If you’ve ever wondered “what is it with the trouble in Ireland?” Is there some fundamental issue there that means peace is only ever going to be temporary?
Then you need to read this.
To understand what is happening today in Northern Ireland, you need to understand the history of the area. It’s not an easy read.
We don’t need to go back to the very beginning, although it’s worth mentioning that Ireland, unlike England in the post-(Roman)colonial era, never really had a “Dark Age”: the Celtic Christian church and Irish scholarship and art continued to flourish throughout those years between 400AD and 600AD when we know very little about what was happening in the rest of those islands loosely termed “British.”
Between the time when Saxons began to settle in England, and about 1160, Ireland functioned as a set of autonomous (although internally combative) Gaelic kingdoms (quite regularly fending of Viking incursions, just as the Saxons had to) until the Normans started attempting to invade in 1169 and established a sizeable foothold there. This was gradually rolled back over the next two centuries until the area held by the Plantagenet kings was mostly around Dublin, and inside “the Pale” (An Pháil) which was the part of Ireland directly under the control of the English government. It had been reduced by the late 15th century to an area along the east coast stretching from Dalkey, south of Dublin, to the garrison town of Dundalk. The inland boundary went to Naas and Leixlip around the Earldom of Kildare, towards Trim and north towards Kells. In this district, many townlands have English or French names, and have had for centuries.
(And if you have ever heard someone announce, disapprovingly, that someone’s behaviour is “beyond the Pale” this is why. It is an early example of pejorative English speech about the Irish, implying as it does that while (Anglo-Norman) civilisation existed inside the fenced and ditched Pale area under England’s control, all outside it was wild savagery and confusion: this despite the fact that during England’s Dark Ages, Irish scholarship and art was renowned in Europe.)
Once clear of the Wars of the Roses, which ended in 1485, England, now ruled by the Welsh Henry Tudor, took the opportunity to expand its sphere of England, and make tentative sallies into Ireland. Then came the Reformation, before which Europe had been mostly Catholic. Under Henry VIII, the burgeoning fight between the two schools of Christian thought began to impact Ireland, and has done so ever since: the long, difficult “Tudor conquest” of the island, which lasted until 1601 was partly a war of religion. Gaelic Ireland was finally defeated at the battle of Kinsale in 1601 which marked the collapse of the Gaelic system and the beginning of Ireland’s history as part of the British Empire.
What happened next?
Under James I, the Plantation of Ulster (Plandáil Uladh) began.This was the organised colonisation of Ulster by people from Great Britain. Most of the settlers came from southern Scotland and northern England and their culture was very different from that of the native Irish. Small privately-funded plantations by wealthy landowners began in 1606, while the official plantation began in 1609. Most of the land colonised was taken from the native Gaelic chiefs, several of whom had fled Ireland for mainland Europe in 1607 following the Nine Years’ War against English rule. The official plantation comprised an estimated half a million acres of good arable land in counties Armagh, Cavan, Fermanagh, Tyrone, Tyrconnell and Londonderry, all taken from the indigenous Irish. Land in counties Antrim, Down and Monaghan was also privately colonised with the king’s support.
King James, the Lord Deputy of Ireland, Arthur Chichester, and the Attorney-General for Ireland, John Davies oversaw the program of resettlement. They saw the plantation as a means of controlling, anglicising and “civilising” Ulster, which up until that point had been almost wholly Gaelic, Catholic and rural, and had also been the region most resistant to English control.
The plantation of Ulster was deliberately designed to cut Gaelic Ulster’s links with the Gaelic – and Catholic – Highlands of Scotland. By and large, the colonists were required to be English-speaking, Protestant, and loyal to the king. Some of the settlers, however, were Catholic and it has been suggested that a significant number of the Scots could speak Gaelic. The Scottish settlers were mostly Presbyterian Lowlanders (historically not always comfortable anyway with the Catholic Highlanders) and the English were mostly members of the Church of England. Although some ‘loyal’ natives were granted land in these areas as well, the native Irish reaction to the plantation was generally negative, and native Irish looked at the resettlement as a hostile takeover – which indeed it was. The plantation led to the founding of many of Ulster’s towns and created a lasting Ulster Protestant community in the province – one with ethnic ties to Britain. It also resulted in many of the native Irish losing their land and led to ethnic and sectarian conflict, notably in the Irish rebellion of 1641.
