Why is Ireland divided? For just over 100 years, the Emerald Isle has been split between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland – part of the United Kingdom. The history of Ireland is complicated, fascinating, and sometimes controversial. Today, I want to talk about how Ireland became connected with the UK, discuss why Northern Ireland exists, and ponder the possibility of a future united Ireland! 

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Vocabulary List

Be blessed with something (phrase) – to be lucky in having a particular thing

She is blessed with great intelligence 

Settler (n) – a person who arrives in a new place in order to live there and use the land

The first settlers on that island came from Africa

Bronze age (n) – the time in the past when tools were made of bronze (a metal made of copper and tin), before iron was discovered

It is thought that Stonehenge was constructed during the Bronze Age

Clan (n) – a group of families who originally came from the same family and have the same name 

The O’Brien clan was one of the most powerful clans in Ireland 

Anglo- (prefix) – relating to England or the UK

Anglo-Saxons ruled England until the year 1066

To emigrate (v) – to leave a country permanently and go to live in another one

Millions of Germans emigrated to the Americas in the 19th century

Uprising (n) – an act of opposition, sometimes using violence, by many people in one area of a country against those who are in power

There was a popular uprising in the capital city

Unionist (n) – a person who supports Northern Ireland remaining part of the United Kingdom

The deal has been opposed by unionist politicians  



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Ireland, and the Irish people, have a rich history and culture that has spread across the globe. From the deliciously dark Guinness beer sold globally in pubs and bars, to the massive St Patrick’s Day celebrations that turn entire cities green, Ireland has had a major international influence. But did you know that Ireland is not actually one single country?

Ireland is an island divided between two countries. The majority of the island forms the independent and sovereign nation known in English as the Republic of Ireland, while the north east of the island is known as Northern Ireland and forms part of the United Kingdom. 

101 years ago the Emerald Isle was divided into two separate areas, with separate governments and leaders. But why? Today, I want to look at the history of Ireland, talk about how the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland came into existence, and discuss what the future may hold for the country! 

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The History of Ireland

Where is Ireland?

I’m sure most of you have heard of Ireland before, but if you haven’t I’ll just give a short introduction to the island’s location. In fact, before I do that I should make a note on pronunciation. You are going to hear me say “Ireland” and “island” hundreds of times in this episode. “Ireland” refers to the name of the “island.” The pronunciation of these two words is similar but slightly different – Ireland (ai·uh·luhnd) has three syllables, while island (ai·luhnd) has two syllables. 

Photo by Steven Hylands on Pexels.com

The island of Ireland is located at the westernmost edge of Europe. The west coast of Ireland faces the enormous Atlantic ocean, while the east coast faces the island of Britain and modern countries of Scotland, Wales, and England. You might have noticed that I described Ireland as the Emerald Isle earlier in the episode. Why did I do that? 

Well, due to Ireland’s location close to the Atlantic it is blessed with abundant rain. This rain has helped Ireland’s nature and environment to flourish. The island is covered with beautiful fields of bright green grass – and as emerald’s are bright green, Ireland has been given the nickname the Emerald Isle.


Early History of Ireland

Compared to other parts of Europe, humans didn’t reach Ireland until relatively late. Archaeologists tend to believe that the first settlers were hunter-fisher peoples who arrived around 10,000 years ago. Farming is believed to have begun on the island between the years 4000 and 3000 BCE, and over the following millennia the early Irish peoples developed burial traditions, pottery, and other forms of culture. 

Interestingly, there are clear differences within the culture of bronze age Ireland that continue until today. The western half of Ireland showed a lot of similarity with the tombs and pottery of the Brittany region of modern France, while the east of Ireland had a culture that was influenced by more Northern Europeans who likely reached the country through Britain. During this Bronze Age period, Irish metal was exported into Britain and the rest of Europe.


