Three Rivers of Ireland: History and Culture


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In 1541, Henry VIII went against the expressed wishes of the Pope and made himself the King of Ireland as well as England. The Kingdom of Ireland was established in 1542 when the parliament of Ireland passed the Crown of Ireland Act 1542. This act replaced the Lordship of Ireland. King Henry VIII thus became the recognized King of Ireland. Why was it necessary to create the Kingdom of Ireland?

Way back in 1155, Pope Adrian IV, the only English Pope, decreed that the King of England, at that time Henry II, could invade Ireland in order to bring the island into the European sphere. This led to the Norman Invasion and the Lordship of Ireland. The decree was reconfirmed by Adrian’s successor Pope Alexander III in 1172. So the authority to rule Ireland was granted by the Pope.

However, in 1533, and again in 1538, King Henry VIII was excommunicated by the Catholic Church, making uncertain the constitutional position of the Lordship of Ireland granted to the King by the Church. He declared himself the head of the Church of England, and refused to recognize the Catholic Church’s vestigial sovereignty over Ireland. Just to be sure, the Irish Parliament passed the Crown of Ireland Act in 1542, proclaiming Henry the King of Ireland.

Most of the Catholic Bishops in England and Ireland affiliated with the Church of England, and helped establish the Anglican Church of Ireland. However, the majority of the people in Ireland remained Catholic.

Henry dissolved the many monasteries in England and Ireland - places that had existed for over 11 centuries - by selling the land and scattering the Monks. This greatly angered the peasant population, as the Monks had often been the ones who nursed the sick and cared for the poor in the local communities.

In 1549, the Church of England was changed again, this time by King Edward VI. King Edward was very interested in the Protestant Reformation to reform the Catholic Church, led by Martin Luther, and ordered changes in the church practices. The Church of England became more protestant. The Irish refused to accept these changes, and Ireland remained Roman Catholic.

In 1553, Queen Mary, a Catholic, repealed the anti-Rome laws, and England became Catholic again. Although the Irish welcomed Mary’s religion, they did not welcome her rule. In 1556, she forcibly removed most of the native Irish from the area west of Dublin, and gave all of the land to English Catholic settlers. That started 50 years of attacks against the settlers that did not end until 1600.

In 1558, Queen Elizabeth I took the throne of England and made England Protestant again. She regarded Ireland as an opportunity for colonization. Repeated attacked on the colonizers by the Irish did not discourage them. Large areas of land were settled and farmed. Towns developed and they were prospering. However, a coordinated attack by the Irish in 1598 devastated the colonies, and they never recovered.

The region that is now Northern Ireland served as the bedrock of the Irish war of resistance against English colonialism in the late 16th century. Irish resistance made English rule in Ireland difficult if not impossible.

By 1598, the northeast corner of Ireland (Ulster) was the last bastion of pure Celtic life in Ireland. The genetics and culture of most of the rest of Ireland had mingled with those of settlers and was now a hybrid containing cultural components of Celtic, Viking, Norman and English origins. Concerned by the strength of the English, the Irish decided to pre-empt an English attack and attack them first. A series of attacks occurred over several years, but the English prevailed, and in 1603 the Treaty of Mellifont was signed. The Irish could keep their land if they agreed to adopt English law and shed their Irish titles. Following this defeat of Ulster, the region's Gaelic (and Roman Catholic) aristocracy fled to continental Europe in 1607.

The English were still concerned that the Irish in Ulster would receive help from Catholic Spain, so they decided to colonize large areas of Ulster with Protestant settlers. This became known as the Ulster Plantation. In 1609 the English mapped out 4 million acres of land and started giving it out in 1610. The vast majority of the settlers were Scottish, as it turned out, and they brought with them a new form of Christianity, Presbyterianism, which was different from both Roman Catholicism and the Anglican Church of England, although it also is classified as Protestant. In the century between 1610 and 1717 perhaps as many as 100,000 people came across from Scotland, and by the latter date there were some five Scots to every three Irishmen and one Englishman in Ulster.

The colonizers also brought new farming methods and a Puritan lifestyle. This made northeast Ireland culturally very different from the rest of the island. A rebellion in 1641 by Irish aristocrats against English rule descended into a massacre of settlers in Ulster fueled by an intolerance of Catholics by government.

