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Veni, vidi, vici

If there is one historical theme most Irish have an opinion about, it is being conquered, and it matters not a jot that to many the facts are a little hazy. ‘Eight hundred years’ has long been the rallying call of Irish nationalists, these years being roughly the period of time dear old Britannia ruled the Irish roost. And while Ireland’s fractious relationship with its sister island across the Irish Sea casts an overwhelming shadow over Ireland’s history of conquest and domination, it’s not just the English that conquered and even when they did, their relationship with their new subjects was fraught with complexities and contradictions rather than being the simple narrative of conquest and rebellion that some nationalists would have us believe.

The island has been the subject of a series of conquests since the 8th century BC, when the fearsome Celtic warrior tribes began making steady attacks on the island – the last of these tribes, commonly known as the Gaels (which in the local language came to mean ‘foreigner’), came ashore in the 3rd century BC and proceeded to divide the island into at least five kingdoms. They also set about creating the basics of what we now term ‘Irish’ culture: they devised a sophisticated code of law called the Brehon Law that remained in use until the early 17th century and their swirling, mazelike design style, evident on artefacts nearly 2000 years old, is considered the epitome of Irish design.

Yet the Celts weren’t ‘Irish’ in any nationalistic sense. The kingdoms were constantly at war with each other, and even though they all nominally paid allegiance to a high king who sat at Tara, in County Meath, their support was fraught and fluid, given when it suited and withdrawn just as quickly when it didn’t. It was this lack of unity that allowed the Vikings to make such easy forays into Ireland, targeting the rich monastic settlements that had grown up as a result of the steady Christianisation of the Celts beginning in the end of the 4th century AD. Even the Battle of Clontarf (1014), taught to every Irish schoolkid as the ultimate showdown between the native ‘Irish’ lead by the High King Brian Ború and the Viking invaders, wasn’t quite as straightforward as that: fighting alongside the Vikings was the king of Leinster, Máelmorda mac Murchada, who was looking to use the Vikings in a bid to oust Ború and take the throne for himself (both mac Murchada and Ború lost their lives, but Ború’s armies won the day). Like the Celts before them, the Vikings eventually settled, giving up the rape-rob-and-run policy in favour of integration and assimilation: by intermarrying with the Celtic tribes they introduced red hair and freckles to the Irish gene pool.

The ‘800 years’ of English rule in Ireland nominally began in 1169, when an army of English barons (actually Cambro-Norman, being a mix of Welsh and Norman nobles) landed in Wexford and quickly captured the two Hiberno-Viking ports of Wexford and Waterford. But their arrival was not nearly as neat as veni, vidi, vici (I came, I saw, I conquered). The Norman invasion of Ireland was originally a tactical alliance between the barons – led by Richard Fitz-Gilbert de Clare, earl of Pembroke (1130–1176; aka Strongbow) – and Dermot MacMurrough (d 1171; Diarmait mac Murchada), the king of Leinster (yes, only this one was ironically a direct descendant of Brian Ború), who had been ousted from his throne by an alliance of Irish chieftains spurred on by the High King himself, Turlough O’Connor (1088–1156; Tairrdelbach mac Ruaidri Ua Conchobair). In return for help in defeating his enemies (and capturing the crown of the high king for himself) MacMurrough promised Strongbow the hand in marriage of his daughter Aoife as well as the kingdom of Leinster, and Strongbow duly obliged by capturing Dublin in 1171 and then marrying Aoife the very next day. MacMurrough’s plans all went a little awry, though, and he was hardly to guess on his deathbed later that year that he’d determined the course of the next 800 years and cemented his place at the top of the list of great Irish traitors.

In truth, while MacMurrough may have provided the catalyst for the Norman invasion, Henry II had been plotting to get his hands on Ireland since 1155, when the English Pope Adrian IV issued him the Bull Laudabiliter, granting him the right to bring rebel Christian missionaries in Ireland to heel. Armed with the blessing of the pope and uneasy about Strongbow’s growing power and independence of mind, Henry sent a huge naval force in 1171, landed at Waterford and declared it a royal city. He assumed a semblance of control, but the Norman lords continued to do pretty much as they pleased. Barons such as de Courcy and de Lacy set up independent power bases.

