Facts About Irish History I Bet You Didn’t Know

St Patricks Day image from Heidi Tunnell Catering

Do you have any green clothes on right now? If not, you better change before somebody pinches you! Today is the day Americans all pretend to be Irish. Last year, I honored the day with some little-known facts about St. Patrick, and today I’m continuing the tradition with some facts about the history of Ireland that not very many people know. For example, did you know that…

Dublin was originally a Viking colony

Viking image from Michael Dowling School

That’s right, the capital of Ireland wasn’t originally Irish! While there were Irish settlements in the area for centuries before the Vikings came, Dublin proper was founded in 988 A.D. Normans and Danes lived in the colony, building their livelihood off of trade. In particular, they had one of the biggest slave markets on the island. They also were fairly democratic, gathering on a hill called the Thingmote to make their laws. The locals, on the other hand, weren’t always very pleased with their new neighbors, and would periodically attack the colony. Eventually, they would be driven from the city completely in 1171 by the forces of King Dermot MacMurrough of Leinster. And the Irish would never be messed with by any foreign invader ever again. Just kidding.

Information from Dublin Uncovered and Wikipedia.

The Pope gave Ireland to the English

Meet the new pope - Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, Archbishop of Buenos Aires, was elected by the College of Cardinals after only five rounds of voting. Image from ABC News.

So you probably already know that a major, major chunk of Irish history is basically taken up by the English invading, conquering, and ruling Ireland and brutally suppressing Irish movements for independence. Just who did the English think they were, anyway? Who gave them the right to invade their neighbors?

The Pope, that’s who.

In 1155, Pope Adrian IV, who in a weird coincidence is the only pope to have been an Englishman, wrote to the King of England and gave him papal blessing to invade Ireland. The reason? In Pope Adrian’s own words: “You labour to extend the borders of the Church, to teach the truths of the Christian faith to a rude and unlettered people, and to root out the weeds of vice from the field of the Lord…For the purpose of enlarging the borders of the Church, setting bounds to the progress of wickedness, reforming evil manners, planting virtue, and increasing the Christian religion, you do enter and take possession of that island.”

Wow. Bear in mind, Ireland had already been faithfully Christian for centuries, and far from being “rude and unlettered”, Irish monks and scholars were well-educated preservers of literacy and classical Greek and Roman texts. No, the real issue the Vatican took with Ireland apparently was that the Celtic Church had a separate set of rituals and traditions than the main Roman Catholic Church – celebrating Easter on a different day, for example. One of the key missions of the English king was to make the Irish adhere to the mainstream Catholic traditions. Of course, it might also very well be that  the English were going to invade Ireland anyway and Pope Adrian felt political pressure to give the king of his native country what he wanted. And that’s assuming the whole thing wasn’t a forgery, as some modern scholars argue.

Information from Wikipedia and Library Ireland

One of Ireland’s key independence leaders was technically American

Eamon de Valera image from History in an Hour

If you were to ask an Irishman who was Ireland’s George Washington, you’d probably get different answers from different people, based in part on what political party they belong to. But one top contender for the title is Éamon de Valera, who fought in Ireland’s (at long last successful) war of independence, became the country’s first president, and then after a long political exile returned to power to write the country’s current constitution and guide the country through World War II, before eventually spending 14 years as Ireland’s president from 1959 to 1973. Not bad for a Latino New Yorker.

Wait, what? That’s right, he was born in New York City in 1882. His birth name was Edward George de Valera, and his father was a Cuban-American sculptor named Juan Vivion de Valera. His mother, Catherine Coll, was an Irish immigrant, and when her husband died, she sent her son away to live with her family back in Ireland.

As it turned out, young Edward fell in love with this new country, learning to speak Gaelic and adopting the Gaelic name Éamon. He gradually came to support the Irish independence movement, and participated in the famous Easter Rising of 1916.