Back in England, the English Parliament was becoming so strong that King Charles I could no longer rely on Parliament to do as he said. Charles suspended Parliament for 11 years when they refused to raise taxes for him, but he had to re-instate it when the people didn’t support him and he ran out of money. In 1642, Charles tried to arrest 5 members of Parliament, and he was expelled from the City. This was the beginning of the English Civil War. In 1646, Charles surrendered, but the peace was short lived, and in 1648 war broke out again. Charles was defeated once again in 1649, and this time he was executed.

As a result, England had no King and Oliver Cromwell was appointed “Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England”.

Cromwell was a devout Protestant, but he was also an exceptionally cruel man. In 1649, in retaliation for Catholic attacks against Protestants in Ulster, he sent 12,000 men to Ireland and attacked numerous Irish cities, killing thousands of people. He then forced thousands of Irish from their homes and gave the land to his soldiers and to Protestants.

Cromwell died in 1660, and was buried in Westminster Abbey. The monarchy was re-established with Charles II as King. Charles reversed many of the anti-Catholic laws, but did not attempt to reverse any land confiscations. He did have Cromwell's body exhumed, hung, decapitated and thrown in a latrine. His head was put on a post where it remained until a storm finally dislodged the skull over 50 years later.

In England, King Charles was succeeded by King James II. James was a Catholic, and introduced laws for religious tolerance. James promoted Catholics to the higher ranks of the army, and parliament became suspicious that he was trying to make England a Catholic country again. James’s daughter was married to William of Orange, a Protestant from Holland. As the husband of the King’s daughter, he thus became heir to the Throne.

In 1687, James appointed William his viceroy to Ireland. William tried to garrison some Catholic troops in the city of Derry in 1688, but the Protestant inhabitants of Derry did not want them to enter the city walls. It was the young apprentice boys of Derry that shut the city gates as the troops tried to enter.

In 1688, war broke out in Europe between the French and an alliance of other countries (Spain, Holland, Germany, Hungary, Naples, Prussia, and Sweden). The Alliances commander was William of Orange.

The plot thickens. In 1688 James (Catholic) had a son and regarded him as his heir. But Parliament, wanting a Protestant King, considered William as the heir. Parliament invited William to take over the throne and in November 1688, William arrived in London with his army. James fled to France and William and Mary II were made King and Queen in 1689. A war ensued that has become known by the various names as the Williamite War in Ireland, the Jacobite War in Ireland, and the Williamite-Jacobite War in Ireland.

King James was supported by the mostly Catholic “Jacobites” in Ireland. James hoped to use the country as a base to regain his three Kingdoms (England, Scotland, and Ireland), and was given military support by France, also a Catholic country. He was also supported by some protestants from the establish Church of Ireland. James was opposed in Ireland by the mostly Protestant, "Williamites", concentrated in the north of the country.

In 1689 James erected a boom across the River Foyle in the Protestant City of Derry and the city was put under a famous siege (Siege of Derry) by the Catholic supporters of King James that lasted for 105 days. A reported 8,000 Protestants within the city walls of Derry died of disease and starvation, before the siege was broken by William’s arrival in Ireland.

In 1689 William landed a multi-national force in Ireland composed of English, Scottish, Dutch, Danish and other troops, to put down Jacobite resistance. After the Siege of Derry was broken, the armies of James and William met at the famous Battle of the Boyne in 1690. James was defeated and left Ireland for France. The Irish Jacobites continued to fight, but were finally defeated after the Battle of Aughrim in 1691. The Treaty of Limerick in October 1691 ended the war, permitted Catholics to practice their religion, but they had to forfeit their land.

Although William successfully defeated the Jacobites in Ireland, subsequent Jacobite uprisings occurred in Scotland and England. However, the War was to have a lasting effect on Ireland, confirming British and Protestant rule over the country until the 1920’s. The iconic Protestant victories of the Siege of Derry and the Battle of the Boyne are still celebrated by the Unionist community in Northern Ireland today.

Since 1691 and the end of the Williamite War, Ireland had chiefly been controlled by Protestants who were members of the established Church loyal to the British Crown. They governed the majority Irish Catholic population by a form of institutionalized sectarianism codified as the Penal Laws. Their intention was to materially disadvantage the Catholic community and, to a lesser extent, the Presbyterian community. The penal laws excluded Catholics and certain Protestants from holding public office, serving in the military, voting, holding jobs in the legal profession, acquiring a foreign education, owning a horse worth more than 5 pounds sterling, and a host of other restrictions that were not imposed on most Protestants. The laws were harsh and alienated the Catholic population of Ireland.

