Ireland has often been described as England’s blueprint for colonialism. Since the 12th century, the kings of England have claimed dominion over Ireland and the Irish have been resisting British dominion ever since. If Ireland was England’s blueprint for colonialism, then Ireland has also served as a blueprint for anti-colonial resistance.
After Henry II declared himself to be Lord of Ireland, the English influence slowly waned. The Irish were not content with their Lord ruling from across the Irish Sea and slowly they drifted out of the English sphere, leaving England with control only over the Pale, an area surrounding Dublin. However, as they claimed the throne of England, the Tudors also cracked down on autonomy in Ireland. In 1494, Henry VII oversaw the ‘Pyoning’s Laws’ which outlawed the Irish Parliament meeting without the approval of the King of England. Half a century later, Henry VIII increased English dominion by declaring himself King of Ireland. Soon, plantations were enforced in an effort to replace the rebellious Irish with more loyal Scottish and English planters. The Tudors had limited success in their plantations but the Plantation of Ulster by the Stuart King, James VI and I, was a resounding success, and still impacts the political geography of the divided island today.
The plantations were not enough to end the British troubles in Ireland and the island had its own forgotten civil war. While England’s Civil War was fought between Parliamentarians and the Monarchy, in Ireland, the civil war was fought between loyalists to the crown and those who wanted independence. Neither faction in England sided with the native Irish. Oliver Cromwell remains a contentious figure in Ireland after his campaign led to 40% of the population being killed. During the overthrow of James II, Ireland was home to the final clash between James II and William of Orange at the Battle of Boyne which is still celebrated by Unionists in the North today on the Twelfth of July.
After the defeat of James II, England implemented an apartheid system in Ireland. The penal laws discriminated against Catholics by banning their church and forbade Catholics from public office. While attempts to control Ireland’s religion were unsuccessful in the long-term, their efforts to wipe out the Irish language were successful, and now less than 75,000 Irish people speak Irish in their daily lives. The penal laws were eventually repealed, but the Irish still longed for independence. In 1798, the United Irishmen rose up in a failed rebellion against the British. As a result of this failure, the British clapped down even further. In 1801, the Acts of Union abolished the Kingdom of Ireland and united it with the Kingdom of Great Britain, creating the Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.
Since the Acts of Union, the primary political goal of the Irish has been to overturn it. The Irish famine (1845-52), often called the Great Hunger, demonstrated the second rate treatment of Ireland, in which one million people died and another million emigrated from the island. In the minds of Irish nationalists, the famine proved that the British would always view themselves above the Irish. Fueled by the anger of the famine, the Young Irelanders rose up in 1848. Despite being defeated, the Irish remained resistant and another unsuccessful rebellion, the Fenian Brotherhood, rose up in 1867.
Despite these frustrating defeats, the Irish became louder and louder for their demands of home rule, and in 1874, with the increased franchise of working class people, the Home Rule Party swept 60 of the 103 Irish seats in the British election of 1874. By the start of the 20th century, the Home Rule Party had become the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP), and with the hung Parliaments of January and December 1910, the IPP supported the government of Asquith’s Liberals in exchange for Irish Home Rule.
The Great War was a rare moment of unity for Ireland with most Irish people in support. But the war dragged on and Home Rule seemed an unattainable dream. In response, a group of Irish radicals, the Irish Republican Brotherhood formed. Unlike the IPP, they did not just want Home Rule, they wanted full independence. So began the Easter Rising (1916), seen today as the symbolic beginning of Irish independence. Though they were also defeated, the actions of the British in attaining this defeat lost them Ireland forever. In their brutal crackdown, the British executed all those who had been involved in the Easter Rising. This turned the majority of Irish against Britain, and in the 1918 election, Sinn Fein won 73 of the 105 seats in Ireland, including the first female MP, Constance Markievicz. After the Irish War of Independence, 1918-19, the Irish forced the British to create the Irish Free State in exchange for the partition of Ireland.
The battle against British dominion of Ireland did not end after the War for Independence and still continues today. In 1937, Ireland drafted a new constitution declaring itself a republic and in the 1960s, civil rights activists fought for the end of the second-class citizen treatment of Catholics by the Unionist government in the North. In the ensuing troubles, the resurgent IRA fought an armed struggle for the unity of Ireland. While the island remains partitioned, and Irish nationalists today are committed to more peaceful methods of unification, the rebellious spirit of the Irish remains strong.
By Tomás Roma