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Pierre Trudeau, who was Prime Minister of Canada at the time, once described sharing the North American continent with the United States as “being in bed with an elephant”’. The metaphor would also be perfectly valid to describe the relationship within the islands of Britain and Ireland between England and the nations of the Celtic periphery.

As the different peoples of Europe began to form into nation states on emergence from the Dark Ages, it very soon became apparent that the tendency would be for England to try to absorb the other neighbouring countries within the Isles (and indeed, in later times, others much further afield).

It is impossible to consider the relations between Ireland and Great Britain in any context other than that of a centuries-long resistance on the part of the Irish people to domination by England first, and subsequently, by Great Britain. Which, naturally, is not to say that there has not also been an intense process of cross-pollination in cultural matters, and even in strictly human terms – there being many English and Scottish people today of Irish descent, and vice versa.

It cannot be denied however, that the Anglo-Norman invasion of Ireland in the twelfth century had repercussions which are still being felt today. That is to say, that the origin of the recent ‘troubles’ in the north of Ireland can be traced back directly to that event of over 800 years ago.

In the interim there have been periods of calm and frequent risings in the level of tension, but assimilation was simply never an option for the immense majority of Irish people. Despite the establishment of a Northern Ireland Assembly in 1998 there were still serious problems between those who consider a part of Ireland to be still under British occupation and those who believe that North-east Ulster is an integral part of the United Kingdom.

Although Ireland has been invaded and colonized within historic times by Celts, Norsemen, Normans, English and Scots, no racial or ethnic distinctions exist in the Republic today.

Ireland, lying to the west of Britain, has always been to some extent cut off by it from direct contact with other European countries, especially the area between Sweden and the Rhine. Approach from France, Spain and Portugal and even from Norway and Iceland has been more possible. Internally, the four ecclesiastical provinces into which Ireland was divided in the twelfth century realistically denoted the main natural divisions of the country. Of these, the north had in the earliest times been culturally connected with Scotland, the east with Roman Britain and Wales, the south with Wales and France, and the southwest and west with France and Spain.

After the Middle Ages, subjugation to Britain stultified, or the struggle for freedom absorbed, much of Ireland’s native energy. But its influence was always exercised as much through its emigrants as in its achievements as a nation. During the centuries of British occupation the successors of the great missionaries and scholars who, from the seventh to the ninth century, fostered Christianity and learning among the Germanic peoples of the Continent were those who formed a considerable element in the armies and clergy of Roman Catholic countries and had an incalculable influence on the later development of the United States. In British history innumerable great men of Anglo-Irish origin or nurture have, as statesmen or soldiers, played vital roles; the influence of Ireland itself on Britain has been constant and profound.


The documentary history of Ireland begins only in the seventh century, which saw the production both in Latin and Irish of sufficiently rich and numerous records of all sorts. For events before that time historians must rely on literary sources such as the sagas, many of whose characters may represent only poetic imagination and in which the social or political circumstances portrayed reflect the fantasies of their authors rather than historical reality.

  • Roman Britain:

The Romans, led by Julius Caesar, invaded the British Isles in 43 B.C., and gradually came to dominate all of what is today known as England. Wales was colonized to a lesser degree, and after several attempts at overrunning Scotland, the Romans desisted and built a high, thick wall from coast to coast to mark the limit of the Empire. This wall, known as Hadrian’s Wall after the Emperor who had it built, still marks today, with few modifications, the border between Scotland and England. Although it is mentioned in contemporary writing, the Romans never attempted to conquer Ireland.

  • Irish Raids and Migrations:

From about the middle of the third century Latin writings make frequent reference to raiding expeditions carried out by the Irish, who were now given the new name, Scoti, rather than the older one, Hiberni. Native Irish traditions also suggest that such attacks took place. In the second half of the fourth century, when Roman power in Britain was beginning to crumble seriously, the raids became incessant, and settlements were made along the west coast of Britain and extensively in Wales and Scotland. From the early fifth century the rulers of Dalriada in northern Antrim extended their power over the Irish already settled in Argyll and the neighbouring islands. Ultimately the Scottish kingdom of Dalriada became separated from the Irish and when, in the ninth century, it overcame the Picts, it gave its name, Scotland, to the whole area.

  • Early Christianity:

Little is known of the first impact of Christianity upon Ireland. Traditions in the south and southeast refer to early saints who allegedly preceded St. Patrick, and their missions may well have come through trading relations with the Roman Empire.

By the end of the sixth century, enthusiasm for Christianity was leading Irishmen to devote themselves to a most austere existence as monks, as hermits, and as missionaries to pagan tribes of Scotland, the north of England, and in a great area of west central Europe. St. Columba’s foundation (c. 563) of the monastery of Iona off the northwest Scottish coast provided the best-known base for the Celtic Christianisation of Scotland; and its offshoot, Lindisfarne, lying off the coast of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria, was responsible for the conversion of that area.


  • The Anglo-Norman Invasion:

Before the arrival of Henry II in Ireland (October 1171), Anglo-Norman adventurers had conquered a substantial part of eastern Ireland. Partly to avert any chance of Ireland’s becoming a rival Norman state, Henry took action to impose his rule there. He kept the chief towns in his own hands, exacted forms of submission from the Irish kings, and secured from a church synod recognition of his overlordship. During subsequent years the Anglo-Norman sphere in Ireland was extended. By the Treaty of Windsor (1175), O’Connor, the high king, accepted Henry as his overlord and restricted his own style to that of king of Connaught.

King John, who visited Ireland in 1210, established there a civil government independent of the feudal lords, and during the thirteenth century it became more fully organized. The country was divided into counties for administrative purposes, English law was introduced, and serious attempts were made to reduce the feudal liberties of the Anglo-Norman baronage. Parliament started in Ireland, as in England; in 1297 the peers and prelates were joined by representatives of counties, and in 1300 the towns also sent members. But these represented the Anglo-Irish only; the native Irish were aloof and unrepresented.

