Concise History of Ireland
Part of the agreement that led to the Act of Union stipulated that the Penal Laws were to be repealed and Catholic Emancipation granted. However, King George 111 blocked emancipation, arguing that to grant it would break his coronation oath to defend the Anglican Church. A campaign under lawyer and politician Daniel O’Connell, led to the conceding of Catholic Emancipation in 1829, thus allowing Catholics to sit in parliament. O’Connell then mounted an unsuccessful campaign for the Repeal of the Act of Union.
Ireland underwent major highs and lows economically during the 19th century; from economic booms during the Napoleonic Wars and in the late 19th century (when it experienced a surge in economic growth unmatched until the Celtic Tiger boom of the 1990s), to severe economic downturns and a series of famines, the latest threatening in 1879. The worst of these was the Irish Famine of 1846-48, in which about 750,000 people died and another million were forced to emigrate.
Ireland’s economic problems were in part the result of the small size of Irish landholdings. In particular, both the law and social tradition provided for subdivision of land, with all sons inheriting equal shares in a farm, meaning that farms became so small that only one crop, potatoes, could be grown in sufficient amounts to feed a family. Furthermore, many estates, from whom the small farmers rented, were poorly run by absentee landlords and in many cases heavily mortgaged.
When potato blight hit the island in 1846, much of the rural population were left without food. Unfortunately, at this time British politicians such as the Prime Minister Robert Peel were wedded to the economic policy of laissez-faire, which argued against state intervention of any sort. While enormous sums were raised by private individuals and charities (American Indians sent supplies, while Queen Victoria personally gave the equivalent in modern money of €70,000), British government inaction (or at least inadequate action) led to a problem becoming a catastrophe. The class of cottiers or farm labourers was virtually wiped out.
The famine spawned the first mass wave of Irish emigration to the United States. There was also a large amount of emigration to Britain, Canada, and Australia. This had the long-term consequence of creating a large and influential Irish diaspora, particularly in the United States, whose members supported and financed the Irish independence movement.
In 1858, the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB, also known as the Fenians) was founded as a secret society dedicated to armed rebellion against the British. A sister organization was formed among Irish in the United States as the Fenian Brotherhood, which several times invaded the British Province of Canada. However, support for Irish republicanism was minimal in Ireland in the period; as late as the 1860s, mass meetings of Irish nationalists ended with the singing of God Save the Queen while royal visits drew cheering crowds.
Most Irish people elected as their MPs Liberals and Conservatives who belonged to the main British political parties. A significant minority also elected unionists, who championed the cause of the maintenance of the Act of Union. A former Tory barrister turned nationalist campaigner, Isaac Butt, established a new moderate nationalist movement, the Home Rule League in the 1870s. After his death, under William Shaw and in particular a radical young protestant landowner, Charles Stewart Parnell, turned the Home Rule movement, or the Irish Parliamentary Party as it became known, into a major political force, dominating Irish politics, to the exclusion of the previous Liberal, Conservative and Unionist parties that had existed.
Parnell’s movement proved to be a broad church, from conservative landowners to the Land League, which was campaigning for fundamental reform of Irish landholding, where most farms were held on rental from large aristocratic estates.
A fringe among Home Rulers associated with militant republicanism, particularly Irish-American republicanism. Parnell’s movement also campaigned for ‘Home Rule’, by which they meant that Ireland would govern itself as a region within the United Kingdom, in contrast to O’Connell who wanted complete independence subject to a shared monarch and Crown.
Two Home Rule Bills, (1886 and 1893), were introduced by Liberal Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone but neither became law. The issue divided Ireland for a significant minority (largely though by no means exclusively based in Ulster), opposed Home Rule. They feared that a Catholic-Nationalist parliament in Dublin would discriminate against them and would impose tariffs on industry; while most of Ireland was primarily agricultural, the six counties in Ulster were the location of heavy industry and would be effected by any tariff barriers imposed.
In 1912, a further home rule bill passed the house of commons but was defeated in the house of lords, as was the bill of 1893, but by this time the House of Lords had lost its veto on legislation and could only delay the bill by 2 years. During these two years, the threat of civil war hung over the island of Ireland, with the creation of the Unionist Ulster Volunteers and their nationalist counterparts the Irish Volunteers. These two groups armed themselves by importing rifles and ammunition and carried out drills openly .the outbreak of World War 1 in 1914 put the crisis on the political backburner for the duration of the war. The Unionist and Nationalist volunteer forces joined the British army in their thousands and suffered crippling losses in the trenches.
