Ireland is an island in the Atlantic Ocean just west of Britain. For much of its history, it
has been an advantage to Ireland to be far from the mainland. The Romans or the other
early Empires never conquered Ireland. It was the remoteness of Ireland that helped
preserve much of Christian and classical culture. After the fall of the Roman Empire,
wandering tribes destroyed much of what remained on the continent.
Finally, it was Ireland’s turn to be invaded. First, the Norsemen or Vikings attacked during
the 800s and 900s. Then in the 1100s, the English invaded Ireland. Since that time, there
has always been an English presence in Ireland. The conflict between the English and
the Irish grew worse in the 1500s. Then the English became Protestant, and the Irish
remained Catholic. In the 1600s, Oliver Cromwell tried to make Ireland Protestant by
driving out the Catholics and bringing in Protestant settlers. In the centuries following,
Irish Catholics had very few rights in their own country. The Catholic Irish were not
allowed to vote until 1829.
Since Irish Catholics were not allowed to own land, they were poor tenant farmers. They
paid rent to the English landlords. The main food crop in the 1840s was potatoes. When
these became infected by blight, thousands of Irishmen starved. Many others were
evicted from their dwellings because they couldn’t pay the rent. Hundreds of thousands
of Irish took ship for North America. The Catholic Irish preferred to go to the United
States because Canada was under British influence. However, many Protestant Irish went
to Canada.
The influence of the Irish on North American culture has been very great in many areas.
Prominent Irish-Americans include Presidents John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan.
Meanwhile, in Ireland itself, a strong independence movement developed. A rebellion
against England in 1916 began a struggle that resulted in independence for most of
Ireland. Some Protestant areas in Northern Ireland preferred to stay with England.
Republican groups such as the Irish Republican Army wanted to “liberate” the north from
British rule. Nowadays, conflict between Protestants and Catholics is limited to these
northern counties. Constant attempts are being made to bring the conflict there to an end.
Meanwhile, the Irish Republic, or Eire, has become prosperous again. It can sell its
agricultural products to the European Common Market. Irish beer and whisky are sold all
over the world. Ireland is also becoming known for its high-tech industries. Because of
this relative prosperity, the population is increasing again, after a century and a half of
The Irish differ from other people because the vast majority of Irishmen live away from
their homeland. However, this exodus from Ireland has helped to spread Irish music,
culture and products around the world. On St. Patrick’s Day (March 17th), nearly
everyone becomes Irish for the day. Then there is a great party with Celtic music, Irish
dancing, green beer and the wearing of the green.