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A View North: A millennium in Irish history: out with the old . . .

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Jack Holland

This has been quite the millennium for the Irish, beginning with Brian Boru’s defeat of the Vikings at the Battle of Clontarf, and ending, more or less, with the appointment of Martin McGuinness as the new Northern Ireland minister of education. That was some thousand years.

But seriously . . .

Since it will be the last of the millennium, I actually did some research for this column. I asked a friend who used to lecture in Irish history what he thought the most important events were of the last millennium in Ireland. After some discussion, we came up with this list.

The Battle of Kinsale (December 1601)

The Flight of the Earls (September 1607)

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The Battle of The Boyne (1690)

The United Irishmen’s Rebellion of 1798

The Famine (1845-49)

The 1916 Rising

Partition (1921-22)

Ireland’s joining of the European Union (January 1973)

The Good Friday Agreement (April 1998)

The omission of the invasion of Richard Fitz Gilbert, who is perhaps better known by his nickname, Strongbow, in August 1170, might cause some controversy. Fitz Gilbert, a Norman, and earl of Pembroke in South Wales, came over to assist Diarmait Mac Murchada in recovering the kingship of Leinster. He married Mac Murchada’s daughter and became earl of Leinster when Mac Murchada died in 1171.

Traditionally, this event was portrayed as an invasion, but many historians now depict it more as a dispute between local warlords. Mac Murchada, for example, often operated in Wales, as well as in Ireland. At the time, Mac Murchada was held in high esteem by his contemporaries as a church reformer. His relationship with his son-in-law Strongbow was apparently not viewed as it would be later as a betrayal of the country to England.

We agreed that the events of 1601 and 1607 were much more important to Irish history. Lord Mountjoy’s defeat of Hugh O’Neill, Red Hugh O’Donnell and their Spanish allies at Kinsale, set the stage for a whole series of disastrous events which ended in the destruction of the native Irish aristocracy and the Plantation of Ulster. By the end of the 17th century Ireland was transformed culturally, politically and economically.

The Battle of the Boyne was only allowed on the list on second thoughts, though it was the largest military engagement ever to be fought on Irish soil. The Williamite wars were part of a broader European struggle. They were also more about power within the British Isles than they were about Ireland, which was merely the battleground. The Battle of the Boyne was actually less important than the Battle of Aughrim one year later, which was also the bloodiest battle ever fought in Ireland, with more than 7,000 deaths. Aughrim spelled the doom of the Jacobite cause. Though the Battle of the Boyne did not lead to any major social or political change in Ireland, it did become vitally important as part of the later mythology of Protestantism. In this way, the Boyne exercised a profound influence on Irish history which continues right to the dawn of second millennium.

However, there was no controversy or debate over the inclusion of the rebellion of 1798 on the list. The failure of this bid for Irish independence brought about yet another major transformation in Irish history. After it was crushed, Ireland was forced into political union with Great Britain. An economic disaster was also set in train with the growth in the number of absentee landlords, and the increasing dependency of Irish peasants on a single crop, the potato, for sustenance. By 1840 it had become the staple of diet for about a third of the entire population.

The Great Famine which followed in the mid-1800s had a radical impact on Ireland, decimating the rural peasantry and altering the social structure of Irish society for ever. What was left of the old Gaelic world was almost entirely wiped out, puritanical Catholicism got a grip on those who survived, and a new Irish "nation" rose up overseas, mainly in North America, where the transplanted Famine survivors became the core of the urban populations of the expanding East Coast cities.

The course of 20th century Ireland was shaped by the Easter Rising and the War of Independence. Republicans failed to achieve their goals, and partition was the result, which in turn laid the foundations for the last phase of the conflict that began in the late 1960s.

During the 1950s and ’60s, Ireland underwent profound social and economic change. The De Valera vision of a self-sustaining, peasant nation was bankrupt by the 1950s. When the country joined the European Union in early 1973, transformation began to occur at an increasing rate. Ireland’s fixation with its relationship to England gradually attenuated as its relationship to Europe grew deeper. Rising levels of prosperity meant it could deal with Britain on a more equal footing as a member of a group of nations.

For the third time this century, militant Irish republicanism decided to abandon the physical force tradition. An IRA cease-fire led to peace talks and an attempted accommodation with Unionism. The fruits of this change of course are represented in the Good Friday peace agreement, signed on April 10, 1998. Fittingly, its implementation came within weeks of the beginning of the second millennium.

Evaluating the past is much easier than predicting the future. One hundred years ago, if someone had predicted that within 40 years slavery would be reintroduced into a major European democracy, he or she would have been regarded as mad. Yet it happened, in Germany.

The problem is that most predictions are based on the premise that things will go on the way they happen to be going when the prediction is made. It is rare for us to be able to read the signs of new developments even though they might be all around us.

Certainly, as the millennium, the century and the year come to an end on Dec. 31 1999, as far as Ireland is concerned the future looks a lot brighter than it did in 1899, or 1799 or 1699. Of course, it has to be remembered that anyone alive in any of those years would not have been able to predict the nature of the major events which transformed the country and its people in the years to come. But it is safe to say that the historical conflict that has helped shape Ireland’s fate has now entered a new, more hopeful phase.

In the words of John Dryden: "It’s well the old age is out/ And time to begin a new."

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