A Brief History of Northern Ireland
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A Brief History of Northern Ireland

“Marching Season” has come again to the communities of Northern Ireland, a time when various groups march and hold rallies to commemorate long-ago Protestant victories over the Catholic monarchy of James II in this mixed-rule enclave of the United Kingdom. But what, exactly, are the marchers commemorating, and how is it still relevant, over 300 years later?

Marching Season” has come again to the communities of Northern Ireland, a time when various groups march and hold rallies to commemorate long-ago Protestant victories over the Catholic monarchy of James II in this mixed-rule enclave of the United Kingdom. But what, exactly, are the marchers commemorating, and how is it still relevant, over 300 years later?

The Middle Ages

King Henry II of England landed at Waterford in 1171 to establish Anglo-Norman control of the island, and subsequently passed the title “Lord of the Irish” to his son, John. He would become King John 28 years later, thus entangling Irish affairs with the English Crown for centuries to come.

Ironically, though John would initially aid in the spread of Norman strongholds and castles across Ireland, by the mid-13th century the English Crown was actively working to weaken the Norman lords in Ireland. This persisted to such an extent that by 1261 a group of Gaelic warriors defeated the Normans at Battle of Callann.

Over the ensuing century battles and local wars would sweep across Ireland, particularly around Dublin, leading to the rise of local Irish lords at the expense of their Norman counterparts. This was especially pronounced in the wake of the Black Death in the mid-1300s. More of the Anglo-Norman population died due to living in closer quarters (towns and villages) than the more rural, scattered Gaelic inhabitants.

By the end of the 15th century, English control had eventually dwindled to a few fortified locations (like Dublin), and the Lordship of Ireland was in the hands of the Fitzgeralds (Earls of Kildare), who forged military and political alliances with local lords and clans across Ireland.

English Reconquest

In 1536 with the War of the Roses finally resolved, King Henry VIII concluded it was time to turn the Crown’s attention to Ireland again. The Fitzgeralds had become unreliable, even involving themselves in an attempt to put a pretender on the English throne some 50 years earlier. As a result when Thomas FitzGerald fomented open rebellion, Henry invaded Ireland in force, executed several members of the Fitzgerald clan (including Thomas), bought the Irish Parliament to heel, and proclaimed himself “King of the Irish” in 1541, as opposed to merely “Lord of the Irish.”

Over the next 60 years various armies and administrators were sent into Ireland by Queen Elizabeth and King James I in an effort (sometimes brutal) to put down rebellion and consolidate the Crown’s power. These efforts were only partly successful: though English authority was centralized in Dublin, and most of the native lords were disarmed, the population at-large refused to convert from Catholicism to the Church of England, and martial law had to be employed to keep the county under control.

It was at this time that the seeds for today’s conflict were sown, when the Crown began confiscating Irish landholdings and distributing them to Scottish and English colonists, especially in Munster, Ulster and Laois and Offaly counties. This group of settlers would form the foundation of a new Protestant, Anglo-centric ruling class.

A Century of War

The 1600s were marred with multiple wars in Ireland, from the (successful) Rebellion of 1641, to Oliver Cromwell’s brutal reconquest in 1649-53, when nearly all remaining Catholic-held lands were stripped and given to English settlers. By the end of this period thousands of Irish were either dead or in exile.

The conflicts came to a head during the period known as The Glorious Revolution, when King James II fled London and was replace by William of Orange (King William III). The remaining Catholic Irish landholders and nobles backed James in an effort to get Cromwell’s punitive measures lifted, but William’s victories in 1690 at the Battle of the Boyne, and the Battle of Aughirm in 1691 crushed that hope.

The 18th Century

The Anglo-Irish Protestant ruling class now had the upper hand, and throughout the early 18th century promulgated unbalanced trade laws and tariffs, and mismanaged may of their absentee landholdings. These actions, in conjunction with a pair of very cold winters in 1740-41 (known as the Little Ice Age) led to large-scale famine and emigration out of Ireland.

As the years passed however, some of these Anglo-Irish nobles and landholders began to identify more strongly with their Irish roots, and some agitated for more favorable trade and legislative arrangements with England.

