Frequently Asked Questions on soc.culture.irish with answers. Send corrections, suggestions, additions, and other feedback to The FAQ maintainer.
Ireland (all or part of it, at various times) was a colony of the English (originally the Anglo-Normans) from the 12th century. From the late middle ages it was a kingdom, under the same monarch as England, but a separate country. In law and in practice, the Irish government was usually subordinate to the English government.
Henry VIII rejected Rome and put the Church in England under his personal control. This church was to became more protestant, particularly under Elizabeth I. Ireland's population remained mainly Roman Catholic.The conflict between Catholicism and Protestantism played a large part in 17th century several wars in England and Ireland: civil wars, colonial wars, and at least one war (c. 1690) that was part of a wider European conflict. Following some of these disruptions, the winners forcibly transferred ownership of large amounts of land to new landlords, and sometimes new tenants: those who had supported the winning side or those who they felt would support them in the future.
The majority of the Irish population were on the losing side. A new elite was built of Anglo-Irish (people of English background, and also anglicised Irish) members of the Church of Ireland (Anglican/Episcopalian). This "Protestant Ascendancy" lasted well into the 19th century, with traces still in evidence today.
English Protestants were not the only ones to settle in Ireland. Presbyterians (historically known as Dissenters) from Scotland colonised north-eastern Ireland in large numbers. Other nonconformist Christians (especially Friends, better known as Quakers) started arriving in the 16th century, and their numbers grew in the 17th. During this period they and the Protestant Ascendancy were not close allies: there were significant differences in background, social class and style of Protestantism.
Both the Catholic majority and the Presbyterians were the victims of discriminatory laws favouring the Church of Ireland (that is, the Anglican church established by the state). Generally, though, the discrimination against Catholics (who were regarded as treacherous and potential allies of France and Spain) was worse than that against the nonconformists.
In 1801, Ireland was technically made one with England, Scotland and Wales by the Act of Union which created the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. In some ways, this was a Good Thing for Ireland, as it led to electoral reform, land reform, and the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland and its right to tax the whole population. But the colonial relationship remained, and as freedoms grew without real equality with England and the English, so did Irish nationalism develop and flourish. (Nationalism became a force throughout Europe in the mid nineteenth century, leading for example to the creation of Italy and Germany as nation states for the first time.)
But there was a complicating factor. In the late 18th and early 19th century, the Ascendancy and the Presbyterians had begun to become allies on political and nationalist issues. As Irish nationalism developed (mainly among Catholics), so, in response, did unionism (the desire to preserve the United Kingdom) develop and strengthen among both kinds of Protestant. Several times the unionists threatened insurrection against their own government in order to stay under that government.
In 1912, a third Irish Home Rule Bill was introduced to the British House of Commons, where it would pass its third and final reading in January, 1913. This was blocked by the House of Lords, but they could only delay, not veto, bills since the Parliament Act in 1911. Unionists in Ulster reacted with alarm: an Ulster Volunteer Force was formed in 1913. This force landed 25,000 guns from Germany at Larne in April 1914, with the declared intention of using them if Home Rule were imposed on the northern counties. Their slogan was "Home Rule is Rome Rule", referring to the fears they had of a Catholic dominated Ireland. In the event, Home Rule was put in the statute books but was never implemented because of the Great War which started in August, 1914.
Two nationalist militias, the Irish Citizen's Army and the Irish Volunteers were formed, dedicated to Home Rule. They were far less efficiently organised and they quickly split in 1914. However a small part of the force, led by Republicans staged an armed rebellion (the Easter Rising) in April 1916, briefly taking over a small part of central Dublin. Their attempt at gun running had failed with the capture and scuttling of the Aud, carrying thousands of German weapons. The general uprising the Republicans hoped they would inspire throughout the country never happened. The rebellion was crushed; its leaders were judged guilty of treason and shot. Many hundreds were interned in Britain.
Before the war, a majority of people had supported Home Rule which would grant Ireland autonomy in domestic affairs. After the war, Sinn Féin (previously a minor party with tenuous connections to the actual Rising) got overwhelming support for their platform, complete independence (but not in the north-eastern counties, where Unionists were in the clear majority).
