Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.


I recently took a course in Irish History at the State University of New York at Purchase under Professor Patrick Holt. The teacher was great. He was very patient and not bothered by my somewhat irritating comments and questions. But the course material and the analysis of Irish history in that material proved very unsatisfying. The reason for writing this article is to address the underappreciation of the serious nature of the discrimination and oppression suffered by the Irish under eight centuries of British rule -- and continued to this day in Northern Ireland. the Irish situation. The main theme is that under the British the Irish people and Ireland itself suffered from a process of minoritization that still very much affects Irish society and culture.

I want to take a look at Ireland from the ecological perspective as outlined in my website on the Return of the Renaissance Man: The Unity of all the Disciplines. And so we start with the ecological perspective as the most important determinant of the basic conflicts in Irish society and history.

I am not a master of Irish history so historical purists will be able to quarrel with the way in which I put some of the phrases. But that isn't really important. What is important is the way I analyze the Irish situation, along with some of the insights into that history.


The key determinant of Irish history is the relative isolation of the country. British history is greatly explained by its relative isolation in Europe, which helped it avoid many of the frequent wars on the European continent. And Ireland is even more isolated geographically than Great Britain for Ireland, lying off the western shores of Great Britain, is protected from invasion by the ecological accident of Great Britain lying between mainland Europe and Ireland.

Another important feature of Ireland's geographic position in the world is that it was too close and yet too far from Britain to force Britain to take a decisive course of action as regards Ireland. Britain never really tried to take Ireland completely and make it part of Britain. As we shall see, Britain always took half-way actions that were never satisfactory and always left Ireland confused and divided.

Ireland is shaped somewhat like a saucer bowl with its upturned edges. Hence rainfall tends to stay in the middle, making Ireland a somewhat boggy island. Another key feature of the island of Ireland is the relative isolation of the northeast section due to its being cut off from the rest of Ireland (the home of Ulster and Northern Ireland) by mountains and bogs and lakes. This relative isolation of this section meant that it took a more independent course from the rest of Irish history.

Another important feature of Irish topography is how rough it is, being especially mountainous in the western section of the island. A piece of pie-shaped wedge extending westward from the future coastal town of Dublin was the best piece of real estate in Ireland, which explains both the importance of Dublin and why the British first took and held this area of Ireland.


In 600 BC the first wave of Celtic invaders reached Ireland. These people were the Hallstatters (with the Q-Celtic language) from Austria via Spain and Portugal. The Hallstatters were followed in 250 B.C. by the La Tene Celts (with the P-Celtic language) from Scotland & northern England. The Celts pressed the indigenous peoples into servitude, governing them as a warrior aristocracy.

In the struggle between the two groups of Celts, the Gaelic Celts of Hallstatt descent were able to impose their language on the entire country.

This victory of the Celts did not bring any real unity to Ireland. The Celtic Irish were a nomadic people with no cities. They had a pagan type religion and certainly no advanced system of writing. As of 300 AD Ireland was still very isolated and very backward and this was aided by Ireland being divided into 150 tiny kingdoms.

This isolation meant that Ireland was very backward compared to the rest of Europe. Its peoples were not as affected by the great waves of violence that swept Europe, but which also served to unify it into clear nation states. Ireland, more isolated, was left to itself and its numerous querulous Irish chieftains.



Ireland's great isolation had another great impact on the island. "Civilization" was late in coming to Ireland. And most of this influence was indirect via the impact of Christianity. In fact, it was relatively late that any of the mainland Europeans took much of an interest at all in Ireland. And this attention was mostly indirect. At this time Great Britain was not that much more advanced than Ireland with Ireland even being able at times to raid Britain. In these raids the Irish captured villagers to be slaves. Quite a few of these captured villagers also turned out to be Christians. After many a raid, the number of Christians in Ireland started to mount up and this brought the Irish to the attention of the pope. In the early years of the fifth century Pope Celestine I wanted to rid Britain of the "disease" of Pelagianism (that among other things advocated the good deeds could win a person salvation); and in the process he reached beyond to Ireland to ordain a bishop for the Irish. In 431 the pope sent Palladius to Ireland. No, dear old Saint Patrick, was not the first. The pope sent Patrick as the second missionary and bishop in 432.

Christianity was a very important force in Irish history because the first cities were founded around the many Irish monasteries set up by the Christians. In other words, Christianity was very much associated with a newly emerging market economy -- the first sign of which were the emerging cities. Indeed, Christianity was so successful precisely because of its association with this new economic system.

The relative weakness of Christianity in Ireland is illustrated by the fact of the continuing strong influence of paganism on Christianity. The term "Celtic Christianity" reveals the important new mixture of Christianity with elements of paganism. This mixture was so strong that many a Pope worried about the future of Christianity in Ireland. The importance of the mixture reflects the importance of the mixture of the two economic systems of nomadism and cities.

