A Potted History of Ireland

A Potted History of Ireland.

In the beginning there was lots and lots of ice and Ireland was under lots apart for a wee bit of Cork and Kerry –hundreds of metres under but nobody cared as there was nobody about As the world came out of the last Ice Age and warmed up about 12,000 years ago Ireland began to emerge from under the ice from the south to the north.

Ireland was linked to the rest of the British Isles and was linked in turn with Continental Europe. If Paris had existed you could have walked there and back from Belleek or any other important centre in Ireland. Animals and plants began to arrive across dry land.

As more and more ice turned to water the levels of the oceans rose and the North Sea and English/French Channel appeared (Except that there was no place called England or France or for that matter Ireland at this time) cutting off the British Isles from the continent but there were still some dry esker ridges linking Ireland to the rest of the British Isles across which plants and animals travelled. Later water covered these also. Many species had not arrived by the time the water rose. Ireland has c 800 species of plant while France has c 3,000.

People followed as Hunters and Gatherers in the Mesolithic or Middle Stone Age. They arrived in Ireland about 7,000 B.C. probably by boat either from Britain or via the Atlantean Continental route. They used flint tools and weapons, or small sharp stones called microliths. They moved to follow seasonal patterns of food availability. In Spring to the cliffs for the gulls eggs and in Winter to the seashore for shellfish. These people were odd in that they were neither Protestants nor Catholics. Today they would send their children to an Integrated school. Their main problem was feeding themselves on a daily basis. Each morning when they arose their dinner was still out there swimming around, flying around, running around, or hanging from a bush. They had to go and get it.

In the New Stone Age more refined tools were developed and people began farming and no longer depended entirely on what they could hunt or gather. With a regular supply of food from farming and newly domesticated animals, more complex societies could develop, and people could specialise in occupations like being priests so as to negotiate with “the other world.” You could get there if you did what they told you and didn’t ask awkward questions like how they knew that this other world existed and if it was such a wonderful place why they did not make immediate arrangements to join it themselves.

Bronze working signals the arrival of the Bronze Age. Stone circles and megalithic tombs in Ireland are a sign of the complex societies now developing. Bronze swords, spears and shields are from this period and the Iron Age developed soon after and in parallel with it. Only recently discovered there seems to have been a Copper Age before the Bronze Age.

In Ireland the Celts were an Iron Age people who invaded from the Continent and subdued or subjugated or assimilated the people previously here. Raths and crannogs date from this period. Society was very hierarchical with a nobility and a slave class. It was to this society that Christianity came probably via captured slaves from Britain or the continent. They had an oral as distinct from a written culture.

Christianity slowly took over the country converting the aristocracy first. In particular the Irish took to the idea of monasticism and monastic schools/monasteries/small towns were the first major urban developments in the country. It was these with their distinctive round towers (almost all are in Ireland) which the Vikings attacked. Christianity introduced written culture to Ireland. It also harnessed a great native artistic ability in metalworking and in producing illuminated manuscripts. In most circumstances you could decorate anything you liked as long as it was religious.

Although the native Irish were very much given to plundering their own monasteries and indeed monasteries themselves often put armies into the field against each other the Vikings have acquired the notoriety of roughing up the monks. However the Vikings did bring the first coinage to Ireland, founded our major coastal cities, brought the best ships of their time and they introduced and controlled the wine trade. Many of their words came into Irish; pingin a penny, lung a boat etc and personal names McAuley, McLaughlin, McManus, Doyle etc. The Vikings were also keen to hire themselves out as mercenaries and the feuding Irish often took advantage of this friendly Viking service.

The Vikings were largely assimilated in the end having erected our first secular towns, but our next invaders were their Normandy Viking cousins which we know as the Normans. The feuding Irish invited them in and then couldn’t get rid of them. They introduced coats of mail, cavalry, the feudal system, longbows, and castles (wood initially and later stone) as a means of exerting control over territory. Normans controlled the east and south but had little influence over the north and west apart from certain areas like Carrickfergus Galway and Sligo.

In time they too became assimilated to a great degree and for several hundred years Ireland was ruled by its native clan based aristocracy e.g. O’Neill, O’Donnell, O’Connor etc closely linked with the church and its monasteries. Ruling families increased exponentially with chieftains having multiple wives, (one of the Maguires of Fermanagh had eight wives and c28 children) and their numerous broods were accommodated at the expense of the lesser tribes whose lands were taken from them. The chief occupation of the elite was in plundering and pillaging their neighbours mainly by stealing their cattle wealth.