The Arrival of the Celts

Today, Ireland is known as a Celtic nation. Ireland, Scotland, and Wales are perhaps the most famous and well-known Celtic countries – with Ireland and Wales teaching their own Celtic languages at schools alongside English. But, did you know there are also other Celtic nations which still exist to some extent today? 

Although not countries, the Isle of Man, Cornwall (the most southwestern part of England), and Brittany (a region of France) all have a Celtic identity and their own Celtic languages. While all the languages are in the same family, Irish, Scottish Gaelic, and Manx are closely related, while Welsh, Breton, and Cornish are also related to each other. The other region often included as “Celtic” is Galicia in Northern Spain, but unlike the other six countries and regions they no longer speak a Celtic language.

The Celtic people did not originate in the western part of Europe. It is believed that they have their origins in central or Eastern Europe around 3000 years ago, and their culture once spread across the whole of the European continent. The Celts arrived in Ireland around 300 BC from Britain or mainland Europe, and have had a massive influence on Irish history. Many of Ireland’s most famous stories, myths, and legends come from the Celtic period, and Ireland’s official language, Irish, is a Celtic language.

Early Ireland was not a united country. Instead, the island was divided into different independent kingdoms, or clans, and each clan had its own leader or king. In fact, there was no King or leader of all Ireland until around 1000 years ago. Christian missionaries, including the world famous St Patrick, arrived in Ireland in the early 5th century and Christianity had become the dominant religion by the year 600. Around this time, Ireland was split into five regions: Ulster, Meath, Leinster, Munster, and Connaught. These regions still play a major role in Irish society today. 

During the time when the Romans controlled Britain, a lot was written about Irish raiders. The Irish raided settlements across the west of Britain, and eventually started their own settlements. These Irish raiders were given the name Scoti, and their most famous settlement was in the Argyll region of modern day Scotland. While this Kingdom was once controlled by the Irish kings, it became independent from Ireland, defeated the Kingdom of the Picts, and gave its name to the whole of Northern Britain: Scotland. That is right, modern Scotland was settled and conquered by the Celtic Irish.


New Invaders

Norsemen were first recorded in Ireland around the year 795. The Vikings seized the ports of Annagassan and Dublin in 838, and continued invasions into the north of Ireland. After taking Waterford in 914 and Limerick in 920, the Vikings of Dublin gradually became traders rather than raiders. The Norse were finally defeated by the High King Brian Boru at the Battle of Clontarf in 1014.  

From the 12th century onwards, Ireland became a point of interest for the Norman rulers of England. The Normans had conquered Britain a century earlier, and King Henry II decided to expand his Kingdom by invading Ireland in the year 1171. The Irish Kings were forced to accept Henry’s supremacy, Henry received support from the Catholic church recognising his control of Ireland, and Anglo-Normans were given land in Ireland. 

English law was introduced in Ireland by King John in the 13th century, and a parliament was established that resembled the English parliament of the time. Importantly, the native Irish were unrepresented politically – the new laws and parliament were for the Anglo-Norman settlers. The Normans built castles and increased the amount of farming in Ireland, and the country eventually became divided between the new Anglo-Irish rulers and the native Irish population. 

King Henry VIII created the Church of England in 1534, separated England from the Catholic Church in Rome, and made the Irish Parliament declare him as King of Ireland in 1541. England then adopted a policy known as plantation – thousands of English and Scottish protestants were sent to Ireland. The most successful “plantation” was in the region of Ulster in Northeast Ireland. This is an important point. 

New laws were introduced in Ireland introducing harsh punishments and restrictions on the native Catholic population. For example, Catholics were banned from owning expensive land, not allowed to enter education or certain professions, and were forced to swear allegiance to the Protestant Church of Ireland rather than the Catholic church. The result was that by 1778, only 5% of land in Ireland was owned by Catholics.  

