Paul F. State: A Brief History of Ireland

Paul F. State A Brief History of Ireland coverPaul F. State
A Brief History of Ireland
(2009, Checkmark Books, 408 pages)

Encompassing the extensive history of a country like Ireland in a relatively brief book is a challenge that Paul F. State, author of similar short histories of France and the Netherlands, proves more than able to meet. He nicely summarizes the country’s long, complex political history, always including not just the machinations of kings and lords, but also the day-to-day lives of ordinary farmers and tradesmen. Occasionally names and dates and battles fly by pretty quickly, but they inevitably do in a survey of this kind. Sidebars are used to focus on important personalities (i.e. Brian Boru, Eamon de Valera), events and concepts (the Battle of the Boyne and Irish Diaspora). Plenty of maps are helpfully included. In a series of appendices State provides basic facts about the government, geography, and economy of both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, as well as a chronology of events, a list of Irish leaders, a bibliography, further reading selections, and a good index.

Ireland, or Éire in Gaelic, has been inhabited for around 9,000 years. The earliest hunter-gatherer settlers date from the Mesolithic, around 7,000 BCE. Agriculture and animal domestication arrived around 4,500 BCE, and only gradually did larger settlements and tribal alliances form. Megaliths and passage tombs (the most famous of the latter being Newgrange, c. 3,200 BCE) hint at early religious beliefs. Shortly afterwards, around 2,500 BCE, Bronze Age metalworking was brought to the country, and around 500 years later the Beaker people moved in with their distinctive pottery. The Celts started arriving from Britain and the European continent around 700 BCE, with iron weapons and agricultural implements as well as a more sophisticated approach to politics and governance.

Book of Kells Man Lion Bull Eagle431 CE is the first documented date in Irish history, when a Christian bishop, Palladius, came to Ireland to minister. Within a few centuries monasteries were being built that soon became major centers of learning, artistry – including illuminated manuscripts like the beautiful Book of Kells (c. 800 CE) – and political power. St. Patrick is just the most famous of those who were spreading Christianity in the country. As State reminds us, the famous legendary events of Patrick’s life, like driving the snakes from the country or using the shamrock to illustrate the Trinity, may well not have happened. But Patrick certainly baptized many people (possibly thousands), traveled widely, and founded numerous monasteries. Other Irish monk-missionaries traveled throughout Europe, converting people and spreading their learning. Among the most famous were Columba, who brought Christianity to Scotland, and Scotus Eriugena, the great philosopher who headed the Palatine School under Charlemagne’s successor Charles the Bald.

The Vikings, whose invasions started in the late eighth century and reached their peak in the early tenth, were originally just marauders but gradually became an important part of Irish society – converting to Christianity, learning the Irish language, founding cities like Dublin, Limerick and Cork, becoming merchants, and establishing trade both within Ireland and internationally. Ultimately a more powerful Irish king, Brian Boru, rose to fight the Vikings and many of the other regional kings of Ireland. Winning most of the country, Brian eventually fell at the Battle of Clontarf, Ireland’s first big battle of record, in 1014. He is still acknowledged as one of Ireland’s greatest leaders, and the national symbol of the Republic of Ireland today is called the Brian Boru harp.

Muiredach Celtic CrossOnly in the early twelfth century did the Catholic Church proper extend its influence into Ireland; as it did, the independent monasteries that had been so influential for centuries went into decline. The next major arrival was the Normans, in 1169. As in England, they greatly changed Irish society, imposing rule from outside the country, and bringing city life inland (until then the major Irish cities were coastal, thanks to the Vikings). The Normans made such quick progress through the country that Henry II was proclaimed Lord of Ireland by Pope Alexander III in 1172. Something of a Gaelic resurgence came much later, as Norman influence decreased in the years after the Black Death. 1297 saw the creation of the country’s first Parliament, modeled after the British. Degrees of English rule varied over the succeeding decades, rising with Richard II’s arrival in 1395, then falling again in the fifteenth century.