Although the gradual assimilation of the Anglo-Norman nobles and their hirelings into Irish society – which provoked the oft-quoted phrase Hiberniores Hibernis ipsis, or ‘more Irish than the Irish themselves’ – can easily be viewed as a form of internal conquest, as their feudal control over the land and the people who worked that land became near total, it wasn’t until 1534 that the English crown, occupied by Henry VIII, saw fit to once more send armies across the water. Henry’s actions, however, were entirely motivated by his break with the Catholic Church over the pope’s failure to grant him dispensation to divorce: the Anglo-Irish were a little iffy about Henry’s decision to go it alone and Silken Thomas’ abortive uprising gave Henry the excuse he needed to cement his absolute authority in Ireland. Within seven years, Henry had confiscated the lands of the most rebellious lords, eliminated the power of the Irish church and had himself declared King of Ireland.

Elizabeth I further consolidated English power in Ireland, establishing jurisdiction in Connaught and Munster, despite rebellions by the local ruling families. Ulster remained the last outpost of the Irish chiefs. Hugh O’Neill, earl of Tyrone, led the last serious assault on English power in Ireland for centuries. O’Neill – who supposedly ordered lead from England to re-roof his castle, but instead used it for bullets – instigated open conflict with the English, and so began the Nine Years’ War (1594–1603). He proved a courageous and crafty foe, and the English forces met with little success against him in the first seven years of fighting.

The Battle of Kinsale, in 1601, spelled the end for O’Neill and for Ulster. Although O’Neill survived the battle, his power was broken and he surrendered to the English crown. In 1607, O’Neill and 90 other Ulster chiefs sailed to Europe, leaving Ireland forever. This was known as the Flight of the Earls, and it left Ulster open to English rule.

With the native chiefs gone, Elizabeth and her successor, James I, could pursue their policy of Plantation with impunity, and while confiscations took place all over the country, Ulster was most affected because of its wealthy farmlands and as punishment for being home to the primary fomenters of rebellion. It is here that Ulster’s often tragic fate was first begun. The Plantations also marked the final collapse of the Gaelic social and political superstructure and the total conquest of Ireland by the English.

Oliver Cromwell’s invasion following the Irish rebellion of 1641 – an attempted coup d’état by the Irish Catholic gentry driven by fears that the anti-Royalist Protestant forces were about to invade – served to re-establish total English rule, but it also ushered in the most punitive period of social legislation in Irish history. The main intended effect of the Penal Laws was to facilitate the dispossession of the landed Catholic population. In 1641 Catholics had owned 60% of land in Ireland and by 1776 Catholic land ownership in Ireland stood at only 5%. Six hundred years after Strongbow first landed in Wexford, the conquest of Ireland was complete.

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The slow birth of a nation

The signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1921 saw the end of the War of Independence and the establishment of an Irish state – albeit a truncated one, due to the terms of the treaty that allowed six Ulster counties to remain part of the United Kingdom – for the first time in history. In the immediate aftermath of WWI, which was ostensibly fought to protect the rights of small nations, the new Irish state was but the logical and expected result of an 800-year struggle by the Irish to free themselves from the yoke of foreign rule.

Yet the concept of the Irish nation is, in historical terms, a relatively recent one, owing much of its ideological impetus to the republican fervour that gripped Europe in the aftermath of the French Revolution. Although the English crown had held Ireland in its grip since the end of the 12th century, the subjugated inhabitants of the island did develop a general identity borne out of common misfortune but were united in little else.

Paradoxically, it was the privileged few that led the majority of rebellions against the English crown, beginning in the 1590s with the Nine Years’ War and Hugh O’Neill’s failed rebellion against Elizabeth I, considered to be the first quasi-nationalist rebellion against English rule.

The next significant movement came in the wake of the Irish rebellion of 1641, when a group of Gaelic and Anglo-Norman Catholic lords set up a de facto independent Irish state known as the Confederation of Kilkenny (after its capital) that had nominal control over two-thirds of the island (the area outside the so-called Pale, roughly the extent of Leinster and the limit of direct English rule). They demanded autonomy for the Irish parliament and full rights for Catholics, including an end to the Plantations, all the while reasserting their loyalty to the English crown, thereby pitting themselves squarely against Cromwell’s parliamentary forces. It all came to a bloody and ignominious end with Cromwell’s Irish campaign of 1649–53: not only was the Confederation destroyed, but all of the lands previously owned by the Old Irish gentry were permanently dispossessed.

