The First Settlers -- With some degree of confidence, we can place the date of the first human habitation of the island somewhere after the end of the last ice age, around the late 8000s B.C. Ireland's first colonizers, Mesolithic Homo sapiens, walked, waded, or floated across the narrow strait from what is now Britain in search of flint and, of course, food.
The next momentous prehistoric event was the arrival of Neolithic farmers and herders, sometime around 3500 B.C. Unlike Ireland's Mesolithic hunters, who barely left a trace, this second wave of colonizers began to transform the island at once. They came with stone axes that could fell a good-size elm in less than an hour. Ireland’s hardwood forests receded to make room for tilled fields and pastureland. Villages sprang up, and more permanent homes, planked with split oak, appeared at this time.
Far more striking, though, was the appearance of massive megalithic monuments, including court cairns, dolmens (stone tables), round subterranean passage tombs, and wedge tombs. Thousands of these tombs are scattered around Ireland, and to this day only a small percentage of them have been excavated. These megalithic monuments speak volumes about the early Irish. To visit Newgrange ★★★ and Knowth ★★★ in the Boyne Valley and Carrowmore ★★★ in County Sligo is to marvel at the mystical practices of the early Irish. Even today little is known about the meaning or purpose of these mysterious stone relics. Later Celtic inhabitants assumed that the tremendous stones and mounds were raised by giants, a race they called the people of the sí—a name which eventually became the Tuatha Dé Danann, and, finally, fairies. Over many generations, oral tradition downsized the mythical people into “little people,” who were believed to have led a magical underground life in thousands of raths (earthwork structures) coursing the island like giant mole tunnels. All of these sites were believed to be protected by fairies. Tampering with them was thought to bring bad luck, so nobody ever touched them. Thus, they have lasted to this day—ungraffitied, undamaged, unprotected by any visible fences or wires, but utterly safe.
The Celts -- Of all the successive waves of outsiders who have, over the years, shaped, cajoled, and pockmarked the timeline of Irish history, none have made quite such an impact as the Celts. They came, originally from Central Europe, in waves, the first perhaps as early as the 6th century B.C. and continuing until the end of the first millennium. They fled from the Roman invasion and clung to the edge of Europe—Ireland being, at the time, about as far as you could go to elude a Roman force. In time, they controlled the island and absorbed into their culture everyone they found there.
Despite their cultural potency, however, the Celts developed little in the way of centralized government, existing instead in a near-perpetual state of conflict with one another. The island was divided among as many as 150 tribes, grouped in alliances under five provincial kings. The provinces of Munster, Leinster, Ulster, and Connaught date from this period. They fought fiercely among themselves over cattle (their “currency” and standard of wealth), land, and women. No one tribe ever ruled the entire island, though not for lack of trying. One of the most impressive monuments from the era of the warring Celts is the stone fortress of Dún Aengus, on the wind-swept hills of the Aran Islands.
The Coming of Christianity -- The Celtic chiefs neither warmly welcomed nor violently resisted the Christians who came ashore beginning in the 5th century A.D. Although threatened, the pagan Celts settled for a bloodless rivalry with this new religion. In retrospect, this may have been a mistake.
Not the first, but eventually the most famous, of these Christian newcomers was a man called Maewyn Succat, a young Roman citizen torn from his Welsh homeland in a Celtic raid and brought to Ireland as a slave, where he was forced to work in a place called the Forest of Foclut (thought to be around modern County Antrim). He escaped on a ship bound for France, where he spent several years as a priest before returning to Ireland as a missionary. He began preaching at sacred Celtic festivals, a tactic that frequently led to confrontations with religious and political leaders, but eventually he became such a popular figure that after his death in 461, a dozen clan chiefs fought over the right to bury him. His lasting legacy was, of course, the establishment in Ireland of one of the strongest Christian orthodoxies in Europe—an achievement for which he was later beatified as St. Patrick.
