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History of Ireland

Ireland is the only Celtic country not to have had any significant contact with the Romans, and except Scotland (which fought well), the only one not to be colonised and transformed by them. Interesting detail : at the Celtic times, Ireland was populated in its northern part by the « Scots », and Scotland by Picts. Scots invaded Scotland, thus giving it it's name (Scotland), which also explains why the Irish and Scottish Gaelic languages are so close one to the other.

Ireland - whose Latin name was « Hibernia » - thus passed directly to Christianity, with the assistance of a Roman captured in France at the 5th century and who was to become St. Patrick. During the 8th and 9th centuries, the island was invaded by the Scandinavians and Danish kings. Then, in the 12th century, the English king Henry II Plantagenest sent troops, made up of a large majority of Norman and Flemish lords installed in Wales. Those gave rise to the dynasties of FitzGerald, FitzPatrick etc. (Fitz = « Fils de » = “Son of” in French !).

Then, by successive waves, English colonised the country. One of the most brutal episodes was the wild ride of Cromwell which, not content with the assassination of the English king, also wanted decimate the Irish by parking them in a immense reservation located in the west of the island (Connacht, an area where Gaelic is still usually spoken nowadays, and especially where the road signs are written in Gaelic).

At that time, the successive invasions had created many types of Irishmen, and the descendants of the Celts were characterised by their poverty. But the English governments kept complaining that colonisation did not attach the island to the kingdom, but only created new Irish races. The notables of Ireland tried to depart from England in 1782 by voting the independence at the Parliament of Dublin. A constitution was written guaranteeing an independent Parliament (known as of Grattan, name of the principal instigator of independence).

Of course, the English did not agree and decided on the contrary to link Ireland more closely with the Kingdom by integrating its Parliament into that of Westminster, by the Union Act proposed by the prime minister Pitt and voted in 1800. This presented a certain risk for the English since the Irish Members of Parliament (M.P.s) now sat in Westminster and could thus be heard. Even if 100% of the M.P.s of the island were Protestant, (since the Catholics - who voted - could not be elected !) they were not necessarily hostile to independence.

Between 1782 and 1800 many things happened, which threw the bases of the current disorders : creation of the « United Irishmen » by Theobald Wolfe Tone in Belfast (hearth of the separatism at the time !), celebration of the feast of the harp at the same place in 1792 - the harp became the symbol of the fight for independence - and in reaction, creation of the Order of Orange by the Protestants (in memory of William III of Orange).

Wolfe Tone went to the French Convention, asking them to help Ireland in their fight with England. The French went there twice (Hoche 1796 - Humbert 1798), which turned into two failures and lead to the death of Wolfe Tone. In 1798, several risings are repressed. The same thing happened in 1803 with the attempt of Robert Emmett.

During the 19th century, the situation evolved slowly in favour of the Catholics and the separatists (who were not always identical), thanks to Daniel O' Connell, first catholic M.P. who reduced the rate of the dime taken by the Protestants. Later, the movement of the « young Irishmen », which claimed of O'Connell, created a Tricolour flag for the future free Ireland, containing green for the nationalists, orange for the loyal supporters, separated or brought together by the white of peace.

About 1850, the massive export of the foodstuffs towards England condemned the Irish to famine. The population would decrease from 8.500.000 to less than 4.000.000 (today, there still are only 3 million in the republic and 1,5 million in the North). This depopulation would be for much in the decline of the Gaelic language.

In 1858, creation in the USA of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (I.R.B.), kind of secret armed society derived from the United Irishmen of 1798. The IRB will settle then in Ireland, just as the Fenian movement (term derived from the Gaelic Fianna = Warriors). The latter tried to launch a rising in 1867, but the Church rejecting it, it would not stand for long.

Charles Parnell, a Protestant, took the head of a parliamentary group claiming autonomy for the country (Home Rule). To obtain their demand, the nationalists obstructed the debate in the Commons by keeping the chair the longest time possible, for example by reading excerpts from the Bible !

