Irish - History and Cultural Relations

The earliest inhabitants of Ireland were Mesolithic hunter-gatherers whose sites are dated as early as 8980 B.P., but it is the extensive Neolithic settlement that has left a large number of impressive megalithic constructions. The exact origin point of "Celtic culture" in Ireland and its relation to preexisting cultures and/or populations is much disputed. By the first few centuries B.C. , however, a clearly Celtic culture was established all over the island, with clear connections to continental Celts. Iron Age Celtic society established a lasting economic, political, social, and cultural framework for Irish society. Unhampered by the Romanization that transformed so much of continental Europe, Ireland's cattle-based chieftaincies remained the basic social unit through the early Christian period, giving Irish Christianity a Celtic construction that would give rise to Roman consternation at various historical junctures. Celtic Ireland was notably rural, and it was the Vikings who established the major port cities that would continue to play an important role in Irish history (e.g., Dublin, Cork, Waterford, Wexford). The English Presence began with the twelfth-century Anglo-Norman expedition under the auspices of Henry II, in aid of one side in an internecine struggle in the south. The invaders settled, particularly in the southeast, bringing with them a manorial type of settlement and economy, as well as a new language and Culture. The succeeding centuries brought much cultural borrowing between native Irish and Anglo-Norman cultures, particularly in areas distant from the capital. The Cromwellian and Williamite wars of the seventeenth century established Ireland as a fully colonial society, with political rule and most landownership in the hands of English-speaking Protestants, and with a native population of mainly Gaelic-speaking Catholics, the vast majority of whom were poor tenant farmers, seen and described by their overlords in increasingly "primitive" terms. The wars also brought the "plantation" of Northern Ireland, the importation of thousands of mainly Presbyterian Scots who took ownership of small farms and settled in areas from which Catholic Irish had been driven. There was also a very considerable influx of Protestant English into the south. For most Catholic tenants, the central issue through the eighteenth century was local land tenure, and a variety of locally based secret societies—such as the "White Boys"—were active in retaliatory guerrilla raids against landlords, agents, or collaborators. After the failure of the United Irishmen's rebellion in 1798, land tenure as well as cultural and religious identity came more and more to be linked with nationalism. The nineteenth century saw a series of attempts, armed and legislative, to win independence and/or redress land issues, culminating in the Easter Uprising of 1916 and the war of independence that followed. Ireland achieved independence as a Free State with the treaty of 1922, which left the six Protestant-majority counties of Ulster in the United Kingdom. The Free State became Eire, or the Republic of Ireland, in 1949. One faction of the Irish—represented thereafter by the Irish Republican Army (IRA)—refused to accept the legitimacy of the boundary. Within Northern Ireland most Catholics—and a few Protestants—are "nationalists" favoring a "United Ireland." The vast majority of Protestants—and very few Catholics—espouse "Unionism," seeking to remain a part of the United Kingdom. It is difficult to assess what proportion of either population supports the activities of violent paramilitary organizations, which continue to carry out assassinations and bombings. After the bloody reaction to Catholic civil rights demonstrations in Northern Ireland in 1969, the British Army began to maintain a strong and active presence that continues to this day.

In addition to the political developments already described, the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries brought tremendous economic and social upheaval to Ireland. The population increased at a tremendous rate and grew increasingly dependent on the potato for sustenance. The great potato famine of the late 1840s (numerous smaller ones occurred before and after) led to evictions and immigration that vastly increased the flow of Irish to America.

While significant numbers went to England—and, to a lesser extent, Canada and Australia—the large proportion of Irish in America has had a great and lasting impact on both the United States and Ireland. Even since 1973, when Eire joined the European Economic Community, cultural (as opposed to economic) attention has been focused on the United States, to which the current crop of emigrants have once again come.

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