What happened in the rest of the 17th Century? Were there other wars of religion that affected Ireland?
This was the period of religious rebellion and revolt, as Protestantism took over from Catholicism. During the troubled seventeenth century in England – don’t forget that in England, this was the century of the War of the Three Kingdoms (England, Scotland, Ireland) between 1638 and 1651, of which the English Civil War (1642 – 1649) was only a part – there were also religious conflicts in Europe. France had mostly settled its bloodiest period of Catholic-Huguenot conflict with the Edict of Nantes in 1598, which granted a degree of religious tolerance to the Protestant minority in the majority Catholic country, but during the seventeenth century, the country was embroiled in the Huguenot Rebellions of 1620 to 1629, the Thirty Years War between 1618 and 1648, and in the Savoyard-Waldensian wars between 1655 and 1690, all of which were more or less religiously polarised. Meanwhile, during that same century, the Dutch continued to be involved in the Eighty Year War against Habsburg Spain. Again, these wars were of religious origin: the northern provinces of the Low Countries (the Netherlands) eventually separated from the southern provinces (present-day Belgium and Luxembourg), which continued under Habsburg Spain until 1714. The northern provinces adopted Calvinism and Republicanism whereas the southern provinces became wholly Catholic again due to the expulsion of Protestants and the efforts of the Counter-Reformation, and remained under absolutist rule.
And what of Ireland? How did the religious conflict play out there?
This is where the troubles really began.
During this century, the division between a Protestant landholding minority and a dispossessed Catholic majority was intensified and conflict between them was to become a recurrent theme in Irish history. Domination of Ireland by the Protestant Ascendancy was reinforced after two periods of religious war, the Irish Confederate Wars in 1641-52 and the Williamite war in 1689-91. Political power thereafter rested almost exclusively in the hands of a minority Protestant Ascendancy, while Catholics and members of dissenting Protestant denominations suffered severe political and economic privations under the Penal Laws.
What happened in those wars? In the first of those periods of conflict, Cromwell, whose name was cursed by Irish Catholics even down to the last century, defeated the Irish Confederates and the English Royalists on behalf of the English Parliamentarians. The period began with the Irish Rebellion of 1641 (Irish: Éirí Amach 1641) an uprising by Irish Catholics in the kingdom of Ireland, who wanted an end to anti-Catholic discrimination, greater Irish self-governance, and to partially or fully reverse the plantations of Ireland. They also wanted to prevent a possible invasion or takeover by anti-Catholic English Parliamentarians and Scottish Covenanters, who were defying the king, Charles I. The Rebellion began as an attempted coup d’état by Catholic gentry and military officers, who tried to seize control of the English administration in Ireland. However, it developed into a widespread rebellion and ethnic conflict with English and Scottish Protestant settlers, leading to Scottish military intervention. The rebels eventually founded the Irish Catholic Confederacy, which continued to harass the English and provide a refuge for English royalists supportive of Charles I throughout the period of the English Civil War.
And then? After he had executed Charles I in January 1649, enter Cromwell: “bad cess (luck) to th’ould divil” as my (Catholic) Irish grandmother used to say, still, after thirteen or so generations, feeling his actions a sore point. His aim was to put down those Irish Catholic elements, as well as English Royalists who had escaped to Ireland and were still loyal to a monarchy. Dr Micheál Ó Siochrú, writer of “Cromwell: God’s Executioner” has this to say about him:
“In the mid-seventeenth century, a lethal combination of racial superiority and religious bigotry, reinforced by a genuine sense of outrage at events during the initial months of the Ulster rebellion, created the ideal conditions for Cromwell’s campaign of terror against Irish Catholics. His conduct shocked contemporary opinion, not only in Ireland but also on the Continent, and almost certainly prolonged the war by a number of years. This conflict resulted in a catastrophic loss of life, of both soldiers and civilians, alongside the destruction of much of the country’s economy and infrastructure. As commander-in-chief of the army, the responsibilities for the excesses of the military must be laid firmly at his door, while the harsh nature of the post-war settlement also bears his personal imprint. According to Christopher Hill, author of God’s Englishman, Cromwell’s contempt for Irish Catholics ‘rationalised a desire to exploit’, and he found little difficulty in excusing shockingly brutal acts, such as the massacres at Drogheda and Wexford. Ireland brought out the worst in Cromwell, and provided little outlet for his undoubted talents as an inspirational leader and radical reformer. He subscribed unhesitatingly to the doctrine that ‘error has no rights’, and treated the Catholic Irish accordingly.”