  • The Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries:

A brief threat to English control of Ireland, made by Edward Bruce, brother of King Robert I of Scotland, ended when Bruce was killed in battle at Faughart near Dundalk (1318). English control was reasserted and strengthened by the creation of three new Anglo-Irish earldoms, that of Kildare, that of Desmond and that of Ormonde. But the increased power and lands of the Anglo-Irish brought about an inevitable reaction; and the remainder of the fourteenth century witnessed a remarkable revival of Irish political power, which was matched by a flowering of Irish language, law, and civilization. The Anglo-Irish became increasingly Irish, marrying Irish women and often adopting Gaelic customs.

Edward III’s son, Lionel, duke of Clarence, as viceroy from 1361 to 1367, passed in the Irish Parliament the Statutes of Kilkenny (1366). Intermarriage or alliances with the Irish were forbidden. The independent Irish outside the Pale (the area of English control) were regarded as enemies and were assumed to possess their lands only by usurpation. In practice they were feared, and their attacks were often bought off by almost regular payments. Although both the Gaels and the Anglo-Irish had supported the Yorkist side in the Wars of the Roses, the Yorkist king Edward IV found them no less easy to subjugate than had his Lancastrian predecessors. The earls of Kildare were, in effect, the actual rulers of Ireland until well into the sixteenth century.

  • The Kildare Ascendancy:

The substitution (1485) of Tudor for Yorkist rule in England had no apparent effect in Ireland. The fiction of the king’s power was preserved by appointing an absentee lieutenant. When Kildare gave support to pretenders to the English throne it was decided to remove Kildare and rule through an Englishman, Sir Edward Poynings. Poynings subdued Kildare, but he could not re-conquer the northern Gaelic Irish. He introduced ‘Poynings’ Law’, which subjected the Irish Parliament to the control of the English king and council.

  • The Reformation Period:

In 1541 a complaisant Parliament recognised Henry VIII as king of Ireland (his predecessors had held the title of lord of Ireland). Confiscation of monastic property, as well as the lands of the rebels, met most of the costs of the expanded administration. This loss of land inevitably drove the religious orders and the Anglo-Irish into the arms of the Gaelic Irish. Sir Anthony St. Leger, lord deputy, then began a conciliatory policy by which outstanding lords were persuaded, in order to gain new titles and grants of lands, to renounce the pope and recognize the king’s ecclesiastical supremacy. The Dublin authorities carried out a forward policy in religion as well as in politics, but Protestantism got no support except from English officials. The official restoration of Roman Catholicism under Queen Mary (1553-58) revealed the strength of resentment in Ireland against Protestantism. Mary gave statutory approval for the plantation, or resettlement of Irish lands by Englishmen. Her viceroy was Thomas Radcliffe, earl of Sussex, lord deputy (1556-59), who was soon, as lord lieutenant (1559-66) for Elizabeth I, to restore the state’s authority over the church.

  • Ireland under Elizabeth I:

The Acts of Supremacy and Uniformity, enforcing the Anglican Church settlement, were passed in Ireland in 1560, but fear of driving the inhabitants of the Pale into alliance with the Gaelic Irish and perhaps with the Spanish made the government lenient in enforcing the terms of the Acts. Political affairs continued to preoccupy the administrators, so that the new Protestant church was unequipped to resist the forces of the Counter-Reformation. This was inevitable in an Ireland only superficially conformed to royal obedience.

Elizabeth’s Irish policy had the distinction of having reduced the country to obedience for the first time since the invasion of Henry II. But the cost was a serious one. The loyalty of the Irish was perennially strained over the religious issue, so that further rebellion was almost inevitable and virtually predictable in 1640 when the English government was embarrassed by the Second Bishops’ War with Scotland. Economically, the towns and the countryside were needlessly exploited by the new administrators.


  • The Seventeenth Century:

James VI of Scotland, who also became King James I of England and Ireland in 1603, might have pursued an Irish policy more enlightened than that of Elizabeth. Unfortunately, James allowed Irish policy to be dominated by the interests of the English governing class. The overwhelming majority of the Gaelic Irish and of the old Anglo-Irish remained detached from government in attitude as well as in way of life. As soon as James’s policy became clear, the earls of Tyrone and of Tyrconnel and other Ulster Gaelic lords joined the flight from Ireland. Their departure opened the way for the plantation of Ulster by a new landowning class, which included Scots as well as Englishmen. The newcomers were mainly from the Scottish Lowlands, and at first the English feared them almost more than they feared the Irish.

A general rising of the Irish in Ulster was almost inevitable. It took place in October 1641, and thousands of colonists were murdered or fled. When the Civil War broke out, Ireland was divided into factions and there was little serious resistance to the armies of Oliver Cromwell. By 1652 all Irish resistance was over. During the Commonwealth and Protectorate, authority in Ireland was exercised by parliamentary commissioners and chief governors. Ireland, regarded as conquered territory, was parcelled out among soldiers and creditors of the Commonwealth, and Roman Catholics were obliged to exchange land owned to the northeast or south of the River Shannon for land in Connaught. Roman Catholics and Anglicans were forbidden to practise their religion, but the campaign against Irish Catholicism was not successful. After the Restoration (1660), Charles II personally favoured complete religious toleration, but the forces of militant Protestantism sometimes proved too strong for him.

  • The Restoration Period and the Jacobite War:

Most significant of the events of the Restoration was the second Act of Settlement (1662), which enabled Protestant loyalists to recover their estates. The Act of Explanation (1665) obliged the Cromwellian settlers to surrender one-third of their grants, providing a reserve of land from which Roman Catholics were partially compensated for losses under the Commonwealth. This satisfied neither group. Roman Catholics were prevented from residing in towns, and local power, in both borough and county, became appropriated to the Protestant interest.