Increasing English encroachment led to the Nine Years War at the end of the 16th century and the defeat of the old Irish aristocracy. The Irish leaders fled, and their lands were confiscated and planted with English and Scottish settlers in the Plantation of Ulster. Many of the underling clans heaved a sigh of relief. Most of the early Scots at this time were kicked out of Scotland by James V1 of Scotland and 1 of England and Scotland. They were the most successful planters because their Scots/Irish enabled them to overhear what the natives were plotting. The English didn’t have a bulls notion what was being said and suffered casualties accordingly.

There were serious Irish rebellions in Ireland in 1641 and 1689-90. The first ended with the arrival of Cromwell who largely massacred the Old English settlers who were Royalist supporters and completed the transfer of almost all Irish lands into the hands of English and Scots. In Cromwell’s case his bite was even worse than his bark, but he did take a beating at the siege of Clonmel..

The 1690 rebellion was to do with the Royal Succession in England but was largely fought out in Ireland. Major powers prefer to do their fighting in someone else’s backyard. The Americans and Russians have frequently done this in the recent past e.g. in Vietnam and Afghanistan. The war was about Catholicism v Protestantism and England v France, but Ireland did the suffering. The Irish got on the wrong side (the political equivalent of soccer’s offside) and were penalised by the Penal Laws designed to ensure that the Irish Catholic population would never again be able to mount a challenge to their rulers.

There were occasional alarms about a French invasion during the 18th century but the Penal Laws progressively relaxed and more and more people resented the landed gentry in Ireland. There was more crack going on in England so most of the Irish Gentry stayed there and spent their Irish revenues in England and mortgaged their estates to the hilt.. The Gentry considered themselves English in Ireland and the English considered them Irish in England and generally laughed at their pretentiousness in thinking themselves English.

New ideas of liberty, equality and fraternity brought many Catholic and Protestant together at the time of the 1798 rebellion. In 1800 the Irish Parliament was wiped out by a major bung operation which bribed the Irish peers to abolish themselves and be ruled from Westminster instead. The wipe-out of the Dublin Parliament brought economic disaster to Dublin.

Emigration which had been ongoing to the new world increased as mainly Presbyterians and later Catholics moved to the perceived tolerance of America. Most Irish Catholics found America anything but tolerant – no Irish need apply – in response they joined the police force in such numbers as to bring about toleration.

Napoleon raised new fears of an Irish invasion but nothing major came of this time of French power. The population was increasing enormously on a high fibre diet of aphrodisiacal potatoes. Mini famines were a constant reality as the spud was unable to cope with the copulating population. After great agitation Catholic Emancipation was granted in 1829 and the Catholic clergy began a huge church building programme which was not halted even by the great Irish Famine of 1845-1850 and complemented by a programme of large Parish Priests houses. The famine decimated the country as disease wiped out the starving population. Catholics, formerly reluctant to emigrate, now took to the seas in their millions and an exodus which began at this time has with few exceptions continued since. The Catholic (and Protestant) clergy blamed the famine on the sinful lives of their adherents and took an iron grip on the population to make sure there would never be another famine,

Land agitation at the end of the 19th century progressively took Irish lands from the Landlords. The landlords were compensated, and all the little farmers of the country got hold of their little green family prison. All small farms are inherently uneconomic enterprises which barely support the family who work it unless they are willing to work for nothing, but it was ’’HOME.”

“HOME” was thatched and whitewashed with roses round the front door and inhabited by little old white haired Irish mothers waiting for a letter from America (preferably with money included) and this image was especially beloved by Yanks who did not have to live there and had carefully distanced themselves from it by about 3,000 miles. However they were importantly willing to pay to keep the myth in existence. The contributions of the exiles frequently were all that kept the locals from sinking into the bog.

Meanwhile the linen industry had kept the north of Ireland relatively prosperous through most of the 19th century and increased prosperity was brought about by the development of Belfast and its industries based on linen, shipbuilding etc. Most Protestants were of the opinion that this prosperity was God given and an indication of their inherent virtue. This lent credence to their consequent view of the superiority of their beliefs over the beliefs of the freckless Catholics. Now the virtuous Japs and Koreans build the ships and about the only good thing about this is that they are definitely not Catholics. Meanwhile all the starch has gone from the linen industry also.

Irish and Irish/American resentment over the perceived “genocide” committed by British Rule during the famine continued to fuel thoughts (and actions) of rebellion in Ireland. It was thought mistakenly that total control of Irish Affairs by Irish people would enable a paradise to be set up in this green and pleasant land. A “New Tara or Kincora ” would rule over a virtuous, family orientated and obviously Catholic population. The affairs of 1921 were a partial answer to this pious, if lunatic, hope and with short intervals we have been fighting about this settlement since with a short interval for World War 11. This last interlude enabled the Irish to do what the Irish do best, to go and fight for England and be the best of friends … until they come home again.

Please do not bother pointing out that this is politically incorrect – I know that.

John B. Cunningham 11-3-95 & 2020.

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