Ireland’s conversion to Christianity was a somewhat negotiated process. The church at the time of St. Patrick was, like the man who brought it, Roman. For Ireland, an island still without a single proper town, the Roman system of dioceses and archdioceses simply didn’t make sense. So the Irish adapted the church to their own situation. They built isolated monasteries with extended monastic “families,” each more or less autonomous.
Saving the Classics -- Though The Iliad and The Odyssey may have taken place on the turquoise deeps of the Aegean, it was on the dark waters of the Irish Sea that many classics of Roman and Greek literature survived the sack of Rome and the ensuing Dark Ages. But how did it happen? How did—in the words of bestselling author and historian Thomas Cahill—the Irish save civilization?
The year is 464 A.D. The mighty Roman Empire is on its knees. The Eternal City is under eternal siege, and its great libraries and universities are about to be looted and burned. The world order is quite literally falling apart. Meanwhile, in the far-flung backwater of Ireland, the wholehearted embracement of monastic life has led to centers of Christian learning popping up across the island, including the remote Skellig Islands, where monks copy the Bible and other works. Masters of calligraphic arts, they produce beautiful illuminated texts such as the Book of Kells. Gaeilge becomes the first vernacular language (slang, effectively) in Europe to have been written down. Some of Europe’s finest minds flee the continental anarchy for Ireland, bringing books and learning with them. Knowledge-hungry monks duplicate great Latin and Greek works of literature.
After St. Patrick, Irish missionaries such as Columcille and Columbanus began to look abroad. With the end of the Roman Empire, Europe had become a fragmented patchwork of fiefdoms. The hardy Celtic monks set up new monasteries in France, Germany, Switzerland, and Italy—and they took their skills with them. Beautifully decorated Irish manuscripts from this period have been found as far away as Russia, where the monks continued to advance the art of bookmaking.
Like their megalithic ancestors, the monks left traces of their lives all over Ireland as enduring monuments to their spirituality. Early monastic sites such as gorgeous Glendalough ★★★ in County Wicklow , wind-swept Clonmacnoise ★★★ in County Offaly, and isolated Skellig Michael off the Kerry coast give you an idea of how they lived, while striking examples of their work can be seen at Trinity College ★★, which houses the Book of Kells, and at the Chester Beatty Library ★★★ at Dublin Castle.
The Viking Invasions -- The monastic city-states of early medieval Ireland might have continued to lead the world’s intellectual development—but then the Vikings came along and ruined everything.
After centuries of relative peace, the first wave of Viking invaders arrived in Ireland in A.D. 795, making their base in the Southeast, in what is now Waterford City. The wealthy Irish monasteries were among their first targets. Unprepared and unprotected, the monasteries, which had amassed collections of gold, jewels, and art from followers around the world, were decimated. The round towers to which the nonviolent monks retreated for safety were neither high enough nor strong enough to protect them and their treasures from the onslaught.
Once word spread of the wealth to be had on the small island, the Scandinavian invaders just kept on coming. Though they were experts in the arts of pillage and plunder, they had no knowledge of or interest in literature. In fact, most didn’t know how to read. Therefore, they paid scant attention to the magnificent books they came across, passing them over for more obvious riches. This fortunate quirk of history allowed the monks to preserve their dying culture—and their immeasurably valuable work—for the benefit of future generations.
Of course, the Vikings did more than hit and run. They settled down and took over much of the country -- securing every major harbor on Ireland's east coast with a fortified town. These were the first real towns in Ireland: In addition to Dublin, they also founded Cork, the river city of Limerick, and, of course, Waterford. They had plundered the country fairly thoroughly by the time the Irish, always disinclined to unite, did so at last, and managed to push out the Vikings after a decisive military campaign lead by the army of Brian Boru in 1014. When the Vikings departed, they left their towns behind, forever altering the Irish landscape. The legacy of the Vikings in Ireland is complex, and a visit to Dublin's Wood Quay and the city walls of Waterford is a good introduction to their influence.
