History Summarized: Ireland


On the surface, the history of Ireland seems like the tale of one island getting beat up for over a thousand years straight, and, well, that’s not incorrect. I’ll be honest with you. But from another perspective it’s a story of a unique civilization rising from the intersection of two very different worlds, and then remarkably enduring through centuries of subjugation and hardship. When it’s all too common to see entire cultures wiped from existence because of colonial oppression, Ireland is a very hard-fought counterexample. To see what makes Ireland’s history so special and to learn how Irish cultures survive to the present day, let’s do some history. This video is brought to you by audible. More on that later. Our story begins with the migration of the Celts from Central Europe sometime in the 5th to 3rd-ish centuries BC. Okay, look. It’s an ancient migration, alright? Dates are gonna be finicky on this one. And they settled on this little island here which they named Éire after the goddess Ériu, which I maybe said, right? I don’t know. I’m just gonna try and say as few Irish names as possible so I don’t embarrass myself, which is where we get the name Ireland. And speaking of language, they spoke an early version of Irish, which is a subset of the Gaelic language family which is a subset of the Celtic language family. Not confusing at all. Though Ireland didn’t have a written literary tradition, the culture venerated storytelling bards, as well as druids who were priest-like figures that doubled as historians, judges, and even doctors. Another popular profession in Ireland was, surprisingly enough, King because there was no overarching central authority. So Ireland usually had somewhere around 150 local Tuatha that each had their own King. And there were no cities at this point either so people just clustered into groups on available farmland and got to it. Though Ireland wasn’t politically unified, they shared many elements of art and religion, from Celtic knots to Cu Chulainn. Irish mythology is rad and you can see some examples here, but there are also all manner of gods, heroes, and some pretty bonkers magic, too. Sadly, we don’t have as much information on them as we might like because the Irish mythological cycle wasn’t codified until centuries later and parts of it have since been lost. Plus the stories themselves sometimes conflict with one another on account of how regional these oral traditions were. Though we today only know so much about early Celtic Ireland, the picture gets clearer and the culture gets richer with Ireland’s second big arrival: Christianity Ireland actually got the good end of the deal on this one because their conversion was peaceful and it didn’t involve them getting invaded by Rome. Win-win and quite the opposite, in fact, as Irish pirates often found their way to the western coast of Rome in Britain. In one instance, a captured young Roman lived in Ireland for six years before escaping back to Britain, and after some soul-searching he trained in France to become a priest and set back out to Ireland in the hopes of converting the people to Christianity. Though he wasn’t the first missionary to Ireland, this St. Patrick as you’ve probably guessed was certainly the most consequential. The dates for his life and career are all over the place and there’s even a theory that St. Patrick is actually an amalgamation of two different characters, but this show is history summarized and I am super not qualified to settle very much ongoing debates in the academic historical community But what we can say for certain is that he never drove the snakes out of Ireland because Ireland’s never had snakes That’s just a very polite codeword for pagans. And even that isn’t fully accurate. Patrick, buddy. You’re killing me here. Because Celtic culture didn’t just go away. It’s a classic example of syncretism, where the goal is to make two disparate cultures coexist rather than have one completely supplant the other. Latin was introduced but it was spoken right alongside Irish Gaelic. Monasteries were built all around the islands but they were regionally autonomous. Jesus was the new number one, but the old Irish mythology remained firmly in the popular conscience. Best of both worlds. And the timing of all this couldn’t have been better because while mainland Europe was splintering out into dozens of gothic kingdoms in the wake of the Western Roman Empire’s collapse, Ireland just got a jolt of new culture to play with and about four hundred years of complete peace to refine it. The strongest literary tradition in Europe was made in Irish monasteries, often called scriptoria, where accounts of old Irish mythology were written alongside beautifully decorated manuscripts of the Bible. All around, Ireland was known as the Isle of saints and scholars and it’s because of their hard work that so much ancient Latin work survives today. Irish missionaries to Europe even laid the groundwork for Charlemagne’s 9th century Renaissance in France. It’s also during this Golden Age that we see and hear two core symbols of Irish culture: the Celtic cross and the harp. The cross appears in stone all over Ireland and it’s a perfect visual metaphor for how Celtic Irish culture is literally woven into Irish Christianity. Again, all this while the rest of Europe was having some serious… eh, let’s call it growing pains. Although Ireland was decentralized in both government and religion, it enjoyed over four centuries of peace between the numerous Tuatha and no threat of invasion. Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end and all shiny things must get raided by Vikings. And speaking of Vikings, Vikings. Though Ireland didn’t quite get hit as bad as the English and Scots one island over, Ireland saw its fair share of coastal looting and burning. Monasteries were an easy target because of their abundance of treasures like gemstone covered manuscripts and their non abundance of defensive fortifications. The Vikings did however contribute Ireland’s first cities of Dublin, Cork, Waterford and others settled along the island’s coasts, and as the Vikings got comfortable in their cities and chilled out enough to stop with the damn raiding all the time, their cities became hubs for trade and production. Ultimately, though, Ireland’s much bigger problem for the next thousand years would come from right across the channel And, oh golly gosh, would you look at the clock? It’s time to complain about England. Whoa! *clears throat* Sorry. Professionalism. So while Ireland was having a good time minding its own business and not bothering anyone else,Ireland which sounds a lot more… the Anglo-Normans came over to establish the lordship of Ireland which sounds a lot more Uh…complete than it actually was. England held onto the urban population centres in the east but because of stuff like wars and plague it was pretty patchy for the next five centuries. But in 1509 Henry VIII became King and decided that he wanted to be a really big deal. So it’s here that things start getting rough. See, Henry converted to Protestantism after he got tired of killing his wives and wanted to just divorce them instead, but Ireland remained firmly Catholic. This displeased Henry, so he made a new push to colonize Ireland and England made steady progress in beating up on the Irish, taking more and more of their land and busting down their monasteries and churches. Unsurprisingly, the Irish rebelled. Several times. In the decade after the union of the English and Scottish crowns in 1603, King James confiscated Irish lands in the northern region of Ulster to make way for Scottish colonists to start private plantations. And this marks the start of a couple unfortunate defining trends for the next three centuries. First is the treatment of Ireland as a subservient colony and the steady seizure of Irish land and also the persecution of Catholicism through strict social laws. In the 17th and 18th centuries, Irish farmers became tenants in their own island and this process only accelerated with the advent of anti royalist and civil war extraordinaire Oliver Cromwell who murdered his way across Ireland during his War of the Three Kingdoms. More land was confiscated, Catholic Irish were forcibly evicted and also banned from certain jobs and for the next 300 years Ireland was regarded as a little more than a conquered colony. Although the anti-Catholic laws were largely repealed by the turn of the 19th century Ireland was still poorer going into the 1800s that it had arguably ever been, as its production and wealth were systematically siphoned off to Britain. Only the majority British pockets of the island in Dublin and Ulster saw much improvement and it was these Ulster Irish who spoke for Ireland in the new United Kingdom’s parliament. If this all sounds short-sighted, exploitative and extremely fragile you’d be correct. But wait, it only gets worse. See, Ireland’s agriculture was, well, dangerously precarious. Most of their food production was beef exports to Britain and that didn’t leave a whole lot of available farmland on Ireland for feeding the Irish. So the tenant farmers turned to potatoes which had by far the most nutritional value for the space they took to grow. Not super great that the systematic exploitation of their land forced Catholic Irish to subsist entirely on a single food staple for generations, but at least they’re not starving. So anyway in 1846 the potato blight hit Ireland and all of the crops failed so people started starving. COOL. Ugh. The thing is, potato crops were going rotten all across America and Europe. Ireland was just the only place where potatoes were the only option. But with a crisis at hand, Parliament acted swiftly to provide rations and relief – I’m just kidding. Parliamentarians in London insisted that the reports of famine were completely overblown and refused to divert resources for aid. Help did slowly arrive, but it was predicated on putting Ireland through economic reforms to modernize their infrastructure. Yeah, because that’s exactly what Ireland was asking for. Not food. God, no. Laissez-faire mercantilism. Way to read the room, guys. Eventually the blight passed and things slowly return to normal… But