Gladstone, the English prime minister was in favour of the Rule Home project which he submitted several times to the Parliament without success (1886, 1892).

In 1893, Douglas Hyde founded the Irish League for the revival of the Irish Celtic language which had almost disappeared.

In 1898, centenary of the rising of 1798, the spirits warmed up. James Connolly founded the Irish Socialist Republican Party.

Arthur Griffith preached for the passive resistance, in a movement created in 1902 and called « Sinn Féin » (= « Ourselves » in Gaelic, to be pronounced « Sheen Fayne »). The Irish League became more radical by incorporating an armed fraction.

Patrick Pearse, a young middle-class poet preached the use of force within the Irish Republican Brotherhood.

These various organisations had divergent goals. Contrary to the traditional nationalist party, the M.P.s of Sinn Féin who were elected thereafter would never go to Westminster. Griffith was in favour of an Irish monarchy like Hungary (the « double crown » system). On the other side, Connolly refused the independence as it was wished by the nationalists, who would only maintain the inequalities social, and asked that Ireland first became socialist.

In addition, divisions also existed within the nationalist party, even if they were softened in 1900 under the action of the M.P. John Redmond.

In 1910, the legislative elections brought a significant nationalist group in Westminster. The English government had to propose a new Home Rule. This one was to be applied in 1914, but was suspended because of the war. In reaction to the Rule Home, the loyal supporters of Ulster (Carson and Craig) wrote a unionist constitution. This was accompanied by the creation of a unionist militia : the volunteers of Ulster.

On their side, the separatists created in 1913 two armed groups :

In 1914, whereas the Home Rule is suspended, the Irish Volunteers, infiltrated by the nationalists, were divided into two trends :

In 1916 occurred the greatest event in the fight for the independence of Ireland, that was to bring the creation of the Free State 5 years later, even if it was a failure in the short term. The Easter Monday (April 24) rose an armed insurrection in Dublin carried out by the Irish Volunteers and the Irish Citizen Army. They took the GPO (General Post Office) where they proclaimed the Irish Republic in the name of a Provisional Government. The proclamation was signed by Thomas Clarke, Patrick Pearse, James Connolly, Sean Mac Diarmada, Thomas Mac Donagh, Eamon Ceannt and Joseph Plunkett . By the same time, the Irish Volunteers and the Irish Army Citizen amalgamated and took the name of « Irish Republican Army » (IRA). It lead to a failure. The rebels capitulated on April 29. The English repression was without mercy : The heads of the insurrectionists all were executed : Pearse, Plunkett, Connolly... The latter, wounded, was shot while sitting on a chair. The international public opinion was scandalised, especially in the USA where existed many Irish hearths. This allowed Eamon de Valera not to be shot in spite of his participation at the head of the insurrection (he was American).

Following these events, practically all the population became hostile to the English, and when England wanted to organise the conscription of the Irishmen to send them to the front in 1918, a general movement of passive resistance was organised, which was even supported by the church !

In spite of the fact that this party was marginal in the population, and its total absence of participation in the events of 1916, the elections of December 1918 of the Irish M.P.s plebiscited Sinn Féin (this last was infiltrated by the Volunteers and the I.R.B. as from 1917). The independentist M.P.s did not go to Westminster, but to Dublin where they proclaimed themselves the Irish National Assembly (Dáil Éireann) and elected Eamon de Valera as president. This one was at the time still in prison like 31 other M.P.s ! The Dáil also restored the republic which had been proclaimed in 1916. The English did not recognise this new declaration but did not want to start a war. They were initially satisfied to fight the separatists by the local Police (Royal Irish Constabulary, or R.I.C.).