The late arrival of Christianity to an isolated Ireland and the importance of Irish monasteries in the emerging economic system of cities, goes a long way to explain why Ireland was able to supply so many crucial clergy members to continental Europe during the Dark Ages. Since the Irish had a large supply of monasterians, they could be a crucial source of supply to the rest of Europe. This enabled the Irish Christians to have a great impact on European Christianity. The year 550 marks the beginning of the golden age of Irish monasticism. Because of Ireland's relative isolation, its monasteries were protected from the ravaging of Christian structures occurring in Europe.


Beginning at the end of the eighth century A.D. Ireland saw a series of conquests by foreign powers. This was a precursors or troubles to come to Ireland from abroad.

The first big foreign threat to the Irish did not come from Britain, but rather from another direction. The year 795 marks the first recorded Viking raid on Ireland. The Scandinavians had come up with a remarkable technology that gave them a crucial advantage in warfare. Their Viking boats enabled them to be highly maneuverable and this allowed their troops quickly to descend upon Irish villages. The result is that Ireland degenerates into anarchy in the ninth centuries. (One good thing about the Viking interlude was the founding of many of the present-day important port cities, including Dublin -- established in the 840s.)

The Vikings were defeated by the Irish under Brian Boru. In the year 1000 Brian made his bid for sole high kingship of Ireland. In 1002 he persuaded his rival Mael Sechnaill to yield and got the Vikings to promise not to interfere. Unfortunately for the Irish, the unity of the island did not last long for Brian had only twelve more years to live, being killed at the Battle of Clontarf in 1014.


Irish independence from foreigners did not last long. In 1066 the Norman William I (William the Conqueror) conquered England via the Battle of Hastings. In 1167 Diarmait, one of the local Irish powers involved in the all too frequent internecine warfare in Ireland, blackened his name forever in Irish history by asking for help from King Henry II of England.

Henry II did not take all of Ireland. We discussed the relative isolation of the northern part of Ireland. This part still remained free of the English.

At one point the coast of northern Ireland is only about 12 miles from Scotland. It was too near Great Britain to be ignored and yet too close to merit much expenditure. It was a close of distance, but not a great enough distance.

There are some benefits from being subjugated, at least if the subjugator is from a more technologically advanced civilization. India benefited from the unifying force of a centralized administration brought about by faithful, plodding British civil servants there. But in Ireland, the British never put enough energy into the place to unify the place.

Because of this the British always seemed to do things half-assed with Ireland. When the English settled in Ireland they basically just settled in the area that became known as the Pale. They were then surrounded by a bunch of noisy, querulous Irish chieftains. (Hence, the phrase: "That's beyond the Pale.")

The British never seemed to really know what to do with Ireland. They just wanted Ireland to not cause them any serious problems. The Irish would often go looking for allies who would help them throw the British off their land and this would cause the British to engage in battles involving Ireland.

At first the British used a model of colonization somewhat like that of Spain and Portugal. In other words, they send mostly men alone to conquer part of the new territory, rather than sending over colonies of families who would establish a new Britain in Ireland.

Because of Great Britain did everything half-assed it created a series of on and off again crises in Irish history.

The English started their history of half-assed measures by choosing to take no really satisfactory long-run strategies toward Ireland. The did not take all of Ireland and unite it. Ulster in northern Ireland was the most important and long-lived hold out. And even in the section that they had control of, they neither eliminated the Irish in genocidal ways nor included them in some effective way into the English power structure. Instead they decided to set up an exclusionary system that would mark English/British rule of Ireland for the next eight centuries. This exclusionary system started relatively early. In 1216 under King John the first act of discrimination against the Irish was forged when John directed that Englishmen should be preferred over Irishmen. In 1366 the Statutes of Kilkenny were passed to keep the English apart from the Irish. Among other things, the statutes forbade marriage between Anglo-Normans and Irish.

To get rid of the English/British the Irish began their long history of seeking help from abroad. One of the first to be called in (1315) were the Bruces, Edward and Robert, of Scotland. Ulstermen called on Spain for help against the English in 1601. This, however, did not stop England from taking Ulster. With the exile of the Ulster leadership (known as the Flight of the Earls), England had all of Ireland under its nominal rule.

The Spanish/Portuguese type model of colonization of Ireland proved unsatisfactory as the situation in Ulster proved, and so the British switched over to the American style of colonization. The flight of the Earls provided England with an opportunity to end resistance in Ireland once and for all. The flight left a political vacuum in Ulster and this provided room for extensive plantations in northern Ireland. At the time the English must have thought themselves very clever, but certainly with hindsight one can see just what a future disaster and tragedy they created for their own nation of Great Britain in the modern world.

