Ireland’s location and proximity to Britain have in large measure shaped her history. As an island to the west of continental Europe, Ireland, which has been inhabited for about 7,000 years, experienced a number of incursions and invasions, resulting in a rich mixture of ancestry and traditions. The first settlers, mostly hunters from Britain, brought a Mesolithic culture. They were followed around 3000 B.C. by farmers who raised animals and cultivated the soil. After these Neolithic settlers, around 2000 B.C. came prospectors and metalworkers. The first positive evidence of human settlement is to be found in a variety of burial grounds, some dating back to 6000 B.C. in the form of court cairns, passage and gallery graves, and portal dolmens.
By the 6th century B.C. waves of Celtic invaders from Europe began to reach the country. While Ireland was never unified politically by the Celts, they did generate a cultural and linguistic unity.
The introduction of Christianity in the 5th century is traditionally credited to St Patrick, though there is evidence the ere were Christians on the island before his arrival. Ireland never experienced the barbarian invasions of the early medieval period and, partly as a result, the 6th and 7th centuries saw a flowering of Irish art, learning and culture centring on the Irish monasteries. Irish monks established centres of learning and Christianity in may parts of Europe in the period before A.D. 800.
During the 9th and 10th centuries, Ireland was regularly raided by the Vikings. The Vikings were also traders and they did much to develop town life at Dublin, Cork and Waterford. Following the defeat of the Vikings by Brian Boru the High King of Ireland, at Clontarf in 1014, the Viking influence faded.
In the 12th century, such progress as had been made towards the creation of centralised State under a single High King was shattered by the arrival of the Normans, who had earlier settled in England and Wales. The Normans quickly came to control some three-quarters of the land or Ireland, which then came under the political authority of the King of England.
For the next 400 years the Normans were an influential presence in Ireland. However, large areas of the country remained in the hands of the native or Gaelic Irish, and by the early 16th century there were widespread fears in England that the colony was in danger of total collapse, both as a result of Gaelic incursions and of the progressive Gaelicisation of the Norman settlers. Religious change in England at this time had its effects in Ireland also. The descendants of the Norman settlers in Ireland, who came to be called the Old English, were, by and large, hostile to the Protestant reformation which had led to the establishment of the Church of Ireland. In addition, the central strategic importance of Ireland, as an island close to both Britain and continental Europe, and hence a possible base for English malcontents or foreign enemies, gave Irish affairs an urgency that they had not had for centuries.
Following a series of revolts in Ireland — which arose in response to religious differences — political pressure, and the English Crown’s policy of introducing new settlers from Britain — Gaelic resistance was worn down and in 1603, the last Gaelic stronghold, Ulster, was brought under Crown control. Ireland was now for the first time politically unified, but religious and cultural unity would prove impossible to attain.
The 17th century witnessed a struggle for supremacy which was, after numerous ebbs and flows throughout the period, finally settled at the Battles of the Boyne (1690) and Aughrim (1691). The Old English and the Gaelic Irish, both largely Catholic in religion, were crushed and many of their leaders and followers (‘The Wild Geese’) left Ireland to pursue military, religious or commercial careers abroad. The Protestants of the Established Church monopolised political power and ownership of the land, and in time would come to see themselves as the Irish nation.
In the 18th century, there was much economic development. The linen industry flourished, particularly in Ulster, and Irish wool, beef, butter and pork were important exports. An Irish parliamentary tradition developed though it excluded Catholics and was subordinate to the Westminster Parliament. Sustained Irish emigration began in the 18th century, as many thousands of Ulster Presbyterians and lesser number of Catholics departed for the New World.
The developing dispute between Britain and her colonies in Orth America from the 1760s helped create a tradition of radical patriotism that was ultimately, under the impact of the French Revolution, to produce the Society of United Irishmen. In 1798 the United Irishmen staged an insurrection in Ireland, with the objective of establishing an independent Irish republic. The rebellion was crushed and full parliamentary Union with Britain was passed in 1800.
By this time, however, Britain and Ireland were moving apart, especially in economic and demographic terms. As Britain industrialised and urbanised, Ireland, outside Ulster, in effect de-industrialised, with the bulk of its rapidly growing population becoming ever more dependent on the potato for sustenance.
In the late 1840s, as a result of the wholesale failure of the potato crop in successive years, a terrible famine occurred: one million people died and a further million fled Ireland. Within 10 years (1846-56) the population had fallen by a quarter (8 million to 6 million), and would fall further as emigration became a dominant feature of Irish society.
A succession of efforts to reform or undo the Union between Great Britain and Ireland dominated 19th century Irish politics. The Great Famine had an enormous political impact: Britain stood indicted in the popular mind. Some form of self-government was now sought by a majority of Irish voters. Irish landlords, too, came under political and economic pressure in the post Famine decades. By the early 20th century, after sustained agrarian unrest, legislation was in place inducing the great landlords to sell land to their tenants, and the tenants were advanced money to purchase these holdings.
The question of self-government, or ‘Home Rule’, however, had not been settled: attempts by Daniel O’Connell and Isaac Butt in the 1840s and 1870s came to little, but under the leadership of Charles Stewart Parnell in the 1880s, the Irish Parliamentary Party placed the Irish question at the centre of British politics. In 1886, the Liberal party under W.E. Gladstone came to support a limited form of self-government for Ireland.
Unionists in Ireland, who were predominantly Protestant, and were a majority in the province of Ulster, were galvanised into action by the prospect of Home Rule. They, along with their allies in England who feared that Home Rule for Ireland would lead to the break-up of the Empire, made it clear that they were prepared to do their utmost to prevent it.
In an increasingly militarised atmosphere private paramilitary armies (the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Irish Volunteers) marched and drilled, and hostilities between the two were only averted by the outbreak of the First World War and the consequent postponement of Home Rule. The war changed everything: in 1916 a republic was declared in Dublin and an armed insurrection took place. This rising, which initially enjoyed little public support, was suppressed but its supporters, capitalising on public revulsion at the execution of its leaders, were successful in the General Election of 1918, when they swept aside the Irish Parliamentary Party who had campaigned for Home Rule.
Sinn Féin (‘Ourselves’), the election victors, set up the first Dáil (Parliament) and a war of national independence ensued. By the time an Anglo-Irish treaty was concluded in 1921, six counties in north-east Ulster had already been constituted as Northern Ireland. As a result of the treaty, the remaining twenty-six counties formed the Irish Free State. The establishment of the Free State was followed by a short Civil Was between those who accepted the treaty and those who held out for a republic. Despite its brevity, the Civil War was to colour attitudes and determine political allegiances for decades.
The first government of the new State was headed by W.T. Cosgrave of the Cumann n nGaedheal, later Fine Gael, party. From the 1930s until the 1970s the Fianna Fáil part, founded by Éamon de Valera, dominated Irish politics. Building on a progressive diminution of the constitutional links between Britain and Ireland, a new constitution was introduced in 1937 and Ireland remained neutral during the Second World War. In 1948 the Republic of Ireland Act severed the last remaining constitutional links with Britain. Ireland was admitted to the United Nations in 1955.
During the last 20 years, coalition governments have, as elsewhere in Europe, been the norm. These coalitions have involved one of the two larger political parties in combination with the Labour Party, Democratic Left or the Progressive Democrats. Ireland’s membership since 1973 of what is now the European Union has had profound effects. The intervening period has witnessed major changes in the political, social, economic, and cultural life of the country.