The fight against the Police and the British institutions was especially the fact of the radical branch of Volunteers, who revived the name of I.R.A. One of thier heads, Michael Collins, in charge of the information after 1916, and later Minister of Finances of the illegal government, was declared public enemy number 1 and rewards for his capture rose up to 10.000 pounds ! In fact, Michael Collins, also an influential member of the Secret society I.R.B. and a born conspirator, encroached largely on the functions of the Minister of Defence Cathal Brugha.

When Griffith, who had become president by interim of the Dáil during de Valera's tour in the USA, was arrested, Collins replaced him temporarily, cumulating the leading functions of practically all the republican institutions.

Ireland lived in fact under a double mode. People paid taxes with the British and the separatist government. The disagreements were more and more often solved by clandestine courts of justice, which applied an impartiality recognised even by the loyalist supporters.

In 1920, the English sent special detachments of Police to fight the IRA in real actions of guerilla : they were the « Black and Tans », mercenaries recruited in the soldiers demobilised or even in the prisons, and the « Auxiliaries » composed of elite officers. Both remained famous for totally arbitrary tough actions exceeding any measurement (like in Cork burning) and their brutality with respect to the local population in a general way.

The fight intensified in November 1920, the 1st, as a young patriot student named Kevin Barry (18 years) was executed. The 21st (Bloody Sunday), Michael Collins and his 12 « apostles » manage to eliminate 14 secret agents from the MI6. In reprisal, the Auxiliaries invaded the same day the football yard of Croke Park during a match and shot at the players and the public. The same month, the mayor of Cork, Terence Mac Sweeney died at the end of a long hunger strike.

With the end of the year, the English prime minister Lloyd George proposed a new project of Rule Home. The differences between Ulster and the rest of Ireland were so obvious that it appeared necessary to create two autonomous states, a priori all the two remaining under the British crown. This project was voted without enthusiasm in Westminster in December 1920, by a Parliament where all the nationalists were away, refusing the partition. At the beginning of 1921, Lloyd George sent the Army in Ireland to intensify the fight against the I.R.A.. Nevertheless, despite a numerical advantage of 15 against 1, the English did not manage to put down this imperceptible army, nor to capture Michael Collins.

Anyway, the IRA became exhausted and Sinn Féin ended up by agreeing to negotiate. Though the English wished to meet de Valera, the latter charged Arthur Griffith and Michael Collins to represent him. Lloyd George agreed to recognise the Southern State as independent from the United Kingdom, but wanted absolutely that it remained in the Commonwealth, and was intransigent as for the existence of the state of the North(-east) and its keeping inside the Kingdom. Besides, the Northern Parliament in Belfast had already been inaugurated by the king George V. In order to help of Sinn Féin M.P.s to decide, Lloyd George promised the immediate war in the event of them refusing the deal.

Ireland owns 32 counties. The Southern Free State (Saorstat Éireann) - the English did not want it to be a republic but a Dominion - was formed with the 26 counties where a nationalist and catholic majority neatly emerged, while the state of the north counted the 6 Protestant and loyal counties (in fact 2 of them were almost in the other side). This state, often called Ulster, does not correspond exactly to the province of the same name, which accounts 3 counties more (Donegal, Monaghan and Cavan) which now belong to the free State.

At the end of 1921, Collins and Griffith accepted this partition of Ireland. For them, it was an acceptable compromise, a starting point, or more precisely a « stepping stone » towards a future reunification (Collins even thought of invading later Northern Ireland).

In Ireland, de Valera repudiated Griffith and Collins, although the new Dáil resulting from the elections organised by the new Home Rule, and then the whole population, would ratify the treaty.

The State Free became a reality in January 14, 1922, and Collins was appointed as head of the provisional government. For this reason, he took officially possession of the « Castle » which had sheltered the English power (vice-king, secret service, Army...) on January 16, 1922.

In June 1922, the IRA which remained sensitive to the ideas of Connolly about a social Ireland absolutely not represented by Sinn Féin, denounced the treaty and took the maquis against the government of the free state from, now chaired by Arthur Griffith. Then began the civil war.

