Ireland Essay, Research Paper
Ireland is an island country lying to the west of Great Britian. It
is separated from Great Britain by St. George’s Channel, the Irish Sea
and the Northern Channel. At its greatest length, from northeast to
southwest , it measures three hundred and two miles. The first human
settlements on the island on the northeastern edge of Europe were made
relatively late in European prehistory, about six thousand B.C. It
remained relatively uninhabited and uninvaded. The only knowledge of
this Ireland is through references in Greek and Roman literature and
pagan legends that survived into the Christian period. Sometime between
six hundred and one hundred fifty B.C. Celtic peoples from western
Europe, Known as Gaels, invaded and subdued the inhabitants.
The basic units of the Gaelic society were the tuatha, which were
petty kingdoms. They remained independent of each other but shared the
same common language, Gaelic. There were also a class of men called
brehons, “who were learned in customary laws and helped to
preserve throughout Ireland a uniform yet archaic social system.”
(Grolier) One reason for the unique nature of their society was that the
Romans, who had transformed the Celtic societies of Britain and other
societies with their armies, roads, administrative system and town
structures, never tried to conquer Ireland.
A result of Ireland’s isolation from Romanized
Europe was the development of a distinctive Celtic type of Christianity.
While Saint Patrick introduced Latin Christianity into the country in
the fifth century, the system of bishops with territorial dioceses which was
modeled on the Roman’s administrative system, it could not find security
in Ireland at the time.(Grolier) Though the independent tuath remained
the basic unit of Gaelic secular society, the sovereign monastery became
the basic unit of Celtic Christianity. During the sixth and seventh
centuries Irish monasteries were great centers of learning. Such
missionaries as Saint Columba and Saint Columban were sent out to the
rest of Europe. While the rest of Europe was in the Dark Ages, this
was Ireland’s golden age.(Grolier)
In the late Eighth century, Vikings from Scandinavia began to
raid Ireland. The other parts of Europe about this time were
responding to the pressures of the invasions by developing the system of
feudalism. However, the Gaelic society did not lend itself to such
developments because it lacked the heritage of Roman law that provided
the framework for the feudal system.(Grolier) The complex and detailed
kinship arrangements in which both property-holding and succession to
leadership roles were regulated by brehon laws. This impaired the
exchange of land for military service, a basic bargain underlying feudal
Eventually, the Gaelic society managed to organize resistance. In
1014, Irish forces led by King Brian Boru decisively defeated the
Vikings at the Battle of Contarf. King Brian was giving the title ” high
king of Ireland “. (Grolier) During Brian’ s tenure (1002-14) his power
throughout much of the island was insignificant. Without the
infrastructure of feudalism he was unable to make the transition from
symbolic kingship to effective monarch, which was beginning in other parts
of Europe.(Grolier) Though the Vikings were gone, they left their mark
upon the island by founding Ireland’s first cities, including
Dublin, Limerick and Waterford.
The unity experienced under Brian had long disappeared by the
time Ireland faced her next challenge. It came from, the highly effective
feudal monarchy founded by William the Conqueror after his invasion of
that country in 1066 from Normandy (Grolier), England. In 1171,
Henry II , a descendant of William, took advantage of a letter from
Pope Adrian IV. It authorized Henry to make himself overlord of
Ireland in order to bring the Irish Church more “in line with Roman
standards.”(Grolier) Many Anglo-Norman barons along with their
retainers had already seized large parts of Ireland when Henry himself
went to the island accompanied by an army to receive formal submission
of those barons and most Irish Kings.
In those areas where the Anglo-Norman barons settled and
scattered the native Gaelic aristocracy, a feudal system was established
similar to their native English and Norman lands. However, it was not
an effective centralized monarchy like the Norman feudalism favored
in England. (Grolier) The English government was usually distracted
and did issue much authority to the colony. Ireland was mainly divided
into three concentric regions in this time : 1. Dublin and its immediate
area, it was the only area where the English exercised any authority ;
2. a broad area of territories beyond Dublin which where semi-
independent fiefs of the great Anglo-Norman lords ; 3. territories on the
western coast of Ireland that retained Gaelic customs and remained
completely outside of the English rule. (Grolier)
The English colony in Ireland reached its peak in the early
fourteenth century. The Gaelic society was enjoying a considerable
resurgence. Not only by winning back territories from the colonists but
through the change of the Anglo-Normans into an ” Anglo-Irish ”
aristocracy. As Anglo-Normans intermarried with the natives and
adopted the Gaelic language and customs, they progressively became to be
” more Irish than the Irish “. (Grolier – O’Brien,34)
The Anglo-Norman conquest hurried reforms that brought the
Irish church more in line with Roman standards. English legal practices
and civil administration were introduced. Additionally, an Irish
parliament, modeled on the English one, was created in the late
thirteenth century. (Grolier)
By the end of the Middle Ages it became clear that the Anglo-
Norman conquest was a failure. In the sixteenth century the English
monarchs, Henry VIII, Mary I and Elizabeth I, made concerted
efforts to reconquer Ireland by use of military and by the establishment or
plantation of colonies of English settlers upon the island.(O’Brien,36)
However, Henry’s ties between the Church of England and the papacy
complicated the attempts of reconquest. In Ireland, unlike England,
there was practically no inherent sympathy with the Protestant
reformers among either the Gaelic-Irish or the Anglo-Irish.
Consequently, the trans-formation of the Church of Ireland into a
Protestant church was rejected overwhelming by the majority of the
1. De Vere White, Terence. Ireland .
New York : Walker and Company. 1968.
2. ” Ireland “. Collier’s Encyclopedia .
volume 11, pages 131-144 1959 ed.
3. ” Ireland “. Encyclopedia Britannica .
volume 12, pages 592-620 1951 ed.
4. ” Ireland, history of. medieval Ireland”. Grolier Multimedia
Encyclopedia . Grolier Electronic Publishing, Inc. 1995 ed.
5. O’Brien, Elinor. The land and people of Ireland .
Philadelphia & New York : JB Lippincott Co. 1953