The History of Ireland
Explore some of the major events in Ireland's history, from the earliest inhabitants to the present day.
Ireland’s earliest inhabitants were hunters and fishers and later farmers. They were prosperous and built great stone monuments, called megaliths, in strategic locations. Newgrange, in the Boyne valley, is a passage grave and dates to c.3000 BC, making it older than Stonehenge or the pyramids in Egypt.
The Celts Arrive
Celtic people and culture originated in central Europe. In Ireland, Celts were cattle farmers and lived in raths, circular earthen enclosures that we call ‘fairy forts’ today. They were fine craftsmen and had an advanced literary and religious culture.
The Coming of Christianity
Ireland was a destination for early Christian missionaries from Europe. Palladius, likely from Gaul, was the first and worked largely in Leinster in the south-east. Patrick, who arrived slightly later, worked in the north and established a monastic community at Armagh, which secured his place as the patron saint of Ireland.
The Norman Invasion
In August, about 600 Norman soldiers landed at Bannow Bay in ------ Wexford to support Diarmait Mac Murchada, the deposed king of Leinster, in his bid to retake his throne. Their leader Richard de Clere, alias ‘Strongbow’, married Diarmait’s daughter Aífe to secure the alliance. This was the start of the ‘English’ presence in Ireland. In 1177 the Dublin-based John de Courcy moved north and conquered most of Ulster.
The Rise of Kildare
Over time, Norman settlers integrated with Ireland’s Gaelic inhabitants, taking on their culture and language. English kings neglected Ireland and their influence was soon reduced to ‘the Pale’, an area around Dublin. Ireland was essentially governed by local leaders, such as Gerald (Gearóid Mór) Fitzgerald, the 8th earl of Kildare. As the English king’s official representative in Ireland, he used his position to expand his family’s substantial power and influence.
Tudor Expansion in Ireland
The Tudors were a new breed of English monarch. They were active in expanding their influence over Ireland. They crushed a rebellion by the Kildare family in 1534 and imposed more direct rule over the island. They introduced Protestantism as the new official religion and experimented with ‘plantations’, government-sponsored settlement schemes to populate rebellious territory with loyal, and productive, farmers.
The Nine Years’ War comes to an end
In 1595, Hugh O’Neill, one of the last great Gaelic lords, with substantial lands in Ulster, rose in rebellion against the Tudor queen Elizabeth I. He surrendered at Mellifont, without realising that Elizabeth had died only a few days previously. Local English officials imposed harsh terms on him and his followers. In an attempt to raise support in Europe, O’Neill and other Gaelic lords fled to Rome in 1607. Their lands were declared forfeit to the Crown.
The Plantation of Ulster
James 1, the new king of England, initiated a scheme of plantation on the forfeited lands in Ulster belonging to Hugh O’Neill. The land was surveyed and terms drawn up. Landowners, called ‘undertakers’, included great Scottish lords and powerful London trade guilds. Between them they recruited tenant farmers from England and Scotland. By 1633 there were an estimated 40,000-50,000 settlers in Ulster. They brought their Protestant (especially Presbyterian) religion with them. The growth of towns soon followed. The problem of the displaced local Gaelic population was never properly addressed and security for the new settlements was a constant worry.
The rising of 1641
Norman and Gaelic landowners were anxious about their future and had planned to rise against the king, Charles I, on 23 October 1641. Their plans were overtaken by events in Ulster, where locally-based rebels launched a series of sectarian attacks against plantation settlers. About 4000 settlers were murdered, and the accounts of survivors widely circulated in anti-Catholic propaganda publications.
Cromwell in Ireland
The rising in 1641 launched a more sustained rebellion by the ‘Catholic Confederacy’, who allied themselves to the ‘royalist’ side of the English Civil War. When Cromwell and the New Model Army defeated Charles in England, they turned their attention to Ireland, storming first Drogheda then Wexford. Cromwell’s military actions were highly controversial and laid the foundation for a sustained confiscation and plantation of Ireland.