not before 1 in 7 people died of starvation and 1 in 4 fled to places like America. This would be why New York and Boston have big Irish communities that materialized out of nowhere in the late 1840s. The more you know. And real quick before we move on to the 1900s it’s not a coincidence that the area’s least affected by the famine were the Protestant parts And if that wasn’t bad enough, Britain was also busy shutting down the last remaining hedge schools that taught Greek and Latin to Catholic kids. Before this, Ireland’s Catholicism had produced the longest continuous tradition of Greek and Latin anywhere on Earth But God forbid kids who aren’t Anglican be allowed to learn. Gross. So what to do from here? Well, if you’re the population of Ireland in the early 1900’s, the answer was literally anything else and that echoed in a call for Home Rule and their own independent government. However, Ulster was still fiercely unionist and it almost looked like pro-union and Pro Home Rule paramilitary groups were going to start fighting a battle when World War I suddenly became a much more pressing issue. But on Easter of 1916, Irish insurgents occupied government buildings in Dublin so the British Army shelled them into surrender and then executed the rebel leaders. This, you may guess, did not sit super-great with the Irish public. So as soon as the world war was over, Ireland fought a guerrilla war of independence and in 1922 it was granted Home Rule as their own free state under the British crown. And in the late 30s and 40s, Ireland transitioned into a fully independent Republic. Ulster, however opted to stay in the UK and became known as Northern Ireland. The split between north and south came to a head in the latter part of the century as Northern Irish Catholics still faced heavy discrimination and their peaceful protests met violent opposition and this erupted into The Troubles. Three decades of insurgency, terrorism, and police brutality in Northern Ireland as IRA Irregulars fought against Ulster volunteer forces and British police to end British rule in Northern Ireland. After some 3,500, casualties, most of them civilian, the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 mandated that Northern Ireland could vote to unify with the Republic at any time they liked and that there would never again be a hard border on the island between north and south– Oh dear God, not again. Oh criminy, even when Irish history lets up it doesn’t let up. Meanwhile, the Republic of Ireland enacted a series of economic and political reforms to lift the country out of hundreds of years of poverty and today the people of Ireland are safer, richer, better fed, and freer to express their religion than they’ve been in centuries. It’s distressing to see Ireland so cruelly oppressed for so long, but it’s inspiring to see the past century’s reclamation of Irish culture and their long deserved independence. In Ireland, history is never far away. The legacy of their centuries-long Golden Age’s everywhere from the Celtic Cross to the Irish language. And the painful memory of the Great Famine has motivated Ireland to become a world’s leader in international food aid and I will gladly raise a pint to that. In ancient Ireland, monks had to copy entire manuscripts by hand, but now it’s never been easier to get instant access to a world of literature thanks to today’s sponsor, audible. With enough audiobooks to fill a scriptorium audible is the number one source for all your literary listening needs, whether you’re walking around town, sitting on a bus, or just making some dinner, it’s great to simply listen and learn stuff. For instance, if you want to know more about the Golden Age of Ireland then I recommend this audio book on how the Irish saved civilization which tracks Irish history from the fall of Rome through its shiny medieval period and, get this, it’s narrated by Liam Neeson. It doesn’t get much more Irish than that. While you’re listening you can also tweak the playback speed and save notes or bookmarks with a tap. Audible members who sign up get a credit for any audio book completely free every month as well as two free audible originals per month and additional discounts in the store and just in time for the holidays, audible is offering a half-price deal for your first three months if you sign up with our link on audible.com/overlysarcastic or text “overly sarcastic” to 500-500. If you do, you’ll be supporting the channel and getting a really good audiobook in the process. Again, if this sounds like something you’d like, head to audible.com/overly sarcastic and start listening today. Thank you so much for watching. It’s rare that I get to do a full 2000 years in one video, but it’s fun to take a really really big picture-look from time to time. Still, there was a ton of medieval history that I had to cut for time, so if you’re curious to learn more I really encourage you to dig in. If you want to keep the conversation going, hop on over to our official OSP discord channel. Link’s In the description and I’ll see you next time

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