But Protestantism itself became permanently split; as in England, the Presbyterians refused to conform to Episcopalian order and practice and, in association with the Presbyterians of Scotland, organized as a separate church. After the flight of James II from England to France (1688), James crossed to Ireland, where Parliament made provision for the restoration of expropriated Roman Catholics. When William III landed in Ireland to oppose James, the country divided denominationally, but the real issue was not religion but the land. After his defeat at the Battle of the Boyne (1690) James fled to France, but his Roman Catholic supporters continued in arms until defeated at Aughrim and obliged to surrender (1691) at Limerick.

Immediately after Limerick, the Protestant position was secured by acts of the English Parliament declaring illegal the acts of King James’s Parliament in Ireland and restricting to Protestants membership of future Irish Parliaments. The sale of the lands forfeited by James and some of his supporters further reduced the Roman Catholic landownership in the country; by 1703 it was less than 10 percent. On this foundation the Protestant Ascendancy was established.

  • The Eighteenth Century:

The Protestant Ascendancy was a supremacy of that proportion of the population, about one-tenth, which alone belonged to the established Protestant Episcopalian Church. Not only the Roman Catholic majority but also the Presbyterians and other Nonconformists, whose combined numbers exceeded those of the church establishment, were excluded from full political rights.

The American War of Independence and the outbreak of the French Revolution had effected a temporary alliance between the intellectual elite among the Presbyterians and leading middle-class Roman Catholics; these, under the inspiration of Wolfe Tone, founded societies of United Irishmen, a series of radical political clubs. After the outbreak of war, the societies sought the military support of Revolutionary France, which between 1796 and 1798 dispatched a series of abortive naval expeditions to Ireland. The United Irishmen were preparing for rebellion; it broke out in May 1798 but was widespread only in Ulster and in Wexford in the south.

Although the rebellion was unsuccessful, it brought the Irish question forcibly to the attention of the British Cabinet, and the Prime Minister, William Pitt, planned and carried through an amalgamation of the British and Irish Parliaments, merging the kingdoms of Great Britain and Ireland into the United Kingdom. Despite substantial opposition in the Irish Parliament, the measure passed into law, having effect from January 1, 1801.

To many reformists the Union seemed the end of the Irish nation; the last protest of the United Irishmen was made in Robert Emmet’s abortive rebellion of 1803.

The seventeenth century confiscations made Ireland a land of great estates and, except for Dublin, of small towns decaying under the impact of British restrictions on trade. In Ulster there gradually emerged a tenantry who compelled their landlords to maintain them in their farms against the claims and bids of Roman Catholic competitors now once again legally entitled to hold land. This purpose immensely strengthened the Orange Order, founded in 1795 in defence of the Protestant Ascendancy. Increasingly it linked the Protestant gentry and farmers, while excluding Roman Catholics from breaking into this privileged circle.


By the Act of Union in 1800 it was provided that Ireland would have in the United Kingdom about one-fifth of the representation of Great Britain, with 100 members in the House of Commons. The British Test Act virtually excluded Nonconformists (both Roman Catholic and Protestant) from Parliament and from membership of municipal corporations. Not until 1828-29 did the repeal of the Test Act and the concession of Roman Catholic emancipation provide political equality for most purposes.

Within half a century agricultural produce dropped in value and estate rentals declined, while the rural population increased substantially. When the potato, the staple food of rural Ireland, rotted in the ground through the onset of blight in the mid-nineteenth century, perhaps as many as a million people died of starvation and fever in the Great Famine that ensued, and even more fled abroad.

Until emancipation was achieved, there had not clearly emerged any notable difference in outlook between the Roman Catholics and Presbyterians; but the dramatic manner in which the Roman Catholic Daniel O’Connell was elected to a Parliamentary seat for County Clare (1828), subsequently sweeping the emancipation movement into victory, provoked a panic among timid Protestants and led to an alliance between the Presbyterians and their old oppressors, the Protestant Episcopalians. After emancipation, the middle-class Roman Catholics and Protestants drifted apart, the latter increasingly clinging to the Union, the former more slowly but at last decisively coming to seek its repeal.

The Tories, led by Sir Robert Peel, exercised through their control of the House of Lords an effective restriction on promised social and economic reforms for Ireland, and when Peel returned to power in the early 1840s O’Connell, despairing of further concessions, began a massive campaign outside Parliament for repeal of the Union, notably by organising large popular demonstrations.

The failure of the aborted rising of 1848, and the deportation or escape from Ireland of most of the leaders, destroyed the repeal movement. The flow of emigrants to the United States was encouraged by invitations from Irishmen already there. And in England, also, the new industrial cities and shipping centres attracted large settlements of hopeless and embittered exiles from Ireland.

  • The Rise of Fenianism:

Among the exiles both in the United States and in England, the Fenian movement spread widely. A secret revolutionary society named after the Fianna, the Irish armed force in legendary times, it aimed at securing Ireland’s political freedom by exploiting every opportunity to injure English interests. A nationwide rising, financed largely by funds collected in the United States, took place in March 1867 but was easily crushed and its leaders imprisoned. The Prime Minister, William Ewart Gladstone, at last recognised the necessity for drastic Irish reforms, disestablishing the Protestant Church in Ireland in 1869 and in 1870 introducing the first Irish Land Act, which conceded the principles of secure tenure and compensation for improvements made to property.