Between 1717 and 1775 some 250,000 people from Ulster immigrated to the American colonies. It is estimated that there are more than 27 million descendants of the Scots-Irish migration now living in the U.S.

In the late 18th century, more liberal elements in Ireland were inspired by examples of the American Revolutionary War, and sought to achieve reform and greater autonomy from Britain. In the time period from around 1796 until open rebellion in 1798, a series of insurgencies, counter insurgencies, martial law, repression, and atrocities, pitted those loyal to England against those wishing for reform and independence from England. The result of the conflict was the Irish Rebellion of 1798.

The Irish Rebellion of 1798 also known as the United Irishmen Rebellion, lasted several months, from May until September. The United Irishmen were a group of republican revolutionaries opposed to British rule of Ireland. The rebellion was crushed.

In an attempt to quell sectarianism and force the removal of discriminatory laws (and to prevent the spread of French-style republicanism to Ireland), the government of the Kingdom of Great Britain pushed for the two kingdoms to be merged. The new state, formed in 1801, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, was ruled from a single government and parliament based in London.

Although the Irish Rebellion of 1798 was largely non-sectarian, the legacy of republicans being mostly Catholic and loyalist mostly protestant, greatly influenced the events in Northern Ireland leading up to Civil Rights and the Troubles of the 1970’s, 80’s and 90’s.


As a result of the Act of Union, a new country, the Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, was formed by uniting England, Wales, Ireland and Scotland. All regional Parliaments were abolished, and the seat of government moved to London.

An interesting note of history: in 1813, Sir Robert Peel set up the World’s very first police force in Ireland. The force was known as “Peeler” or ‘Bobbies”, and later became known as the Police. By 1822, many other countries had also set up their own police force.

The hated penal laws were still in force in Ireland in the early 1800s. These discriminated against non-Anglicans, principally Catholics and Presbyterians. Daniel O'Connell led a campaign for repeal of the penal laws (emancipation) that captured the English public's imagination and led to the necessary legislation being passed in 1829. The importance of emancipation to the Irish people was recognized when the main street in Dublin was re-named after O'Connell following independence in 1921.

In 1800, the population of Ireland was between 4 and 5 million, with 200,000 in Dublin. Although Dublin entered a period of decline, it remained the center of administration and a transport hub for much of Ireland. Dublin played no major role in the Industrial Revolution. Ireland had no significant sources of coal, the fuel of the time, and Dublin was not a center of ship manufacture, the other main driver of industrial development in Britain and northeast Ireland.

However the Industrial revolution and especially the Irish Linen industry in the northeast, expanded explosively in the first half of the century, and this allowed the population to increase dramatically. By 1841, there were 8.2 million people in Ireland. (This compares to the 1996 figure of 5.2 million.)

Most Irish landlords were Protestants, simply because the law forbade Catholics from owning land. The Irish peasants themselves, who were both Protestant and Catholic, ate potatoes almost exclusively, since land was scarce and potatoes were an intensive crop.

However, in 1845 a fungal disease called Phytophthora infestans, or 'potato blight' struck and wiped out a third of the potato crop in Ireland. This led to a disaster known as the Potato Famine, and effected most the peasants who relied upon potatoes for food as well as for income. Those who lived near towns were better off, since towns had other sources of food, but things got very bad for those living in rural areas.

By 1845, potato supplies had sold out and many people began to slowly starve. The British government stepped in and imported £100,000 worth of maize from America to feed the starving, and this helped prevent mass death, but only for the first year of the famine.

The crop of 1846 also failed and this time wiped out almost all the potatoes in Ireland. Thousands of people simply starved, particularly in rural areas. Many also died from typhus, scurvy and dysentery. The British set up soup-kitchens and workhouses for the poor but they drastically underestimated the scale of the disaster, and many people did not receive any aid at all.

The problem was compounded by landlords who evicted peasants who could not pay the rent because they had no potatoes to sell. Fortunately the crop of 1847 was good, and, although the 1848 crop failed, the starvation was never as bad as in 1846.