The IRA - joined by de Valera - occupied the Four Courts, the law courts of Dublin. From June 28 to July 5, 1922, the building was shelled by the « regular » Irish army and was completely destroyed. Cathal Brugha, former minister of Defence who had joined the IRA, refused to surrender and went out, a weapon in his hand. He was killed at once.

On August 12, Griffith, exhausted, died of a cerebral thrombosis. The 22, Collins was killed in an ambush at Béal Na mBlath, in West Cork, whereas he sought to meet de Valera. With these two moderate men disappeared any chance for a peaceful conclusion. William Cosgrave (another fighter from 1916, but for who the IRA rebels were gangsters) of the Fine Gael party became the new president of the Dáil.

On December 16, 1922, the constitution (written by Collins before his death) was voted. The Irish national anthem became « A Nation Once Again », whose words are in English.

Little by little, the IRA weakened whereas the government, supplied in weapons by English held. In April 1923, Liam Lynch, the new head of the IRA was killed. The same month, de Valera signed the cease-fire. The IRA followed their chiefs and gave up the few weapons they still had on May the 23rd.

Repression against the rebels was fierce, and the State Free now well anchored on the right wing, would execute in 1923 more republicans than the English did from 1916 to 1923. We were far from the original aspirations of Connolly, Pearse, and even of Collins ! The same year, Ireland adhered to the Society of nations (SDN).

In 1925, de Valera returned to politics by founding the Fianna Fáil (Warriors of the Destiny) party. He ended up by taking up on his account the ideas of Collins to gradually modify in a legal way the clauses which seemed unacceptable to him in the 1922 treaty with England.

In 1926, the national anthem became the Gaelic song « Amhrán Na bhFiann  » (Soldier's song), of which the first words are - rather ironically - « Sinne Fianna Fáil » (We are the Warriors of the Destiny).

In 1932, the elections brought de Valera to power (as president of the Dáil). He removed at once the oath of allegiance to the Crown. In 1937, the constitution of the free state is voted. The State took the Gaelic name of Éire (or Éirinn). The Constitution was clearly nationalist and catholic inspired :

Article 2 : the national territory of Éire is the WHOLE island.

Article 3 : temporarily, the laws of the Dáil apply only to the 26 counties of the south.

Thus, a reunification with the North could be practically made without a constitutional modification. The British Governor was begged to go back to London and was replaced by the first elected president of Éire : Douglas Hyde, Protestant and former founder of the Irish League. It was only in 1949, under a new Fine Gael government, that Éire became a republic (Poblacht Na hÉireann) and left the Commonwealth, with the great regret of the English prime minister, the member of the Labour Party Clement Atlee.

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The Partition

Since 1921, there are 2 Irelands. One is a state of the United Kingdom, with red letter boxes (in cast iron on which one can find the initials of the sovereign into force at the time of its installation) and « European » triangular red and white road signs, and the other a republic speaking Gaelic and English, with the same letter boxes but repainted in green and square yellow road signs, which are copies of those we find in the USA. This state of thing is known under the name of « Partition ».

The state remained faithful to the crown is called Northern Ireland , although it is located in fact rather at the north-east of the island. Compared to the thousand-year-old division of the island in 4 provinces (Leinster, Ulster, Munster and Connacht), it corresponds to Ulster taken out of the 3 counties with catholic majority. Northern Ireland includes the 6 counties of Fermanagh, Tyrone, Derry, Antrim, Armagh and Down. Its capital is Belfast. In 1921 was elected a Parliament, that the 1st provincial minister James Craig was to call « a Protestant Parliament for Protestant People ». The note was given.

Ulster had indeed been populated very early by Protestants (Plantation of Ulster), and the creation of the free state in the south had caused a great migration of the Protestants who lived there, what had then still increased the capacity of them in the north. Very quickly, a scientific electoral cutting removed any possibility for the Catholics to have access to the political power. The Police was Protestant by 90% and was given the aid of a body of volunteers of the same obedience : the B Specials.