  • The Home Rule Movement and the Land League:

In 1870 the Home Rule League was founded and in the election of 1874 it returned about 60 members to Parliament. Michael Davitt founded the Irish Land League to achieve for tenants security of tenure, fair rents, and freedom to sell property. Charles Stewart Parnell was elected leader of the Home Rule Party. Parnell undertook a tour of North America to raise funds for the Land League; there he was influenced by two Irish Americans, John Devoy, a leading member of Clan na Gael, an effective American Fenian organization, and Pat Ford, whose New York paper The Irish World preached militant Socialism and hatred of England.

At Westminster, Parnell adopted a policy of persistent obstruction, which compelled attention to Irish needs by bringing parliamentary business to a standstill. Gladstone was forced to introduce his Land Act of 1881, conceding fixity of tenure, fair rents, and free sale of the tenant’s interest. Parnell’s success was not achieved without serious difficulties, including the ultimate proscription of the Land League by the government and the imprisonment of its leaders. As a result, Parnell used his parliamentary party, then increased to 86, to defeat and thus dismiss from office Gladstone’s Liberal government.

A Home Rule bill introduced by Gladstone in 1886 was defeated by a combination of Conservative Unionists influenced by Irish Orangemen and splinter groups from the Liberal Party. Gladstone’s second Home Rule Bill (1893) was rejected in the House of Lords. Only in 1900 was a Parnellite, John Redmond, able to reunite the Nationalists. In the last years of the century, partly in reaction to political frustrations, a cultural nationalist movement developed, led by Douglas Hyde and Eoin MacNeill. Through the Gaelic League much was done to revive interest in the speaking and study of Irish. These cultural movements were reinforced by others, such as that of the Sinn Féin (‘Ourselves’) movement led by Arthur Griffith, who preached a doctrine of political self-help. It subsequently emerged that a Fenian organisation, the Irish Republican Brotherhood, had revived and was secretly recruiting membership through various cultural societies. Around the close of the century the Conservatives initiated a policy designed to ‘kill Home Rule by kindness’ by introducing constructive reforms in Ireland.

  • The Early Twentieth Century Crisis:

After the great Liberal victory of 1906, Redmond decided to force the Liberals to revive Home Rule, and when David Lloyd George’s radical budget provoked a collision with the House of Lords in 1909, he seized his opportunity. He agreed to support the campaign of the Prime Minister, H.H. Asquith, against the Lords in return for the promise of a Home Rule bill. The reduction of the power of the Lords by the 1911 Parliament Act seemed to promise success for the third Home Rule bill, introduced in 1912. In the meantime, however, the Irish Unionists, under their colourful leader Sir Edward Carson, had mounted an effective counter-movement, backed by most of the British Unionists. Thousands of Ulstermen signed the Ulster Covenant of resistance to Home Rule (1912), and Carson announced that a provisional government would be formed there.

Within the historic territory of Ulster, Donegal, Cavan, and Monaghan had strong Home Rule majorities and Tyrone and Fermanagh had small Home Rule majorities. The Ulster Volunteer Force was organized and to counter them, a nationalist force, the Irish Volunteers, was launched in Dublin in 1913. Both forces gathered arms, and Ireland was on the verge of civil war when World War I broke out. Assured of Redmond’s support in recruiting for the army, Asquith enacted Home Rule but followed this with a Suspensory Act, delaying implementation until the return of peace.

In Ireland, meanwhile, the revolutionary element gained support from those alienated by Redmond’s pro-British attitude. Before the end of 1914 the Irish Republican Brotherhood had made full plans for a revolutionary outbreak. When the rising took place, on Easter Monday, 1916, only about 1,000 of the small force available were actually engaged. A provisional Republican government was proclaimed. The General Post Office and other parts of Dublin were seized; street fighting continued for about a week until Patrick Pearse and other Republican leaders were forced to surrender. Their subsequent execution aroused Irish public opinion and led to the defeat and virtual extinction of Redmond’s constitutional party at Westminster in the general election of December 1918.

Their successful opponents, calling themselves Sinn Féin but supporting the Republican programme announced in 1916, were led by Eamon de Valera, a surviving leader of the Rising. Again the Republicans set up their provisional government, elected by the Irish members of Parliament at a meeting in Dublin called Dáil Éireann, the ‘Irish Assembly.’ The Irish Republican Army (IRA) was organised to resist British administration and to secure recognition for the Republican government. Its members soon engaged in widespread ambushes and attacks on barracks, while the government retaliated with ruthless reprisals.

In this condition of virtual civil war Britain gradually alienated Irish public opinion and was forced, partly under American influence, to pass the Government of Ireland Act (1920). By this measure Ireland was divided into two self-governing areas, Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland. Ultimately, on December 6, 1921, an Anglo-Irish treaty was signed on behalf of Great Britain by Lloyd George and leading members of his cabinet and on behalf of Ireland by Arthur Griffith, Michael Collins, and other members of the Republican Cabinet.


  • Establishment of the Irish Free State:

The Anglo-Irish treaty provided that Ireland should have the status in the community of dominion and was to be known as the Irish Free State. The new state comprised only 26 of the 32 counties, the north-eastern area, known as Northern Ireland, remaining separate. But the terms of the treaty had been accepted by the Irish signatories only because Lloyd George had threatened war on Ireland if they were rejected. Particularly obnoxious were a prescribed oath of allegiance to the British crown and the provisions allowing Northern Ireland to remain outside the new state. De Valera and the Republicans immediately repudiated the treaty, and after its passage in the Dáil, de Valera resigned from the presidency. Michael Collins, chairman of the provisional government set up according to the terms of the treaty, and Arthur Griffith, the new president, desired an immediate general election to obtain a verdict on the treaty.

Before the Dáil could meet, civil war had broken out between the government and the Republicans. The Republicans in Dublin occupied the Four Courts (central courts of justice). Serious fighting ensued for a week, until the Courts were blown up, and Rory O’Connor, the Dublin Republican leader, surrendered. Meanwhile, de Valera, who had escaped to the southwest, was openly supporting the Republicans. Griffith and Collins decided that no further compromise was possible, and military operations were begun.

