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History > Ireland Scotland Wales

Irish History

The Bloody British (1100-1700)

In Irish history, the year 1171 is infamous. That year, Richard de Clare, Earl of Pembroke, conquered the kingdom of Leinster; and later that same year, Henry II, Norman King of England, forced the Irish to acknowledge him as their ruler. For the bulk of the Middle Ages, however, the region controlled by the British monarchy was limited to a small area around Dublin referred to as the Pale. Normans who settled “beyond the Pale” tended to adopt the language, culture and customs of the Irish people around them.

During the reign of Henry VIII in the sixteenth century, parcels were seized from Irish landowners and distributed to Scottish and British settlers for use as plantations. The English Reformation was in full swing, fomenting harsh conflict between Irish Roman Catholics and the Protestant British rulers. The Irish response to harsh anti-Catholic laws passed by Parliament was seven decades of revolts on the island, highlighted by the 1641 Ulster uprising, which alone lasted the better part of a decade, at the cost of some 600,000 lives.

Another year that shall live in infamy is 1649, when Oliver Cromwell stormed Ireland, winning a decisive victory at Drogheda, whose garrison troops and townspeople were slaughtered. This effectively crushed the Irish revolt and drove Catholics to flee their ancestral lands for Connacht.

To characterize Oliver Cromwell, he was a joyless, music-hating bully who hated to see anyone have a good time. Thus, he had a particular contempt for the Irish. In the 1650s, Cromwell ordered all harps and organs in Ireland to be seized and destroyed, and authorities confiscated and burned 500 harps in Dublin alone. Mere possession of items that symbolized Celtic pride and culture—such as harps, bagpipes, and traditional clothing—became not only illegal, but punishable by hanging.

Toward the end of the seventeenth century, two men vied for the British throne--James II, a Catholic, and William III, a Protestant. The Irish backed the Catholic option, and once more emerged on the losing end when William triumphed in the Battle of the Boyne in 1690.

Article Series: A Brief History of Ireland
Part 1 Beginnings (Prehistory to 300 A.D.)
Part 2 Christians, Vikings and Brian Boru (300-1100)
Part 3 The Bloody British (1100-1700)
Part 4 Punishment and Starvation (1700-1850)
Part 5 Strides Toward Independence (1850-1940)
Part 6 The Irish Republic and the Troubles Up North (1940 to present)

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