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War and Warriors


A thousand years of war - that's a long time. At the end of the first milllenium the Vikings came, first as raiders then as settlers. Shortly afterwards it was the Anglo-Normans spreading out after their conquest of England. Right up to the 15th Century there were skirmishes rather than outright wars, mainly because it was usually one Irish Clan at a time which decided to take on the English, and as often as not other Clans would be fighting on the side of the English.

Henry II was declared feudal lord of Ireland by Pope Clementine III, who wanted to bring the Irish into line - he was concerned that they had happily blended their old Celtic Gods with Christian beliefs and were continuing with few changes to their lifestyle. Henry was nominally in charge, but his influence was confined to the area known as the Pale, where most of the English settlers lived, and hardly touched the more remote areas.

The 16th and 17th Centuries were centuries of conflict, conquest and colonisation by the English as the state became more centralised and tried to extend its authority throughout the island. Some of the triggers to unrest were

  • The establishment of a state-supported church leading to lasting and bitter community division on religious lines
  • Military expeditions
  • Confiscation of land, rank and status on the basis of religious loyalty
  • The introduction of a new ruling class and a substantial community of new Protestant settlers
  • A drive towards the cultural dominance of English culture over the Irish Gaelic culture (especially linguistic culture)

Progress towards the conquest of Ireland was uneven, but by the end of the 17th century the old Gaelic system was defeated and, in key areas, rapidly collapsing. Gaelic Ireland as a vital, political, legal and social system disintegrated with the military defeat of the Gaelic aristocracy which had given it authority and practical effect.

Not all the Protestant settlers in Ireland remained permanent aliens. Some even became opponents of the English Protestant establishment. The majority of the leaders of the United Irishmen were Protestants. Inspired by revolutions in America and in France they became involved in a movement for radical reform in Ireland. It was in the 'Scots town' of Belfast that the first society of United Irishmen was formed in 1791. Its plan was to unite all Irishmen, Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter, to achieve revolutionary change - a democratic parliament, civil rights for all regardless of religion, and an end to English domination. The movement was the brainchild of a graduate of the universities of Glasgow and Edinburgh, William Drennan, and its first members were "sons of the manse" and elders of the kirk.

Perhaps because of the oral tradition, the heroes of the olden days are still spoken of in Ireland as though they lived yesterday. Their deeds are remembered and their songs performed in the pubs, while parents tell their children the legends as if the stories were all fact.






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