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A tiny island in the North Atlantic, Ireland has had an astonishingly powerful impact on the wider world, both at the height of its independent power in the early middle ages, as the key exporter of Christianity to much of Europe, and at the depth of its colonial subjugation by Britain, as the primary source of millions of settlers to North America and Australia. A History of Ireland explores the ...
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A tiny island in the North Atlantic, Ireland has had an astonishingly powerful impact on the wider world, both at the height of its independent power in the early middle ages, as the key exporter of Christianity to much of Europe, and at the depth of its colonial subjugation by Britain, as the primary source of millions of settlers to North America and Australia. A History of Ireland explores the story of Ireland from the twelfth century to the end of the twentieth century. Written chronologically, it explores the period of the English invasion of Ireland, the emergence of a Gaelic culture, the religious conflicts across the centuries, the struggle over Home Rule, and the complex nature of the modern troubles. Covering the main political narratives of the country, A History of Ireland also delves into major economic, social, and cultural events, and offers a fascinating glimpse into Ireland's past.
About the Author:
Mike Cronin is a Research Fellow in History at De Montfort University Leicester, in the UK. He has published extensively on Irish Studies.
Occupation, Assimilation and
The history of Ireland stretches back into the depths of time. The first settled inhabitants of Ireland were groups of hunters and fishers who travelled the short distance across the water from Scotland into north-eastern Ireland during the Mesolithic (Middle Stone Age) era. Remaining artefacts from these people are few and far between, but archaeologists are certain they inhabited the areas around modern-day Antrim, Down, Louth and Dublin in the years after 6000 BC. They were followed, a mere two and a half thousand years later, by the Neolithic (New Stone Age) settlers. Although the exact origins of these travellers are uncertain, the huge array of megalithic remains which they left behind have similarities with megaliths in England such as Stonehenge, and those in France at Carnac. The Neolithic settlers brought such diverse skills as agriculture, pottery and weaving to Ireland. Their lasting testaments, however, are the megalithic remains. These can be found today at Knowth and Newgrange in County Meath. Essentially the remains are great passage tombs. These tombs demonstrate that the Neolithic Irish had great artistic and construction skills, and the tombs at Newgrange are clearly linked with knowledge and understanding of planetary activity, and especially of the movements of the sun at solstice time. Apart from the megalithic passage tombs and other stone constructions, little remains and little is known of the Neolithic settlers. Their civilisation, judging by the dating of the builtremains, certainly appears to have survived across several thousand years, but beyond such basic facts, it is the legends which persist.
In approximately 700 BC the Gaels began arriving in Ireland, having spread across the rest of western Europe. It is perhaps unsurprising that such an enterprising people would eventually arrive at the continent's westernmost outpost, but it is possibly in Ireland that their legacy has been most profound. The Gaels, as with most invaders who would follow, brought their own distinctive culture with them, but also adapted much that was specific to Ireland. This resulted in a composite system of religious beliefs and power structures drawn from both the indigenous and settler traditions. The old Neolithic gods (tuatha) who had underpinned the Irish belief system prior to the arrival of the Gaels were adopted, and over time became identifiable as Gaelic gods. In appropriating the old Irish gods, the Gaels also adapted and continued to use the important sites, such as Newgrange, as part of their own religious system. The Gaels did not destroy those groups that existed on the island; indeed it appears that they only ever formed a powerful minority within the total population. They held the best land, wielded the most power, and made the native population pay tribute to them, but they were a minority of the population. This minority position was diluted over time, as would be the case with later invaders such as the Normans, as the Gaels intermarried, forged local alliances and slowly assimilated native customs into their own way of life.
The Gaels based their power structure around a monarchical system. At first the whole system ran on very localised lines. In time there developed a network of local ring forts, remains of which can still be found. Each of these forts served as the centre of a local area of influence for a single king or chieftain who was elected by those regarded as freemen. There was no system of direct succession for those who would be king. The elections drew candidates from anywhere within the ruling family, not necessarily the eldest son. This arrangement, although appearing simplistically as highly democratic, would cause problems as it did little to ensure continuity of rule.
In total the island of Ireland contained around a hundred small kingdoms. The small kingdoms were arranged into five bigger groupings, which form the basis of Ireland's modern provinces: Ulaid (Ulster), Midhe (Meath), Laigin (Leinster), Muma (Munster) and Connacht. At the head of this system was a single High King (Ard Rí), who would rule a province of his own, but would also exert his supremacy over the other provinces. At times there were legendary High Kings who did manage to rule over the five provinces, but more usually the High King had to rule with the support of others. It appears that the first genuine High Kings, who could claim supremacy over the other provinces, did not come into existence until the fifth century AD. Ultimately the provincial and monarchical system made for an unstable, and at times highly violent, society as coalitions were made and broken and as different local kings sought to propel themselves to the highest power. This meant that Ireland never developed a system of central power, and, as a result, there was little unity across the land. Any unity which did exist was a product of cultural forces, such as a common language and a shared religion. Even the brehon laws, which are accepted by many scholars as having been an important sign of Gaelic sophistication, advancement and unity, were weakly implemented. The brehon laws were overseen by the brehons themselves, who can be considered akin to a group of professional lawyers. Recorded precedents underpinned the whole system. Although national, and therefore an important signifier Of a semblance of Gaelic uniformity, the system too often relied on arbitration, rather on enforced judgement. This meant that what could have been a vehicle for the sustained development of a national system, which might have resulted in a more integrated political unity, was ineffective. Despite the problems which accompanied the power structure in Gaelic Ireland, it became, by the end of the first century AD, a centrally important focus for Gaelic culture. The Irish Gaels traded by sea with other Celts around northern Europe, bringing a degree of prosperity, both material and cultural.