The strain told so heavily on Griffith that he died suddenly on August 12, while Collins, inspecting the military operations, was killed in an ambush on August 22. The provisional government had thus lost two of its most prominent leaders. On September 9, William Cosgrave was elected as the new president, and, in the absence of the Republican deputies, passed the clauses of the constitution defining the relations of the Free State with the British crown.

  • The Cosgrave Ministries:

The government resorted to strong measures to quell disorder and violence. Its decision to execute those found in unauthorized possession of firearms embittered Irish politics for years afterward. Numerous Republican insurgents were also imprisoned, and 77 were executed. Although Republican opposition was at first more bitter than ever, it eventually became less well organised, and by May 1923, on de Valera’s recommendation, armed resistance ended.

In the depression of the early 1930s, unemployment and general discontent with the government led to its defeat in February 1932. Fianna Fáil won enough seats for de Valera, with Labour Party support, to be able to form a new government.

  • De Valera’s Governments (1932-48) and the Establishment of Éire:

De Valera abolished the oath of allegiance to the crown in 1937. The power of the crown was ended, and the office of governor general was replaced by that of a president elected by national suffrage. The first president was Douglas Hyde, a Celtic scholar who had been associated with the Gaelic revival since 1890. The new constitution did not proclaim an independent republic, but it replaced the title of the Irish Free State with the word Éire (Ireland). At the outbreak of World War II, the government of de Valera remained strictly neutral, despite German air raids on Dublin in 1941 and, after the United States entered the war in December 1941, pressure from U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt.

  • The Republic of Ireland:

Fearful of de Valera’s prestige, Costello introduced in the Dáil the Republic of Ireland Act, which ended the fiction of Commonwealth membership that had been maintained since 1937. Britain recognised the status of Ireland in 1949 but declared that cession of the six counties could not occur without consent of the Parliament of Northern Ireland.


  • Precarious Coexistence:

The constitutional revisions of 1920-22 succeeded in creating a state within Ireland acceptable to the approximately one million Protestant unionists of the six counties. It did not provide a remedy for the several hundred thousand Protestant unionists who lived elsewhere in Ireland, many of whom eventually emigrated. More importantly, it did not provide significant protection for the 500,000 Roman Catholic Nationalists who resided within the six counties.

Under the leadership of Sir James Craig (Lord Craigavon), prime minister from 1921 to 1940, Northern Ireland was an unapologetically sectarian state permanently dominated by its Protestant majority and governed in their special interest. Catholics expressed their disdain for the new state by withdrawing from the political arena almost entirely, thereby making even easier Protestant control of local government and the favouring of Protestants in the distribution of jobs, public housing, education, and social services.

Several factors help to explain the relatively minor emigration of Roman Catholics from the north. Not only did they fear that they would be economically worse off in the south, but World War II brought a measure of economic revival, especially in ship and aircraft manufacture. Moreover, the social-welfare provisions extended to Northern Ireland after the war exceeded by far the supports and protections available to individuals in the socially conservative south. Northern Catholics did not ‘vote with their feet,’ but neither were they reconciled to the glaring inequities of their state.

  • Distintegration of Stability:

By the mid-1960s the fragile stability of Northern Ireland began to erode. Catholic civil rights protests in 1968 set the scene for violent confrontations that rekindled sectarian conflict between the two communities, especially in Belfast and Derry. The moribund Irish Republican Army (IRA) came back to life in the form of the Provisionals, urban guerrillas who undertook to protect the Catholic segment of the population from official and unofficial assault and whose political agenda called for the summary departure of the British armed forces and the end of Protestant domination. The Protestant response was the formation of its own paramilitary brigades.

British forces entered the province in the early 1970s, nominally to keep the peace. Soon, however, they came to be viewed by many Catholics as unwelcome agents of a foreign power. The constitution and parliament of Northern Ireland were suspended in March 1972 by the government of the Conservative British Prime Minister Edward Heath, and since that time a cabinet official, the minister for Northern Ireland, has been responsible for the province. The British Army remained a major presence, and elements of martial law permeated civil and judicial processes in an effort to stem undiminishing violence.

Despite occasional efforts at conciliation and ‘power sharing’, the basic social and political dilemmas of the state created in 1920 remained unresolved.

  • Relations between the Republic and Northern Ireland:

During the late 1950s and early 1960s the Irish government had to deal with IRA attacks on British Army posts along the Ulster border. The Irish government was increasingly preoccupied by the situation in Northern Ireland during the 1970s. In 1973 Prime Minister Cosgrave participated in talks with Edward Heath, prime minister of Britain, and representatives of Northern Ireland, resulting in the Sunningdale Agreement. This accord recognized that the North’s relationship with Britain could not be changed without the agreement of a majority of the population in the North, and it provided for the establishment of a Council of Ireland composed of members from both the Dáil and the Northern Ireland Assembly. The agreement collapsed the next year.

In 1981 Prime Minister FitzGerald launched a constitutional crusade to make the reunification of Ireland more attractive to Ulster Unionists. At the end of the year the Irish and British governments set up an Anglo-Irish intergovernmental council to discuss matters of common concern, especially security.

The report of the New Ireland Forum – a discussion group that included representatives of the political parties in Ireland and Northern Ireland – in 1984 set out three possible frameworks for political development in Ireland, those of a unitary state, a federal state, and joint sovereignty. In November 1985 at Hillsborough in Northern Ireland, Ireland and Britain again agreed that any change in the status of Northern Ireland would come about only with the consent of the majority of the people of Northern Ireland, and an intergovernmental conference was established to deal with political security and legal relations between the two parts of the island.