Another attempt to resist the British in the spirit of the Confederation of Kilkenny was the Jacobite Rebellion of the late 17th century, where Irish Catholic monarchists rallied behind James II after his deposition in the Glorious Revolution. James’ defeat at the Battle of the Boyne ensured the complete victory of the English Protestant Ascendancy. The punitive conditions of the Penal Laws and the consciousness of defeat and dispossession served to create a powerful religious and ethnic identity – Gaelic and Roman Catholic – that would eventually become the basis of Irish nationalism.

In the interim, however, with Roman Catholics rendered utterly powerless, the seeds of rebellion against autocracy were planted by a handful of liberal Protestants inspired by the ideologies of the Enlightenment and the unrest provoked by the American War of Independence and then the French Revolution.

The first of these liberal leaders was a young Dublin Protestant, Theobald Wolfe Tone (1763–98), who was the most prominent leader of a Belfast organisation called the United Irishmen. They had high ideals of bringing together men of all creeds to reform and reduce Britain’s power in Ireland, but their attempts to gain power through straightforward politics proved fruitless, and they went underground, committed to bringing change by any means. The tragic failure of the French to land an army of succour in 1796 left the organisation exposed to retribution and the men met their bloody end in the Battle of Vinegar Hill in 1798.

The Act of Union, passed in 1801, was the British government’s vain attempt to put an end to any aspirations toward Irish independence, but the nationalist genie was well out of the bottle and two distinct forms of nationalist expression began to develop. The first was a breed of radical republicanism, which advocated use of force to found a secular, egalitarian Irish republic; the second was a more moderate movement, which advocated nonviolent and legal action to force the government into granting concessions.

The most important moderate was a Kerry-born Catholic called Daniel O’Connell (1775–1847). In 1823 O’Connell founded the Catholic Association with the aim of achieving political equality for Catholics. The association soon became a vehicle for peaceful mass protest and action: in the 1826 general election it supported Protestant candidates who favoured Catholic emancipation. Two years later, O’Connell himself went one better and successfully stood for a seat in County Clare. Being a Catholic, he couldn’t actually take his seat, so the British government was in a quandary. To staunch the possibility of an uprising, the government passed the 1829 Act of Catholic Emancipation, allowing some well-off Catholics voting rights and the right to be elected as MPs.

O’Connell continued to pursue his reform campaign, turning his attention toward the repeal of the Act of Union. His main weapon was the monster rally, which attracted hundreds of thousands of people eager to hear the ‘Liberator’ (as he was now known) speak. But O’Connell was unwilling to go outside the law, and when the government ordered the cancellation of one of his rallies, he meekly stood down and thereby gave up his most potent weapon of resistance.

O’Connell’s failure to defy the British was seen as a terrible capitulation as the country was in the midst of the Potato Famine, and the lack of urgency on the part of the authorities in dealing with the crisis served to bolster the ambitions of the more radical wing of the nationalist movement, led in the 1840s by the Young Irelanders, who attempted a failed rebellion in 1848, and later by the Fenians, architects of yet another uprising in 1867. The Irish may have been bitterly angry at the treatment meted out by the British, but they weren’t quite ready to take up arms en masse against them.

Instead, the nationalist cause found itself driven by arguably the most important feature of the Irish struggle against foreign rule: land ownership. Championed by the extraordinary Charles Stewart Parnell (1846–91), the Land League initiated widespread agitation for reduced rents and improved working conditions. The conflict heated up and there was violence on both sides. Parnell instigated the strategy of ‘boycotting’ tenants, agents and landlords who didn’t adhere to the Land League’s aims: these people were treated like lepers by the local population. The Land War, as it became known, lasted from 1879 to 1882 and was momentous. For the first time, tenants were defying their landlords en masse. The Land Act of 1881 improved life immeasurably for tenants, creating fair rents and the possibility of tenants owning their land.

The other element of his two-pronged assault on the British was at Westminster where, as leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) he led the fight for Home Rule, a limited form of autonomy for Ireland. Parliamentary mathematics meant that the Liberal Party, led by William Gladstone, was reliant on the members of the IPP to maintain a majority over the Conservatives and Parnell pressed home his advantage by forcing Gladstone to introduce a series of Home Rule bills – in 1886 and 1892 – which passed the Commons but were defeated in the House of Lords. Parnell’s ascendency, however, came to a sudden end in 1890 when he was embroiled in a divorce scandal – not acceptable to prurient Irish society. The ‘uncrowned king of Ireland’ was no longer welcome. Parnell’s health deteriorated rapidly and he died less than a year later.