Many thousands of Irish decided to cut their losses and set sail on emigration boats to America. This is the origin of about half of the population of people now referred to as Irish Americans. Hundreds of Irish died on the ships which were so overcrowded that they became known as coffin ships. By 1851, the population in Ireland had fallen 25% to 6 million and the emigration continued until around 1900, by which time only 4.5 million Irish remained in Ireland.

Many Irish felt that the British could have done more during the famine and this caused a lot of anti-British sentiment to arise, particularly in Ireland and among the Irish who had gone to America.

In 1858 a new group calling themselves the Irish Republican Brotherhood or the 'Fenians' was formed with the aim of creating an independent Irish republic by force. Unlike previous groups, the IRB had a large support base, particularly from the Irish who had gone to America. In 1867 they staged an uprising but it was easily defeated by the British. The Fenians went into the background for the next 30 years, but it still existed. The IRB was the first group to add a religious (pro-Catholic/anti-Protestant) slant to Republicanism, and this widened the gap between the two religious groups who shared Ireland.

After the Famine, the price of food rose rapidly and Irish farmers began to get better off as they made money on this market. In response, the Irish landlords raised taxes. However, after 1876, the food-bubble burst and many farmers fell on hard times. Despite this, as well as poor harvests in 1877-1879, the landlords did not reduce the taxes. Many farmers found they could not pay their rent and were evicted from their cottages and land. Many of these evicted farmers, who were now homeless, formed a new land-reform movement headed by Michael Davitt, a farmer from Mayo. They wanted to change the law to reduce the power of landlords and allow peasants to own their land.

At the same time another man, Isaac Butt, had started the Home Rule Party. The aim of this party was to repeal the Act of Union and reinstate Ireland's Parliament. He wanted a regional Irish Parliament that could pass laws separately from the main Parliament in London, but did not want complete Independence from Britain. This was viewed by some as a perfect in-between solution for Ireland. In 1874, the Home Rule Party won 59 seats in Parliament. In 1879, Charles Stewart Parnell, became the leader of the Home Rule Party. His problem was apathy since most Irish didn't really care about regaining their own Parliament.

However, his fortune changed when Davitt invited Parnell to speak out against evictions and to call for an increase in peasant land rights. He got massive support, and by merging the Home Rule and Land campaigns, he had boosted his own cause as well. In 1879, the Land League was formed and Parnell became its President. Its aims were to get more rights for tenant farmers and reduce evictions. He also believed that a Nation could be forged out of the people living in Ireland. This belief was called 'Irish Nationalism', (which is today often confused with Irish Republicanism, which is a belief in making Ireland an independent republic).

The first tactic by the Land League was to boycott any peasant who moved onto a farm where the previous peasant had been evicted. This was designed to force the new peasant to leave, so that the landlord would get no rent. However, between 1879 and 1882, the violence from these boycotts got so bad that it became known as the Land War. The Parliament tried to solve the problem in 1881 by passing the Land Act. This set up fair rates of rent, and many Irish farmers saw their rent reduced by 20%. However, it did not help many of the poorest farmers, so the violence continued.

At this point in time, there were several groups in Ireland.

The Home Rulers wanted the Act of Union repealed and Ireland given back its own Parliament, but they did not want Ireland to become an independent country.

Irish Unionists were those who felt that the Act of Union was good for Ireland and wanted to retain it. They were mostly wealthy Protestants, because Catholics had not recovered from the years of segregation that had gone before.

Irish Nationalists were those who felt that Ireland could be made into a self-governing nation. They were more concerned with creating a national identity, a “nationhood”, rather than an independent republic.

Irish Republicans were those who wanted to create a self-governing republic in Ireland. They wanted total independence


In 1884, the Irish Nationalists (national identity but not independence) started the first phase of forging a single Irish national identity. This started with the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) to promote Irish sports. In 1893, the Gaelic League was founded by two (Nationalist) Protestants. Its purpose was to promote the Irish language. The Irish language was mainly of Celtic origin with some Scottish influence. Both organizations were extremely successful, attracting thousands of members. Together, they instituted what is now referred to as the 'Gaelic Revival' in Ireland.

First Home Rule Bill
In 1886, the Liberal Party Prime Minister of the UK, William Gladstone, decided that in order to end the problems in Ireland, some action would have to be taken. He felt that giving Ireland back their local Parliament, which was removed in the Act of Union of 1800, would solve the problem. So in 1886, Gladstone introduced the First Home Rule Bill. However it was defeated in the London Parliament because others, especially, the Conservative Party, were against Home Rule which they thought would weaken the United Kingdom.