In May 1987, following a Supreme Court decision, a constitutional referendum ratified the Single European Act and therefore served to confirm Ireland’s participation in the European Economic Community.

Despite Fianna Fáil’s initial criticism of the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement, while in power the Haughey government maintained support for the agreement. Contacts between the Irish and British governments continued after February 1987 within the formal structure of the intergovernmental conference. The 1985 Hillsborough agreement also established the participation of the Irish governments in any subsequent peace talks.

Since the signing of this agreement, some progress was made. Successive rounds of talks were held and, following the unilateral declaration of a cease-fire by the IRA in 1994, Sinn Féin also participated. Unionist paramilitaries followed suit two months later. The truce broke down in 1996, to be re-established towards the end of 1997.

Since 1997, with a new Labour government power in Westminster, massive steps were taken towards establishing a permanent peace in the north of Ireland. The new Northern Ireland Assembly, with representation from all sides of the political spectrum, seemed to be the only sensible way forward to finding the peace and harmony that has been absent for so long in the province.

After the ceasefires, talks began between the main political parties in Northern Ireland with the aim of establishing political agreement. These talks eventually produced the Belfast Agreement of 1998. This Agreement restored self-government to Northern Ireland on the basis of ‘power-sharing’, and an executive was formed in 1999 consisting of the four main parties, including Sinn Féin. Other reforms included reform of the police (which was renamed as the Police Service of Northern Ireland and required to recruit a minimum quota of Catholics).

However, the power-sharing Executive and Assembly was suspended in 2002, when unionists withdrew following the exposure of a Provisional IRA spy ring within the Sinn Féin office (which was later revealed to have been started by an undercover British agent Denis Donaldson). This was on top of ongoing tensions between unionists and Sinn Féin about Provisional IRA failure to disarm fully and sufficiently quickly. IRA decommissioning has since been completed (in September 2005) to the satisfaction of most, but the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) continued to be wary over republican claims that the war was over.

A feature of Northern Irish politics since the Agreement has been the eclipse in electoral terms of the relatively moderate parties such as the Social Democratic and Labour Party and Ulster Unionist Party by more extreme parties – Sinn Féin and the DUP.

Similarly, although political violence is greatly reduced, sectarian animosity has not disappeared and residential areas are more segregated between Catholic nationalists and Protestant unionists than ever. Because of this, progress towards restoring the power-sharing institutions looks likely to be slow and tortuous. Though the peace process is slow-going, movements are forming to assist in this process and give those affected by the troubles a voice in their communities.

Politicians elected to the Assembly at the 2003 Assembly Election were called together on May 15, 2006 under the Northern Ireland Act for the purpose of electing a First Minister and a Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland and choosing the members of an Executive as a preliminary step to the restoration of devolved government in Northern Ireland.

Following the election held on March 7, 2007, devolved government returned to Northern Ireland on May 8, 2007 with Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader Ian Paisley and Sinn Féin deputy leader Martin McGuinness taking office as First Minister and Deputy First Minister, respectively. The current First Minister is Peter Robinson, having taken over as leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, although he temporarily stood down following his wife’s scandalous affair with a 19-year-old boy.

The detention, in April 2014, of Sinn Féin’s President Gerry Adams in relation to the abduction and murder of a widowed mother who was suspected by the IRA as being a police informer, has shown that there is still a long way to go to heal many of the wounds caused during the troubles in Northern Ireland.


Sean O’Casey (christened John Casey) was an Irish playwright renowned for realistic dramas of the Dublin slums in war and revolution, in which tragedy and comedy are juxtaposed in a way new to the theatre of his time.

O’Casey was born into a lower middle-class Irish Protestant family. His father died when John was only six and thereafter the family became progressively poorer. With only three years of formal schooling, he educated himself by reading. He started work at 14, mostly in manual labour, including several years with the Irish railways. O’Casey himself would later exaggerate the hardships and poverty he had experienced during childhood.

He became caught up in the cause of Irish nationalism, and he changed his name to its Irish form and learned Irish Gaelic. His attitudes were greatly influenced by the poverty and squalor he witnessed in Dublin’s slums and by the teachings of the Irish Labour leader Jim Larkin. O’Casey became active in the labour movement and wrote for the Irish Worker. He also joined the Irish Citizen Army, a paramilitary arm of the Irish labour unions, and drew up its constitution in 1914.

At this time he became disillusioned with the Irish nationalist movement because its leaders put nationalist ideals before socialist ones. O’Casey did not take part in the 1916 Easter Rising against the British authorities. Disgusted with the existing political parties, he turned his energies to drama. His tragicomedies reflect in part his mixed feeling about his fellow slum dwellers, seeing them as incapable of giving a socialist direction to the Irish cause, but at the same time admirable for their unconquerable spirit. In reaction to peasant realism, Sean O’Casey wrote three great dramas of the Dublin slums, The Shadow of a Gunman (1923), Juno and the Paycock (1924) and The Plough and the Stars (1926).

After several of his plays had been rejected, the Abbey Theatre in Dublin produced The Shadow of a Gunman, set during the guerrilla strife between the Irish Republican Army and British forces. In 1924 the Abbey staged Juno and the Paycock, his most popular play, set during the period of civil war over the terms of Irish independence. The Plough and the Stars, with the 1916 Easter Rising as its background, caused riots at the Abbey by patriots who thought the play denigrated Irish heroes.

When first produced in the 1920s, these plays had an explosive effect on the audiences at the Abbey and helped to enlarge that theatre’s reputation. O’Casey went to England in 1926, met the Irish actress Eileen Carey Reynolds, married her, and henceforth made England his home.