As the 20th century dawned, Ireland was overwhelmingly committed to achieving Home Rule. A new Liberal government under Prime Minister Asquith had removed the House of Lords’ power to veto bills and began to put another Home-Rule-for-Ireland bill through Parliament. The bill was passed (but not enacted) in 1912 against strident Unionist opposition, epitomised by the mass rallies organised by the recently founded Protestant vigilante group, the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF).

The outbreak of WWI in July 1914 merely delayed Irish ambitions as a majority of the Irish Volunteers – founded by academic Eoin MacNeill as a nationalist answer to the UVF – heeded the call to arms and enlisted in the British army. It was felt that just as England had promised Home Rule to Ireland, so the Irish owed it to England to help her in her hour of need.

A few, however, did not. Two small groups – a section of the Irish Volunteers under Pádraig Pearse and the Irish Citizens’ Army led by James Connolly – conspired in a rebellion that took the country by surprise. A depleted Volunteer group marched into Dublin on Easter Monday 1916, and took over a number of key positions in the city, claiming the General Post Office on O’Connell St as headquarters. From its steps, Pearse read out to passers-by a declaration that Ireland was now a republic and that his band was the provisional government. Less than a week of fighting ensued before the rebels surrendered to the superior British forces. The rebels weren’t popular and had to be protected from angry Dubliners as they were marched to jail.

The Easter Rising would probably have had little impact on the Irish situation had the British not made martyrs of the rebel leaders. Of the 77 given death sentences, 15 were executed, including the injured Connolly, who was shot while strapped to a chair. This brought about a sea change in public attitudes, and support for the republicans rose dramatically.

By the end of the war, Home Rule was far too little, far too late. In the 1918 general election, the republicans stood under the banner of Sinn Féin and won a large majority of the Irish seats. Ignoring London’s Parliament, where technically they were supposed to sit, the newly elected Sinn Féin deputies – many of them veterans of the 1916 Easter Rising – declared Ireland independent and formed the first Dáil Éireann (Irish assembly or lower house), which sat in Dublin’s Mansion House under the leadership of Eamon de Valera. The Irish Volunteers became the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and the Dáil authorised it to wage war on British troops in Ireland.

A lot more blood would soon seep into Irish soil, but the Civil War would lead – inevitably – to independence and freedom, albeit costly, for the country was partitioned and six Ulster provinces were allowed remain part of the UK, sowing the seeds of division and bloodshed that tormented the provinces half a century later.

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A matter of faith

In 2007, a joint survey by a Catholic and a Protestant organisation revealed that only 52% of young people knew the names of the four Evangelists…and that only 38% knew that there were four of them (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, just so you know). Only 10% knew that the Immaculate Conception referred to Mary and less than half could name the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit (or Ghost) as the three persons of the Trinity.

A sharp decline in religious practice is a Europe-wide phenomenon, particularly among Christians, but Ireland is a special case, for religion is a central feature of Irish history and the centuries-old fight for identity and independence has been intimately intertwined with the struggle for recognition and supremacy between the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches. There are few European countries where religion has played such a key role and continues to exert huge influence – not least in the fact that the island remains roughly divided along religious lines – to the point that for many outside observers Ireland is somewhat akin to a Christian Middle East, a complex and confusing muddle that lends itself to oversimplified generalisations by those who don’t have two lifetimes to figure it all out. Like us, for instance, in this short essay.

The relative ease with which the first Christian missionaries in the 5th and 6th centuries AD converted the local pagan tribes and their strong tradition of druidism was in part due to the clever fusing of traditional pagan rituals with the new Christian teaching, which created an exciting hybrid known as Celtic, or Insular Christianity – the presence on some early Christian churches of such decorative elements as Sheila-na-Gigs, a lewd female fertility symbol, is but one example.

Irish Christian scholars excelled in the study of Latin and Greek learning and Christian theology in the monasteries that flourished at, among other places, Clonmacnoise in County Offaly, Glendalough in County Wicklow and Lismore in County Waterford. It was the golden age, and the arts of manuscript illumination, metalworking and sculpture flourished, producing such treasures as the Book of Kells, ornate jewellery, and the many carved stone crosses that dot the island ‘of saints and scholars’.

The nature of Christianity in Ireland was one of marked independence from Rome, especially in the areas of monastic rule and penitential practice, which emphasised private confession to a priest followed by penances levied by the priest in reparation – which is the spirit and letter of the practice of confession that exists to this day. The Irish were also exporting these teachings abroad, setting up monasteries across Europe such as the ones in Luxeuil in France and Bobbio in Italy, both founded by St Columbanus (AD 543–615).