The failed rising was an inspiration to many join the newly created Irish Republican Army (IRA) and fight. The conflict escalated into a brutal war of attrition between the IRA and the British.
But the unionists still held the north, and they would in turn rebel if Britain cast them loose. Partition was made official by the Government of Ireland Act of 1920. This was based on the old Home Rule Bill and formed the basis for the negotiations that were inevitable once the two sides had reached stalemate in the south.
The Treaty of 1921 that ended the war with the British was a messy compromise. The Irish negotiators, who included Michael Collins, but not Éammon De Valera, accepted it under the threat of "war within three days" from the British Prime Minister, Lloyd George. The Irish accepted partition with the vague promise that a Boundary Commission would adjust the borders, possibly gaining Fermanagh and Tyrone for the new Free State.
Opponents of the treaty were outraged not so much by partition as by the Oath of Allegiance (to the King) that members of the Dáil would have to swear. The negotiators in London had managed to water it down considerably, but any oath was unacceptable in principle to hard-line Republicans. The Dáil, reflecting the feeling in the country, voted (reluctantly) to accept the treaty. The new Irish Free State had a dominion status similar to that enjoyed by Canada.
The IRA split on the issue and there was civil war. This became more brutal than the war of independence before it, with massacres and atrocities committed by both sides.
(The South altered its constitution in 1937 severing most of its links with the UK. It declared itself a Republic in 1947.)
The Boundary Commission that was set up as part of the Treaty to realign of the border between Northern Ireland and the Free State did not meet until 1924. Both nationalists and unionists were reluctant to participate in it (the unionist delegate had to be nominated by the British government, and the Irish representative understood participation meant the end of his political career). The Commission's terms of reference were vague and included a proviso that boundaries be drawn "in accordance with the wishes of the inhabitants, so far as may be compatible with economic and geographic conditions".
The Chairman of the Commission, Feetham, was not inclined to make any big changes. In any case, (Southern and Northern) nationalist feelings about the border were muddled and ambivalent. The Unionist position, "not an inch", had the advantage of being clear and simple. The Free State drew up a minimum negotiating position that would gain Fermanagh, most of Tyrone and parts of Down and Armagh for the South. Even this minimum position could not be held, and so the Commission was quietly abandoned in favour of the status quo (the border created by the Government of Ireland Act) in 1925. This left substantial unionist minorities in Donegal and Monaghan and nationalist majorities in Fermanagh and Tyrone on the wrong side of the border. The Irish Free State was overwhelmingly Catholic and nationalist, and unionists formed a clear (but not as overwhelming) majority in Northern Ireland.
Irish history is one of the topics that comes up again and again on soc.culture.irish. Some regulars have devoted much of their own web pages to the subject.
Jerry Desmond has written a more extensive summary of Irish history which can be found at
Gareth G Davis maintains a "Irish historical and religious statistics" page at
The northern unionists effectively created a single-party state. Proportional representation was eliminated for local council elections in 1922 and for the Northern Ireland Parliament in Stormont in 1929. One vote per person did not hold in local elections until 1969. Gerrymandering was used to secure unionist seats in nationalist areas throughout the thirties. Nationalists and catholics were viewed as potential traitors and alienated by the government policies, which favoured protestants and unionists. In turn the nationalists never fully accepted the legitimacy of the new constitutional arrangements. Some republicans in the North continued a violent campaign against the London and Belfast governments.
By the 1960s, northern republicans had mostly given up violence and turned either to politics or to retirement. But a new civil rights movement arose in the North, to protest and correct the discrimination against Catholics. The Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, Captain Terence O'Neill (a moderate Unionist) pushed through reforms in electoral law and public housing. He met with increasing opposition from hard-line Unionists including William Craig and Brian Faulkner, important members of his cabinet. After a general election (in which he retained a narrow majority) he was forced out of office in April 1969, following a bombing which was blamed on the IRA but later turned out to be the work of loyalists.
