Brief history of Ireland

Ireland – A Brief History

Ireland was first settled in about 6000 BC by a race of Middle Stone Age hunter-gatherers who lived there and hunted such creatures as the megaceros, a giant variety of deer so large that their antlers spanned 10 feet. Around 3000 BC, they made significant technological improvements which moved them into the classification of Bronze Age people. These people eventually came to be known as the Picts, who ruled over Ireland for millenia and even expanded to Scotland. Irish folklore tells that during these very early times, two sons of King Milesius of Iberia conquered Ireland, becoming King Heremon, and his brother Heber. It is said that after assuming power in Ireland Heremon slew his brother, took the throne and fathered a line of kings of Ireland that includes Malachi II and King Niall of the Nine Hostages.

In around 900 BC, a race known as the Celts appeared. They were the result of cross-breeding between European Bronze Age people and wanderers from central Asia. They dominated the country for many years to follow, building many of the characteristic ring forts which are found all over Ireland. They did not confine themselves to Ireland, however, dominating Western Europe for a long time, sacking Rome in 390 BC, and Delphi a century later.

In the early 5th century AD, St. Patrick came to Ireland to convert the Irish, who were all Druidic, to Christianity. He had amazing success, as today nearly everyone living in Ireland is Christian and Druids are almost unheard of. This feat was made even more impressive by the fact that the Celtic nobility held their power through the Druidic religion; because of this, they were exceptionally difficult to convert.

The years that were the Dark Ages for the rest of Europe, between 410 and 800 AD, were a golden age for Ireland. Ireland flourished while the Roman Empire fell, fragmented and was plagued by attacks from Vikings, Muslims and Magyars. It was not to last however; Ireland was to have its own Dark Age. In 795, Vikings from Scandinavia landed on the Gaelic island of Iona and plundered a monastery there. By the early 800s, they had begun raids on Ireland itself, plundering it on a regular basis. At first, they were only interested in rape, pillage and plunder, but eventually they stayed, rather than taking their loot and leaving. By 841, they had established several well-fortified settlements in Louth and expanded aggressively thereafter, eventually conquering all of Ireland with a decisive victory in the Battle of Dublin in 919. The Celts slowly regained land, however, and in 1014, led by Brian Boru, they almost completely eliminated the Viking presence in Ireland with the Battle of Clontarf.

Next came the Normans, who were of originally Viking origin. While some Vikings were raiding Ireland in the previous centuries, the Normans had settled in northern France and were intermarrying with the natives. From there, they swept through England and Scotland, and eventually came to Ireland in 1169. Within a few years they had captured Dublin and most other major cities, and so Ireland belonged to them. They intermarried with the Celts (who now called themselves the Gaels), giving rise to many powerful Norman-Irish feudal families.

Then, a feud which was to change the fate of Ireland began between two powerful families: Tiernan O’Rourke and Dermot MacMurrough. Two other families joined in as well; Rory O’Connor sided with O’Rourke and Murtogh MacLochlain protected MacMurrough. In 1166, O’Rourke and O’Connor triumphed and chased MacMurrough out of Ireland. MacMurrough was not to be discouraged, however; he returned shortly thereafter with an army provided by Henry II and the assistance of the legendary Richard FitzGilbert de Clare, also known as Strongbow. He eventually managed to take over Ireland and instated himself as ruler there. He became sick and died after a short reign, and left his throne to Strongbow. O’Connor and O’Rourke raised an army and attempted to instate MacMurrough’s nephew, with whom they sympathized, instead of Strongbow but they were defeated. Strongbow therefore became King of Ireland, but King Henry had plans of his own. He had provided the army that conquered Ireland, and he wanted Ireland in his empire. So he brought a new army to Ireland, consisting of over 4000 troops. Strongbow surrendered Ireland to him without a drop of blood being shed.

For a long time thereafter, Ireland was divided between the Normans and the Gaels. Though the Normans controlled most of the Island, there was eventually a Gaelic resurgence and the Norman territories were vastly reduced. Once this happened, the Normans began to be assimilated and eventually became “more Irish than the Irish.” Though still affiliated with England, Ireland was essentially independent.

The Tudor Dynasty (1485-1607) put an end to this, engaging in another conquest of Ireland and instating laws which, among other things, decreed that the King of England was automatically the King of Ireland, essentially making the two a single country. They also ousted the Catholic church, making Protestantism the religion of Ireland and also imposed laws which created a huge class distinction, setting the stage for the bloody conflicts that rage to this day.

The so called Plantation of Ulster occured during the reign of King James I, in the early 17th century, six entire counties, (Armagh, Tyrone, Coleraine, Donegal, Fermanagh and Caven) of Ireland were ‘planted’ with English and Scottish settlers. The settlers were Protestants, sent by the English crown to make the territory easier to rule. More than 8,000 people of British birth were found in these counties by 1620. The Plantation of Ulster was to have a profound impact on Ireland and it’s relation to the United Kingdom for centuries to come.

From 1740 onwards, the population of Ireland began to soar. For the next eighty years, the largely agricultural economy of Ireland enjoyed a period of prosperity due to increased production and high British grain demands. However, by the 1830s, the once-fertile soil had grown depleted from heavy overproduction, and agricultural productivity fell off.

The mid-1840s marked the onset of catastrophe for the Irish potato crop. A partial failure of the vital staple crop in 1845 was followed by a complete failure the following year, which was in turn followed by an especially cruel winter. In 1848, the crop failed once again. Starvation and disease became common as many farmers were driven penniless from their homes. The Irish Potato Famine resulted in one of the most dramatic waves of migration in history.

From 1845 to 1851, Ireland lost almost a quarter of its population. Of these, half emigrated to Britain, North America, and Australia. The other half perished. Most Irish immigrants were virtually penniless and were often perceived to be lower-class and less hard-working, but nothing could be further from the truth. Time would prove their critics very wrong.

While this is not directly Family history research related, we like to cover parts of history too.

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