The Golden Age ended with the invasion of Ireland by Henry II in 1170, for which Henry had the blessing of Pope Adrian IV and his papal laudabiliter, a document that granted the English king dominion over Ireland under the overlordship of the pope. Ireland’s monastic independence was unacceptable in the new political climate brought on by the Gregorian reform movement of 1050–80, which sought to consolidate the ultimate authority of the papacy in all ecclesiastical, moral and social matters at the expense of the widespread monastic network. The influence of the major Irish monasteries began to wane in favour of the Norman bishops who oversaw the construction of the great cathedrals, most notably in Armagh and Dublin.

The second and more damaging reform of the Irish church occurred in the middle of the 16th century, and once again an English monarch was at the heart of it. The break with the Roman Catholic Church that followed Henry VIII’s inability to secure papal blessing for his divorce of Catherine of Aragon in 1534 saw the establishment in Ireland (as in England) of a new Protestant church, with Henry as its supreme head. The Irish, however, were not ready to change their allegiances and remained largely loyal to Rome, which set off the religious wars that would dominate Irish affairs for the next 200 years and cast a huge shadow over the country that has not quite faded yet.

Henry was concerned that his new-found enemies on the continent would use Ireland as a base from which to invade England, so he decided to bring Ireland fully under his control, a policy that was continued by his daughter Elizabeth I. Their combined failure to convert Ireland to the new religion resulted in the crown ordering the pacification of the country by whatever methods possible, but the resultant brutality merely served to solidify Irish resentment and their commitment to Roman Catholicism.

The resistance had its most glorious moment in the Nine Years’ War (1594–1603), when a combined alliance of Irish chieftains led by Hugh O’Neill fought the English armies to a standstill before eventually surrendering in 1603. The ‘flight of the earls’ in 1607, which saw O’Neill and his allies leave Ireland forever, marked the end of organised Irish rebellion and the full implementation of the policy of Plantation, whereby the confiscated lands of Catholic nobles were redistributed to ‘planted’ settlers of exclusively Protestant stock. This policy was most effective in Ulster, which was seen by the English as the hotbed of Irish resistance to English rule.

Alongside the policy of Plantation, the English also passed a series of Penal Laws in Ireland, which had the effect of almost totally disenfranchising all Catholics and, later, Presbyterians. The Jacobite Wars of the late 17th century, which pitted the Catholic James II against his son-in-law, the Protestant William of Orange, saw the Irish take sides along strictly religious lines: the disenfranchised Catholic majority supported James while the recently planted Protestant landowning minority lent their considerable support to William. It was William who won the day, and 12 July 1690 – when James was defeated at the Battle of the Boyne – has been celebrated ever since by Ulster Protestants with marches throughout the province.

Until the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829, Irish Roman Catholics were almost totally impeded from worshipping freely. Clerics and bishops couldn’t preach, with only lay priests allowed to operate, so long as they were registered with the government. The construction of churches was heavily regulated, and when allowed, they could only be built in barely durable wood. The most effective of the anti-Catholic laws, however, was the Popery Act of 1703, which sought to ‘prevent the further growth of Popery’ by requiring that all Catholics divide their lands equally among their sons, in effect diminishing Catholic land holdings. When the emancipation act was passed, it only granted limited rights to Catholics who owned a set area of land; the apartheid that preceded it ensured that they were few in number.

Hardly surprising then that the Catholic Church was heavily involved in the struggle for Irish freedom, although the traditionally conservative church was careful to only lend its support to lawful means of protest, such as Daniel O’Connell’s Repeal Movement and, later, Parnell’s Home Rule fight. When Parnell became embroiled in the divorce scandal in 1890, the church condemned him with all its might, thereby ending his career. It also condemned any rebel notion that smacked of illegality or socialism – the Easter Rising was roundly denounced from the pulpit for its bloodletting and its vaguely leftist proclamation.

If the Roman Catholic Church was shackled for much of the English occupation, it more than made up for it when the Free State came into being in 1922. The church’s overwhelmingly conservative influence on the new state was felt everywhere, not least in the state’s schools and hospitals and over virtually every aspect of social policy. Divorce, contraception, abortion and all manner of ‘scurrilous literature’ were obvious no-nos, but the church even managed to say no to a variety of welfare plans that would, for instance, provide government assistance to young mothers in need.