Civil rights turned into civil disorder. The Belfast government could not cope when fighting broke out in the streets of Belfast. At times, the riots verged on pogroms, such as when loyalists invaded the nationalist Falls Road. Thousands of families were forced to leave their homes. The London government sent British troops into Northern Ireland to keep the factions apart in August 1969.
1970 was a turning point in Northern Ireland. The British Army, having been welcomed initially by Catholics turned that welcome into suspicion and hatred by conducting mass house searches in nationalist areas. The IRA split in two, the Officials and the Provisionals (who were better organised and more willing to use violence). Ian Paisley was elected to Westminster on a fundamentalist ticket, opposing the "soft" approach by official Unionists like O'Neill. The Socialist Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) was formed out of the civil rights movement.
In 1971, Brian Faulkner became Prime Minister after his predecessor, Chichester-Clark, resigned. Faulkner made the colossal blunder of staging Operation Internment in an attempt to quell the IRA. The Army sealed off whole areas during the night raided homes, taking hundreds men for detention without trial. Many of the internees were subjected to brutal treatment. The injustice was compounded by incompetence: many if not most of the internees were innocent, and many senior IRA men escaped the net. The IRA drew valuable sympathy and support from internment.
The last Sunday in January 1972 was Bloody Sunday. British paratroopers shot dead thirteen unarmed men, six of them under eighteen. Thirteen others, including a widow, were wounded. All of them had been participating in an illegal but largely peaceful march against internment. The a public inquiry that followed, conducted by by the British Chief Justice, Lord Widgery, was a whitewash, clearing the soldiers of blame and lending credence to their claims that the men they shot were armed.
Bloody Sunday is a potent propaganda weapon used by the IRA and Sinn Féin. It was not the first atrocity, nor did it claim the most lives (more than fifty civilians were killed by IRA bombs in 1972 alone). On that day and in the cover up that followed, the state used the same methods as terrorist organisations like the IRA.
Stormont, as the Northern Irish government and parliament were known, was suspended (later to be abolished) and direct rule from London was introduced by the British Prime Minister, Ted Heath.
Attempts during the seventies to devolve government back to Northern Ireland with power sharing failed because of Unionist and Nationalist opposition. However, direct rule from London meant that the Northern Ireland Secretary could push through the types of reforms that cost men like O'Neill and Faulkner their careers.
The level of violence has been much than it was in the early 1970s and Northern Ireland is actually a safer place than the news sometimes made it seem. The civil rights that people marched for in the streets in the 60s are protected by bodies such as the Housing Executive and Fair Employment Commission. But Northern Ireland still has not achieved "normal" political and social stability. The RUC still has a credibility problem in nationalist eyes.
In 1997 a peace process got started, based in part on compromises on marching routes by the Orange Order and a renewed IRA ceasefire. For the firt time in many years there is some hope that political reforms may make Northern Ireland a better place to live in for all its inhabitants. Most importantly, there is hope that the terrorists may find they no longer have support for shootings, bombings and other activities.
These are some general works.