It is only in 1965 with the arrival of the captain Terence O' Neill , a liberal, that the atmosphere changed. O' Neill met several times the Prime Minister ( Taoiseach ) of Éire Seán Lemass . The bringing together between the 2 Irelands had the exactly opposite effect in Northern Ireland, where the two camps tried to gain without real will of interdenominational collaboration.

Then appeared interalia the fascist Pasteur Ian Paisley (unionist) whose speeches still pollute the talks nowadays. In 1966 occurred the 1 st assassination which was to start the era of violence which still lasts today. This violence is characterised especially by acts of terrorism perpetrated by the two rival armed fractions : the IRA which was born again of its ashes on this occasion within the nationalists, and the UDA (Ulster Defence Association) by the loyalists. It should be noted that the IRA is prohibited, but not the UDA which has a political face, whereas that of the nationalists is Sinn Féin.

In 1969, a true civil war burst in the 2 nd city of the country, named Derry by the nationalists, and Londonderry by the loyalists (and thus it is its official name on the mas of all countries, except those of Éire). It should be noted that it has got a 3rd name - in Gaelic - : Doire Cholm Cille (in fact, Doire = Derry = Town).

The riot burst in the catholic district of Bogside in August and degenerated into a bloody battle. The English government decided to send troops to separate the belligerents. These troops are still there today. Reforms were undertaken, of which the dissolution of B Specials, but it was not sufficient.

In December 1969, the IRA split into two parts. One branch called “official” oriented itself towards political action (though maintaining violence until 1972), while the other named “provisional” stayed the IRA everybody knew.

In 1971, the provincial prime minister Brian Faulkner requested measures from the English government in front of the increase in violence. August 9, 1971, 300 people suspected of nationalist sympathy were arrested and imprisoned without trial. The majority of them are still behind the wires and have not been judged ! The first releases date from the end of the Eighties !

From 1969 to 1972, the district of Bogside was inaccessible to the loyalist forces and constituted, under the protection of the IRA, « Free Derry ». January 31, 1972, 14 peaceful demonstrators were killed by a detachment of the English paratroops. March 24, 1972, the English government decided to manage the province directly, and cancelled all the powers of the (Stormont) Parliament.

In 1972, when the officials stopped any violent action, some of its members departed and created a new organisation : the INLA.

March 8, 1973, a majority of 57% of the voters of Northern Ireland asked for the staying of the province inside the United Kingdom. In 1980, the English government having cancelled the special statute of political prisoner, several people started a hunger strike, of which the imprisoned M.P. Bobby Sands . Margaret Thatcher remained inflexible and several, among who Sands died. This event reinflated the electorate of Sinn Féin. October the 12th, 1984 at 2h54 p.m., the IRA blasted the hotel sheltering the conservative party convention at Brighton, attack from which the Iron Lady hardly escaped.

In spite of this, the end of the Eighties allowed the revival of a dialogue between the 2 Irelands. It is not only any more one question of richness or religion : the very preserving policy of Éire as regards divorce or abortion repels even the nationalists of north. In this spirit, the election in 1990 of Mary Robinson at the head of Éire is very encouraging. Mary Robinson does not belong to any of the 2 great nationalist parties resulting from the war of independence (Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil), and her husband is Protestant. On the other side, the Secretary of State in Northern Ireland, Peter Brooke is also open. Éire becoming more liberal, a reunification becomes increasingly probable, the more so as the English methods of repression and/or loyal supporters shock much in Europe where even the most autocratic systems have just fallen.

Perhaps will the victory of the Labour Party to the elections of May 1, 1997 bring this news ? This same election is likely to modify in Northern Ireland the balance between the « nationalist » parties : Sinn Féin and SDLP (Socialist Democratic Labour Party), the latter being of a more reformist and less radical nature than the former.

Yves Sagnier, May 1997