A Very Short History of England in Ireland

I wrote this in 2004 at the start of my feature writing career for Pole Position Magazine, a mag about pole dancing. It disappeared after one issue and I don’t think I was ever paid for this article, which is actually quite a useful summary of English involvement in Ireland. I can’t remember why a pole dancing magazine wanted it.


The Troubles with Northern Ireland

Catholic Sinn Fein and the Protestant Democratic Unionist Party are still battling in out in Northern Ireland. The violence of the 20th century is, touch wood, over. The two factions, at time of writing, seem to be on the brink of peace – if only the shy IRA, who are linked to Sinn Fein, would allow destruction of their weapons to photographed, or the voyeuristic DUP would stop demanding it, then everything would be fine. Except they’d probably find something new to disagree about. But how did a sizeable slice of the British Isles end up a hotbed of hatred? Why is Northern Ireland part of the UK when the rest of Ireland isn’t? And why doesn’t England just give it back?


Kick off

835 years ago, King Henry II of England cast his greedy eye on the Emerald Isle. Pope Adrian IV, also English, confirmed that invasion was God’s will. Henry conquered Ireland, but could only hold control of Dublin. 400 years later, English Protestants were paranoid about plotting Catholics. Worried that Catholic Ireland might develop an army capable of invading England (in less than 45 minutes probably), boatloads of Protestant settlers were shipped over. Catholics were booted off land to become the newcomers’ tenants. Years of rebellion followed. Every time the Catholics rose up the English overlords beat them down, mercilessly. The Orangemen’s yearly march still celebrates Protestant William III’s victories over the Catholics in 1689 and 1690. Yes, it was 316 years ago. No, they haven’t moved on yet.


Union with Britain and Potato Famine

After yet another rebellion, England decided to bring the troublesome colony under control by union with Britain in 1801. Ireland could elect its own MPs. With Catholic representation in Westminster, the lot of the Irish Catholic began to improve.

Then the Potato Famine fucked everything up. From 1845 to 1850, the potato harvest was devastated by blight. 1 million Irish, out of 8 million, died of starvation. 3 million emigrated. Appallingly, plenty of crops didn’t fail in Ireland in those years, but they belonged to Protestant landowners who shipped them to England for profit.

Catholics, rightly, blamed English Protestants for the destruction of their country. Rebel groups sprang up everywhere. The largest were the Fenians, forerunners of the IRA. They bombed Manchester and London.


Ireland Splits 

After more rebellion and negotiation, Home Rule for Ireland was proposed in 1912. The Protestant North was against it, and raised an army of 100,000 to attack the rest of Ireland if unified.

During World War I and the early 20s, there was yet more revolt and debate. The IRA were killing people in the South and North.

It ended in 1922, with Northern Ireland sticking with Britain, and the rest of Ireland gaining independence.


Troubles brewing

Apart from the odd bomb here and a shooting there, calm reigned until the sixties. Northern Ireland strengthened its ties with the rest of the UK, benefiting from the creation of the Welfare State.

It was, however, becoming increasingly divided. Catholics and Protestants lived in the same streets, but went to different schools, churches and pubs. Protestants ran most of the businesses, made up most of the police force, and doctored elections to keep control.


In with the Army

Catholics began to demand equal rights in the North peacefully, but in 1968 this escalated into fights with police – the Protestant Royal Ulster Constabulary. The RUC persecuted Catholics with extreme prejudice. Catholics lashed back.

The British Army was deployed to prevent civil war. The Catholic minority welcomed the army as a defence from the Protestants. Relative peace reigned for a year.


Messy again

Taking the role of the police, the Army soon gained the image of hated oppressor and representative of Protestant overlords. There were riots. The Provisional IRA split from the old IRA and began to shoot soldiers. The troops didn’t take it too well. They hounded the Catholics to find the IRA, generating more hatred and, ironically, more IRA members.

On 30th Jan 1972, Bloody Sunday, 14 Catholics were shot dead by British troops. The views of moderate Catholics, and world opinion, turned against the London government. The IRA ran wild.

In response to the violence the British took back full control.


IRA lose support

The IRA took over and ruled some Catholic areas. They tarred-and-feathered girls who spoke to British soldiers. Their bombs terrified everybody. The majority of Catholics recognised the IRA for the power-crazy, violent extremists that they’d become.

Exploiting this change in favour, the British Army reoccupied the areas that had become IRA strongholds.



Loyalists were as bad the IRA. Between 1972 and 1976 they committed 500 murders. The Loyalist Shankill Butchers would torture victims before finishing them off with meat cleavers.

Most Catholics living in Protestant areas moved out, and vice versa. Many who didn’t were killed.



The situation calmed after the 70s, although there were still atrocities like the Omagh bombing. A whole gang of international statesmen, including US Presidents, have had their two cents’ worth. Since Blair’s Good Friday agreement of 1998, Northern Ireland has enjoyed peace. The two sides even shared a parliament for a while until squabbling broke it up.

Now they seem so close to an agreement again, here’s hoping that the people of Northern Ireland can put religious hatred behind them and get on with the important things in life, like being happy and reading Pole Position.