After the Vikings left, Ireland enjoyed something of a renewal in the 11th and 12th centuries. Its towns grew, its regional kings continued to try (unsuccessfully) to unite the country under a single high kingship, and its church came under increased pressure to conform to the Vatican’s rules. All of these factors ripened a prosperous and factionalized Ireland for the next invasion.
It was, tragically, an Irish king who opened the door to the next predator. Diarmait Mac Murchada, king of Leinster, whose ambition was to be king of all of Ireland, decided he could do it, with a little help. So he called on Henry II, the Norman king of England. Diarmait offered Henry a series of incentives in return for military aid: Not only did he bequeath his eldest daughter to whoever led the army, but he also offered them overlordship of the Kingdom of Leinster. To put it bluntly, he made Henry an offer he couldn’t refuse. So it was that an English expeditionary force, led by the Earl of Pembroke, Richard de Clare—better known as Strongbow—was sent to Diarmait’s aid. After a successful invasion, victorious Strongbow remained in Ireland as governor, and thus gave the English their first foothold in Ireland. What Diarmait did not realize, of course, was that they would never leave.
The Norman Invasion -- In successive expeditions from 1167 to 1169, the Normans, who had already conquered Britain, crossed the Irish Sea from England with crushing force. The massive Norman fortifications at Trim are a powerful reminder of the sheer power the invaders brought with them. While Dublin Castle was for years the Norman seat of power, over the next century the Norman-English continued to consolidate their power in new towns and cities.
Many of these settlers, however, grew attached to the island and began to integrate with the local culture; marriages between the native Irish and the invaders became commonplace. Inevitably, as time passed the Anglo-Normans became more Irish and less English in their loyalties.
In 1314 Scotland's Robert the Bruce defeated the English at Bannockburn and set out to fulfill his dream of a united Celtic kingdom. He installed his brother Edward on the Irish throne, but the constant state of war took a heavy toll. Within 2 years, famine and economic disorder had eroded any public support Edward might have enjoyed. By the time he was defeated and killed at Dundalk in 1317, few were prepared to mourn him.
Over the next 2 centuries, attempts to rid Ireland of its English overlords fell short. Independent Gaelic lords in the north and west continued to maintain their territories. By the late 1400s, English control of the island was effectively limited to the Pale, a walled and fortified cordon around what is now greater Dublin. (The phrase “beyond the pale” comes from this—meaning anything that is uncontrollable or unacceptable.)
English Power & the Flight of the Earls -- The Tudor dynasty in England, which ruled from 1485 to 1603, changed all that, setting in motion the brutal reconquest of Ireland. In 1542 Henry VIII boldly proclaimed himself king of all Ireland—something even his warlike ancestors had stopped short of doing—and later that century his daughter, Elizabeth I, declared that all Gaelic lords in Ireland must surrender their lands to her, with the dubious promise that she would immediately grant them all back again.
Unsurprisingly, the proposition was hardly welcomed in Ireland, and a rebel army was raised by Hugh O’Neill and “Red” Hugh O’Donnell, two Irish chieftains. They scored some significant victories early on in their decade-long campaign, most notably over a force led by the Earl of Essex, whom Elizabeth had personally sent to subdue them. Still, by 1603 O’Neill was left with few allies and no option but to surrender, which he did on March 23rd, the day before Elizabeth died. In 1607, after failing to win back much of their power and prestige, around 90 of O’Neill’s allies fled to mainland Europe, hoping Spain would try to invade again. This never happened. The Flight of the Earls, as it became known, marked a crucial turning point in Irish history, as the point at which the old Gaelic aristocracy effectively came to an end.
