Ireland has been inhabited for about 7,000 years, and has
experienced many incursions and invasions, resulting in a rich
mixture of ancestry and traditions. By the sixth century B.C.
Celtic invaders had established a cultural and linguistic unity on
the island. The introduction of christianity, traditionally
credited to St. Patrick, occurred in the fifth century. Viking
incursions in the ninth and tenth centuries influenced the
development of trade, particularly in Dublin, Waterford and Cork.
The twelfth century witnessed the arrival of the Normans, who had
earlier settled in England and Wales. They quickly gained control
over large parts of Ireland, which then came under the political
authority of the King of England.
Following a series of revolts against the English crown in Ireland,
the last Gaelic stronghold, Ulster, was brought under crown control
in 1603. The Ulster plantation which followed brought many English
and Scots settlers to Ulster and had a lasting impact on the
religious and political complexion of the province.
Conflict emerged again during the seventeenth century and a
struggle for supremacy was finally settled at the Battles of the
Boyne (1690) and Aughrim (1691). Many of the defeated Irish leaders
and followers (known as ‘the Wild Geese’) left Ireland to pursue
military, religious or commercial careers in continental europe and
their legacy is still evident today. The Protestants of the
Established Church monopolised political power and ownership of the
land in Ireland, and penal laws discriminated against Catholics.
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The eighteenth century saw significant economic development in
Ireland. The linen industry flourished, particularly in Ulster, and
Irish wool, beef, butter and pork became important exports. The
Protestant Ascendancy came to see itself as the Irish nation and
developed a vigorous and distinctive parliamentary tradition.
The developing dispute between Britain and her colonies in North
America from the 1760s helped create a tradition of radical
patriotism that was ultimately, under the influence of the French
Revolution, to produce the society of United Irishmen. In 1798 a
rebellion led by the United Irishmen was crushed and the Act of
Union of 1800 created a full parliamentary union between Britain
The nineteenth century was dominated, initially, by the pursuit of
Catholic emancipation. In 1829, catholics, led by Daniel O’Connell,
won the right to sit in parliament. thereafter, there was a
succession of efforts to reform or undo the Union between Great
Britain and Ireland.
In the late 1840s, as a result of the wholesale failure of the
potato crop in successive years, a terrible famine occurred: one
million people died of starvation and epidemic disease and a
further million were forced to leave Ireland. The population had
fallen by more than a quarter from 8 million to less than 6 million
by 1856, and would fall further as emigration became a dominant
feature of Irish society. The Great Famine had far-reaching
political repercussions, strengthening the desire among Irish
voters for self-government and the right to purchase their
The question of self-government, or ‘Home Rule’ had not, however,
been settled. Under the leadership of Charles Stewart Parnell in
the 1880s, the Irish Parliamentary Party at Westminster placed the
Irish question at the centre of British politics. In 1886, the
Liberal party under W.E. Gladstone came to support a limited form
of self-government for Ireland.
The prospects of Home Rule galvanised the Unionists in Ireland, who
were predominantly Protestant, and were a small majority in the
province of Ulster. Along with their allies in England, who feared
it would lead to the break-up of the Empire, Unionists campaigned
to prevent the granting of Home Rule in Ireland. Nonetheless, a
Home Rule Bill was finally enacted in 1914. However with the
outbreak of the First World War it was not implemented.
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In 1916 a republic was declared in Dublin and an armed
insurrection took place. This rising, which initially did not
enjoy significant public support, was suppressed. However,
supporters of the Rising, capitalising on public revulsion at the
execution of its leaders, and on opposition to the introduction of
military conscription to Ireland in the First World War, succeeded
in ousting the Irish Parliamentary Party in the General Election of
Sinn Féin (‘We ourselves’), the election victors, set up the
first Dáil (Parliament) and a war of national independence
ensued. By the time an Anglo-Irish treaty was concluded in 1921,
six counties in north-east Ulster, with a roughly two-thirds
Unionist majority, had already been constituted as Northern
Ireland. As a result of the Treaty, the remaining twenty-six
counties formed the Irish Free State, which had dominion status
within the British Empire. The establishment of the Free state was
followed by a short civil war between those who accepted the treaty
as offering effective self-government and those who held out for a
full republic. The civil War was to colour attitudes and determine
political allegiances for decades.
The first government of the new state was headed by W.T. Cosgrave
of Cumann na nGaedheal, later the Fine Gael party.
From the 1930s onwards the Fianna Fáil party, founded by
Eamon de Valera in 1926, dominated Irish politics.
In the first two decades after Ireland achieved independence in
1922, the institutions of the state were consolidated and a
tradition of political stability was established. The constitution
of 1937 and the Republic of Ireland Act 1948 severed Ireland’s last
formal links with Britain. Ireland remained neutral during the
second World War.
Ireland was admitted to the United Nations (UN) in 1955, and joined
what is now the European Union (EU) in 1973. New economic
development policies led to substantial and rapid growth.
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