Northern Ireland – A Beginner’s Guide
The Normans, perhaps? Strongbow was a Norman lord from Wales who started the Norman conquest of Ireland, around 1170. Though some of them ‘went native’ and were absorbed into Gaelic (Irish) culture, that was maybe the start of the disparagement and racism against the Irish in our own land.
The Tudor Conquest began with Henry VIII in 1536, and he’d declared himself King of Ireland by 1541. That continued through Elizabeth, and James I, and ended (officially) with the ‘Flight of the Earls‘ in 1607.
We were firmly under the English boot by then. Through the 1500s and 1600s CE we’d been subjected to the Plantations, where ownership of our land was forcibly stripped by the English crown, and re-settled with citizens from England. This officially ended in the 1650s with thousands of Parliamentarian soldiers settled in Ireland under the direction of Oliver Cromwell. Ulster was a hotspot for plantation settlement, and this created large strongholds of communities with British and Protestant identity.
English settlers in Ireland did not think highly of our native Gaelic, and by that time firmly Catholic, culture…
How godly a deed it is to overthrow so wicked a race the world may judge: for my part I think there cannot be a greater sacrifice to God.
– Edward Barkley, describing how the forces of the Earl of Essex slaughtered the entire population of Rathlin Island, Co. Antrim, 1575
All wisdom advises us to keep this [Irish] kingdom as much subordinate and dependent on England as possible; and, holding them from manufacture of wool (which unless otherwise directed, I shall by all means discourage), and then enforcing them to fetch their cloth from England, how can they depart from us without nakedness and beggary?
– Lord Stafford, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, in a letter to King Charles I, 1634
They took our natural resources, the strength of our labour, and grew rich off the skin of our backs, ate well and drank merry while our people drowned in blood, sweat, and tears. They fed us slave food – this, the Irish potato, and when it failed us they refused to allow us to eat of anything else fed from our own lands, grown from our own rich soil.
You’ve all heard of “the Famine” I’m sure, but first the Irish Famine of 1740 killed at least 38% of our 2.4 million population; proportionally, a greater loss than during the worst years of the Great Famine of 1845–1852. In that time, we lost more than a million people to starvation, and a million more to forced emigration, and they said it was our fault.
…being altogether beyond the power of man, the cure had been applied by the direct stroke of an all-wise Providence in a manner as unexpected and as unthought of as it is likely to be effectual.
The judgement of God sent the calamity to teach the Irish a lesson, that calamity must not be too much mitigated. …The real evil with which we have to contend is not the physical evil of the Famine, but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse and turbulent character of the people.
– Charles Trevelyan, head of administration for famine relief, 1840s
[existing policies] will not kill more than one million Irish in 1848 and that will scarcely be enough to do much good.
– Queen Victoria’s economist, Nassau Senior
The United Irishmen (and women) Rebellion in 1798 was perhaps the beginning of the first organised attempts to overthrow the oppressors in hundreds of years, and it officially started in Belfast in 1791 (read my post about Vinegar Hill). A counter campaign of martial law used tactics such as house burnings, torture of captives, pitch-capping and murder, particularly in Ulster where large numbers of Catholics and Protestants had joined in common cause. That just couldn’t stand.
The Act of Union in 1801 was a betrayal, and highlighted a particularly Catholic vs Protestant struggle for Catholic emancipation, and following from that the The Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB; in Irish: Bráithreachas Phoblacht na hÉireann) began in 1858 – it was a secret oath-bound fraternal organisation dedicated to the establishment of an “independent democratic republic” in Ireland.
And then, my dear Readers, our Troubles became focused in ‘the North’.
Tensions were rising and we seemed on the brink of civil war from 1912, with opposition to ‘Home Rule‘ from Ulster Unionists, who formed the ‘Ulster Volunteers’, which led to Irish Nationalists forming the ‘Irish Volunteers’. World War 1 averted some of the crisis, but it didn’t go away anywhere.
Of course the famed Easter Rising didn’t happen in a vacuum, and we’ve just celebrated the 100 year anniversary of that these last few months, so we’re very much into recent history now after a run down of what… nearly 750 years of English rule? The history of that is well know, I guess, though the depth and breadth of it is often glossed over and washed green instead of red, swathed in beer and rebel ballads.
The Partition of Ireland was the division of the island of Ireland which created two distinct political territories – Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland, as it was called at the time, on the 3rd of May in 1921, under the Government of Ireland Act 1920. Today we still call the 6 counties ‘Northern Ireland’, and it is a self governing part of the larger ‘United Kingdom’, with Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, the Isle of Man, and England. The rest of the island is a sovereign state, the Republic of Ireland, or just called Ireland.
To refer to us now as ‘Southern Ireland’ is offensive. To say we are part of “Great Britain” will get you verbally slapped at least, and even though technically and geographically our island can be classed as part of the ‘British Isles’, if you’ve read this far you may now have an inkling of why it might rankle and burn to be proprietorially inferred as owned by Britain in such a way.
I’ve brought you this far, through 800 years of systematic oppression and genocide, shown you the seeds that were planted on our island that were cultivated and grew to be ‘the North’.
I didn’t grow up there. I’m reluctant to talk about the horrors that direct immersion in ‘the Troubles’ has brought for the people who did.
My great grandparents, my grandparents and their siblings were directly involved, and maybe even my parents or their siblings, I don’t know. We don’t talk about the more recent loyalties and actions in the same way as we tell stories which are a generation or two removed. I can tell you the stories I’ve heard of the Black and Tans that make me want to scream when I see a product named this way in ignorance, my awareness and fears through the long years of Bombings in the North, and the Republic, and in the heart of England too – and if you ever order an ‘Irish Car Bomb’ drink in my presence you will not be in my presence for much longer, of that you can be sure.
I can share memories of crossing into the North, across the border, maybe once or twice… and the soldiers aiming guns at us frightened kids in the back of the car, their harsh questions and suspicious peering, poking, prodding with the tip of a machine gun.
I can tell you of the confusion and anger I felt when I first learned of the Hunger Strikes, at the age of 4 or 5 years old, and later on when I understood the dirty protests, and the stark reality of a person starving themselves to death for what they believed. Of how the energy of hunger has seeped so thoroughly into this land that it seems forever stained with the raw, gnawing, hollowed out fear and pain of starvation, and how teenage me was tormented by that before I even knew what it was, or how to manage it and protect myself from the ravenous pockets of it that are a part of our landscape. And maybe even begin to heal some of that, in time.
And I can tell you of the sweet, cautious, dawning of hope with the Good Friday Agreement in April 1998, two weeks before my 20th birthday. That unsteady peace has grown, and things have stabilised in the North for the first time any of us can remember.
Nearly one year ago now (24th June 2016), we woke to the news that Britain had voted to exit the EU – Brexit – and still nobody knows what that means for Northern Ireland. I’m not going to speculate on that… but about the only good I saw from the last year’s news and social media chatter is the idea that both Unionists and Nationalists in the North may be agreed that leaving the United Kingdom is the way forward for Northern Ireland.
Borders have always been a problem for us, as you can perhaps imagine.
Note: Throughout the article are clickable direct links to further resources… which I’ve kept to general Wikipedia articles to aim for as much source neutrality as possible. Please do educate yourself further, as this article is only scratching the surface.