Despite the prosperity afforded by the Celtic trading alliances, Ireland, it could be argued, missed out on a more fundamental advance in the first centuries following the birth of Christ. Unlike the bulk of southern and central Europe, Ireland was not invaded by the Romans. It is impossible to argue that this was a bad thing for Ireland historically, as the continuation of an unmolested Gaelic system free of Roman control certainly had its benefits Roman invasion, however, did have a remarkable effect on other lands across Europe and brought about quite revolutionary advances in the technological, architectural, military and governmental fields, among others, all of which Ireland missed out on. Put simply, while mainland Britain (south of Hadrian's Wall) witnessed the development of a road system, the introduction of a judicial system, and other trends which, in the context of the time, can be considered as 'civilising', Ireland continued with a society that remained based around the norms of the bronze age.
THE ADVENT OF CHRISTIANITY
Although missing out on the possibly positive effects of Roman civilisation, Ireland was the location for a golden age of Christianity and monasticism. The Christian mission to Ireland began during the third century AD. In a relatively short space of time, the old Gaelic religion, although still practised and retaining a function within society, was replaced by Christianity. In the wake of the collapse of the Roman Empire, Ireland, which had avoided any major contact with Rome, perversely became the centre of European Christianity. As the Roman Empire disintegrated and a state of near anarchy, resulting from the success of the Barbarians, spread across western Europe, Ireland became a safe haven for those who followed Christ. In this, Ireland's comparative isolation from the rest of Europe worked to its advantage rather than its detriment. Different religious orders settled across Ireland, and, once established, these orders flourished. In the wild and untamed landscape, made more isolated by its lack of communication, the orders existed in splendid solitude. The monasteries were centres of learning, the most notable and important being those at St Edna's on the Aran Islands, Clonmacnoise in Offaly and Clonard in Meath. In Clonard alone, it is believed that as many as 3000 monks were working and studying.
One of the leading figures in the Christian mission in Ireland was St Patrick. Patrick had first been brought to Ireland as a slave. After escaping, he had travelled to Gaul where he was consecrated as a bishop. In the thirty years following his return to Ireland in 432, until his death in 465, Patrick travelled the length and breadth of Ireland preaching the Gospel. He established churches in those places he visited and introduced others to the religious order. St Patrick's importance lies in his role as a catalyst for transforming what was essentially a system of religious orders, churches and monasteries, all of which were functioning as separate and discrete entities. Patrick changed that by bringing about a semblance of central ecclesiastical authority. After his ministry, the Irish Church was firmly established.
The structure of the Church in Ireland duplicated the power system that was already in place. St Patrick and others accepted the Celtic system that was based around local kingdoms which, in turn, was underpinned by powerful families and loose alliances, and adapted the Church's system of internal government around such. The bishops of the Irish Church were located around the families who ran the small kingdoms, and were not based around a geographical unit of governance, such as the diocese, as would have been the case elsewhere in Europe. As previously mentioned, the number of local kingships were many, and hence the number of bishops across Ireland was equally plentiful. St Patrick alone is credited as having created some 300 bishops. As the Church structure was essentially a mirror of the Celtic power system, bishops did not develop personal power bases, as was the case in Europe. As a result of this lack of personal power, and the nature of the Church's governing structure, the monastery became all-important in Ireland.
The introduction of Christianity to Ireland at this time was accompanied by the advent of the written word. Irish society under the Celtic system, although developing a written script, which can be seen on standing stones, did not use the written form as central to its way of life. For them the oral tradition had been far more valuable. The monasteries as centres of learning spread throughout Europe the written word and the Latin language. Within the monasteries, religious instruction and learning flourished, and reached new heights of skill and technical ability, The illuminated manuscripts which emerged at the time, such as the Book of Kells (written in approximately AD 700 and currently housed in Trinity College, Dublin), are considered some of the finest examples of such work anywhere in the world. Despite having missed out on the civilising mission of the Romans, Ireland, by performing its role as a safe haven for Christianity, was a bright light through the so-called dark ages. While the rest of Europe slipped into the post-Roman chaos of terror and destruction, Ireland was thriving. Trade continued along the Atlantic seaboard, as it had done under the pre-Christian Celts. Ireland internally was relatively peaceful and ordered, while learning, Christianity and Gaelic scholarship flourished. The strength of the Irish monastic system was demonstrated in the middle years of the first millennium. Whereas Ireland had originally served a function as a safe haven for Christians and scholars fleeing Europe, it later became the launching pad for the re-emergence of Christianity across the continent. The religion had taken refuge in Ireland and had flourished there. In time, this solace was used as a source of strength and later, when the time was right, Christianity was delivered back to those lands from where it had first come. Leading Irish figures in the deliverance of Christianity back to Europe included St Columba, who founded a monastery in Iona in 563, and is credited with having undertaken the evangelisation of southern Scotland and northern Ireland in the years following. There was also St Columbanus, who travelled to Germany and Italy where he eventually founded a monastery at Bobbio, while other Irish bishops were responsible for the Christian recolonisation of Brittany.
