Simply, a Brief History of Britain's Adventures in Ireland

New Internationalist, May 1994 | Go to article overview

Simply, a Brief History of Britain's Adventures in Ireland


1 Beyond the Pale

GAELIC IRELAND'S relatively egalitarian social system holds land in common, elects its kings - and its culture produces the oldest vernacular epic in west European literature, the Tain Bo Cuaihge. From 1169 Ireland is invaded for the first time by the Normans under King Henry II of England, who has already been 'given' the country by Pope Adrian IV (an Englishman). Dublin is captured and colonized but English control over the next three centuries seldom extends further than the small strip of land around Dublin called the Pale. Henry VIII makes more headway, forcing local kings to trade in their native titles for anglicized ones - so Conn Bacach O'Neill of Tir Eoghain becomes the first Earl of Tyrone. Still Ireland is hard to subdue. The colonizing of Ulster, first disastrously attempted by the Elizabethans, takes off in 1607 - the same year as the first boats of colonists leave for the New World. Colonizers, who include everyone from fugitive criminals to City of London financiers, are required to clear their estates completely of native Irish but in practice find they need them as labourers.

2 The judgement of God

Figure not transcribed

ALL COLONISTS have to take an oath of allegiance to Protestantism as a condition of getting their land. The dispossessed native Irish are Catholic, which gives them a double reason for resentment. In 1641 this turns to rebellion - 12,000 settlers are killed, most from exposure and hunger as they straggle towards safer territory. The Catholic rebellion is put down the following year but real revenge comes after the English Civil War when Oliver Cromwell's army puts all but 30 people of the town of Drogheda to the sword - 2,600 of them. 'I am persuaded,' he says, 'that this is the righteous judgement of God upon those barbarous wretches...' He swiftly follows it with another massacre at Wexford. Between 1641 and 1651 the Irish population is halved - 616,000 die as a result of conflict, hunger and disease, while 100,000 are transported, mostly to the West Indies. All Catholics in Ulster have their land confiscated. By the 1680s the plantation of Ulster has succeeded.

In 1685 James II embarks on a vigorous programme to recatholicize his kingdoms. His blundering leads the English aristocracy to invite the Dutch Prince of Orange to become King William III. The showdown between James and William takes place in the north of Ireland. The Protestant towns of Derry and Enniskillen hold out bravely against siege by a Catholic army. Then King William himself leads his army to victory at the Battle of the Boyne in 1691. Victory is consolidated the following year at the even bloodier battle of Aughrim whose anniversary, 12 July, is still the most important celebration in the Ulster Protestant calendar.

3 Fury and famine

Figure not transcribed

FROM 1691 onwards penal laws dispossess Catholics and dissenting Protestants of their land and deny them religous freedom, voting rights and access to education. Ireland becomes a colonial economy, run by a small Protestant landowning caste who extract rent from the peasants in the form of foodstuffs and export it to England. The first idealistic rebellion is staged in 1798 by the United Irishmen, whose leading lights are Presbyterians passionate about winning political rights for Catholics. They pursue legal reforms until the Government decides against Catholic emancipation but then take up arms. Despite initial success the insurrection is savagely crushed and 30,000 die. Two years later the Act of Union of Britain and Ireland is passed and the Irish Parliament abolished - though Catholic emancipation is finally won in 1829. The revolutions that sweep Europe in 1848 produce a tiny echo in the Young Irelander movement. But their call to arms has no chance of success in a country gripped by an appalling famine. The potato crop, on which the rural Irish depend, fails through blight from 1846 onwards. …

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