And here’s where it gets interesting. All the participants in the Easter Rising were captured and sent to be hanged for treason by the British authorities. But de Valera’s family intervened. While de Valera was in Ireland, his mother had remarried  a man named Charles Wheelwright, and they raised two children in Rochester, New York. Upon hearing of their relative’s plight, the family went to the British authorities and begged for clemency. The British, at the time, were busy fighting World War I and trying to get America to join the war on their side. They realized it wouldn’t have helped their case to execute a U.S. citizen. So, they put off the execution until they could figure out what to do with this situation, and before they could come to a decision, a decree was issued pardoning all of the remaining rebels that had not been executed yet. So, de Valera’s citizenship saved his life, and therefore he was able to help lead Ireland to independence.

And speaking of Irish independence…

Information from a biography of Éamon de Valera’s life I read in the Cal Poly library

The Irish military shares its heritage with a terrorist group

IRA terrorists image from the Guardian

All right, this is where things get tricky. I’m going to have to explain, in a nutshell, the history of Irish republicanism, and try to keep it simple – there are few things more complex than the history of Irish republicanism.

Let’s begin with where I just left off, with the Irish war of independence. In 1921, the Irish rebels had successfully forced the British to the negotiating table. In the peace treaty that the negotiators reached, an “Irish Free State” would be created, whereby the country would have the same level of independence as, say, Canada or Australia. This would mean they still had to recognize the British king, but could otherwise basically govern themselves. Another caveat to the treaty was that Northern Ireland could vote to remain British (which they promptly did, since the majority there were Protestants of British, not Irish, descent).

The rebel government of the Irish Republic was divided on the treaty. Michael Collins led the pro-Treaty faction, that was more interested in peace. Éamon de Valera led the anti-Treaty faction, that argued the Irish Republic couldn’t vote to destroy itself or split the island. A brutal civil war broke out between the two factions, with those rebels who supported the treaty forming the Irish Defense Forces and the anti-Treaty rebels keeping the name “Irish Republican Army” that they had been using during the war of independence. The pro-Treaty faction won, and the Irish Defense Forces became the Irish military, while what remained of the Irish Republican Army or IRA became a terrorist group.

Eventually, de Valera split from the IRA and declared he would seek true Irish independence through peaceful means, forming the political party Fianna Fail and running for office. Eventually winning power, de Valera changed Ireland’s constitution, making it a republic, changing its name to “The Republic of Ireland”, and leaving the British Empire completely. The IRA, however, refused to accept this new arrangement, and continued to demand the reunification of the island and restoration of the old Irish Republic. For decades, they waged a terrorist campaign to achieve their goals, and in the meantime splitting even further into more radical factions.

At long last, in 1998 a peace agreement was reached to end the terrorist campaign. Mostly. A handful of terrorists refused to accept the peace agreement, splitting off once again and calling themselves the “Real IRA”, and continuing to stage terrorist attacks. And another terrorist group split off of them, because there weren’t already enough terrorist groups in Ireland.

Information from Wikipedia

The Irish aren’t nearly as Celtic as even they think

Newgrange image from Sacred Destinations

Prehistoric Ireland was first settled by humans about 10,000 years ago. These early inhabitants were hunter-gatherers, who soon learned to take up farming and eventually learned to make bronze. They were not Celtic, however. Celtic people first arose in the Alps, and spread over the centuries across western Europe. So how did Ireland become Celtic? Traditional Irish tales tell of how Celtic invaders and conquerors took the land from the original inhabitants. Great heroic warriors like Nuada or Lugh allegedly fought great battles against mythic enemies to subdue the island.

Except that archaeologists studying ancient Irish artifacts and sites have found no evidence of this whatsoever. Instead, it appears that Celtic traders arrived peacefully on the island, and that the islanders gradually chose to adopt Celtic culture and traditions. In other words, if we are measuring “Celticness” by genetics and descent, the Irish aren’t very Celtic at all.

Shocked face from Richie the Rapper

Information from In Search of Ancient Ireland