another dramatic installment of “Introducing Northern Ireland: Yes, It’s a Real Place”
When we last left our magical history tour of the Emerald Isle, it was 1690 and the Battle of the Boyne. We’re going to pick up quickly and cover Irish history from that point to 1880. Clearly, this is a disservice to all of the fascinating pieces of history I am ignoring but I trust that if you share my interest you will check out some of the books listed at the end of this entry.
1690-1880: Top Ten
This period saw the rapid rise of Irish nationalism, one of the greatest natural disasters the world has ever known and the beginning of a campaign for the rights of Catholics. Here are the top ten events you should know about from this time
Guinness: Arthur Guinness founded the Guinness Brewery at St. James Gate on the River Liffey in 1756. It served as an important part of the Irish economy from that point forward and is, of course, now synonomous with Ireland the world over.
Catholic Life: At this point, the British government was letting the Irish kind of take care of themselves, but not really. One of the more traumatic nuances of this was the legal prejudice suffered by Catholic persons. They were not allowed to own land, the rights of priests were greatly restricted and Catholic children were not allowed to associate with Protestant ones. This basic lack of civil rights will serve as one of the backbones for all future political dealings between the British government and the Irish people.
Rebellion of 1798: After the first Irish parliament was convened in the mid-18th century, the Irish people were hopeful that the winds of change were upon them. Of course it was not meant to be. In 1791, the Society of the United Irishmen were founded led by Theobold Wolfe Tone. Point of interest here, this was a movement of largely wealthy Protestant persons who sought emancipation from British rule. His rebellion was – sadly – a failure, but his legacy gave strength and hope for generations to come. He felt strongly that the real goal should be the expulsion of the British from the island, not the ultimate supremacy of Catholicism.
Act of Union: After all the trouble that Wolfe Tone caused, the British were in no mood to mess around. The Act of Union, passed in 1800, firmly placed Ireland under direct rule of the Union until 1922. Thus, the country became The United Kingdoms of Great Britain and Ireland. (Fun fact, it’s still know as The United Kingdoms of Great Britain and Nothern Ireland, but I am getting ahead of myself.)
Great Irish Diaspora: Because of the political situation, the lack of food, and other really fun realities, the Irish people began to leave the island as quickly as they possibly could. In 1827, the United States relaxed it’s immigration policies and made it possible for the rural poor to make their way to Ellis Island and the new world.
The first Tricolor: 1848 marks the first appearance of the flag which would become the national flag of Ireland. The green represents the Gaelic community, the orange represents the Protestant community and the white is symbolic of the two communities living in peace. Oh that wishing made it so.
The Great Hunger: While there had been smaller famines before, September of 1845 marked the beginning of the worst period of famine in Irish history. A fungal disease attacked the potato crop and ravaged the economy of the island. Millions of people starved to death and hundreds of thousands more made for America as quickly as they could. While there is much debate over who to blame, my personal opinion is that fault lies almost everywhere. Yes, the Irish people lived crowded lives on small plots of land which could not even begin to support them properly and had become too dependent upon the potato as a staple crop. On the other hand, British government should have stepped in to fix any of the above problems if they were so keen to rule the island.
Land Ownership Remains a Big Deal: There are several kerfuffles during this time over land ownership issues – the Land Act, Gladstone’s repeals, The Land Union League. All of this serves to remind us that control of land is a really big deal in agrarian societies. Land ownership = power.
Charles Parnell: Like O’Connell before him, Parnell was one of the great leaders of Irish Nationalism. He embodied the Home Rule movement and gave voice to the cries of the Irish soul which they were unable to articulate. He remains an important figure in the history of the island.
Home Rule Movement: This is where the rubber really begins to meet the road. The Irish are not stupid people – they recognize the advantages of being part of the UK, especially in the wake of diaspora and famine. However, they’re not too jazzed about being directly ruled. They’d like their own parliament with their own representation. Much like the American Founding Fathers attempted at first, they began their revolution with a plea for Home Rule. However, just like the American Founding Fathers, they would soon learn that the British government wasn’t so up on compromise and the whole thing would devolve into the Irish Civil War.
Next time, I’ll write on the Irish Civil War and partition – which is when things get really interesting.
For anyone interested in researching this section of Irish history on your own, I recommend the following:
Irish History For Dummies by Mike Cronin
The History of Ireland by F.J.M. Madden
Ireland: A History by Thomas Bartlett
Wherever Green is Worn: The Story of the Irish Diaspora by Tim Coogan