His decision to live outside Ireland was motivated in part by the Abbey’s rejection of The Silver Tassie, a partly Expressionist anti-war drama produced in England in 1922. Another Expressionist play, Within the Gates (1934), followed, in which the modern world is symbolized by the happenings in a public park. The Star Turns Red (1940) is an anti-fascist play, and the semi-autobiographical Red Roses for Me (1946) is set in Dublin at the time of the Irish railway strike of 1911.

His later plays, given to fantasy and ritual and directed against the life-denying puritanism he thought had beset Ireland, include Cock-a-Doodle Dandy (1949), The Bishop’s Bonfire (1955) and The Drums of Father Ned (1958). His last full-length play was a satire on Dublin intellectuals, Behind the Green Curtains (published in 1961).

O’Casey’s three indisputably great plays are The Shadow of a Gunman, Juno and the Paycock and The Plough and the Stars. All of these are tragicomedies set in the slums of Dublin during times of war and revolution in Ireland. In the plays, violent death and the everyday realities of tenement life throw into relief the blustering rhetoric and patriotic swagger of men caught up in the struggle for Irish independence. The resulting ironic juxtapositions of the comic and tragic reveal the waste of war and the corrosive effects of poverty.

O’Casey’s gifts were vivid characterization and working-class language, and though he portrayed war and poverty, he wrote some of the funniest scenes in modern drama. His later plays are not considered as powerful or moving as his earlier realistic plays. In his later plays he tended to abandon vigorous characterisation in favour of expressionism and symbolism, and sometimes the drama is marred by didacticism.

Six volumes of O’Casey’s autobiography appeared from 1939 to 1956; they were later collected as Mirror in My House (1956) in the United States and as Autobiographies (1963) in Great Britain.


James Augustine Aloysius Joyce was born in Dublin in 1882. He was an Irish novelist noted for his experimental use of language and exploration of new literary methods in such large works of fiction as Ulysses (1922) and Finnegans Wake (1939).

Joyce, the eldest of 10 children in his family to survive infancy, was sent at the age of six to Clongowes Wood College, a Jesuit boarding school that has been described as ‘the Eton of Ireland’. But his father was not the man to stay affluent for long: he drank, neglected his affairs and borrowed money from his office, and his family sank deeper and deeper into poverty, the children becoming accustomed to conditions of increasing sordidness. Joyce did not return to Clongowes in 1891; instead, he stayed at home for the next two years and tried to educate himself, asking his mother to check his work.

In April 1893 he and his brother Stanislaus were admitted, without fees, to Belvedere College, a Jesuit grammar school in Dublin. Joyce did well there academically and was twice elected president of the Marian Society, a position virtually of head boy. He left, however, under a cloud, as it was thought (correctly) that he has lost his Roman Catholic faith. He entered University College, Dublin, which was then staffed by Jesuit priests. There he studied languages and reserved his energies for extracurricular activities, reading widely – particularly in books not recommended by the Jesuits – and taking active part in the college’s Literary and Historical Society. Greatly admiring Henrik Ibsen, he learned Dano-Norwegian to read the original and had an article, ‘Ibsen’s New Drama’ – a review of the play When We Dead Awaken – published in the ‘London Fortnightly Review’ in 1900 just after his eighteenth birthday.

This early success confirmed Joyce in his resolution to become a writer and persuaded his family, friends, and teachers that the resolution was justified. In October 1901 he published an essay, The Day of the Rabblement, attacking the Irish Literary Theatre (later the Abbey Theatre, Dublin) for catering to popular taste. Joyce was leading a dissolute life at this time but worked sufficiently hard to pass his final examinations, matriculating with second-class honours in Latin and obtaining his B.A. degree in 1902.

Never did he relax his efforts to master the art of writing. He wrote verses and experimented with short prose passages that he called ‘epiphanies’, a word that Joyce used to describe his accounts of moments when the real truth about some person or object was revealed. To support himself while writing, he decided to become a doctor but, after attending a few lectures in Dublin, he borrowed what money he could and went to Paris, where he abandoned the idea of medical studies, wrote some book reviews and studied in the Sainte-Geneviève Library.

Recalled home in April 1903 because his mother was dying, he tried various occupations, including teaching, and lived at various addresses, including the Martello Tower at Sandycove, now Ireland’s Joyce Museum.

He had begun writing a lengthy naturalistic novel, Stephen Hero, based on the events of his own life, when in 1904 George Russell offered money for some simple short stories with an Irish background to appear in a farmers’ magazine, ‘The Irish Homestead’. In response, Joyce began writing the stories published as Dubliners (1914). Three stories, The Sisters, Eveline and After the Race had appeared under the pseudonym Stephen Dedalus before the editor decided that Joyce’s work was not suitable for his readers.

Meanwhile, Joyce had met Nora Barnacle, with whom he fell in love on June 16, the day that he chose as what is known as ‘Bloomsday’ (the day of his novel Ulysses). Eventually, he persuaded her to leave Ireland with him, although he refused, on principle, to go through a ceremony of marriage. Joyce and Nora left Dublin together in October 1904. He obtained a position in the Berlitz School in Pola, Austria-Hungary, working in his spare time on his novels and short stories. In 1905 they moved to Trieste, where James’s brother Stanislaus joined them and where their children, George and Lucia, were born.

In 1906-07, for eight months, he worked at a bank in Rome, disliking almost everything he saw. Ireland seemed pleasant by contrast; he wrote to Stanislaus that he had not given credit in his stories to the Irish virtue of hospitality and began to plan a new story, The Dead. The early stories were meant, he said, to show the stultifying inertia and social conformity from which Dublin suffered, but they are written with a vividness that arises from his success in making every word and every detail significant.