The siege of Derry
English Protestants had objected to James II’s Catholic policies and his support for the French King Louis XIV. They appealed to William of Orange, an opponent of Louis, to help them depose James, who had fled to Ireland. Jacobite (pro-James) forces surrounded Derry but on 18 April, defiant ‘apprentices’ refused to let them enter, shutting the gates to the walled city and enduring a 105 day siege. This event now plays a prominent role within unionist and loyalist culture and is celebrated by the fraternal order, the Apprentice Boys of Derry.
The battle of the Boyne
Another event in the struggle between Jacobite and Williamite forces on Irish soil. On 1 July 1690 (11 July new style) on the banks of the river Boyne William’s army outflanked their opponents. James overestimated the risk and fled. Insignificant in strategic terms, its anniversary was celebrated by the Orange Order from the 1790s. Dating errors and calendar reforms have led the battle to be commemorated on 12 July.
Penal legislation enacted
In the wake of the wars with James, the Irish parliament enacted a series of laws which discriminated against Catholics and excluded anyone not a member of the Church of Ireland from political office. This meant Presbyterians were also affected. Throughout the 18th century, ownership of land and the exercise of political power was in the hands of Irish Anglicans. Starting in 1778, a series of ‘relief acts’ began to lift the bar on Catholic and Presbyterian participation in public life.
The foundation of the Orange Order
The Orange Order emerged out of a sectarian riot between a group of Protestant ‘Orange Boys’ and Catholic ‘Defenders’ at a crossroads called ‘the Diamond’ near Loughgall, ------ Armagh on 21 Sept. 1795. With structures taken from Freemasonry, it aimed to preserve Protestant dominance over Catholics and celebrated King William’s memory. It was frequently banned but later became an integral support group for the emergence of modern Unionism.
The 1798 Rebellion
In 1791, in Belfast and Dublin, a group of radical activists formed the United Irishmen to demand greater political rights for Presbyterians and Catholics. Radicalized by the repressive measures taken against them, they sought French support for an insurrection, which went ahead in 1798. With most of the leadership arrested or deported, it was doomed to failure.
The Act of Union
The Act of Union brought about the formation of ‘The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland’. The Irish parliament in Dublin was abolished and Irish lords and elected MPs took up their seats in Westminster. There were around 100 Irish constituencies. In the late 19th Century some Irish MPs started to form strategic alliances, where they could hold the balance of power in British political decisions.
Catholics are given the right to sit in parliament as MPs. This was the culmination of a campaign for greater civil rights for Catholics across the UK spearheaded by Daniel O’Connell, an Irish lawyer. He is considered to be the founder of the constitutional tradition of Irish nationalism, which sought political change via peaceful, and legal, means.
Ireland’s population was growing rapidly in the early nineteenth century. In 1838, the Capuchin monk Father Mathew launched his teetotal crusade. By 1842 5 million people, largely poor, rural Catholics, had signed the pledge to abstain from alcohol. Mathew was said to be imbued with magical powers, a symbol of the popular beliefs still prevalent amongst the Irish poor.
The Great Famine
In 1845 potatoes harvested in the eastern parts of Ireland showed signs of ‘blight’ (phytopthora infestans), a disease which causes potatoes to turn black. Repeated outbreaks of blight, combined with short-sighted government policies and structural problems in the Irish land system led to over a million excess deaths and the start of a sustained period of mass emigration which did not ease until the early 20th century. The Famine occupies a seminal role within modern Irish literature, culture and identity.
The formation of the IRB
In 1848 a group of disaffected Irish nationalists staged an abortive rising. Out of this emerged the Irish Republican Brotherhood, or the Fenians, founded by James Stephens in 1858. Nurtured within the Irish migrant communities in America and Canada, it organised a further rising in 1867, which also failed. Members were influential within many late 19th century nationalist movements and were crucial in the planning and execution of the Easter rising in 1916.
