History - Modern Ireland


From 1801 onwards Ireland had no Parliament of its own; Irish MPs (drawn from the ascendancy) sat in the Westminster parliament in London where they were a small minority. Westminster was unwilling to grant major concessions to Catholics, despite persistent agitation. In 1823 a Catholic barrister, Daniel O’Connell, established the Catholic Association to press for full liberty for Catholics and rapidly converted it into a political mass-movement. O’Connell’s success forced the London parliament to grant Catholic Emancipation in 1829, removing virtually all the disabilities against Catholics.

O’Connell, the most popular figure in the country, now sought repeal of the Act of Union of 1800 and the restoration of the Irish parliament. He set up the Repeal Association and modelled his campaign on that for emancipation. The agitation was characterised by mass meetings, some attracting hundreds of thousands of people. The London Government resisted and when a Dublin rally was banned in 1843, O’Connell acquiesced. This marked the effective end of the repeal campaign.

In the 1840’s the Young Ireland movement was formed. The most influential of its leaders was Thomas Davis who, like the United Irishmen, expressed a concept of nationality embracing all who lived in Ireland, regardless of creed or origin. An attempt by the Young Irelanders to stage an insurrection failed in 1848, but their ideas strongly influenced later generations.

The end of war in Europe in 1815 had a drastic impact on the economy. The war had led to a huge growth in tillage farming to supply the armies, and a dependence on the potato as a staple food. When war ended there was a change from tillage to pasture, causing agrarian unemployment. Population increased rapidly and reached 8 million by 1841, two- thirds of whom depended on agriculture. In this precarious agrarian economy the failure of the potato crop in 1845, due to blight, proved disastrous. The crop failed again in 1846, 1847 and 1848 and, coupled with severe weather, resulted in famine. By 1851 the population had been reduced by at least 2 million due to starvation, disease and emigration to Britain and North America.

The latter half of the 19th century was characterised by campaigns for national independence and land reform. The Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), also known as the Fenians, was founded in 1858. The Fenians, a secret society, rejected constitutional attempts to gain independence as futile. Among the leaders of the Fenians were James Stephens and John O’Leary. The Fenians staged an armed uprising in 1867. The rising was no more than a token gesture and was easily put down. The IRB continued in existence, however.

However, the years after Parnell’s death saw the growing emergence of a cultural nationalism. The Gaelic Athletic
Association, founded in 1884, promoted the national games while the Gaelic League, founded in 1893 by Douglas Hyde and Eoin MacNeill, tried to revive the Irish language
and culture on a nationwide basis. At the same time Arthur Griffith developed a new political party in the period 1905-08 known as Sinn Féin - ‘we ourselves’. The Sinn Féin policy was that Irish MPs should withdraw from Westminster and establish an independent parliament. Sinn Féin had close links with the IRB. The Dublin labour dispute of 1913 produced another group, the Irish Citizen Army, which was socialist but also separatist.

The Sinn Féin representatives now constituted themselves as the first Dáil, or independent Parliament, in Dublin. The Dáil was headed by Éamon de Valera. The British attempt to smash Sinn Féin led to the War of Independence of 1919-21. The Irish forces were led by Michael Collins. After more than two years of guerilla struggle a truce was agreed. In December 1921 an Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed and 26 counties gained independence as the Irish Free State. Six Ulster counties had been granted their own parliament in Belfast in 1920 and remained within the United Kingdom.

The establishment of the Free State was followed by a civil war between the new Government and those who opposed the Treaty. Éamon de Valera led those who opposed the treaty. A truce was negotiated in May 1923 but the Civil War claimed the lives of many who had been prominent in the struggle for independence, among them Michael Collins and Cathal Brugha.

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