Until 1918, the Irish Parliamentary Party remained the dominant Irish party. However, it was divided by the O Shea Divorce Case, when it was revealed that (as many already knew but pretended they hadn’t), Parnell, nicknamed the ‘Uncrowned King of Ireland’ for his popularity, had been living with the wife of one of his fellow MPs for many years and was the father of a number of her children. When the scandal broke, religious non-conformists in Britain, who were the backbone of the pro-Irish Liberal Party, forced leader W. E. Gladstone to abandon support for the Irish cause as long as the ‘adulterer’ Parnell remained in charge. The Party and the country split between pro- and anti-Parnellites, who fought each other in elections.
The British government’s concession of Home Rule in 1914 proved too little too late. It did not deal with the conflicting demands of Irish nationalism and Irish unionism, and was put on hold for the duration of the First World War.
In 1916, a small band of republican rebels staged an attempted rebellion, called the Easter Rising under Padraig Pearse and James Connolly in the city of Dublin.
Initially their acts were widely condemned in nationalist Ireland, much of which had sons fighting in the British Army at the urging of Irish Parliamentary Leader John Redmond. Indeed, major newspapers like the Irish Independent and local authorities openly called for the execution of Pearse and the Rising’s leadership. However, Britain’s handling of the aftermath, and the execution of rebels and others in stages, caused fury.
Britain and the Irish media wrongly blamed a small monarchist party called Sinn Fein for the rebellion, even though it had nothing whatsoever to do with it. The Easter Rising survivors, notably Eamon De Valera, infiltrated and took over Sinn Féin.
Up to 1917, Sinn Fein under its founder Arthur Griffith had campaigned for a form of repeal championed first by O’Connell, namely that Ireland would become independent as a dual monarchy with Britain, under a shared king. Such a system operated under Austria Hungary, where the same monarch, Emperor Karl I/King Charles IV reigned (under a different nomenclature) in both separately. Indeed Griffith in his book ‘The Insurrection in Hungary’ modeled his ideas on the manner in which Hungary had forced Austria to create a dual monarchy linking both states.
Faced with an impending split between its monarchists and republicans, a compromise was brokered at the 1917 Sinn Fein Árd Fhéis (party conference). It was agreed the party would campaign to create a Republic, then let the people decide if they wanted a monarchy or republic, subject to the proviso that if they wanted a king, they could not choose someone from Britain’s Royal Family. (Pearse, during the Rising had suggested having Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany’s youngest son, Prince Joachim as King of Ireland.
Throughout 1917 and 1918, Sinn Féin and the Irish Parliamentary Party fought a bitter and rather inconclusive electoral battle; each won some by-elections and lost others. (One of Sinn Féin’s most notable ‘victories’ involved a party member putting a gun up to a count official’s head when he tried to announce that Sinn Féin had lost and telling him to count again, an account revealed in a recent publication!) The scales were finally tipped Sinn Féin’s way when Britain, which ironically had received vast number of soldiers from Ireland, tried to impose conscription on the island. An infuriated public turned against Britain over this Conscription Crisis. Even the Irish Parliamentary Party was forced to withdraw its MPs from the British Parliament in Westminster.
In the December 1918 General Election, Sinn Féin won the vast majority of seats; many were uncontested, which makes it difficult to calculate exactly what support base it really had. A recent academic study, based on by-elections, contested seats and local government votes, suggest Sinn Féin had the support of marginally less than half of all Irish voters – somewhere in the region of 45-48%. Its success was partly the result of a new electoral register containing many new voters, notably women (over 35), the long gap between elections (no election had occurred since 1910) and the decrepit nature of Irish Parliamentary Party’s local organization because of the long gap between elections.
Sinn Féin’s new MPs refused to travel to Westminster and sit in the British House of Commons. Instead, they assembled as TDs in the Mansion House in Dublin and called themselves Dail Eireann (pronounced, ‘dawl air-inn’ meaning the ‘Assembly of Ireland’). They proclaimed an Irish Republic and established a parliamentary system of government, with a prime minister called President of Dail Eireann. In August 1921, this post was upgraded to a head of state, called the President of the Republic. From April 1919 to January 1922, Eamon de Valera held these positions.
For several years the Irish Republican Army (IRA), the paramilitary army of the Irish Republic, engaged in guerrilla warfare against the British Army and a paramilitary unit known as the Black and Tans. Both sides engaged in brutal acts; the Black and Tans deliberately burned entire towns and tortured civilians The IRA carried out ethnic cleansing of protestant communities in the Munster region, as well as burning historic homes. This clash, for which it appears one third sided with the IRA, one quarter with the British while the vast majority kept their heads down and avoided getting caught in the crossfire (literally), came to be known as the Irish War of Independence or the Anglo Irish war of 1919 – 1921.
