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A long cold climatic spell prevailed until the end of the last glacial period about 9,000 years ago, and most of Ireland was covered with ice. Sea-levels were lower then, and Ireland, as with its neighbour Britain, rather than being islands, were part of a greater continental Europe. Mesolithic stone age inhabitants arrived some time after 8000 BC. Agriculture arrived with the Neolithic circa 4500 to 4000 BC, when sheep, goats, cattle and cereals were imported from southwest continental Europe. At the Céide Fields in County Mayo, an extensive Neolithic field system – arguably the oldest in the world – has been preserved beneath a blanket of peat. Consisting of small fields separated from one another by dry-stone walls, the Céide Fields were farmed for several centuries between 3500 and 3000 BC. Wheat and barley were the principal crops.

The Bronze Age, which began around 2500 BC, saw the production of elaborate gold as well as bronze ornaments, weapons and tools. The Iron Age in Ireland was supposedly associated with people known as Celts. They are traditionally thought to have colonised Ireland in a series of waves between the 8th and 1st centuries BC, with the Gaels, the last wave of Celts, conquering the island and dividing it into five or more kingdoms. Many scientists and academic scholars now favour a view that emphasises cultural diffusion from overseas over significant colonisation such as what Clonycavan Man was reported to be.

The Romans referred to Ireland as Hibernia and/or Scotia. Ptolemy in AD 100 recorded Ireland's geography and tribes. Native accounts are confined to Irish poetry, myth, and archaeology. The exact relationship between Rome and the tribes of Hibernia is unclear; the only references are a few Roman writings.

In early medieval times, a monarch (also known as the High King) presided over the (then five: the fifth being Meath) provinces of Ireland. These provinces too had their own kings, who were at least nominally subject to the monarch, who resided at Tara. The written judicial system was the Brehon Law, and it was administered by professional learned jurists who were known as the Brehons.

According to early medieval chronicles, in 431, Bishop Palladius arrived in Ireland on a mission from Pope Celestine I to minister to the Irish "already believing in Christ." The same chronicles record that Saint Patrick, Ireland's patron saint, arrived in 432. There is continued debate over the missions of Palladius and Patrick, but the general consensus is that they both existed.

The druid tradition collapsed in the face of the spread of the new religion. Irish Christian scholars excelled in the study of Latin and Greek learning and Christian theology in the monasteries that flourished, preserving Latin and Greek learning during the Early Middle Ages. The arts of manuscript illumination, metalworking, and sculpture flourished and produced such treasures as the Book of Kells, ornate jewellery, and the many carved stone crosses that dot the island. From the 9th century, waves of Viking raiders plundered monasteries and towns, adding to a pattern of endemic raiding and warfare. Eventually Vikings settled in Ireland, and established many towns, including the modern day cities of Dublin, Cork, Limerick and Waterford.

From 1169, Ireland was entered by Cambro-Norman warlords, led by Richard de Clare, 2nd Earl of Pembroke (Strongbow), on an invitation from the then King of Leinster. In 1171, King Henry II of England came to Ireland, using the 1155 Bull Laudabiliter issued to him by then Pope Adrian IV, to claim sovereignty over the island, and forced the Cambro-Norman warlords and some of the Gaelic Irish kings to accept him as their overlord. From the 13th century, English law began to be introduced. By the late 13th century the Norman-Irish had established the feudal system throughout most of lowland Ireland. Their settlement was characterised by the establishment of baronies, manors, towns and large land-owning monastic communities, and the county system. The towns of Dublin, Cork, Wexford, Waterford, Limerick, Galway, New Ross, Kilkenny, Carlingford, Drogheda, Sligo, Athenry, Arklow, Buttevant, Carlow, Carrick-on-Suir, Cashel, Clonmel, Dundalk, Enniscorthy, Kildare, Kinsale, Mullingar, Naas, Navan, Nenagh, Thurles, Wicklow, Trim and Youghal were all under Norman-Irish control.