The Free State, and the Republic of Ireland that followed it in 1948, was 96% Catholic. Although 7.5% of the Free State population in 1922 was Protestant, their numbers had halved by the 1960s, with a disproportionately high rate of emigration among Protestants who felt threatened or unwelcome in the new Catholic state. The Catholic Church compounded the matter by emphasising the 1907 Ne Temere decree, which insisted that the children of mixed marriage be raised as Catholic under penalty of excommunication.

The dramatic decline in the influence of the church over the last two decades is primarily the result of global trends and greater prosperity in Ireland, but the devastating revelations of clerical abuse of boys and girls in the care of the Church over the last half century have defined an almost vitriolic reaction against the Church, particularly among the younger generation. The Church’s reluctance to confront its own responsibilities in these shocking scandals, which include knowing about paedophiliac priests and consequently shuffling them from parish to parish, has heightened a sense of deep betrayal among many of the faithful.

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A state apart: Northern Ireland

On 8 May 2007, the Northern Ireland Assembly, the devolved legislature of the province, finally meets again for the first time since October 2002. The First Minister, the Rev Ian Paisley, smiles, shakes hands and poses for photos with the Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness.

This is no straightforward meeting. Even if you’ve only kept one lazy eye on Irish affairs these last 30 years, you’ll know that the sight of a Loyalist firebrand like Paisley – who has a history of deep-rooted, often vicious enmity toward Irish nationalism and republicanism – and an ex-IRA commander like McGuinness shaking hands is nothing short of highly improbable. Needless to say, this historic agreement is the culmination of a painstakingly long road of domination, fighting, negotiation, concession and political posturing that began…

Well, it began in the 16th century, with the first Plantations of Ireland by the English crown, whereby the confiscated lands of the Gaelic and Hiberno-Norman gentry were awarded to English and Scottish settlers of good Protestant stock. The policy was most effective in Ulster, where the newly arrived Protestants were given an extra leg-up by the Penal Laws, which successfully reduced the now landless Catholic population to second-class citizens with little or no rights. Interestingly, from 1707 the Penal Laws also applied to Presbyterians (of which Paisley is one, albeit the founder of his own Free Presbyterian Church), who were considered not much better than Catholics.

But let us fast-forward to 1921, when the notion of independent Ireland moved from aspiration to actuality. The Anglo-Irish Treaty resolved the thorny issue of Ulster’s Protestant majority – represented by an armed and defiant Ulster Volunteer Force – by roughly partitioning the country and establishing a Boundary Commission that would decide on the final frontiers between north and south. A series of inflammatory press leaks meant that the findings of the commission – basically redividing the frontier so as to include more nationalists in the Free State – were never instituted and to this day Northern Ireland’s borders are as they were in 1921.

On 22 June 1921 the Northern Ireland parliament came into being, with James Craig as the first prime minister. His Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) was to rule the new state until 1972, with the minority Catholic population (roughly 40%) stripped of any real power or representative strength by a parliament that favoured the Unionists through economic subsidy, bias in housing allocations and gerrymandering: Derry’s electoral boundaries were redrawn so as to guarantee a Protestant council, even though the city was two-thirds Catholic. To keep everyone in line, the overwhelmingly Protestant Royal Ulster Constabulary and their militia, the B-Specials, made no effort to mask their blatantly sectarian bias. To all intents and purposes, Northern Ireland was an apartheid state.

The first challenge to the Unionist hegemony came with the long-dormant IRA’s border campaign in the 1950s, but it was quickly quashed and its leaders imprisoned. A decade later, however, the authorities met with a far more defiant foe, in the shape of the Civil Rights Movement, founded in 1967 and heavily influenced by its US counterpart as it sought to redress the blatant sectarianism in Derry. In October 1968 a mainly Catholic march in Derry was violently broken up by the RUC amid rumours that the IRA had provided ‘security’ for the marchers. Nobody knew it at the time, but the Troubles had begun.

In January 1969 another civil rights movement, called People’s Democracy, organised a march from Belfast to Derry. As the marchers neared their destination they were attacked by a Protestant mob. The police first stood to one side and then compounded the problem with a sweep through the predominantly Catholic Bogside district. Further marches, protests and violence followed, and far from keeping the two sides apart, the police were clearly part of the problem. In August British troops went to Derry and then Belfast to maintain law and order. The British army was initially welcomed in some Catholic quarters, but soon it too came to be seen as a tool of the Protestant majority. Overreaction by the army actually fuelled recruitment into the long-dormant IRA. IRA numbers especially increased after Bloody Sunday (30 January 1972), when British troops killed 13 civilians in Derry.