Reforms were discussed and attempted fitfully through the late years of the century, but eventually other persecuted groups, the Presbyterians and Dissenters, formed their own organizations and Societies, and attempted to push through reforms, including Catholic emancipation.

When this failed they attempted, through the Rebellion of 1798, to force out the English and found a non-sectarian republic. This effort, too, was bloodily crushed, and Irish self-rule was abolished through the Act of Union in 1801.

Union and Reform

The Act of Union brought about the “United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland,” and was supposed to relax restrictions on Catholics and Dissenters, but King George III adamantly blocked any attempt to undo those restrictions (called the Test Act), even leading to the resignation of his Prime Minister, Pitt the Younger.

This situation persisted until Catholic lawyer Daniel O’Connell was elected to Parliament, and helped push through (with the aid of Dublin-born Prime Minister Arthur Wellesley) the Catholic Relief Act 1829. Though various reforms continued through the following decades, conflicts over required support for the Crown-established Church of Ireland led to ongoing friction and uprisings (the Tithe War) until the Church of Ireland was disestablished in 1867.

At this same time a widespread potato blight led to a second great Irish famine leading to the death or emigration of nearly half the island’s population over a 60-year period. As the famine subsided in the 1870s, major land reform was undertaken, breaking up the large estates and ending absentee landholding.

Lastly, as the century drew to a close, several important political reforms paved the way for future fractures and discord. British Prime Minister Gladstone had attempted unsuccessfully to push through Home Rule for Ireland in the late 1880s, and debate over the issue led to tensions between Protestant Unionists (who favored close ties with Britain) and Irish nationalists who tended to be Catholic. Most of Ireland was nationalist and pro-home-rule, but a substantial part of the industrialized northeast of the island was Protestant and pro-union. This split ultimately led to the formation of the Protestant Orange Order and the Catholic Ancient Order of Hibernians.

Home Rule to Independence

1910 through 1912 saw several Home Rule bills introduced to Parliament, with the third iteration likely to succeed. In response pro- and anti-self-government groups lined up, preparing to support or resist the impending change of affairs in Ireland.

Home rule was passed at last in the fall of 1914, but was suspended due to the outbreak of the First World War. At that time most Nationalist leaders decided to support the British and Allied war effort, ultimately sending several Irish divisions to join the British Army. In addition twice during the War, disagreements between the Nationalists and Unionists over excluding Ulster from Home Rule provisions scuttled attempts to implement Home Rule for Ireland.

Most notably during this period however, was the Easter Uprising of 1916. This insurrection was led by a small group of Nationalist insurgents in Dublin, and its violent suppression (including executions), in combination with increasing pressure to conscript Irishmen into the Army in 1918, ultimately led to the December election of the rebel political party, Sinn Féin, to a majority of all seats in Ireland. This newly-constituted Irish Parliament declared their island independent of Britain in January, 1919.

From 1919 through 1921 the new Irish Republican Army fought to secure independence for all Irish territory from British control. The British government ratified Home Rule in 1920, and in 1921 the Irish and British governments signed a treaty which partitioned the twenty-six Nationalist counties into a new Irish Free State. Ireland at this point was a member of the Commonwealth of Nations (like Canada), but would eventually declare itself a Republic in 1949. The remaining six counties of Northern Ireland also gained Home Rule, but elected to remain united to Britain.

The North After Partition

The early years of self-government in the North were marked by political violence, particularly in 1920-21 as the IRA fought to prevent partition. This period general ended after 1922 when the Anglo-Irish Treaty went into full force. The effect of the violence, however, was to cause cross-border migrations of Catholics (southward) and Protestants (northward), as well as the polarization of the North’s police forces, particularly the Royal Ulster Constabulary.

From the mid-1920s through the mid-1960s Northern Ireland was largely peaceful, with the notable exception of an Orange Order parade that went through a heavily Catholic neighborhood of Belfast in 1935. The ensuing violence left nine dead and forced thousands of Catholics to relocate from the city.

