Turtle Bunbury

Writer and Historian

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A Potted History of Ireland (as of July 2018)


21st century Ireland is a land that astonishes in many ways. Twenty years ago, who could have believed that this island would emerge as one of the more prosperous and liberal nations in Europe?

Ireland’s history has been nothing but eventful.

Across the country, the outlines and humps of a civilization that lived here many thousands of years ago arise from the landscape. Passage graves, dolmens and carefully aligned stones circles that stand as a silent tribute to a people who were closely tuned into the mysterious complexities of the Universe beyond. The arrival of a Celtic culture at the time of Christ inspired a new age of industry and commerce, of goldsmiths and story tellers, warriors and druids.

Christianity swept into the island “of saints and scholars” in the 5th century AD. Monasteries and abbeys sprang up alongside the mist-shrouded riverbanks. Many became lucrative pilgrimage sites, characterized by round towers, high crosses and intricately decorated chalices. For hundreds of years, Irish missionaries carried the Christian spirit east to Germany and west to the unknown. Between the 9th and 12th centuries, Viking longships and Norman armies invaded the island, laid waste the Celtic kingdoms and erected the first towns. In time, much of the island was seized as a colony of the Anglo-Norman crown although there were always substantial parts that resisted.

Under Henry VIII, the Catholic Church was abolished and the extensive church lands parcelled out to those loyal to the Tudor Crown – native Irish, Norman settler and new planter alike. The redistribution of land to loyal subjects continued under Queen Elizabeth, the Stuarts and Oliver Cromwell; those who protested were cast away to the unruly wilds of the west. William of Orange’s victory at the Boyne in 1690 initiated 200 years of strong rule by a new elite. Primarily Protestant, intrinsically British, they became known as the Ascendancy and their mansions - or ‘Big Houses’ - still pepper much of the landscape today. A series of disastrous rebellions, the horror of the Great Famine and a global upsurge in nationalism ultimately ignited a war of independence against imperial Britain, which began with the Easter Rising in 1916 and culminated with the birth of the Irish Free State in 1921.

The Republic of Ireland was officially born on 1st April 1949 and consists of 26 of Ireland’s 32 counties. The remaining 6 counties constitute Northern Ireland, an area that still falls under British rule and is thus liable to the consequences of Brexit. When Irish independence was being negotiated in 1921, these 6 northern counties were largely controlled by a wealthy Protestant elite who felt a strong attachment to the English Crown. They had little desire to unite as an independent nation with the remaining 26 Catholic counties. When Pope John Paul II came to Ireland in 1979, a third of the population went to Dublin to hear him say Mass.

Partition was deemed the best solution. Tensions between Northern Ireland’s Catholics and Protestants erupted in riots and murder in 1969, leading to an often-brutal thirty-year war. Peace ostensibly returned with the 1998 Good Friday Agreement although attempts to share power between the Catholic and Protestant political parties remains a complex issue.

Known as the ‘Celtic Tiger’, the Republic’s extraordinary economic success during the early part of the 21st century was a blueprint for fellow members of the European Union. In Northern Ireland too, prosperity and peace paved the way for a new age of positivity.

The crash that followed the boom was a considerable blow to many in Ireland; many of the country’s richest citizens lost practically everything they owned while the government felt compelled to impose a deeply resented austerity on the people. Away from the roads and suburbs, romance, history and outstandingly good craic still permeates the air of this most magical of European islands. Ireland’s sportsmen punch above their weight in many fields. In 2018, for instance, the Irish rugby team won the Six Nations for the third time in five years, securing their place as the second best team in the world, while Irish racehorse trainers thrashed the British 17 to 11 at the Cheltenham Festival, and Rory McIlroy won the Arnold Palmer invitational. The island also excels at cinema, music, arts and literature.

Simulteanous to the collapse, we enjoyed a series of international sporting victories, two high-profile visits from Queen Elizabeth II and US President Barack Obama and much surprise. In 2000 AD, if you’d predicted Martin McGuinness and Ian Paisley becoming pals, or Queen Elizabeth bowing her head at those who died in the fight for Irish freedom, or the country having a 39-year-old half-Indian gay doctor as our Taoiseach (prime minister), you’d have been sent to your bedroom to sleep it off. Since 2013, we've also undergone a fascinating revaluation of our past with the Centenary Commemorations (particularly for the Easter Rising in 2016) as well as a series of successful tourism campaigns promoting the Gathering of the Irish Diaspora, the Wild Atlantic Way and the Ancient East.

Ireland ’s emergence as one of the most liberal, tolerant democracies on Earth has been astonishing. All the certainties of old have vanished. We voted for Same Sex marriage. We voted to repeal one of the strictest abortion laws in the Western world. We’re happy for our leaders to be gay, for our presidents and our judges and even our priests to be women. Our country pubs are an endangered species but, in terms of GDP, Ireland is the second richest per capita country in the Eurozone after Luxembourg. Our beautiful, desolate Atlantic coast is stuffed with surf dudes, just as the once barren streets of inner-city Dublin teem with Silicon-Irish tech wizards. We welcome British Royals to our shores. Many people in Ireland favour reunification, north and south. An unexpected majority even supported England during the 2018 World Cup, but that may have been because Harry Kane, the captain, has Connemara roots. In any event, when people in Ireland began praying for rain in the long hot summer of 2018, this was just another example of the extraordinarily unpredictable age we are living through.