The fourth Home Rule Act, known as the Government of Ireland Act, 1920, attempted to partition Ireland into two states, Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland, with what was hoped to an embryonic all-Ireland parliament, a Council of Ireland joining them. Northern Ireland did come into being. Southern Ireland however remained a figment on paper. Eventually, negotiations took place between delegations from the Irish Republican and British governments to reach some sort of solution. Ireland was to be given a form of dominion status far in excess of what Parnell and the Irish Parliamentary Party ever sought, modelled on the Dominion of Canada.
Northern Ireland was given the right to opt out of the new state, which was to be called the Irish Free State (or Saorstát Éireann, pronounced ‘sayer-stawt air-inn’), in which case a Boundary Commission was to be established to work out the final details of the border. The Free State was to consist of the 26 southern counties of Leinster, Munster and Connaught and three counties in Ulster (Cavan, Monaghan and Donegal). The remaining six counties in Ulster become Northern Ireland in 1920, and remained part of the United Kingdom.
The Dáil narrowly passed the Anglo Irish Treaty. Under the leadership of Michael Collins and W.T. Cosgrave, it set about establishing the Irish Free State, a national, fully re-organized army to replace the haphazard paramilitary IRA. A new police force, the Civil Guard (generally known as An Garda Siochana) pronounced ‘on gar-da sch-awna’) replaced one of Ireland’s two police forces, the RIC.
A significant republican minority refused to accept the will of the Dáil, indeed the right of the Dáil, to accept the Treaty in place of the Irish Republic. While myth suggests that this division was due to partition, in fact all sides expected (wrongly) that the Boundary Commission would so reduce Northern Ireland’s size as to make it unviable, so forcing unity with the Irish Free State later). The actual division was over the role of the Crown in the Treaty settlement; in particular an Oath of Allegiance ‘to the Irish Free State by law established’, which promised fidelity to King George V as part of the Treaty settlement.
The Civil War (1922-1923), though short, was bloody. It cost the lives of many senior figures, notably Michael Collins, killed in an ambush in his home county of Cork. In one notorious act, the anti-treaty IRA booby-trapped the Irish Public Records Office, blowing to pieces one thousand years of Irish state and religious archives. With the public unambiguously siding with the pro-treaty forces, the pro-treaty side won decisively. Both sides carried out brutal acts; the government executed IRA prisoners, including acclaimed author and Treaty signatory Robert Erskine Childers while the anti-treaty IRA murdered TDs and burned yet more historic homes, such as the famous ‘Moore Hall’ in Mayo, because its owner had become a senator.
In 1932, Eamon de Valera, who had been the nominal leader of the anti-treaty brigade and who had ditched Sinn Féin in 1926 to found his own Fianna Fail, became prime minister, known as President of the Executive Counci of the Irish Free State. He re-wrote the 1922 Irish Free State constitution before introducing his own new Irish constitution, Bunreacht na hEireann in 1937, with a new name, Eire replacing the Irish Free State in the text.
Ireland was nominally neutral in World War 2), through behind the scenes it worked closely with the Allies; the date of the Normandy landings was decided on the basis of transatlantic weather reports supplied by the Irish. On April 18, 1949, Éire formally became the Republic of Ireland. As a republic, its membership of the British Commonwealth lapsed. It chose not to re-apply, though de Valera in the 1950s and Sean Lemass in the 1960s contemplated rejoining the Commonwealth (though one of Eamon de Valera’s grandsons, now a cabinet minister, has again suggested rejoining!); it joined the European Community, now known as the European Union, in 1973.
Irish governments have sought the peaceful unification of Ireland and in recent decades have cooperated with Britain against terrorist groups such as the Provisional IRA. Sinn Fein and the Provisional IRA refused until the second last decade of the twentieth century to accept the validity of the Republic of Ireland, claiming that its Army Council, not the parliament elected by three million citizens, was the legitimate voice of the people.
Sinn Féin has changed its policy stance on the existence of both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, serving in the parliament of the former and the cabinet of the latter, as part of the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. This agreement set up power sharing institutions within Northern Ireland, North-South institutions and links between the states of the British Isles (i.e. England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, Isle of Man, the Republic of Ireland). The Irish state also changed Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish Constitution to acknowledge both the existence of Northern Ireland and the desire of Irish nationalists for a united Ireland.
Ireland joined the United Nations in 1955 and the European Economic Union (now called the European Union or EU) in 1973. Irish governments have sought the peaceful unification of Ireland and have cooperated with Britain against the violent conflict between paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland known as the Troubles, which ran from late sixties until 1998. A peace settlement for Northern Ireland, known as the Belfast Agreement, was approved in 1998 in a vote in both the Republic and Northern Ireland.