unionist government was fierce repression and loyalist mobs started attacking nationalist neighborhoods. In this context the Provisional IRA came in to being in 1969 to defend nationalist communities from attacks.
In 1972 one of the darkest days of the modern conflict occurred in Derry when British parachute regiment soldiers murdered 14 civilians who were taking part in a peaceful civil rights march in the city.
From this period on IRA’s military campaign intensified with the organization carrying out major actions both in Ireland and in England. On a single day in 1979 an IRA ambush at Narrowater Co. Down, killed 18 British soldiers and the British Queen’s cousin, Lord Mountbatten was killed in an attack in Co Sligo.
In the late 70’s and early 80’s the dirty war intensified with the introduction of internment without trial and the criminalization policy adopted by the British government towards republican prisoners. 1981 is a watershed year in Irish history. The republican prisoners in the H-Block prison decided to embark on a Hunger Strike to raise awareness of their political struggle and the dreadful conditions in the jail. This led to the death of ten prisoners but within two years Margaret Thatcher’s Tory Government had granted all of the prisoners’ original demands.
The remainder of the 80’s saw the conflict in the North continues with thousands of people made victims of this bloody war. In 1994 the IRA called a cease fire but this broke down in 1996 due the failure by the London government to honor the agreements made.
In 1997 a new IRA ceasefire led to the signing of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement / Belfast Agreement. In 2005 a power-sharing Assembly was created which enabled locally elected politicians to make decisions on behalf of the people of the north, however not all powers are devolved and the British Government retain control of taxation, foreign policy and welfare payments among other things.
Today Sinn Féin is the second largest party in the North of Ireland and fourth in the South.
Ireland is regarded as one of the Celtic nations and this heavily influences the culture of the island.
The Irish language, known as Gaelic, belongs to the Indo-European family and has been the language spoken by Irish people for most of their history. The English invasion and introduction of the Penal Laws had a terrible effect on the language with all official communications and education only available through English, the language of the Protestant Ascendance.
Currently there are Irish speaking areas on the island, known as Gaeltachta where Irish is the main language in day to day life. The number of speakers is rising especially in urban areas like Dublin and Belfast and the introduction of Irish medium education has helped consolidate this revival.
Traditional music is one of the best known aspects of Irish culture and it can be enjoyed in many Irish bars. Traditional musicians sometimes hold informal ‘Sessions’ where anyone can join in playing an instrument.
Ireland also has a rich literary culture with several Nobel Prize winners and world-renowned writers such as Brendan Behan, James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, Bram Stoker, WB Yeats and the Bronte sisters.
Irish traditional sports and games are organized around the Gaelic Athletic Association. The best known are hurling, Gaelic football and handball. All are strongly linked to the promotion of Irish culture, language and history.
Both Gaelic football and hurling are played in teams of 15 players; the climax of these sports is in September when the All- Ireland championship takes place. The finals are played in the iconic Croke Park stadium in Dublin with an attendance of more than 80,000 people.