After this attempt to introduce Home Rule, the Irish Unionists formed an organization called the 'Irish Unionist Alliance' to fight Home Rule. After all, they wanted to remain part of Great Britain.

After the First Home Rule Bill had failed, the Conservative leader visited Ulster, where Irish Unionism was significantly stronger than anywhere else. He told the Unionists that they could count on British Conservatives to help them resist Home Rule. There was also some sporadic rioting in Belfast, because the Unionists in Ulster had begun to be regarded as anti-Catholic. This was a charge they didn't face in the rest of Ireland, where there was less trouble. In 1886 alone, 50 people were killed in the city of Belfast.

In 1886, the anti-Home-Rule Conservatives came to power. Their policy was to introduce new and fairer laws for Ireland. These laws, called the 'Plan of Campaign', gave more rights to tenant farmers and helped them to become financially much better off. The purpose of this policy was to show the Irish, by kindness, that Home Rule was unnecessary. It worked well, and between 1885 and 1905, most of Ireland's land changed hands from the landlords to the tenant farmers.

The Second Home Rule Bill

In 1892, the Liberals regained power. Despite threats from the Unionists at their 1892 conference, William Gladstone introduced the Second Home Rule Bill in 1893. In a victorious vote, it was passed by the House of Commons. However it was defeated in the UK's upper house (the House of Lords), where there were many more Conservatives than Liberals. The House of Lords had veto power over the House of Commons.

In 1900, the Irish Republican Brotherhood (the 'Fenians' or IRB), a group of hard-line Irish Republicans, began to regroup after doing very little since their failed rebellion of 1867. They began to recruit volunteers for a future rebellion against British Rule. In 1905 a Dubliner named Arthur Griffith set up a new political party, called Sinn Féin, a Republican party vehemently against Home Rule.

In the 1909 General Election in Great Britain, there was a hung Parliament when the Liberals and the Conservatives both won exactly 272 seats. The only way the hung parliament situation could be resolved was if the power of the House of Lords was reduced. The House of Lords could veto any legislation passed by Parliament. The Liberals introduced the Parliament Act in 1911, which, if passed, would enable the veto of the House of Lords to be overturned. The House of Lords veto had been unionists' main guarantee that home rule would not be enacted because the majority members of the House of Lords were unionist.

But to make this change, the Liberals needed more than 272 votes to ensure that it was passed. The Home Rule Party held 84-seats in Parliament, and they agreed to support the Liberal's Parliament Act in return for another Home Rule Bill. The Act was duly passed, and the House of Lords' powers were reduced.

The Liberals were now obligated to introduce the Third Home Rule Bill, in 1912. When the Bill was discussed, the Conservatives fiercely campaigned to have the Unionist northeast of Ireland treated separately from the rest of the island. They argued that the Protestants of Ulster constituted a separate Irish nation.

In Belfast, tensions were so high over the Bill that spontaneous rioting kept breaking out between the Catholic and Protestant residents of the City. As the Bill was discussed, one proposition put forward was that the counties with a Unionist majority could be left out of the Home Rule scheme. Unionists were in a minority on the island of Ireland as a whole, but were a majority in the northern province of Ulster and in the six counties that would later constitute Northern Ireland (County Antrim, Down, Armagh, Londonderry, Fermanagh, and Tyrone).

The Unionists decided they would need a backup military force as 'insurance' to make certain that at least Ulster was left out of Home Rule. So in January 1913, the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) was set up. Thousands of Unionists joined, and they met in Orange Halls (named after William of Orange) around Ulster. The only thing missing were weapons. On April 24 and 25, 1914, 25,000 rifles and 3,000,000 bullets were illegally landed by the UVF near Belfast. Since the police in these areas did not try to stop the landings, the Nationalists felt that the police were in league with the UVF.

By the end of 1913 (the Bill was still being debated) the Nationalists realized that the Liberal government was likely to agree with the Conservatives and leave part of Ulster out of Home Rule. Some of them set up their own military force, the Irish Volunteer Force (IVF) in November 1913. It recruited even more men than the UVF. The IVF landed 1,500 rifles and 45,000 bullets at Howth, near Dublin, on 26 July 1914. In this case, the police did intervene and shot 3 people dead. It looked as if the police were treating the UVF and IVF very differently.

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