A Short History of Northern Ireland: Background information when reading This Human Season

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This Human Season

by Louise Dean

This Human Season by Louise Dean X
This Human Season by Louise Dean
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  • First Published:
    Feb 2007, 384 pages

    Paperback:
    Feb 2008, 384 pages

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A Short History of Northern Ireland

This article relates to This Human Season

Print Review

English involvement in Ireland began around 1170 when Dermot Mac Murchada, King of Leinster (one of 4 Irish provinces) asked for Henry II's help to return him to the throne from which he'd been ousted (for more about Henry II, read A Plantagenet Primer). Henry (great-grandson of William the Conqueror of Normandy) invaded but in the ensuing battle Dermot died and Henry named himself Lord of Ireland.

Over the next couple of centuries English expansion was consolidated, with many of the Norman lords marrying with locals and thus, over the generations becoming indistinguishable from the Irish. However, during the 15th century, the English were driven out until they retained only a small area of land around Dublin, known as "the Pale" (hence the expression, 'beyond the pale').

In the 16th century, the Tudor monarchs Henry VIII and Elizabeth I re-colonized parts of Ireland, sparking off several rebellions.

In the 17th century, Oliver Cromwell, leader of the short-lived "Commonwealth of England" (1649-1659), conquered the whole of Ireland, opening it up for colonization.

By the end of the 17th century, Scottish and English Presbyterians had heavily colonized the Northern parts of Ireland, particularly around Ulster.

During the 19th century, the north and south grew further apart due to economic differences. In the north, the standard of living rose as industry and manufacturing flourished, while in the south the unequal distribution of land and resources resulted in a low standard of living for the large Catholic population.

By the early 20th century, the Protestants and Catholics had divided into two warring camps over the issue of Irish home rule. Most Irish Catholics wanted complete independence from Britain, but Irish Protestants feared living in a country ruled by a Catholic majority.

In an attempt to pacify both factions, the British passed the Government of Ireland Act in 1920 which divided Ireland into two separate political entities, each with some powers of self-government. The Act was accepted by Ulster Protestants and rejected by southern Catholics, who continued to demand total independence for a unified Ireland.

Following a period of guerrilla warfare between the nationalist Irish Republican Army (IRA) and British forces, a treaty was signed in 1921 creating the Irish Free State from 23 southern counties and 3 counties in Ulster. The other 6 counties of Ulster made up Northern Ireland, which remained part of the United Kingdom (map).

In 1949 the Irish Free State became an independent republic.

Armed hostilities largely subsided until the late 1960s when rioting broke out in Londonderry and Belfast. British troops were brought in to restore order but the conflict intensified and the Catholic IRA and Protestant paramilitary groups terrorized each other. Terrorist violence remained a problem for the next 30 years with more than 3,600 people killed.

At the end of 1999 a compromise was reached between the two sides, so the British government transferred governing powers to the Northern Irish parliament. However, Sein Fein (the political arm of the IRA) made little attempt to meet the disarmament deadline that was part of the agreement, so the parliament was suspended and the British took over direct rule again.

After this there were many attempts, by British and International negotiators, to bring the two sides together into a lasting agreement that will establish self-rule in Northern Ireland under a power-sharing government.

On January 30th, 2007 the British government shut down the British controlled Northern Ireland legislature in preparations for new elections to be held for the Assembly in early March where, once again, the Northern Irish political parties attempted to form a lasting Catholic-Protestant coalition to govern themselves.

On May 8th 2007, Home rule returned to Northern Ireland. DUP leader Ian Paisley and Sinn Féin's Martin McGuinness took office as First Minister and Deputy First Minister, respectively.

Filed under Places, Cultures & Identities

This "beyond the book article" relates to This Human Season. It originally ran in February 2007 and has been updated for the February 2008 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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