In the 14th century the English settlement went into a period of decline and large areas, for example Sligo, were re-occupied by Gaelic septs. The medieval English presence in Ireland (The Pale) was deeply shaken by the Black Death, which arrived in Ireland in 1348. From the late 15th century English rule was once again expanded, first through the efforts of the Earls of Kildare and Ormond then through the activities of the Tudor State under Henry VIII and Mary and Elizabeth. This resulted in the complete conquest of Ireland by 1603 and the final collapse of the Gaelic social and political superstructure at the end of the 17th century, as a result of English and Scottish Protestant colonisation in the Plantations of Ireland, and the Wars of the Three Kingdoms and the Williamite War in Ireland. Approximately 600,000 people, nearly half the Irish population, died during the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland.

After the Irish Rebellion of 1641, Irish Catholics and nonconforming Protestants were barred from voting or attending the Irish Parliament. Under the penal laws (introduced from 1691) no Irish Catholic could sit in the Parliament of Ireland, even though some 90% of Ireland's population was native Irish Catholic. This ban was followed by others in 1703 and 1709 as part of a comprehensive system disadvantaging the Catholic community, and to a lesser extent, Protestant dissenters. The new English Protestant ruling class was known as the Protestant Ascendancy. Towards the end of the 18th century the (entirely Protestant) Irish Parliament attained a greater degree of independence from the British Parliament than it had previously held.

In 1798, many members of the Protestant dissenter tradition made common cause with Catholics in a rebellion inspired and led by the Society of United Irishmen. It was staged with the aim of creating a fully independent Ireland as a state with a republican constitution. Despite assistance from France the Irish Rebellion of 1798 was put down by British forces.

In 1800, the British and subsequently the Irish Parliament passed the Act of Union which, in 1801, merged the Kingdom of Ireland and the Kingdom of Great Britain to create the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. The passage of the Act in the Irish Parliament was achieved with substantial majorities, in part (according to contemporary documents) through bribery, namely the awarding of peerages and honours to critics to get their votes. Thus, Ireland became part of an extended United Kingdom, ruled directly by the UK Parliament in London.

The Great Famine, which began in the 1840s, caused the deaths of one million Irish people, and caused over a million to emigrate. By the late 1840s, as a result of the famine, half of all immigrants to the United States originated from Ireland. A total of 35 million Americans (12% of total population) reported Irish ancestry in the 2005 American Community Survey. Mass emigration became entrenched as a result of the famine and the population continued to decline until late in the 20th century. The pre-famine peak was over 8 million recorded in the 1841 census. The population has never returned to this level.

The 19th and early 20th century saw the rise of Irish nationalism among the Roman Catholic population. Daniel O'Connell led a successful campaign for Catholic Emancipation, which was passed by the United Kingdom parliament. A subsequent campaign for repeal of the Act of Union failed. Later in the century Charles Stewart Parnell and others campaigned for self-government within the Union or "Home Rule". Unionists, especially those located in the Northern part of the island, who considered themselves to be British as well as Irish, were strongly opposed to Home Rule, under which they felt they would be dominated by Catholic and Southern Irish interests. To prevent Home Rule the Ulster Volunteers were formed in 1913 under the leadership of Lord Carson. This was followed by the Irish Volunteers, formed in 1914 to support the enactment of the Home Rule Act, which was suspended on the outbreak of World War I. Under John Redmond the National Volunteers broke away from the Irish Volunteers to serve with the Irish regiments of the New British Army.

Armed rebellions, such as the Easter Rising of 1916 and the Irish War of Independence of 1919, occurred in this period. In 1921, a treaty was concluded between the British Government and the leaders of the Irish Republic. The Anglo-Irish Treaty recognised the two-state solution created in the Government of Ireland Act 1920. Northern Ireland was presumed to form a home rule state within the new Irish Free State unless it opted out. Northern Ireland had a majority Protestant population and opted out as expected, choosing to rejoin the United Kingdom, incorporating, however, within its border a significant Catholic and nationalist minority. A Boundary Commission was set up to decide on the boundaries between the two Irish states, though it was subsequently abandoned after it recommended only minor adjustments to the border. Disagreements over some provisions of the treaty led to a split in the nationalist movement and subsequently to the Irish Civil War. The Civil War ended in 1923 with the defeat of the anti-treaty forces.
 
   
     
     
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