The House of Tudor, under Henry VIII and his daughter Elizabeth I, brought Protestantism to both England and Ireland. The English tried to dispossess the Irish by bringing Protestant settlers into the country and giving them land, and the inevitable Irish Catholic backlash was put down violently by the British troops of Oliver Cromwell. But true English control and commerce was mostly restricted to Dublin and a few other larger cities. In the north, much of the best land in Ulster was confiscated by the British and handed over to British and Scottish overlords. New cities were founded there by the British, like Belfast, and many thousands emigrated from Britain and Scotland to Ireland. By the mid seventeenth century, an uneasy peace between Catholic and Protestant, Irish and English reigned.

Armies under the Dutch Protestant William of Orange and the Catholic King James II met in the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, which the Catholics lost and which is still celebrated by Irish Protestants. Once again, the largely Irish-Catholic population was ruled by an English-Protestant government and gentry. The eighteenth century saw a consolidation of power, leading, as State puts it, to “a minority Protestant class enjoying varying degrees of privilege and a majority Catholic community enduring wholesale oppression.” Penal Laws, which stayed in place for a long time, prohibited Catholics from carrying weapons, practicing law, holding government office, serving in the military, or even practicing their faith in public. Trade expanded as companies like Guinness and products like Waterford crystal got their start in the eighteenth century. But most farmers lived barely above subsistence, poverty level.

Late in the eighteenth century the American Revolution, and then the French Revolution, inspired a movement for Irish independence from England, led in the English Parliament by Irishman Edmund Burke and in the Irish Parliament by Henry Grattan. Catholics were joined in their efforts at independence by radical Protestants like Theobald Wolfe Tone. Open fighting broke out in many locations all over Ireland in 1798, which came to be known as the “Ninety Eight.” In 1800, the Irish Parliament was merged into the English as Ireland became part of the United Kingdom.

The first half of the nineteenth century saw Protestants and Catholics separate even more dramatically. Irish Catholics were still the majority of the population, at 80%, but remained largely rural farmers. Protestants tended to be better-educated, largely middle and upper class, and had the vast majority of powerful positions in law and finance. Use of the Irish language dropped substantially through the nineteenth century, from half the population in the 1820s to under 15% by 1900. Anti-Catholic laws and prejudice were still strong, and inspired the formation in 1823 of the Catholic Association, a non-violent mass movement, by Daniel O’Connell (1775-1847), probably the most influential Irish politician of the first half of the nineteenth century.

Henry Doyle Emigrants Leave Ireland 1868Despite the introduction of rail transportation and greater mechanization, an economic depression set in, greatly worsened by The Great Famine, the potato blight of 1845 and after that killed upwards of a million within a decade and caused something like two million, a quarter of the population, to emigrate to the United States and elsewhere. Having reached a peak of just over eight million in the mid nineteenth century, Ireland’s population sank dramatically, and was still as low as 4.2 million in the early 1970s. By 1900 there were more first and second generation Irish in the United States than in Ireland. Once a point of sadness but now one of pride, State points out, is the number of Irish who have emigrated and taken Irish culture and ways around the world.

Charles Stewart Parnell, the “uncrowned king of Ireland,” became a major spokesman for both Home Rule and Land Reform. His efforts at greater freedom and stability for Catholic landowners were quite successful, but when Parnell died in 1891, the unification of Irish political action fractured, only to be mended in part through the Anglo-Irish Literary Revival, as authors like James Joyce, William Butler Yeats and John Millington Synge reestablished Irish pride and patriotism.

James JoyceState appropriately makes much of the historical importance of Irish literature, the oldest vernacular literature in Europe north of the Alps. He hits many of the highlights. Among the earliest works in Gaelic is the Táin Bó Cuailgne, or The Cattle Raid of Cooley, the central part of the Ulster Cycle of tales, dating from the first two centuries CE but not written down until hundreds of years later. In the Middle Ages, poetry reigned supreme, as a new hereditary class of bards preserved the old Gaelic literature. By the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, an important mark of separation between the English and Irish in Ireland was the growth of English language Irish literature: one thinks of philosopher George Berkeley, satirist Jonathan Swift, and playwrights Richard Brinsley Sheridan and Oliver Goldsmith. While Irish by blood, these writers tended away from truly Irish subject matter in their works, although Irish themes later re-emerged in the productions of some of the four Irish winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature: William Butler Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, Samuel Beckett and Seamus Heaney.