The Coming of Cromwell -- By the 1640s, Ireland was effectively an English plantation. Family estates had been seized and foreign (Scottish) labor brought in to work them. A systematic persecution of Catholics, which began with Henry VIII’s split from Rome but did not die with him, barred Catholics from practicing their faith. Resentment against the English and their punitive laws led to fierce uprisings in Ulster and Leinster in 1641, and by early 1642 most of Ireland was again under Irish control. Unfortunately for the rebels, any hope of extending the victories was undermined by internal disunion, and then by a fatal decision to support the Royalist side in the Civil War that had just broken out in England. After King Charles I of England was beheaded in 1648, Oliver Cromwell, the commander of the parliamentary forces, was installed as England’s ruler. It wasn’t long before Cromwell’s supporters took on his enemies in Ireland. A year later, the Royalists’ stand collapsed in defeat at Rathmines, just south of Dublin
Defeat for the Royalist cause did not, however, mean the end of war. Cromwell became paranoid that Ireland would be used to launch a French-backed insurgency; he also detested the country’s Catholic beliefs. So it was that as the hot, sticky summer of 1649 drew to a close, Cromwell set sail for Dublin with an army of 12,000 men, and a battle plan so ruthless that it remains notorious to this day.
In the town of Drogheda, more than 3,552 Irish soldiers were slaughtered in a single night. When a group of men sought sanctuary in the local church, Cromwell ordered the church burned down with them locked inside—an act of such monstrosity that some of his own men risked a charge of mutiny and refused the order. On another day, in Wexford, more than 2,000 were murdered, many of them civilians. The trail of destruction rolled on, devastating counties Galway and Waterford. When asked where the Irish citizens could go to be safe from him, Cromwell famously suggested they could go “to hell or Connaught”—the latter being the most far-flung, rocky, and unfarmable part of Ireland.
After a rampage that lasted 7 months, killing thousands and leaving churches, monasteries and castles in ruins, Cromwell finally left Ireland in the care of his lieutenants and returned to England. Hundreds of years later, the memory and lore of his extraordinary violence lingers painfully in Ireland. In certain parts of the country, people still spit at the mention of his name.
The Anti-Catholic Laws -- Cromwell died in 1658, and 2 years later the English monarchy was restored. Still, anti-Catholic oppression continued in Ireland. Then in 1685 something remarkable happened: The new Stuart king, James II, refused to relinquish his Catholic faith after ascending to the throne. It looked for a while as if Catholic Ireland had found a royal ally at last. However, such hopes were dashed 3 years later, when James was ousted from power, and the Protestant William of Orange installed in his place.
James fled to France to raise support for a rebellion and then sailed to Ireland to launch his attack. He struck first at Derry, laying siege for 15 weeks, before finally being defeated by William’s forces at the Battle of the Boyne. The battle effectively ended James’s cause, and with it, the hopes of Catholic Ireland for the best part of a century.
After James’s defeat, English power was once more consolidated across Ireland. Protestant landowners were granted full political power, while laws were enacted to tamp down the Catholic population. Being a Catholic in late 17th-century Ireland was not exactly illegal per se, but in practice life was all but impossible for those who refused to convert to Protestantism. Catholics could not purchase land, and existing landholdings were split up unless the families who owned them converted to Protestantism. Catholic schools were banned, as were priests and all forms of public Catholic worship. Catholics were barred from holding government office, practicing law, or joining the army. Those who refused to relinquish their faith were forced to pay a tax to the Anglican Church. And, because only landowners were allowed to vote, Catholics whose land had been taken away also lost the right to vote.
The new British landlords settled in, planted crops, made laws, and sowed their own seeds. Inevitably, over time, the "Anglos" became the Anglo-Irish. Hyphenated or not, they were Irish, and their loyalties were increasingly unpredictable. After all, an immigrant is only an immigrant for a generation; whatever the birthright of the colonists, their children would be Irish-born and bred. And so, an uncomfortable sort of stability set in for a generation or three, albeit of a kind that was very much separate and unequal. There were the haves, the wealthy Protestants, and the have-nots, the deprived and disenfranchised Catholics.
This unhappy peace held for some time. But by the end of the 18th century, the appetite for rebellion was whetted again—in the coffee shops and lecture halls of Europe’s newest boomtown: Dublin.