The Ulster revival
Throughout the summer of 1859, Protestants in the North of Ireland were affected by a popular wave of religious enthusiasm. Religious meetings were crowded and frequently disrupted by Pentecostal-type behaviour such as shaking, crying out and falling down. Church attendance escalated dramatically but religious leaders were divided in their opinions.
Land War begins
With the onset of a serious agricultural depression, the Irish land system came under criticism. Tenants began to demand what were called ‘the three F’s’: fair rent, free sale and fixity of tenure. Their protest activity was organised by the Land League, who sought to disrupt the eviction of tenants from their farms. They forced the government to implement sweeping changes to the land system. Land acts in 1881 and 1903 forced landlords to sell their lands and laid the foundation for Ireland's modern system of owner occupancy.
A Unionist opposition emerges
Protestants, especially those with substantial business interests in Ulster, were worried about Gladstone’s sympathetic attitude towards Irish nationalism. In 1885 they formed the Irish Loyal and Patriotic Union and in 1886 the Irish Unionist party. They wanted to maintain their current position within the British commonwealth. They campaigned extensively throughout Ireland, Scotland and England. They form the basis for the modern Unionist movement.
First Home Rule bill
From the 1870s, some Irish MPs began to work together and exercise their collective influence in favour of home rule for Ireland. Called the Irish Parliamentary party, they won 86 of Ireland’s 100 seats in 1885. They put pressure on William Gladstone, the leader of the British Liberal party, and in April 1886 he introduced a home rule bill into parliament. It failed, but marked the start of a sustained attempt by Nationalists to achieve self-government for Ireland.
Formation of Sinn Féin
Arthur Griffiths and Bulmer Hobson founded this radical political group in 1905. Its name means roughly ‘ourselves’ and it stressed political and cultural autonomy for Ireland. Prior to 1916 it was a fringe movement. Although often associated with it, Sinn Féin did not take part in the Easter rising. It became influential in the years thereafter but was split over the Treaty, signed in 1921. In the 1970s The Troubles split the movement again, with the militant faction forming the basis for the modern-day Sinn Féin party.
On 14 April, Titanic, the flagship liner built by Harland and Wolffe in Belfast, struck an iceberg on her maiden voyage to New York. With a massive gash in her hull, she quickly sank with the loss of 1490 of 2201 passengers.
Ulster Covenant is signed
Unionists declared 28 September to be ‘Ulster Day’. Alongside demonstrations and speeches they organised the signing of a petition against home rule, the ‘Solemn League and Covenant’. Over 218,000 men and 228,000 women signed the document. It was a massive declaration of popular support for the union with Britain.
Home Rule is suspended
In 1912, despite Unionist protests, a Third Home Rule bill was passed in parliament, although it was defeated in the House of Lords. Because of delays and the outbreak of war in September 1914, its implementation was suspended for the duration. Constitutional Nationalists, under the leadership of John Redmond, agreed to support the British war effort and many Irish men served in British and Irish regiments.
The rising was planned by a secret military council formed within the Irish Republican Brotherhood. They drew on members of the Irish Volunteers and the Irish Citizen’s Army, two local citizens’ militias. On Easter Monday, 24 April about 1200 insurgents captured the General Post Office and other sites across Dublin. After five days’ fighting, they surrendered. Fifteen leaders were later executed. This ‘bold gesture’ or ‘blood sacrifice’ marshalled considerable support for a more radical nationalist approach to British involvement in Ireland.
Battle of the Somme
At 7:30am on 1 July soldiers of the 36th (Ulster) Division, many of whom were Ulster Protestants, climbed out of their trenches and advanced across no-man’s land. The advance bombardment had failed and they were cut down by enemy fire. Within 2 days, 5,500 soldiers had been wounded or killed. Its proximity to the Twelfth celebrations of the Orange Order makes the battle a symbolic event for contemporary Unionists.