Northern Ireland’s Parliament was abolished in 1972, although substantial progress had been made towards civil rights. A new power-sharing arrangement, worked out in the 1973 Sunningdale Agreement, was killed stone dead by the massive and overwhelmingly Protestant Ulster Workers’ Strike of 1974.

While continuing to target people in Northern Ireland, the IRA moved its campaign of bombing to mainland Britain. Its activities were increasingly condemned by citizens and parties on all sides of the political spectrum. Meanwhile, Loyalist paramilitaries began a sectarian murder campaign against Catholics. Passions reached fever pitch in 1981 when republican prisoners in the North went on a hunger strike, demanding the right to be recognised as political prisoners. Ten of them fasted to death, the best known being an elected MP, Bobby Sands.

The waters were further muddied by an incredible variety of parties splintering into subgroups with different agendas. The IRA had split into ‘official’ and ‘provisional’ wings, from which sprang more extreme republican organisations such as the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA). Myriad Protestant, Loyalist paramilitary organisations sprang up in opposition to the IRA, and violence was typically met with violence.

In the 1990s external circumstances started to alter the picture. Membership of the EU, economic progress in Ireland and the declining importance of the Catholic Church in the South started to reduce differences between the North and South. Also, American interest added an international dimension to the situation.

A series of negotiated statements between the Unionists, nationalists and the British and Irish governments eventually resulted in the historic Good Friday Agreement of 1998. The new assembly, led by First Minister David Trimble of the UUP and Deputy First Minister Seamus Mallon of the nationalist Social Democratic and Liberal Party (SDLP) was beset by sectarian divisions from the outset, which resulted in no less than four suspensions, the last from October 2002 until May 2007.

During this period, the politics of Northern Ireland polarised dramatically, resulting in the falling away of the more moderate UUP and the emergence of the hardline Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), led by Ian Paisley; and, on the nationalist side, the emergence of the IRA’s political wing, Sinn Féin, as the main torch-bearer of nationalist aspirations, under the leadership of Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness.

The hardening of political opinion was almost inevitable. While both sides were eager to maintain an end to the violence, neither side wanted to be accused of having a soft underbelly, especially if both sides’ aspirations could not, despite what was promised, be realised by purely political means. Consequently, the DUP and Sinn Féin dug their heels in, with the main sticking points being decommissioning of IRA weapons and the identity and composition of the new police force ushered in to replace the RUC. Paisley and the Unionists made increasingly difficult demands of the decommissioning bodies (photographic evidence, Unionist witnesses etc) as they blatantly refused to accept anything less than an open and complete surrender of the IRA, while Sinn Féin refused to join the police board that monitored the affairs of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), effectively refusing to change their policy of total noncooperation with the security forces. In the background, now inactive members of the paramilitary groups on both sides were revealed to be involved in all kinds of murky dealings such as drug dealing and turf wars – the most spectacular moment of all came in December 2004 when a £26.5m bank robbery saw the finger of blame pointed directly at republicans.

But Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern were not about to see their political legacy ruined by northern stubbornness. They continued to turn the screws on both sides, urging them to continue negotiating just as everyone else had begun to despair of ever seeing a resolution. In an effective bit of strong-arming, they set a deadline for resolution and made vague threats to both sides about the consequences of not meeting the deadline. But in a typically Irish bit of face-saving, the Unionists balked at the deadline of 26 March, 2007 and, in a deal agreed with Sinn Féin, announced that they would take their seats in the assembly on 8 May. It was a classic case of ‘we’ll do it, but we’ll do it our way’.

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Should I stay or should I go?

The poignant image of starving emigrants, forced to leave the land of their birth for far-flung fields because to stay would be to die, is one of Irish history’s more emotional issues, especially as emigration has played a singularly important role in the country’s social, economic and political life. A whole century’s worth of sad songs intone the emigrant’s plight and places the blame for it squarely at someone else’s door, namely the Anglo-Irish lords and the English.

Yet the issue is not nearly as straightforward as that. Ireland’s emigrant patterns have followed two basic models: the ‘push’ model, where people left because they were evicted, faced poverty or religious persecution; and the ‘pull’ model, where emigrants were attracted to foreign lands by the promise of a significantly better life – 600-acre plots in the US Midwest for next-to-nothing were quite an enticing prospect in the mid-19th-century.