The United Irishmen & the 1798 Rebellion -- By the 1770s, Dublin was thriving as never before. As a center for culture and learning, it was rivaled only by Paris and London; thanks to the work of such architects as Henry Gratton (who designed the Custom House ★ and the Four Courts ★) its very streets were being remodeled in a grand, neoclassical style that was more akin to the great cities of southern Italy than of southern Ireland.
While the urban classes reveled in their newfound wealth, the stringent Penal Laws that had effectively cut off Catholic workers from their own countryside drove many of them to pour into the city, looking for work. Alongside Dublin’s buzzing intellectual scene, political dissent soon brewed. Even after a campaign by Irish politicians succeeded in getting many of the Penal Laws repealed in 1783, Dublin was a breeding ground for radicals and political activists. The results were explosive.
When war broke out between Britain and France in the 1790s, the United Irishmen—a nonviolent society formed to lobby for Catholic Irishmen to be admitted to the Irish Parliament—sent a secret delegation to persuade the French to intervene on Ireland's behalf against the British. Their emissary in this venture was a Dublin lawyer named Wolfe Tone. In 1796 Tone sailed with a French force bound for Ireland, determined to defeat forces loyal to the English crown. As luck would have it, though, they were turned back by storms.
In 1798, full-scale insurrection led by the United Irishmen spread across much of Ireland, particularly the southwestern counties of Kilkenny and Wexford, where a tiny republic was briefly declared in June in Wexford’s Bull Ring square. But it was soon crushed by Loyalist forces, which then went on a murderous spree, killing tens of thousands of men, women, and children, and burning towns to the ground. The nadir of the rebellion came when Wolfe Tone, having raised another French invasion force, sailed into Lough Swilly in Donegal and was promptly captured by the British. At his trial, Tone wore the uniform of a French soldier; he slit his own throat while in prison waiting to be hung.
The rebellion was over. In the space of 3 weeks, more than 30,000 Irish had been killed. As a final indignity in what became known as The Year of the French, the British tricked the Irish Parliament into dissolving itself, and Ireland reverted to strict British rule.
A Conflict of Conflicts -- In 1828, a Catholic lawyer named Daniel O’Connell—who had earlier formed the Catholic Association to represent the interests of tenant farmers—was elected to the British Parliament as Member of Parliament for Dublin. (His home, in Caherdaniel, County Kerry, can be visited today) Public opinion was so solidly behind O’Connell, he was able to persuade the British prime minister that the only way to avoid civil war in Ireland was to force a Catholic Emancipation Act through Parliament. O’Connell remained an MP until 1841, when he was elected Lord Mayor of Dublin, a platform he used to push for repeal of the direct rule imposed from London after the 1798 rebellion.
O’Connell organized enormous rallies (nicknamed “monster meetings”) attended by hundreds of thousands, and provoked the conservative government to such an extent that it eventually arrested him on charges of seditious conspiracy. The charges were dropped, but the incident—coupled with growing impatience toward his nonviolent approach of protest and reform—led to the breakdown of his power base. “The Liberator,” as he had been known, faded, his health failed, and he died on a trip to Rome.
The Great Famine -- Even after anti-Catholic legislation began to recede, the vast majority of farmland available to Ireland’s poor, mostly Catholic rural population was unfertile and hard to cultivate. One of the few crops that could be grown reliably was the potato, which therefore became the staple diet of the rural poor. So when, in 1845, a fungus destroyed much of the potato crop of Ireland, widespread devastation followed. (In Country Kerry’s Dingle Peninsula, the Irish Famine Cottage stands as stark evidence of this desolation.)
To label the Great Irish Famine of the 1840s and '50s as merely a "tragedy" would be inadequate. It was, of course, tragic—but at the same time, the word implies a randomness to the whole sorry, sickening affair that fails to capture its true awfulness. The fact is that what started out as crop failure was turned into a disaster by the callous response of the British establishment.