In 1609 the British removed most of the Irish to specially designated areas (like the American Indians). They brought in English settlers, but mostly Scotch Presbyterians -- a particularly fiery group known for their resistance against British rule. One of most famous plantations was Derry (called Londonderry by the later Protestants), which in later years would be home to the modern civil rights movement in Ireland.

When Protestantism came to England under King Henry VIII, the Irish sought help from the resistant Catholic forces inside England. They were mightily punished by these via several massacres committed by the good Puritan Oliver Cromwell in 1649.

This punishment still did not stop Irish resistance. Ireland supported the rebellion of the Catholic James II. But in 1690 at the Battle of the Boyne, the British defeated James and he and his French allies slipped quietly back to France.


This time the Irish were really punished. And in 1695 the Penal Code severely reduced the rights of Catholics. These Penal Codes were added to over the years, all designed to keep the Irish Catholics in their place. At this time the Irish Catholics had only one-seventh of the land. Most Catholics were tenants and laborers. The Penal Laws and the attendant economic deprivation of the Irish Catholics were the start of the determined push to make the Irish a group with "minority status" in their own country.

This process of minoritization has not been given a sufficiently nasty label to do justice to the situation. The situation in South Africa is described by the term apartheid and the situation in the United States is described by the separate racially-tinged term Jim Crow, but Ireland's process of segregation and degradation does not have a matching term. Using terms such as the period of the Penal laws or the Protestant Ascendancy. Penal laws just sounds like an ordinary body of criminal laws, hardly satisfying. Maybe we will have to use the more clinical, emotionally unsatisfying term Minoritization of the Irish until someone can come up with a better term.

Ireland is an interesting case study because it is an example in which virtually an entire people was made into a minority. We know from sociology that minoritization is a very destructive force on a people. The process of minoritization involves a corruption of the social structure that now serves to keep the minority in the status of a minority. Rather than the social system working to help people, for the minority the social system is used to oppress the minority. The social structure becomes all screw up in the process of being reshaped to keep a people in its place. That part of the social structure that the minority has control over also becomes skewed because the basic social processes are all designed to be so negative. An example in the Irish context is the great influence of the Catholic church in Ireland. The great importance of the pub in Irish society is another example.

The combination of discrimination and thence prejudice causes an impoverization of the minority. An impoverished minority is a minority with significant multiple "social problems," including substance abuse of items such as alcohol only being one of these. Then a certain "culture of poverty" starts to take affect where the people become more listless and apathetic.


One of the tell-tale signs of the powerlessness created by minoritization and all its attendant structures and attitudes is the overwhelming reliance of the Irish Catholics on the Irish Protestants for leadership. In the United States it is said that the leaders of the blacks were primarily chosen by the white power structure. In other words, the blacks were such a powerless minority that they could only have leaders that the whites found acceptable. Of course, these white chosen leaders never fully had the interests of the blacks at heart seeing that they were more or less "in the pockets" of the whites.

A somewhat similar process went on with the Irish Catholics. Almost all their leaders were Irish Protestants. But the Irish Protestants had more to lose if they became too militant for their British rulers.

And as with the blacks in the South under Booker T. Washington and the "separate but equal" system of racism, many of the Catholic Irish were apathetic and listless toward talk of rebellion and resistance. This is another factor explaining the prominent position of Protestants in the leadership of Irish rebellions.

That the Irish did revolt is illustrated by the many rebellions over time in Irish history, but most of these rebellions did not receive enough support from the people to be really effective. In 1798 an Irish rebellion under the Protestant Wolf Tone's United Irishmen left 50,000 people dead. Tone himself died in prison before he could be executed. The result of the rebellion was Union with Britain in the Act of Union of 1800. In Britain's upper house, the poet Lord Byron said it was: "the union of a shark with its prey."

There were other attempts at rebellion. In 1803 the young Protestant student, Robert Emmet, made plans for a rising. He was unsuccessful and hanged for his efforts. Following this, Ireland was politically dead.

There was a brief glimmer of hope in 1843 when Daniel O'Connell introduced the technique of "monster meetings." But O'Connell's whimped out at Clontarf when he acquiesced to the British ban of a monster meeting. Afterward the movement lost its momentum. Ireland was politically dead after that.

Politically dead, that is, until the Great Famine of 1845-1848. There are so many unsatisfying terms in the history of Ireland. One of these is the Great Hunger, which seems to trivialize what actually happened. Some one million people died in Ireland and somewhere around another one million emigrated. The Great Famine radicalized the Irish. And as so many Irish were now abroad in the United States that the Irish-Americans had enough wealth to send back to their homeland to finance the next rebellions against the British.

The year 1848 saw the failure of the Young Ireland Uprising, a spontaneous response to insurrections elsewhere in Europe.

