The Iron Age and the Celts
Ireland's population began in the North 9000 years ago, on
the banks of the River Bann. 5000 years later the Bronze
Age settlers left the indelible mark of ritual burial chambers
on the countryside Armagh, Down, Mayo and Tyrone.
Eventually, the Iron Age introduced the warrior Celts
(300 B.C) who would leave the strongest impression on Irish
history and culture.
There are no written records of the Celts arrival but a strong
oral tradition left songs and stories of heroic deeds, spirituality
and the afterlife that survive today. The epic tales of Cuchulainn
and the Red Branch Knights among others are a must.
At this period, just before the first of the great shocks
to the Celts arrived, Ireland was already split into five
provinces, with tribal kings controlling the local lands using
the Celtic Brehon Law, whilst speaking a universal
The Christians land
Christianity arrived between the 3rd and 5th Centuries, and
was the first big shock to Gaelic culture. St. Patrick,
son of a Roman Official, kidnapped by pirates, escaped slavery
in Antrim to preach Christianity to the Irish. He subsequently
became the patron saint of Ireland. He was based in, and built
his first church in Armagh, which became the religious capital
of Ireland, and houses many of the secrets of early Christianity.
As Rome declined in the Dark Ages, Ireland's religion excelled,
and it shone like a beacon for Christians known as the 'land
of saints and scholars'. Kings and scholars from Britain and
Europe travelled here to study in the many monasteries and
schools, whilst Irish missionaries boosted Christianity throughout
Europe. During this period the remarkably intricate Book
of Kells was created and is preserved in Trinity College,
Dublin. Evidence of the rich tapestry of monasteries exist,
preserved and in ruins, throughout Ireland.
The Vikings plunder Ireland
By the end of the 8th Century, the prosperity of the Gaels
would be the cause of their second great shock. The Vikings,
or 'Danes' sailed ashore to plunder the monasteries and people
of Dublin in 795AD. The monks' response of elevated stone
'round towers' are a unique, and beautiful remainder from
this period, and can be seen in Wicklow, Waterford and
Mayo. The Vikings eventually settled and integrated completely
with the Gaels, adopting the language and customs, whilst
founding the city of Dubh Linn (Black pool) or Dublin.
Irish warrior Brian Boru broke the Viking army in Clontarf,
1014, but many soldiers remained to join the Gaels in future
In 1166, the Leinster King, Diarmaid McMurrough, sought
an ally in England to help in local wars. 'Strongbow'
(Richard Fitzgilbert de Clare), one of the Norman lords who
now ruled England, offered his support. Strongbow married
McMurrough's daughter, and when the Leinster King died in
the wars, Strongbow inherited his kingdom of Leinster, thus
beginning an English involvement in the future of Ireland.
Henry II, successor to William the Conqueror, feared
Strongbow's independence in Ireland, and endeavoured to bring
him into line. However, Strongbow's Normans and the Irish
were so closely linked that they dressed and spoke like the
Gaels, and so worried Henry that he outlawed Gaelic, Irish
dress, and intermarriage. He was ignored and English control
waned until they controlled little more than a small area
around Dublin known as 'the Pale'. Hence, the expression,
'beyond the pale' for an area beyond control.
Ireland's independence would not last, as Henry VIII
and Elizabeth I would ensure. Henry VIII decided to
destroy the Anglo-Norman Kings and take control of Ireland.
He did this successfully, putting English lords in charge
of confiscated land as he went, and plundered the Catholic
monasteries and churches, as he has done in England. Eventually,
in 1541, he was declared King of Ireland.
Elizabeth I consolidated English power in Ireland. Frightened
of Ireland's unbreakable Catholicism and strategic position
for enemies, Elizabeth made England's jurisdiction in Ireland
complete through bribery and butchery. The Anglo-Normans and
the Gaels fought as one against the Elizabethan English but
with little success. The one thorn in Elizabeth's side was
Hugh O'Neill and O'Donnell of Ulster. O'Neill
so troubled Elizabeth his successive victories between 1594
- 1601 made her fear that her power may be broken. But in
1601, at the Battle of Kinsale, O'Neill's army suffered
losses and a peace treaty was signed. Eventually, after subsequent
years of harassment O'Neill, and the Ulster chieftains fled
the land in what is known as the flight of the earls,
leaving the land to English rule.
With native chiefs gone consecutive English leaders pursued
a policy of colonisation known as the Plantation, an
organised confiscation of land that, in part, sowed the seeds
for unrest in Ulster. Irish land was taken from the locals,
and given to English gentlemen 'undertakers', who divided
the land and sold or rented it to English and Scottish settlers.
Simultaneously, a natural drift of Scottish immigrants had
naturalised in northern areas such as Antrim and Down.
These new Protestants were mainly landowners, powerful, and
aloof from the impoverished angry native population. A future
of fear and unrest would be the result.
Ulster, once the most Gaelic province, was now a mixture
of Gaelic Catholics, Anglo-Norman Catholics, Scottish Presbyterians,
and English Anglicans. This division is evident in street
names, even today, in names like Irish St., Scotch St., English
St. In 1641, the seething anger of the Irish spilt over as
they attacked the new settlements, slaughtering hundreds.
Written evidence of the trouble is stored in Trinity College,
This idea of an embattled Protestant minority was to become
a common theme in years to come. In England, the King had
been deposed and Oliver Cromwell had started a parliamentary
government. Cromwell, in 1649, came to Ireland and ruthlessly
imposed his authority in such barbaric fashion that it still
lingers in the Irish consciousness. Everyone in Drogheda,
women and children included were executed in a fashion that
Cromwell described as by 'the spirit of God'. From Drogheda,
Cromwell's Puritan's marched throughout Ireland making sure
that the Protestant English minority would triumph. Irish
landowners lost their land and were banished to barren Connaught.
'The curse of Cromwell' was complete. By 1714, the Irish population
owned only seven percent of the land.