Though the North may have been generally peaceful, it was not a comfortable place, especially for its Catholic minority. Various laws were promulgated throughout these decades, leading to gerrymandered voting districts, uneven representation in elections and discrimination in both public and private employment. This economic and political underrepresentation, and lack of real opportunity, caused continued out-migration of Catholics from the North, and led to the weakening and fragmentation of Catholic parties and organizations. By the late 60s the situation had become intolerable.

“The Troubles”

The rise of Nationalist sentiment, a nascent civil rights movement and radical student activities in the late 1960s came to a head in a series of violent mob actions, protests, marches and police retaliation across Northern Ireland (particularly Belfast and Derry) in 1969. In response the British Army was sent to quell the violence, and security for the state passed from the local government to a military commander.

Unfortunately this merely exacerbated tensions, as the Army cracked down over the next two years through a series of curfews and internments which caused the more moderate Nationalists to withdraw their support from the Northern Ireland government. The Army’s response hit its zenith in the killing of 14 unarmed civilians in Derry on January 30, 1972, a date referred to as “Bloody Sunday.”

Bloody Sunday triggered an explosion of violent activity from Nationalist paramilitary organizations, especially the Provisional IRA (a breakaway from the Official IRA), and counter-reaction from Loyalist groups like the Ulster Defence Association. The situation deteriorated so badly through 1972 that Britain stripped the Northern Ireland Parliament of its authority and imposed direct rule in July, 1973.

Though talks were held in 1972-73 that led to a power-sharing arrangement, hard-line Unionist groups and the Provisional IRA refused to be reconciled, and violence, both in Northern Ireland and abroad, continued throughout the 1970s and 80s. Attacks (and retaliatory strikes) ranged from local pubs to local British military units to bombings (car bombs, in particular) in Britain itself.

Some non-violent acts did take place during this time (hunger strikes in 1981, the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985), and co-operation between the Republic of Ireland and Britain improved the political atmosphere in Northern Ireland enough that by the time an IRA bomb went off in the town of Enniskillen in 1987, killing 11, violence as a means of political change had lost its appeal to the majority of the population there, Protestant and Catholic alike.

“Good Friday” Agreement

Governments in both Dublin and London spent more effort on the issue of Northern Ireland in the late 1980s and early 1990s, leading to the countries’ two leaders signing a joint declaration, while leader of two main opposing factions in the North (Sinn Féin and the Social Democratic and Labour Party) met as well.

These tentative steps would bear fruit in 1998 when most of the main Northern Irish parties signed on to the Belfast Agreement (aka the "Good Friday Agreement") and voters elected a new Parliament (the Northern Ireland Assembly) headed by a power-sharing agreement and fair apportionment of legislative seats.

This arrangement would work fitfully into the 21st century with various parties rising and falling (e.g. the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Féin), power devolving back to direct British rule for a time, and the IRA resisting efforts to formally disarm. But though it was not smooth, this process did finally conclude with the IRA issuing a public statement ending its armed campaign (2005), and the signing of a new multi-party power-sharing agreement (2006). As a result in May 2007, governmental power was formally returned to Northern Ireland.


The people and politics of Northern Ireland have had a long and torturous journey since the days of James II and William of Orange: war, famines, rebellions, persecution, emigration.  But as the 21st century proceeds into its second decade, there is hope among both the Catholic and Protestant citizens of this ancient land that recent setbacks notwithstanding (a car bomb in Newry in February 2010 and unrest surrounding this year's Marching Season), the future will continue to be ever more prosperous and peaceful.

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Comments (7)

Brilliant article with good reasoning and backed up with strong facts. Thumbs Up!!!

They are experiencing ructions over there again at the moment, but rather than it being political, it would seem it's just trouble makers out for a fight. it's one thing to stand up for your political beliefs, but to use them as a prop for out and out thuggery is shameful, sort of makes a mockery of everything that has passed before. Great article Mark.

Most Americans (well, outside Boston, anyway...) have no real clue why there are two Irelands or what the big deal is. I figured this would at least give 'em a grounding on the topic.

Is that so ? Wow. A shortened version could be, England has been at it again, I think everyone would understand that !

Most Americans don't even understand why the British were in *our* country! ;)

They're not into their history then. In the UK we learn it all at school, every embarressing moment of it, like it's something to be proud of, which it is in a way, but not all of it.

Very interesting