In 1791 an organisation called the United Irishmen, inspired by the French revolution, attempted to bring all Irish people together and reduce the British control over Ireland. The rebellion eventually failed, and in 1801 the Act of Union was passed in London which united Ireland politically with Britain. Ireland was now officially part of the United Kingdom for the first time in its history.

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Potato Famine

The most important food in Ireland during the 19th century was the potato. A disease known as blight struck the Irish potato crops in 1845, 1846, and 1847, destroying almost the entire supply of potatoes. Irish people now had no food and began to starve to death. While thousands of Irish were starving to death, the British government forced Ireland to send all dairy, meat, and wheat products to Britain instead of using them for food for the Irish people. 

The potato famine was one the greatest disasters of the 19th century. 2 million Irish people died or emigrated from Ireland. Today, the population of Ireland is still lower than the pre-famine level. Ireland is now known as a country of emigration – millions of Irish people live across the world (especially in the US) – but this trend to emigrate was started by the potato famine. 


Independent Ireland

Home rule is the idea that a region can control itself and make its own rules, even while being part of a larger country. Places like Greenland and the Faroe Islands have this kind of relationship with Denmark. A Home Rule Bill was passed by the British parliament in 1912 to give Ireland some more self control. 

However, it never became a law as World War I began in 1914. Many Irish nationalists joined the British army – even though they hated Britain, they believed that if Ireland helped Britain win the war, they would be rewarded with more independence. However, a few Irish nationalists did not trust the British, and began one of the most important events in Irish history – the Easter Rising.

On Easter Monday in 1916, two groups of Irish rebels seized key locations in Dublin. They declared that a new country was going to be formed, and battles raged across the city resulting in the loss of life. The rising was actually unpopular with the majority of the Irish – as I said most Irish wanted to support Britain with the hope they would be rewarded after the war. And the rebels eventually surrendered a week after the uprising

However, public opinion changed after the British executed almost every single person involved in the rebellion. The Irish Nationalist Sinn Fein party won a majority of Ireland’s seats in the British parliament in 1918, and in January 1919 they declared Ireland to be independent. 

The Irish war of independence was fought against the British from 1919 until 1921. Eventually, in 1921 the British and Irish signed a peace treaty. Ireland was given independence and known as the Irish Free State. However, not all of Ireland was to be independent. Out of the 32 counties of Ireland, 26 were to be independent, and 6 would remain as part of the United Kingdom and be known as Northern Ireland. 

These six counties were the most Protestant areas of the island – the place with the most success during the earlier plantation policies of England. As the majority of the new Northern Ireland were English-speaking protestants who remained loyal to the United Kingdom, it was decided they would not join the new Irish Free State. 

The treaty divided Ireland. A civil war broke out between Irish in support of the treaty and Irish against the treaty. Even today we can see evidence of this in the Republic of Ireland – the two major political parties in Ireland began as pro-treaty and anti-treaty organisations. 

In 1937 Ireland became known as the Republic of Ireland, and they joined the European Economic Community (now EU) in 1973. Ireland’s traditions of emigration continued until the 1980s with thousands of young Irish people moving to the UK, USA, and Australia. However, in the 1990s Ireland’s economy became one of the fastest growing in the world and although not as strong as it once was, Ireland now has a reputation as a great place to live and visit.


Northern Ireland

The division of Ireland also created Northern Ireland – part of the United Kingdom with their own parliament. Although Northern Ireland is majority protestant, there is a sizable number of Irish Catholics in the north who identify more with the Republic of Ireland. Northern Ireland was relatively stable until the 1960s, but this stability was based on discrimination against Catholics. 

The 1960s saw civil rights movements begin across the world, and the same is true in Northern Ireland. Catholics took the streets demanding more rights and respect in Northern Ireland: these protestors were met with violence from Protestants. What followed is known as “the Troubles.”

During “the Troubles” nationalists or republicans (predominantly Catholic) regularly clashed with loyalist or unionist groups (predominantly protestant). The British military was sent to Northern Ireland in 1969 to calm the situation and protect the Catholic population from the Protestants. However, in reality the army was seen as the enemy by the Catholics. 

