Ireland's History in a Nutshell

By Rick Steves and Pat O'Connor

One surprising aspect of Ireland is the richness of its history. While the island is not particularly well-endowed with historic monuments, it is soaked in history. I've woven more in-depth accounts of its past into the sightseeing descriptions in my Ireland guidebook. But here's a thumbnail overview:

The story of Ireland can be broken into four sections: 500 B.C.–500 A.D. (Iron Age), 500–900 (age of "Saints and Scholars"), 900–1900 (age of invasions and colonization), and the 20th century (independence and the question of one Ireland).

Through the Iron Age, the Celtic people left the countryside peppered with thousands of ancient sights . While most of what you'll see are little more than rockpiles and take a vigorous imagination to reconstruct (ring forts, wedge tombs, monumental stones, and so on), just standing next to a megalith that pre-dates the pharoahs while surrounded by lush Ireland is evocative. The finest gold, bronze, and iron work of this period is in the National Museum in Dublin.

The Romans called Ireland Hibernia, "Land of Winter" — apparently too cold and bleak to merit an attempt to take over and colonize. The biggest non-event in Irish history was the Romans never invading. While the mix of Celtic and Roman contributes to what makes the French French and the English English, the Irish are purely Celtic. If France is embodied by its favorite game of boules and England is cricket...Ireland is hurling. This wild Irish national pastime (like airborne hockey with no injury timeouts) goes back to Celtic days, 2,000 years ago.

Celts worshipped the sun. Perhaps St. Patrick had an easy time converting the locals because they had so little sun to worship. Whatever the case, a Roman boy enslaved by the Irish, Patrick, helped Christianize Ireland in the fifth century. From this period on, monks established monastic centers of learning which produced great Christian teachers and community-builders. They traveled, establishing monastic communities all over Ireland, Britain and Europe. One of them, St. Brendan, may have even sailed to America.

While the collapse of Rome left Europe a mess, it meant nothing to Ireland. Ireland was and remained a relatively cohesive society based on monastic settlements rather than cities. While Europe was rutting in the Dark Age mud, the light of civilization shined brightly in Ireland through a golden age lasting from the fifth through the ninth centuries. Irish monks — such as those imported by Charlemagne to help run his Frankish kingdom in 800 A.D. — actually carried the torch of civilization back to Europe. Perhaps the greatest art of "Dark Age" Europe are the manuscripts (such as the eighth-century Book of Kells, which you'll see in Dublin) "illuminated" — or richly illustrated — by Irish monks. Impressive round towers dot the Irish landscape...silent reminders of this impressive age.

The Viking invasions of the ninth century wreaked repeated havoc on the monasteries and shook Irish civilization. Vikings established trading towns (such as Dublin) where, before, there had been only Celtic settlements and monasteries.

The Normans, who invaded and conquered England after the Battle of Hastings (1066), were Ireland's next uninvited guests. In 1169, the Anglo-Normans invaded Ireland. These invaders, big-time organizers, ushered in a new age where society (government, cities, and religious organizations) was organized on a grander scale. Individual monastic settlements (the basis of Irish society in the "Age of Saints and Scholars") were eclipsed by monastic orders just in from the Continent such as the Franciscans, Augustinians, and Cistercians.

The English made a concentrated effort to colonize Ireland in the 17th century. Settlers were planted and Irish society was split between an English-speaking landed gentry and the local Irish-speaking, landless or nearly landless peasantry. During the 18th century, English Ireland thrived. Dublin was Britain's second city.

Over time, greed on the top and dissent on the bottom require colonial policies to become more repressive. The Enlightenment provided ideas of freedom and the Revolutionary age emboldened the Irish masses. (Even the non-Catholic Dubliner, Jonathan Swift, dean of St. Patrick's cathedral in the early 18th century, declared "burn all that's British, except its coal.") To counter this Irish feistiness, English legislation became an out-and-out attack on the indigenous Irish culture. The harp was outlawed. Written and unwritten laws made life for Catholics and speakers of Irish very difficult.

The potato famine of 1845 to 1849 was a pivotal event in Irish history. The stature of Ireland and its language never recovered. In a few years, Ireland's population dropped from eight million to five million (three million either starved or emigrated). Ireland's population today is closer to six million. Britain's population, on the other hand, has grown from 12 million in 1845 to around 60 million today. (During this period, Ireland's population, as a percent of England's, dropped from 65 percent to 8 percent.)

While the English are likely to blame the famine on overpopulation (Ireland's population doubled in the 40 years leading up to the famine) many Irish say there actually was no famine — just a calculated attempt to starve down the local population. In fact, there was plenty of food grown on the island for export. It was only the potato crop which failed...and that happened to be what the Irish subsisted on.

The average farmer grew fancier export products for his landlord and was paid in potatoes which, in good years, he grew on the side. (If this makes you mad at the English landlords, consider American ownership of land in Central America, where the landlord takes things one step further by not growing the local staple at all. He devotes all the land to more profitable cash crops for export and leaves the landless farmer no alternative but to buy his food — imported from the US — at plantation wages, in the landlord's grocery store.)

The famine was a turning point in Irish history. Before the famine, land was subdivided — all the boys got a piece of the family estate (which grew smaller and smaller with each generation). After the famine the oldest son got the estate and the younger siblings, with no way to stay in Ireland, emigrated to the US, Canada, Australia and Britain. Today, there are 40 million Irish-Americans.

After the famine, Irish became the language of the peasant. English was for the upwardly mobile. Because of the huge emigration to the US, Ireland faced west and American influence increased. (American involvement in brokering the 1998 "Good Friday" Peace Accord was welcomed and considered essential by nearly all parties.)

The tragedy of the famine inflamed the nationalist movement. Uprising after uprising made it clear that Ireland was ready to close this thousand-year chapter of invasions and colonialism. Finally, in 1919, Ireland declared its independence. While the northern six counties (the only ones without a Catholic majority) voted to stay with Britain, the independent Republic of Ireland was born.


Pat O'Connor is the co-author of Rick Steves' Ireland guidebook.