(The Drogheda massacre in happened after the city had refused an order to surrender to Parliamentary troops: by the then current laws of war, the city could, if taken after that refusal, expect no quarter. It is not clear how many civilians died. Cromwell listed the dead as including “many inhabitants” of Drogheda in his report to Parliament. Hugh Peters, a military chaplain on Cromwell’s council of war, gave the total loss of life as 3,552, of whom about 2,800 were soldiers, meaning that between 700–800 civilians were killed. (Historian John Barratt wrote in 2009, “there are no reliable reports from either side that many [civilians] were killed,” however, whatever the facts were, the perception was that civilians had died.) The week after the storming of Drogheda, the Royalist press in England claimed that 2,000 of the 3,000 dead were civilians, a theme that was taken up both in English Royalist and in Irish Catholic accounts. Irish clerical sources in the 1660s claimed that 4,000 civilians had died at Drogheda, denouncing the sack as “unparalleled savagery and treachery beyond any slaughterhouse.”
Wexford came shortly afterwards; the port was an English target because taking it would cut supply lines. When it was sacked, between 1,500 to 2,000 soldiers and civilians died, over 300 of whom drowned escaping across the river; another 3,000 were taken prisoner, for the loss of only 20 Parliamentarians. Cromwell later defended this in his report to London, suggesting it was retribution for the killing of Protestants earlier in the rebellion.)
Drogheda and Wexford were at the beginning of the Cromwellian war of conquest; by the time Limerick fell to his generals in 1651, and Galway in 1652, he had extirpated all resistance. He was helped by the fact that in May 1650, Charles II repudiated Charles I’s alliance with the Irish Confederates in preference for an alliance with the Scottish Covenanters, which undermined the Royalist coalition in Ireland. Cromwell published generous surrender terms for Protestant Royalists in Ireland and many of them either capitulated or went over to the Parliamentarian side, leaving in the field only the remaining Irish Catholic armies and a few diehard English Royalists.
With further formal organised resistance impossible, the war then became a guerrilla war. “Tories” (tóraí means “pursuer” or “outlaw”) operated from difficult terrain such as the Bog of Allen, the Wicklow Mountains and the drumlin country in the north midlands, and within months made the countryside extremely dangerous for all except large parties of Parliamentarian troops. By early 1651, it was reported that no English supply convoys were safe if they travelled more than two miles outside a military base.
In response, the Parliamentarians destroyed food supplies and forcibly evicted civilians who were thought to be helping the Tories. The result was famine throughout much of Ireland, aggravated by an outbreak of bubonic plague. In April 1651 Parliamentarians designated areas such as County Wicklow and much of the south of the country as areas where any Tory or Tory supporter found would be, “taken, slain and destroyed as enemies and their cattle and good shall be taken or spoiled as the goods of enemies”.
This phase of the war was by far the most costly in terms of civilian loss of life. The combination of warfare, famine and plague caused a huge mortality among the Irish population. William Petty estimated (in the 1655–56 Down Survey) that the death toll of the wars in Ireland since 1641 was over 618,000 people, or about 40% of the country’s pre-war population. Of these, he estimated that over 400,000 were Catholics, 167,000 killed directly by war or famine, and the remainder by war-related disease. Modern estimates put the toll at closer to 20%. In addition, some fifty thousand Irish people, including prisoners of war, were sold as indentured servants under the English Commonwealth regime. They were often sent to the English colonies in North America and the Caribbean.
Eventually, the guerrilla war ended when the Parliamentarians published surrender terms in 1652 allowing Irish troops to go abroad to serve in foreign armies not at war with the Commonwealth of England. Most went to France or Spain. The largest Irish guerrilla forces surrendered in 1652, under terms signed at Kilkenny in May of that year. However, up to 11,000 men, mostly in Ulster, were still thought to be in the field at the end of the year. The last Irish and Royalist forces, the remnants of the Confederate’s Ulster Army, formally surrendered at Cloughoughter in County Cavan on 27 April 1653, Although the war was over, there was low level unrest for the remainder of the decade.
Cromwell imposed an extremely harsh settlement on the Irish Catholic population. This was because of his deep religious antipathy to the Catholic religion, and to punish Irish Catholics for the rebellion of 1641, in particular the massacres of Protestant settlers in Ulster. Also he needed to raise money to pay off his army and to repay the London merchants who had subsidised the war under the Adventurers Act back in 1640.
