A Brief History
On November 10, 1580, another chapter in the long, sorry story of the troubled relationship between the English and the Irish was written when the English Army finished a three day siege of Dún an Óir (Fort of Gold) at Ard na Caithne, Ireland, by beheading 600 of the defenders, including members of a Papal army contingent, just one of a long history of atrocities committed by both sides. The Irish and their allies (including Spanish and Italians, as well as some Catholic Englishmen) were fighting for the Catholic Church with the blessings of the Pope against the Protestant English. The fighting was part of an Irish Catholic rebellion against English rule over Ireland, long a sore point in Irish history.
English hegemony over Ireland goes way back to the time of the Norman invasion of Britain (1066), with English/Norman off and on invasions of Ireland with a variety of English and Norman overlords of the Emerald Isle. Starting with Norman arrival in 1167 and stretching until English King Henry VIII made himself King of Ireland (1536), the Irish had a history of foreigners ruling over various parts of their country. As early as 1155 the pope ( Pope Adrian IV, the one and only English Pope of the Catholic Church in history) issued a Papal Bull ordering the invasion and subjugation of Ireland to prevent any straying from official Catholic doctrine. King Henry II of England personally led an invasion of Ireland in 1171, becoming the first English king to actually tread upon the soil of Ireland. Many of the Irish “kings” welcomed Henry and took the opportunity of the English consolidation of power in Ireland to expand their own fiefs.
Despite off and on rebellions against Norman and then English rule, the Irish continued to suffer under the yoke placed upon them by England, at times relegating the English control of Ireland to mere pockets of influence. When Columbus discovered the New World in 1492, the 16th Century dawned with a heightened importance of Ireland as a jumping off point for voyages to the Americas and gave the island strategic importance as a possible base of interception of English travel to and from the New World. The end of the Wars of the Roses (1487) gave the English a more undistracted view of Ireland and facilitated the consolidation of English hegemony over Ireland.
The Protestant Reformation (1517-1648) swept up England in the break from the Catholic Church, a break never embraced in Ireland. This religious difference aggravated an already contentious relationship between Ireland and England (later Great Britain then the United Kingdom), with England in the Protestant camp and most Irish remaining staunchly Catholic. (Ironically it had been an Englishman, Saint Patrick, that brought Christianity (Catholic) to Ireland circa 450-500 AD.)
Periodic rebellions against English then British rule continued over the centuries, until finally in 1922 after serious insurrection and fighting the Irish won independence from Britain for most of their home island, leaving Northern Ireland in the realm of the United Kingdom. Northern Ireland consists of 6 of the 9 counties that composed Ulster and is one of 4 countries that comprise the UK (England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland). Though Northern Ireland has a Protestant and pro-British majority, the place has been a sore spot in the British Empire ever since, with the Irish Republican Army (and other nationalist organizations) carrying the banner of a united Ireland and expulsion of British government. Famous for staging uprisings and terrorist acts, the IRA is also represented by a political branch called Sinn Fein that seeks diplomatic solutions to their demands. Meanwhile, the Protestant contingent of Northern Ireland is not without its violent members and has also conducted some acts of repression and terrorism of their own. British loyalist organizations such as the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Ulster Defence Force conducted covert and sometimes violent operations against the Irish nationalists.
The animosity between Ireland and Britain is so great that the Irish sentiment ran toward being allied with Germany during World War I, and during World War II Ireland remained neutral rather than join their hated British counterparts. Both Britain and Germany contemplated invading Ireland during World War II, but of course neither did.
The history of unrest in Ireland, both the rebellious nature of Irish nationalists and the sometimes heavy handed and brutal British response is usually referred to as “The Troubles.” A long, simmering guerilla war fought ever since the creation of Northern Ireland in the face of Irish independence for the rest of Ireland, the Troubles are seen to have largely subsided as of 1998, with far fewer incidents having occurred in the years since then. From 1960 to 1998, over 1000 British military personnel have perished in the conflict, while about 368 Irish nationalists were killed along with about 162 of the Irish loyalists.
Of course, the situation in Ireland remains unsettled (as far as Irish nationalists are concerned). Northern Ireland is still part of the UK and not part of the country of Ireland, a condition contrary to what seems to be “common sense.” The inhabitants of Northern Ireland are not all ethnically Irish, and a majority are Protestant with no desire to live under the Catholic inspired laws of Ireland. (Ireland is as close to a theocracy as any Christian nation, although the Catholic influence is slowly eroding.)
Question for students (and subscribers): Will Northern Ireland ever become part of the country of Ireland? Should the British leave Northern Ireland to the Irish? Should Protestant Ulstermen be forced to live under a Catholic theocracy? Is violence a legitimate tool to win reunification of Northern Ireland with Ireland? Do you believe violence will break out once again? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Coogan, Tim Pat. The Troubles: Ireland’s Ordeal 1966–1995 and the Search for Peace. Head of Zeus, 2015.
Killeen, Richard. A Brief History of Ireland. Robinson, 2012.
Rubicondior, Rosa. A History of Ireland: How Religion Poisoned Everything. RosaRubicondior, 2018.
The featured image in this article, a photograph by Sharon Loxton from geograph.org.uk of the fort at Dun an Oir (Fort del Oro), shows the site of an iron age fort; however, it is better known as the location of a bloody slaughter in 1580. Spanish soldiers arrived here to help the Irish in the Desmond rebellion against the English. The English, led by Lord Grey (and Sir Walter Raleigh) slaughtered 600 Spanish and tortured their Irish counterparts before killing them too. This image was taken from the Geograph project collection. See this photograph’s page on the Geograph website for the photographer’s contact details. The copyright on this image is owned by Sharon Loxton and is licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.