And quite rightly – in 1972 British troops opened fire on a Catholic march in the city of Derry/Londonderry, killing 13 people. Paramilitary organsiations on both sides of the conflict were formed, and many atrocities, murders, bombings, and kidnappings were conducted by both sides. Attacks extended outside of Ireland, with bombings targeting British politicians in the UK. It is estimated that around 3000 people were killed between 1969 and 1998 due to the Northern Irish “troubles.”

The Troubles are generally agreed to have ended on April 10th 1998 with the Good Friday Agreement. The agreement was approved by referendums in both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, and established Northern Ireland’s own parliament and government based on power sharing. Rather than fighting, the two sides would agree to work together in parliament to make decisions. 

Since the Good Friday agreement, Northern Ireland has been significantly more stable and peaceful, although there are still occasional moments of violence.   

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A Problem With Brexit?

While it is unlikely that Northern Ireland will leave Britain any time soon, Brexit (or Britain leaving the European Union) has complicated things. Northern Ireland has now left the European Union along with the rest of the UK, while the Republic of Ireland has stayed as a member. This goes completely against the idea of the Good Friday Agreement and the Irish peace treaties. 

The Good Friday Agreement aimed to reduce the differences between the two Irelands – for example, the borders were opened. Two maintain the agreement, Britain and the EU negotiated something called the Irish protocol – basically the border between the UK and Ireland was not with Northern Ireland but in the Irish sea. This means goods and people could freely pass between Northern Ireland and Ireland, but not between Ireland and the rest of the UK. 

However, this has angered many unionist Northern Irish people. They feel as though the UK government has abandoned them across the Irish sea and made it more difficult for Northern Irish businesses to keep operating in England, Scotland, and Wales. The British government has begun to change the Irish protocol recently, but the issue will be present for years to come. 


A United Ireland? 

Will Ireland and Northern Ireland ever unite again? I think it is possible that one day they will unite, but not soon. And the reason I think this is due to culture and religion. In the past, the division between Ireland and Northern Ireland was based on the division of Catholics and Protestants. However, as religious control and influence over the two societies changes and reduces, there should be less chance for division.

Protestants are no longer a clear majority in Northern Ireland – like the rest of Europe there is a growing non-religious and non-Christian population. A lot of Northern Irish people now don’t identify with either the Catholic nationalists or Protestant Unionists. 

And in the Republic of Ireland, the Catholic Church no longer holds tight control over the country. Irish education, culture, and politics have become much more secular and liberal. Ireland has passed progressive policies including legalising gay marriage – something once unthinkable in a Catholic country. 

And finally, Brexit has damaged the integrity of the UK. Scotland and Northern Ireland were big supporters of remaining in the EU, but left along with the rest of the UK. The next few years and decades will challenge the integrity of the UK. If Scotland manages to leave the UK, then Northern Ireland and Wales may start to think about it as well!


Final Thought

On this episode of Thinking in English, I have tried to introduce the history of Ireland and help you all understand why the Emerald Isle is divided. England, and then later the United Kingdom, controlled or influenced Ireland for almost 1000 years – and during that time discriminated against the native Catholic Irish people. 

Thousands of Protestant settlers moved to Ireland, especially in the northeast of the island. After centuries of campaigning, fighting wars, and resisting the British, Ireland eventually became independent just over 100 years ago. However, the mainly Protestant northern counties of Ireland remained part of the UK and became known as Northern Ireland!

Do you think that in the future Northern Ireland will leave the UK? Does your country have any controversial borders? Or territorial disputes? 

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By Tom Wilkinson

Host and founder of Thinking in English, Tom is committed to providing quality and interesting content to all English learners. Previously a research student at a top Japanese university and with a background in English teaching, political research, and Asian languages, Tom is now working fulltime on bettering Thinking in English!

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