Early in the twentieth century, the desire for independence prompted the creation of Sinn Féin (“We Ourselves” or “Ourselves Alone”), a political party that called for a separate Irish government while still sharing the British monarch. Later it grew more radical, calling for complete independence, which was eventually declared in January 1919 as Eamon de Valera soon became the acting president and leading political figure. A rival to Sinn Féin was the Irish Republican Brotherhood, led by Michael Collins. As republican sentiments grew in most of the country, the Protestants in Ulster came to feel that establishment of a separate unionist state in Northern Ireland might be the way to go. The Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 established two states: the northern six counties of Ulster (mostly Protestant, urban and industrial), and the Irish Free State of the southern 26 counties (rural and Catholic).

Eamon de ValeraEamon de Valera broke from Sinn Féin in 1926 to form the new Fianna Fáil party, which by the 1940s was the main Irish political party. 1933 saw the end of the loyalty oath to the British crown, and in 1937 a brand new Constitution of Ireland was adopted, with de Valera as prime minister (later president). Ireland became a republic entirely separate from the U.K. in 1949, and joined the United Nations in 1955. In the north, the excluded Catholic minority turned to civil rights efforts, modeled after those in the U.S., to seek redress. But partition came to be seen by both north and south as inevitable, as extremists on both sides engaged in widespread violence.

“Bloody Sunday” in January 1972, in which 13 were killed by the British army, increased tensions further, soon leading to the dissolution of the Northern Ireland government and direct rule from Britain. Violence continued steadily through the 1970s in what became known as “The Troubles.” Hunger strikers like Bobby Sands, who died in prison in 1981, called attention to the treatment Catholics were receiving. By the mid 1980s Ireland had gotten involved in negotiations with Britain, hoping to come to some sort of settlement in the north. State spells out in some detail the political back-and-forth in the 1970s and 1980s between the major Irish political parties – Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, and Labour. In 1990 Ireland elected its first woman president, Mary Robinson; she was also the first Labour and first non-Fianna Fáil president, and after her presidency became the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Suffering through the worldwide recession of the 1980s, Ireland made a huge comeback in the 1990s, aided by its European Union membership and favorable corporate environment. Agricultural production dropped, but industry boomed. In Northern Ireland, violence continued as moderates sought a path to self-determination and the conciliation of unionists and nationalists through constitutional, democratic means. The Good Friday Agreement of 1998, negotiated among the many different parties and factions and partly facilitated by the United States, provided a path to a peace settlement.

Ireland was dubbed the “Celtic Tiger” as early as 1994 due to its rapid economic growth, but the sunny economic outlook State paints for the country in the twenty-first century has, as we know, paled in the last couple of years. Meanwhile, establishment of new governing institutions in Northern Ireland followed a rocky path, as extremists often gained the upper hand over moderates amid sporadic outbreaks of violence. In 2007 the Reverend Ian Paisley of the Democratic Unionist Party and Gerry Adams of Sinn Féin held a joint news conference, their first ever, to announce a power-sharing agreement. Violence largely ceased, bringing to an apparent close a conflict that had claimed some 3,700 lives.

Calling the Irish “one of the most readily recognizable of the world’s peoples,” State optimistically suggests, at the end of his book, that “today it is the spirits of Ireland’s saints and scholars, its performing artists and wordsmiths, its entrepreneurs and civil servants – both North and South – that hold sway, giving promise of peaceful, prosperous days, that, this time, have truly come to stay.”

2 thoughts on “Paul F. State: A Brief History of Ireland

  1. Thanks for this gem! Can you shed any light on what is depicted in the image, I assume from “Book of Kells”, beside the 431 CE paragraph? Who is the saint/monk? Thanks.

    • Hi, and thanks for checking out my blog! I’m not an expert, but I’m pretty sure that this page, which is in fact from the Book of Kells, is a symbolic representation of the Four Evangelists/Gospel writers. In a tradition that goes back to the early days of the Church, the Evangelists were identified symbolically with the four “living creatures” leading God’s throne-chariot in one of the visions in the Book of Ezekiel (the same four turn up again in the Book of Revelation). Matthew is the winged man (or angel), Mark the winged lion, Luke the winged ox or bull, and John the eagle. Hope that helps somewhat!

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