Peace and tranquillity could not last forever. Under the golden age of monasticism Ireland had been relatively quiet, although internal warfare and division had continued. Christianity, for all the benefits that it brought to Ireland, could not bring about any kind of central political system which would break the cycle of violence and inter-monarch competition. In the past, this lack of internal coherence had not been problematic for the actual survival of Ireland, as the land had not been under threat. As such, its relative weakness had not been uncovered. This situation changed radically, and Ireland with it, in the eighth century with the advent of the Viking invasions. At first these incursions had been localised and had been more concerned with plunder and quick reward than with settlement. A response to this type of raid, which was a common feature of eighth-century life, was the construction of defensive Round Towers within the monasteries. The towers were used to watch over the surrounding land, and, at a time of attack, were places of sanctuary. An excellent example of this type of structure can still be seen at Glendalough, Co. Wicklow. The monasteries were obvious targets for such attacks of plunder because of the immense wealth which some of them possessed.
Ultimately, plunder was not enough and in 795 Ireland suffered a full-scale Viking invasion. The Viking presence had an important impact on Irish life. At one level the Viking legacy continues today. Whereas Irish settlement had previously been based around forts or monasteries, the Vikings brought with them to Ireland the idea of the walled city. Obviously the central reason for such a city was defensive, and many of those cities remain today. The modern towns and cities of Dublin, Wexford, Waterford, Youghal, Cork, Bantry and Limerick all originate from the time of the Viking invasions. The Vikings were great traders and their operations brought wealth to their cities and the surrounding districts. The cities were centres of trade, manufacture and commerce. All this, conducted as it was behind the city walls, was carried out in relative peace. From ports such as Dublin the Vikings traded with a large number of different areas and brought a variety of goods back into Ireland. As with the Celts when they arrived, the Vikings adopted certain native ways. They intermarried, converted to Christianity, and, when not battling with them, accepted the power structures of the Irish kingships.
In the context of Irish power structures, the Viking presence in Ireland brought about a realignment of the different kings. If this had been sustained it might have radically altered the future history of Ireland. The comparative weakness of the High King system meant that there was no central focus for opposition against the Vikings once their incursions had begun. If a more centralised political system had emerged over the preceding years, then the Viking forces might have been rebuffed. As it was, it took until the first years of the second millennium before Irish forces rallied around a single High King who engendered enough of the support necessary to take on the Vikings. In 1014, the High Krug, Brian Boru, defeated the Vikings at an infamous battle at Clontarf. It had taken the Irish two hundred years, but with Boru's victory they finally saw off the threat of being permanently transformed into a Viking colony.
The victory at Clontarf should have been the precursor to the emergence of some kind of centralised Irish power structure, based around the person of Brian Boru. The emergence of a strong centralised rule would have avoided the type of infighting and division that would form the preamble to the English invasion. In a similar vein, it has been argued that the Viking destruction of certain parts of England, such as Northumbria and Mercia, weakened inter-regional rivalries to the point where one region, in the English case, Wessex, was able to become all-powerful. Once Wessex was in the position of primacy over its weakened neighbours it was able to bring about the essential unity of England. Boru's own career demonstrates quite clearly that he was trying to bring about unity in Ireland, albeit a unity engendered by the use of force. He had attacked his main rival, the then High King, Malachy II, and encouraged the Vikings to take Malachy's lands in Connacht and Meath. In 1002, Malachy accepted that Boru should take the High Kingship, as he was the more powerful. Despite taking the High Kingship, Boru depended on the south for the bulk of his support and not all the Irish rallied around him. At Clontarf, the Leinster Irish sided with the Vikings in an attempt to preserve their independence in the face of an all-powerful High King. Unfortunately for any sense of Irish unity, and the possible emergence of a more dynamic centralised rule, Boru was murdered shortly after his famous victory.
Those Vikings who remained in Ireland following their defeat, continued to live in the cities which they had established. The general process of assimilation with the native population continued unabated. Following the death of Boru, however, the Viking communities in the cities were not destroyed or taken over as they might have been had Boru, and the unity he brought to the Irish, survived. In the years following Boru's death, the High Kingship became a battle between different families, most importantly O'Connor of Connacht, O'Brien of Munster and MacLochlainn of Ulster. At various times the heads of these families claimed the High Kingship, but all of them ruled with opposition, and none of them was ever as strong as Boru, or even his predecessor Malachy, had ever been. In the wake of Boru's death, essential unity was more distant than ever, and Ireland was becoming weaker and increasingly open to destructive forces from outside.
Excerpted from A History of Ireland by Mike Cronin. Copyright © 2001 by Mike Cronin. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.