The Irish Protestant leadership, such as Parnell and Redmond, would prove to vacillating for any real attempts at Irish independence. In fact, the Protestants did not even talk about independence, but rather Home Rule -- a far cry from real independence. Parnell proved ultimately comprising and compromised because he would not back the Tenant War that could have sparked an Irish rebellion. Redmond proved too compliant when he abandoned his push for real Home Rule with the outbreak of World War I. His patriotism for Britain may have been pleasing to the British, but not so admirable to the Irish Catholics.

Real change would not come until the Irish Catholics themselves with Irish Catholic leadership chose to do something that would definitely not be pleasing to British leadership. This occurred in the 1916 Easter Uprising. The virtual complete psychic domination of the Irish by the British system of minoritization was illustrated when most of the Irish observers booed and hissed the rebels. The British created a major public relations disaster and saved the day for the rebel cause by executing many of the leaders of the Easter Uprising. This created a great deal of sympathy toward the rebels in Ireland and helped open the way to an urban guerilla war between the Irish rebels and the British, in which Michael Collins was to play such an important part. This guerilla war ended in Irish independence from Great Britain in 1921. A brief civil war of eighteen months between the acceptors and the opponents of the British independence offer (which the acceptors won) followed, in which Michael Collins was assassinated, and the Irish were on there way. But not without a lot of scar tissue.


Eight centuries of British rule had left a lasting effect on both the social structure and the consequent culture of Ireland. Many of these affects still negatively affect Ireland.

One of the most negative effects of British rule was the destruction of the system of economic incentives and their consequent affect on the Irish family and church. Since it was so hard to own land in Ireland, there was a destructive influence on the family in that many of the Irish did not marry at all with consequent low overall fertility. (When the Catholics had families they had many children, but this was offset by the fewer number of families established in Ireland.) The discouragement of the prospects of family formation in turn to less of a stress on sex and sexual matters in Irish society. The church in turn blessed this turn of events by stressing sexual puritanism, which still today affects Irish society and culture. (Robert E. Kennedy, The Irish)

There are many negative features of the social structure created by the Irish under British rule. One of these is the great influence of the Catholic Church in Irish society. Ireland is a very conservative society partly due to the importance of the church, which in turn owes much of its place to the British influence.

Culture is primarily a reflection of social structure and social structure is a device to keep the wealthy in wealth. If the social structure is very negative, the culture will reflect this. Many negative aspects of Irish culture are primarily explained by the system of minoritization of the Irish. Donald S. Connery in his book The Irish talks about a few of these negative features of the Irish: avoidance of too much of a display of emotion or affection, chronic gossips, disputatious and seldom capable of working cooperatively, fatalistic, problems with drink and gambling, being just down-right "square," and undisciplined in their civic deportment. Many of these features are explained by seeing the Irish as a minority.

I hope this discussion will explain many of the features of Irish society and many of the beliefs and attitudes of many a modern-day Irishman.


The civil rights movement started among the Catholics of Northern Ireland in 1968. Like our own civil rights movement, this movement was also characterized by incredible naivete, but this naivete far surpassed that of the American civil rights movement.

The American civil rights movement worked successfully because it appealed to a force outside the southern region that was both sympathetic to their plight and more powerful than the oppressive forces in the American South. By engaging in civil disobedience and by showing the repressive and brutal reaction to peaceful demonstrations by the Southern establishment, the civil rights movement showed the inhumanity of the system and at the same time appealed to the consciences of those outside the South so that they would be more inclined to intervene on behalf of the downtrodden minority.

The mistaken assumption on which the Northern Irish civil rights movement was based was that there was a sympathetic power outside of Northern Ireland that would be moved by the demonstration of the unjustness of the system in Northern Ireland. The American "North" was moved by our civil rights movement. The British outside Northern Ireland were not so moved.

The failure of the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland can be traced directly to the hostility of the British to the Irish, which explains their relative indifference to the obvious inequality of the system of apartheid in Northern Ireland. Britain's failure to act on behalf of the downtrodden left the Catholic minority no other choice but to engage in violence. (Many British and American observers abhor and denounce the use of violence, but they conveniently avoid the obvious reality that British reluctance to do the right thing is the ultimate cause of the violence.)

For some nine centuries Ireland has been a problem for Great Britain and it still is a problem to this day. And for some nine centuries the British have been prejudiced and downright hostile to the people of Ireland. The half-assed approaches of the British to the Irish explains most of the failure of their policies toward Ireland and their continuing hostility to Ireland and Irish Catholics in Northern Ireland. Britain made a great mistake when it decided to block any uniting of Northern Ireland with Ireland when the latter gained its independence from Britain. And Britain is still paying the price for this mistake to this day. That they will go on paying the price for quite a while more is undoubtedly true.

I always say to my cynical wife that ultimately bad things happen to bad people and "The Troubles" in Northern Ireland is just one illustration of something bad happening to a people that made nine centuries of unjust decisions in relation to Ireland.


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