Society of Ireland

History of Ireland

Ireland is an island to the north-west of continental Europe. It is the third-largest island in Europe and the twentieth-largest island on Earth. To its east is the larger island of Great Britain, from which it is separated by the Irish Sea. Politically, Ireland is divided between the Republic of Ireland, which covers just under five-sixths of the island, and Northern Ireland, a part of the United Kingdom, which covers the remainder and is located in the north-east of the island. The population of Ireland is approximately 6.4 million. Just under 4.6 million live in the Republic of Ireland and just over 1.8 million live in Northern Ireland. The island's geography comprises relatively low-lying mountains surrounding a central plain, with several navigable rivers extending inland. The island has lush vegetation, a product of its mild but changeable oceanic climate, which avoids extremes in temperature. Thick woodlands covered the island until medieval times. Today, the amount of land that is forested in Ireland is just one third of the European average of 35%. There are twenty-six extant mammal species native to Ireland. Gaelic Ireland emerged sometime in prehistory and lasted until the early 17th century. The island was converted to Christianity from the 5th century onward. Following the 12th century Norman invasion, England claimed sovereignty over Ireland. However, English rule did not extend over the whole island until the 16th17th century Tudor conquest. This led to the colonization of northern Ireland by settlers from Britain. In the 1690s, a system of Protestant English rule was designed to materially disadvantage the Catholic majority and Protestant dissenters, and was extended during the 18th century. In 1801, Ireland became a part of the United Kingdom. A war of independence in the early 20th century was followed by the partition of the island, creating the Irish Free State, which became increasingly sovereign over the following decades, and Northern Ireland which remained a part of the United Kingdom. Northern Ireland saw much civil unrest from the late 1960s until the 1990s. This subsided following a political agreement in 1998. In 1973, both parts of Ireland joined the European Economic Community. Irish culture has had a significant influence on other cultures, particularly in the fields of literature and, to a lesser degree, science and education. Alongside mainstream Western culture, a strong indigenous culture exists, as expressed for example through Gaelic games, Irish music, and the Irish language. The culture of the island has also many features shared with Great Britain, as expressed through sports such as association football, rugby, horse racing, and golf, as well as the English language.

The Iron Age in Ireland is traditionally associated with people known as the Celts. The Celts were commonly thought to have colonised Ireland in a series of invasions. The first Celtic-speaking tribes are believed to have arrived on the island about 600 BC in what is referred to as the Hallstatt era. Other colonists followed them, the main thrust arriving in the later La Tene era sometime between the third and first centuries BC. They came from neighbouring Britain, Gaul and Iberia: tribes from two main stems of the Continental Celtsthe Belgae originating in northern Gaul and the Gael from southern Gaul and the northern seaboard of the Iberian Peninsula. Historically four separate Celtic incursions into are deemed to have occurred in Ireland, The Priteni were the first to colonize the island, followed by the Belgae who invaded Ireland from northern Gaul and Britain. Later, Laighin tribes from Armorica (present-day Brittany) are believed to have invaded Ireland and Britain more or less simultaneously. Lastly, the Milesians (Gaels) reached Ireland from either northern Iberia or southern Gaul. The Priteni tribes (Ireland and Britain were known to the early Greeks as the Pritenic Islands) are believed to have arrived a little after 700 BC. Their origin as Celts is questionable; according to some sources they were more likely to have been the descendants of the earlier Neolithic indigenous inhabitants of the island. Probably, they were a mixture of both. The second wave, the Euerni,belonging to the Belgae people of northern Gaul, began arriving about the sixth century BC. They called their new home Eueriio, which would later evolve through the old Irish Eriu to Eire to Ireland. The third wave of colonization is believed to have taken place sometime about 300 BC. They were the Laginians or, according to their own tradition, Gauls who came to Ireland from Armorica. Their name association with Laighi, the ancient name for Leinster, suggests that this was where they first settled. Another branch of the same people was the Galioin (or Gailenga) who settled in an area north of Dublin and Meath. The last major Celtic settlement in Ireland is believed to have taken place sometime between 15050 BC. These people have been identified as the Milesians (Sons of Mil, or Gaels) who, according to tradition, fled Roman incursions into northern Iberia and southern Gaul. These were Iron Age Celts and their dominance over the island was to last well over a thousand years. The Gaels, the last wave of Celts, were said to have divided the island into five or more kingdoms after conquering it. However, most academics favour a theory that emphasises the diffusion of culture from the neolithic to bronze age overseas as opposed to a military colonisation. Finds such as Clonycavan Man are given as evidence for this theory.


ESHSI, Department of Modern History, Trinity College, Dublin, Republic of Ireland Contact: Membership Secretary