War and a new government
In the 1918 general election, 73 Sinn Fein candidates were elected. They ‘abstained’ from taking up their seats in Westminster and formed their own assembly in Dublin, called Dáil Éireann. Eamon de Valera was elected President. They conducted their business against the backdrop of the Anglo-Irish war, the military campaign against the British presence in Ireland led by the Irish Volunteers (later the Irish Republican Army).
The partition of Ireland
The British government realised that some measure of home rule was inevitable. In order to appease Conservative and Unionist opinion, the Liberal government, under Lloyd George, proposed to partition the island and create separate parliaments for each. Sinn Féin MPs abstained from elections to the Southern body, but Unionists, under James Craig, used the terms of this Act as the constitutional basis for the creation of Northern Ireland.
A peace treaty is signed
The Anglo-Irish War forced the British to the negotiating table and led to the signing of the Anglo-Irish treaty in London on 6 December 1921. It fell short of full independence and split the Nationalist movement into pro- and anti-Treaty camps.
Irish Civil War
While Sinn Féin and the Irish people largely supported the Treaty, the majority of the IRA was opposed. Now called the ‘Irregulars’ they launched a military campaign against their former compatriots. Sinn Féin, now called the Provisional Government, shelled Irregular positions in the Four Courts. The government quickly established its own army under Michael Collins. He used internment and execution to put down the insurrection. With little co-ordination and few resources, the anti-Treatyite leadership surrendered in May 1923.
Revised Irish constitution approved
Drafted under the direction of the then Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Eamon de Valera, it formed the basis for Ireland’s conservative social identity and its firmly nationalist aspirations for a united Ireland. However, the Catholic Church’s ‘special position’ was abolished in 1972 and the claim to ‘the whole island of Ireland’ in Article 2 was amended in 1998.
WW2 and the Belfast blitz
Belfast was one of the most badly defended cities in Britain at the start of the war. Yet it had a considerable industrial infrastructure, which German reconnaissance planes had noted. Between April-May 1941, German bombers blitzed Belfast 3 times and Dublin once, even though the Free State had declared its neutrality.
A Republic declared
Between 1922 and 1937 the 26 -------- of southern Ireland were called the Irish Free State. Thereafter they were called ‘Éire (Ireland)’. In the 1940s the government came under pressure to declare Ireland a republic. While on an official trip to Canada in 1948, the government leader John Costello made the surprise announcement and the legislation was changed the next year. By the terms of the Commonwealth at the time, Ireland could no longer remain a member.
The Troubles start
The Troubles emerged out of a budding civil rights movement, which organised protests against religious discrimination and political corruption. A banned march on 5 October 1968 started a much broader protest movement when police brutality was caught on camera. Further demonstrations were overtaken by more radical elements, like the IRA, and a cycle of retaliation and escalating violence continued throughout the 1970s. Efforts to negotiate a ceasefire were routinely scuppered by intransigent attitudes and unruly elements within the paramilitary combatants on both sides.
On 30 January 13 demonstrators were shot dead by soldiers of the 1st Parachute Regiment following a banned civil rights march in Derry. The Widgery Tribunal (1972) absolved the British of blame, but the Saville Enquiry (1998-2010) overturned this conclusion. David Cameron, the then Prime Minister, formally apologised as a result. This event more than any other galvanised IRA recruitment and polarised attitudes between unionists and nationalists.
The Good Friday Agreement
From the mid 1980s efforts were put in place to negotiate a peace settlement to the conflict in Northern Ireland. On Friday 10 April George Mitchell, the chief negotiator, announced that unionist and nationalist parties had reached agreement on a way to govern together. This assembly, based at the Stormont buildings in east Belfast, has been suspended several times since 1998 because of lack of trust and perceived breaches of its terms. However, peace has widespread support among the wider Northern Irish population.
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