As the potato blight worsened, it became apparent to many landlords that their farm tenants would be unable to pay rent. Instead of helping to feed their now-starving tenants, these landlords shipped their grain overseas, determined to recoup what they were losing in rent. The British Parliament, meanwhile, was reluctant to send aid, putting the reports of a crisis down to, in the words of Prime Minister Robert Peel, “the Irish tendency to exaggerate.”
People started to die by the thousands.
Eventually it became clear to the government that something had to be done. Emergency relief was sent to Ireland in the form of cheap, imported Indian cornmeal. However, this contained virtually no nutrients. Ultimately, it was malnutrition that spread such diseases as typhus and cholera, which claimed more victims than starvation itself.
To make matters worse, the cornmeal was not simply given to those in need of it. Fearful that handouts would encourage laziness among the “shiftless poor,” the British government forced people to work for their food. Entirely pointless make-work projects were initiated, just to give the starving men something to do for their cornmeal; roads were built that led nowhere, and elaborate follies constructed that served no discernible purpose. Some of these still litter the countryside today, memorials to cruelty and ignorance.
One of the most difficult things to comprehend, more than a century and a half later, is the sheer futility of it all. For behind the statistics, the memorials, and the endless personal anguish, lies perhaps the most painful truth of all: that the Famine was easily preventable. Enormous cargoes of imported corn sat in Irish ports for months, until the British government felt that releasing them to the people would not adversely affect market rates. Meanwhile, huge quantities of meat and grain were exported from Ireland. (Indeed, in 1847, cattle exports went up 33% from the previous year.)
Given the circumstances, it is easy to understand why so many chose to leave Ireland. More than a million emigrated over the next decade, about three-quarters of them to America, the rest to Britain or Europe. (In County Wexford, the SS Dunbrody Famine Ship Experience movingly depicts this emigration.) They drained the country. In 1841, Ireland’s population was 8 million; by 1851 it was 6.5 million.
The Struggle for Home Rule -- As the Famine waned and life returned to something like normality, the Irish independence movement gained new momentum. New fronts, both violent and nonviolent, opened up in the struggle for what was now called Home Rule. Significantly, the Republicans now drew considerable support from overseas—particularly from America. There, groups such as the Fenians fundraised and published newspapers in support of the Irish cause, while more audacious schemes—such as an 1866 “invasion” of Canada with fewer than 100 men—generated awareness, if little else.
Back home in Ireland, partial concessions were won in Parliament. By the 1880s, nationalists such as Charles Stewart Parnell, the MP for Meath, were able to unite various factions of Irish nationalists (including the Fenian Brotherhood in America) to fight for Home Rule. In a tumultuous decade of legislation, Parnell came close to winning Home Rule—until revelations about his long affair with Kitty O’Shea, the wife of a supporter, brought about his downfall as a politician.
By 1912, a bill to give Ireland Home Rule was passed through the British House of Commons, but was defeated in the House of Lords. Many felt that the political process was all but unstoppable, that it was only a matter of time before the bill passed fully into law. Then World War I broke out in 1914, forcing the issue onto the back burner once again. Many in the Home Rule movement began to grow tired of pursuing their goal through legal political channels.
The Easter Rising -- On Easter Monday 1916, a group of nationalists occupied the General Post Office ★ in the heart of Dublin, from which they proclaimed the foundation of an Irish Republic. Inside were 1,500 fighters, led by schoolteacher and Gaelic League member Patrick Pearse and Socialist leader James Connolly.
The British government, panicking over an armed uprising on its doorstep while it fought a massive war in Europe, responded with overwhelming force. Soldiers were sent in, and a battle raged in the streets of Dublin for 6 days before the leaders of the rebellion were captured and imprisoned. (The walls of the post office and other buildings and statues up and down O’Connell Street still have bullet holes in them.) Pearse, Connolly, and 12 other leaders were imprisoned, secretly tried, and speedily executed.