The tragic image of the Irish emigrant was born as a result of the Great Famine of 1845–51, the watershed of Irish emigration. But the Irish had been leaving Ireland long before then, primarily as a result of the collapse of cereal-crop and linen prices (Ireland’s two most important exports) in the post-Napoleonic era after 1815. It is estimated that between one and 1.5 million people emigrated in the years leading up to 1845. Nevertheless, the severe crisis provoked by the repeated failures of potato harvests led to a dramatic increase in the numbers leaving Ireland: it is estimated that 1.25 million left the country between 1845 and 1851, with the majority departing from the west of the country – a population loss from which that part of Ireland has never fully recovered. In 1841, the population of the Ireland was 6.5 million (excluding 1.6 million living in what eventually became Northern Ireland); 20 years later, it had fallen to 4.4 million.

The deep-rooted scar caused by the Famine and its socioeconomic aftermath has given rise to the enduring myth that entire families were forced to emigrate, conjuring up the emotive idea of the old, sickly parents huddled together on the ship. Statistics show that in the main it was young people who left. Indeed, going abroad to seek one’s fortune became a rite of passage for many Irish right up to the 1980s. Parents and older relatives generally stayed behind, and the remittances sent home by their emigrant sons and daughters (£1.4 million yearly in 1851) became an important supplement to income.

What is certain, however, is that emigration was to prove a major drain of Irish resources for more than a century thereafter. Between 1871 and 1961, the average annual net emigration from Ireland consistently exceeded the natural increase in the Irish population, which shrank from about 4.4 million in 1861 (excluding the 1.3 million living in what eventually became Northern Ireland) to 2.8 million in 1961. Ireland’s lagging economic development meant that emigration was especially acute during the so-called Age of Mass Migration (1871–1926), when all manner of Europeans were emigrating to the new worlds in their millions, and in the post-WWII era (1951–61), when the European economies were in recession.

Although the Irish population began growing again in the 1960s – the lack of contraception or abortion, coupled with a major push on the part of the authorities to encourage a high birth rate, was especially helpful – net migration remained negative (departures exceeding arrivals) until the 1990s except for a brief flurry in the 1970s. An estimated 3 million Irish citizens currently live abroad, of whom 1.2 million were born in Ireland. The majority live in the US and the UK.

The turning point came in 1996, when Ireland officially became a country of net immigration – the last EU nation to do so. Rapid economic growth and an unprecedented demand for labour not only saw unemployment tumble from 15.9% in 1993 to a historic low of 4.2% in 2005 but the number of arrivals grow from about 18, 000 in 1987 to more than 68, 000 per annum in 2002. The growth in Irish immigration has been driven increasingly by non-Irish migrants, with more than half of all non-Irish arriving in Ireland since 2000 having been born outside the EU. According to the 2006 census, 10% of the population is now foreign born. The dramatic shift in Ireland’s migration is best understood when compared to the rest of Europe, for in one short decade the country went from being the only EU member with negative net migration to having the second-highest migration rate after Luxembourg. For 150 years Ireland was a country to escape from; nowadays, people can’t get into it fast enough.

Not quite. A surprising fact, hidden among the statistics that show Ireland as a country of immigration, is that the Republic is still at the top of the European emigration charts, losing a higher percentage of its native born than any other country in Europe – roughly about 25, 000 a year. These numbers, however, have been largely offset by the phenomenon of the ‘returning Irish’, who account for roughly the same on a yearly basis.

Economics are unquestionably an important underlying factor for all emigration and immigration, but in Ireland, societal mores that impinge on the freedoms it allows its citizens is another key driver. Ireland’s relative poverty undoubtedly resulted in millions seeking opportunities elsewhere, but in recent times the restrictive attitudes of Irish society – particular in the post-WWII era, when conservative mores dictated that the baby-boomer generation would not have the same rights and freedoms as found elsewhere – pushed many young people to make new lives abroad. Although Irish society has changed dramatically in the last 20 years, rural emigration – to Dublin and beyond – remains a fact of life in Ireland.

Nevertheless, a buoyant and prosperous economy with bountiful employment, coupled with an increasingly liberalised society richly flavoured by multicultural influences, has set Ireland on a path it has never been on before. The overwhelming hopelessness of Irish poverty and the suffocating stranglehold of the conservative Church on the nation’s morality are very much a thing of the past, and while important questions about the future of the country and its population remain unanswered and subject to a host of widely divergent predictions, it is clear that this small, relatively young nation has finally come of age.

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