Anyone implicated in the rebellion of 1641 was executed. Those who participated in Confederate Ireland had all their land confiscated and thousands, as mentioned above, were transported to the West Indies as indentured labourers. Catholic landowners who had not taken part in the wars still had their land confiscated, although they were entitled to claim land in Connacht as compensation. In addition, no Catholics were allowed to live in towns. Irish soldiers who had fought in the Confederate and Royalist armies left the country in large numbers to find service in the armies of France and Spain. The practice of Catholicism was banned and bounties were offered for the capture of priests, who were executed when found.
The Long Parliament had passed the Adventurers Act in 1640 under which those who lent money to Parliament for the subjugation of Ireland would be paid in confiscated land in Ireland: this is where many English settlers came from. In addition, Cromwell’s soldiers who served in Ireland were entitled to an allotment of confiscated land there, in lieu of their wages, which the Parliament was unable to pay in full. As a result, many thousands of New Model Army veterans, most of them fanatical Protestants, were settled in Ireland. Moreover, the pre-war Protestant settlers greatly increased their ownership of land.
Before the wars, Irish Catholics had owned 60% of the land in Ireland, whereas by the time of the Stuart Restoration in 1660, when compensations had been made to Catholic Royalists, they owned only 20% of it. During the Commonwealth period, Catholic landownership had fallen to 8%. Even after the Restoration, Catholics were barred from all public office, but not from the Irish Parliament.
There was a brief calm in Ireland until another war broke out in 1689, again due to political conflict closely aligned with ethnic and religious differences. The Williamite war in Ireland (1689–91) was fought between Jacobites who supported the restoration of the Catholic James II to the throne of England and Williamites who supported the Protestant William of Orange. The majority of the Protestant colonists throughout Ireland but particularly in Ulster, fought on the Williamite side in the war against the Jacobites. The fear of a repeat of the massacres of 1641, fear of retribution for religious persecution, as well as their wish to hold on to lands which had been confiscated from Catholic landowners, were all principal motivating factors.
The Williamite forces, composed of British, Dutch, Huguenot and Danish armies, as well as troops raised in Ulster, ended Jacobite resistance by 1691, confirming the Protestant minority’s monopoly on power in Ireland. Their victories at Derry, the Boyne and Aughrim are still commemorated by the Orange Order into the 21st century. Finally, another major influx of Protestant Scots into northern Ireland occurred in the late 1690s, when tens of thousands of people fled a famine in Scotland to come to Ulster, where they knew they would be welcomed by their co-religionists.
So is that where all the unrest comes from?
Yes. The troubles stem originally from the fact that Catholic Irish were dispossessed of their ancestral country by Protestant English and Protestant Scots over three hundred years ago. Neither side has forgotten the ensuing massacres – as always there were atrocities on both sides – and, despite a brief period towards the end of the 18th century, when many Ulster-Scots Presbyterians ignored religious differences and, along with many Catholic Gaelic Irish, joined the United Irishmen to participate in the Irish Rebellion of 1798 in support of republican and egalitarian ideals, those divisions run very deep. So deep, in fact, that, despite them being technically healed by the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, they break open again whenever, as is happening now, the Unionist, and predominantly Protestant north, and the Republican, and predominantly Catholic south are enabled by the political misjudgement of English politicians, to fight the battles between those who see themselves as “British” and those who see themselves as “Irish” over again. The troubles we are currently seeing in Northern Ireland stem entirely from its history. They were entirely predictable, and have been brought about by politicians who are as ignorant of Irish history – and its cleavage points between groups – as they appear to be ignorant of their own.
What happened after 1690 and the Protestant Ascendancy?
The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries saw continued unrest, with the eighteenth century culminating in the Irish Rebellion of 1798, and the nineteenth leading, through the worst, but not the only, famine Ireland had known, to the contentious issue of Irish Home Rule, (fought for by Caltholics, and some Protestants, hated by the Protestant Unionists in the North) and, in 1914, just as World War I broke out, the Government of Ireland Act in 1914, which paved the way for the Irish Declaration of Independence in 1919, the Irish War of Independence, and the establishment of Northern Ireland in 1921.
(See Part 2 for more details of that last paragraph.)