Ultimately, though, the harsh British reaction was counterproductive. The ruthlessness with which the rebellion’s ringleaders were pursued and dispatched acted as a lightning rod for many who were still on the fence about how best to gain Home Rule. It’s a fact that has become somewhat lost in the ensuing hundred or so years: On that cold Monday morning when Patrick Pearse stood on the post office steps to read a treatise on Irish independence, a great many Irish didn’t support the rebellion. Many believed that the best course of action was to lay low until the war had ended, when, they felt, concessions would finally be won. Others felt that the uprising was simply the wrong thing to do, as long as sons of Ireland were sacrificing their lives in the trenches of Europe.
The aftermath of 1916 all but guaranteed, for better or for worse, that Ireland's future would be decided by the gun.
Rebellion & the Anglo-Irish Compromise --A power vacuum was left at the heart of the nationalist movement after the Easter Rising, and it was filled by two men: Michael Collins and Eamon de Valera. On the surface, the two men had much in common; Collins was a Cork man who had returned from Britain in order to join the Irish Volunteers (later to become the Irish Republican Army, or IRA), while de Valera was an Irish-American math teacher who came back to Ireland to set up a new political party, Sinn Féin.
When de Valera’s party won a landslide victory in the general election of 1918, its MPs took the provocative step of refusing to take their seats in London. Instead, they proclaimed the first Dáil, or independent parliament, in Dublin. De Valera went to rally support for the cause in America, while Collins stayed in Ireland to concentrate on his work as head of the Irish Volunteers. Tensions escalated into violence, and for the next 2 years, Irish nationalists fought a tit-for-tat military campaign against the British in Ireland. The low point of the struggle came in 1920, when Collins ordered 14 British operatives to be murdered in their beds. In response, British troops opened fire on the audience at a football game at Croke Park in Dublin, randomly killing 12 innocent people.
A truce was eventually declared on July 9, 1921. Six months later, the Anglo-Irish treaty was signed in London, granting legislative independence to 26 Irish counties (known together as the Irish Free State). The compromise through which that freedom was won, though, was that six counties in the north would remain part of the United Kingdom. Sent to negotiate the treaty, Collins knew that that compromise—which he felt was the best deal he could get at the time—would not be accepted by the more strident members of his rebel group. He also knew they would blame him for agreeing to it in the first place. When he signed the treaty he told the people present, “I am signing my own death warrant.”
As he feared, nationalists were split between those who accepted the treaty as a platform on which to build, and those, led by the nationalist de Valera, who saw it as a betrayal. The latter group would accept nothing less than immediate and full independence at any cost. Even the withdrawal of British troops from Dublin for the first time in nearly 800 years did not quell their anger. The result was an inexorable slide into civil war. The flashpoint came in April 1922, when violence erupted around the streets of the capital, raging on for 8 days until de Valera’s supporters were forced to surrender.
The government of the fledgling free state ordered that Republicans be shot on sight, leading to the deaths of 77 people. And Collins had been right about his own fate: Four months later he was assassinated while on a visit to his childhood home.
A Republic at Last -- The fallout from the Civil War dominated Irish politics for the next decade. De Valera split from the Republicans to form another party, Fianna Fáil (“the Warriors of Ireland”), which won the election of 1932 and governed for 17 years. Despite his continuing dedication to the Republican ideal, however, de Valera was not to be the one who finally declared Ireland a republic, in 1948. Ironically, that distinction went to a coalition led by de Valera’s opponent, Douglas Hyde. Hyde’s victory in the 1947 election was attributed to the fact that de Valera had become too obsessed with abstract Republican ideals to govern effectively.
One of the more controversial decisions that Eamon de Valera made while in office was to stay neutral during World War II. His reasons for this decision included Ireland’s relatively small size and economic weakness, as well as a protest against the British presence in Northern Ireland. Although that may have made sense to some extent, it left Ireland in the peculiar position of tacitly favoring one side in the war, but refusing to help it. After the death of Adolf Hitler in April 1945, de Valera alienated the Allies further by sending his personal sympathies to the German ambassador. His stance didn’t find much favor among the Irish population, either. During the war, as many as 300,000 Irish men still found ways to enlist, in the British or U.S. armies. In the end, more than 50,000 Irish soldiers perished in a war their country had refused to join.