Title: Modern Ireland 1600-1972 Author: R.F. Foster Publisher: Penguin ISBN: 0-14-013250-3 Title: Ireland Since the Famine Author: F.S.L. Lyons Publisher: Fontana ISBN 0-00-686005-2 Title: Ireland 1912-1985: Politics and Society Author: J.J. Lee Publisher: Cambridge University Press ISBN: 0-521-37741-2 Title: Oxford History of Ireland Author: R.F. Foster (Ed.) Publisher: Oxford University Press ISBN: 0-19-822970-4 (hardback) Title: The Making of Modern Ireland 1603-1923 Author: J.C. Beckett Publisher: Faber & Faber ISBN: 0-571-18036-1 (0-571-18035-3) Title: A History of Ulster Author: Jonathan Bardon Publisher: Blackstaff Press ISBN: 0-85460-476-4 ( 0-85640-466-7 hardback ) Title: Early Medieval Ireland: 400 - 1200 Author: Dáibhí O'Cróinín Publisher: Longman ISBN: 0-582-015650 ( 0-582-015669 cloth ) One book that people mention a lot in connection with early Ireland is Title: How the Irish Saved Civilization Author: Thomas Cahill Publisher: Doubleday Books ISBN: 0-385-41849-3 (hardback or paperback?)[ The publishing information given is for the paperback editions unless otherwise specified. ]
One online resource worth mentioning is the CELT Irish Electronic Text archive at UCC, which has a variety of texts available for reading on the web or download. See http://www.ucc.ie/celt/
c.3000BC Megalithic tombs first constructed. c.700BC Celts arrive from parts of Gaul and Britain. Ireland divided into provinces. (This according to a contributor is reconstructed folk history and not based on the archaeology.) c.AD350 Christianity reaches Ireland. 400-800 Kingdom of Dalriada extends from Northeastern Ireland to Scotland. Christianity brought to Scotland by St. Columcille and others. 432 Trad. date for the arrival of St. Patrick in Ireland. 700-800 Irish monasticism reaches its zenith. 795 Full-scale Viking invasion. 1014 Brian Ború defeats Vikings at Clontarf but is murdered. 1169 Dermot MacMurrough, exiled king of Leinster, invites help from 'Strongbow'. 1172 Pope decrees that Henry II of England is feudal lord of Ireland. 1366 Statues of Kilkenny belatedly forbid intermarriage of English and Irish. Gaelic culture unsuccessfully suppressed. 1534-40 Unsuccessful Kildare rebellion 1541 Henry VIII proclaimed king (rather than feudal lord) of Ireland 1558-1603 Reign of Elizabeth I. System of counties adopted. 1595-1603 Nine years war, a failed uprising led by Hugh O'Neill. 1610 Policy of plantation by colonisation begins in Ulster. 1607 Flight of the Earls; leading Ulster families go into exile. 1641 Charles I's policies cause insurrection in Ulster and Civil War in England. 1649 Cromwell invades Ireland. 1653 Under the Act of Settlement Cromwell's opponents stripped of land. 1689-90 Deposed James II flees to Ireland; defeated at the Battle of the Boyne. 1704 Penal Code enacted; Catholics barred from voting, education and the military. 1775 American War of Independence foments Irish unrest. 1782 Grattan's Parliament persuades British to declare Irish independence, but in name only. 1795 Foundation of the Orange Order. 1798 Wolfe Tone's uprising crushed. 1801 Ireland becomes part of United Kingdom under the Act of Union. 1829 Catholic Emancipation Act passed after Daniel O'Connell elected as MP. 1845-49 The Great Famine. 1879-82 The Land War; Parnell encourages boycott of repressive landlords. 1914 Implementation of Home Rule postponed because of outbreak of World War I. 1916 Easter Rising. After the leaders are executed public opinion backs independence. 1920-21 War between Britain and Ireland; Irish Free State and Northern Ireland created. 1922 Civil war breaks out. 1932 De Valera elected. 1939-45 "The Emergency"; Free State remains neutral 1958 "Programme for economic expansion" published; establishes a five year plan of public investment with a target of 2% economic growth per annum. 1969 Rioting between Catholics and Protestants. British troops called in. 1971 Provisional IRA begins campaign to oust. British troops from Ireland. Faulkner becomes NI Prime Minister; introduces internment without trial 1972 'Bloody Sunday' in Derry. N.I. Government and parliament suspended; direct rule from London. 1973 UK and Republic of Ireland join European Economic Community. 1974 Power sharing Executive collapses in face of Unionist general strike called to protest Sunningdale agreement on "Council of Ireland". 1980-81 H-Block hunger strikes in NI. Republican prisoners starve themselves to death for political status. Inept handling by government results in increased support for republicans. 1984 Southern nationalist parties and SDLP publish New Ireland Forum report. 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement signed at Hillsborough. Intergovernmental Conference established. 1994 Peace Declaration and IRA ceasefire. 1996 End of IRA ceasefire; elections for Peace Forum; Sinn Féin is excluded from peace talks because of continuing IRA violence; SF decides not to attend the Forum 1997 Renewal of IRA ceasefire. Sinn Féin joins establish peace talks.