His studies in European literature had interested him in both the Symbolists and the Realists; his work began to show a synthesis of these two rival movements. He decided that Stephen Hero lacked artistic control and form and rewrote it as ‘a work in five chapters’ under the title A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man , intended to direct attention to its focus upon the central figure. In 1909 he visited Ireland twice to try to publish Dubliners and set up a chain of Irish cinemas. Neither effort succeeded, and he was distressed when a former friend told him that he had shared Nora’s affections in the summer of 1904. Another old friend proved this to be a lie. Joyce always felt that he had been betrayed, however, and the theme of betrayal runs through much of his later writings.

When Italy declared war in 1915, Stanislaus was interned, but James and his family were allowed to go to Zürich. At first, while he gave private lessons in English and worked on the early chapters of Ulysses, which he had first thought of as another story about a ‘Mr. Hunter’; his financial difficulties were great. He was helped by a large grant from Edith Rockefeller MacCormick and finally by a series of grants form Harriet Shaw Weaver, editor of the Egoist Magazine, which by 1930 had amounted to more than 23,000 pounds. Her generosity resulted partly from her admiration for his work and partly from her sympathy with his difficulties, for, as well as poverty, he had to contend with eye diseases that never really left him.

From February 1917 until 1930 he endured a series of 25 operations, sometimes being for short intervals totally blind. Despite this he kept up his spirits and continued working, some of his most joyful passages being composed when his health was at its worst.

Unable to find an English printer willing to set up A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man for book publication, Weaver published it herself, having the sheets printed in the United States, where it was also published, in December 1916, in advance of the English Egoist Press edition. Encouraged by the acclaim given to this, in March 1918, the ‘American Little Review’ began to publish episodes from Ulysses, continuing until the work was banned in December 1920.

An autobiographical novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man traces the intellectual and emotional development of a young man named Stephen Dedalus and ends with his decision to leave Dublin for Paris to devote his life to art. The last words of Stephen prior to his departure are thought to express the author’s feelings upon the same occasion in his own life:

Welcome, O life! I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of my experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.’

After World War I Joyce returned for a few months to Trieste, and then – at the invitation of Ezra Pound – in July 1920 he went to Paris. His novel Ulysses was published there in February 1922, by Sylvia Beach, proprietor of a bookshop called ‘Shakespeare & Co.’. Ulysses is constructed as a modern parallel to Homer’s Odyssey.

All of the action of the novel takes place in Dublin on a single day (June 16, 1904). The three central characters – Stephen Dedalus (the hero of Joyce’s earlier A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man), Leopold Bloom, a Jewish advertising canvasser, and his wife Molly Bloom – are intended to be modern counterparts of Telemachus, Ulysses and Penelope.

By the use of interior monologue Joyce reveals the innermost thoughts and feelings of these characters as they live hour by hour, passing from a public bath to a funeral, library, maternity, hospital and brothel. The main strength of Ulysses lies in its depth of character portrayal and its breadth of humour. Yet the book is most famous for its use of a variant of the interior monologue known as the ‘stream-of-consciousness’ technique. Joyce claimed to have taken this technique from a forgotten French writer, Édouard Dujardin (1861-1949), who had used interior monologues in his novel Les Lauriers son Coupés (1888; We’ll to the Woods No More), but many critics have pointed out that it is at least as old as the novel, though no one before Joyce had used it so continuously.

Joyce’s major innovation was to carry the interior monologue one step further by rendering, for the first time in literature, the myriad flow of impressions, half thoughts, associations, lapses and hesitations, incidental worries and sudden impulses that form part of the individual’s conscious awareness along with the trend of his rational thoughts. This stream-of-consciousness technique proved widely influential in much twentieth century fiction.

In Paris Joyce worked on Finnegans Wake, the title of which was kept secret, the novel being known simply as ‘Work in Progress’ until it was published in its entirety in May 1939.

In addition to his chronic eye troubles, Joyce suffered great and prolonged anxiety over his daughter’s mental health. What had seemed her slight eccentricity grew into unmistakable and sometimes violent mental disorder that Joyce tried by every possible means to cure, but it became necessary finally to place her in a mental hospital near Paris.

In 1931 he and Nora visited London, where they were married, his scruples on this point having yielded to his daughter’s complaints. Meanwhile he wrote and rewrote sections of Finnegans Wake; often a passage was revised more than a dozen times before he was satisfied.

Basically the book is, in one sense, the story of a publican in Chapelizod, near Dublin, his wife, and their three children; but Mr. Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker (often designated by variations on his initials, HCE, one form of which is ‘Here Comes Everybody’), Mrs. Anna Livia Plurabelle, Kevin, Jerrny and Isabel are every family of mankind, the archetypal family about whom all mankind is dreaming.

Throughout the book Joyce himself is present, joking, mocking his critics, defending his theories, remembering his father enjoying himself. After the fall of France in World War II (1940), Joyce took his family back to Zürich, where he died, still disappointed with the reception given to his last book.

James Joyce’s subtle yet frank portrayal of human nature, coupled with his mastery of language and brilliant development of new literary forms, made him one of the most commanding influences on novelists of the twentieth century. Ulysses has come to be accepted as a major masterpiece, two of its characters, Leopold Bloom and his wife, Molly, being portrayed with a fullness and warmth of humanity unsurpassed in fiction.

Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is also remarkable for the intimacy of the reader’s contact with the central figure and contains some astonishingly vivid passages. The 15 short stories collected in Dubliners mainly focused upon Dublin life’s sordidness, but The Dead is one of the world’s great short stories.

Critical opinion remains divided over Joyce’s last work, Finnegans Wake, a universal dream about an Irish family, composed in a multilingual style on many levels and aiming at a multiplicity of meanings; but although seemingly unintelligible at first reading, the book is full of poetry and wit, containing passages of great beauty.

Joyce’s other works – some verse (Chamber Music, 1907; Pomes Penyeach, 1927; Collected Poems, 1936) and a play, Exiles (1918) – though competently written, added little to his international stature.