Trouble on the Way -- After the war, 2 decades passed without violence in Ireland. Then, in the late 1960s, sectarian conflict erupted in the North. What started out as a civil rights movement, demanding greater equality for Catholics within Northern Ireland, soon escalated into a cycle of violence that lasted for 30 years.
It would be a terrible oversimplification to say that the Troubles were a clear-cut struggle between those who wanted complete Irish unification and those who wanted to remain part of the United Kingdom. That was, of course, the crux of the conflict. However, many other factors, such as organized crime and terrorism, together with centuries-old conflicts over religious, land, and social issues, make the conflict even harder for outsiders to understand.
The worst of the Troubles came in the 1970s. In 1972, on a day forever remembered as “Bloody Sunday,” British troops inexplicably opened fire on a peaceful demonstration in Derry, killing 12 people—many of whom were shot while they tended to the wounds of the first people injured. The IRA took advantage of the mood of public outrage to begin a civilian bombing campaign on the British mainland. The cycle of violence continued for 20 years, inexorably and depressingly. All the while, none of the myriad sides in the conflict would talk to each other. Finally, in the early 1990s, secret talks were opened between the British and the IRA, leading to an IRA cease-fire in 1994 (although the cease-fire held only shakily—an IRA bomb in Omagh 4 years later killed 29, the most to die on any single day of the Troubles).
The peace process continued throughout the 1990s, helped significantly by the mediation efforts of U.S. President Bill Clinton, who became more involved in Irish affairs than any president before him. Eventually, on Good Friday 1998, a peace accord was finally signed in Belfast. The agreement committed all sides to a peaceful resolution of the conflict in Northern Ireland, and reinstated self-government for the region in a power-sharing administration. However, it stopped short of resolving the territorial issue once and for all. In other words, Northern Ireland is still part of the U.K., and will be for the foreseeable future.
To some extent, the conflicts rage more bitterly and more divisively than ever before. The difference is that, with notable exceptions, nowadays they are fought through the ballot box, rather than the barrel of a gun. In 2005 the IRA fully decommissioned its weapons, and officially dissolved itself as a paramilitary unit. Since then, there have been wobbles—including the occasional act of violence by splinter groups who don’t want to accept peace—but these have been very few and far between.
By 2010, after an investigation that took 12 years and cost nearly £195 million ($300 million), all 13 people killed on Bloody Sunday were officially cleared of any wrongdoing. Britain's former prime minister, David Cameron, said, "There is no doubt. There is nothing equivocal. There are no ambiguities. What happened on Bloody Sunday was both unjustified and unjustifiable. It was wrong."
Following this important exoneration, Queen Elizabeth’s visit to Ireland in 2011 and the 2016 decision by the (Protestant and staunchly pro-British) First Minister of Northern Ireland to attend the centenary celebrations of the Easter Rising in Dublin have proven to be two more hugely symbolic events, work to mend ties between the two nations.
Rebirth -- While Northern Ireland struggled to find peace, the Republic of Ireland flourished. The 1990s brought unprecedented wealth and prosperity to the country, thanks in part to European Union subsidies, and partly to a thriving economy, which was nicknamed the Celtic Tiger for its new global strength. Ireland became a rich country, widely seen as one of the best places in the world to live and work.
However, that boom came crashing down after the banking crisis of 2008. The Irish government was forced to seek financial aid from the European Union, a package worth more than 50% of the whole economy, to save the country from bankruptcy. The op-ed pages of Irish newspaper expressed real feelings of betrayal and a sense of opportunity lost. Things have improved a lot since then, but the crash changed Ireland for good, as much in terms of its character than mere economics.
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