Ireland is known as the Land of Saints and Scholars, as the Emerald Isle, as the Old Sod … . For all its faults, it is the only place in Europe that has never invaded a neighboring or distant land militarily. That doesn’t mean that the Irish weren’t always making war on one other. Still, Ireland itself has been invaded multiple times. But by whom and why? Mystère.
Part I: From Romans to Normans
First we must discuss the invasion that failed to take place, invasion by the Romans. Julius Caesar invaded Britain (Britannia to the Romans, Land of the Celts) not once but twice (55 B.C. and 54 B.C). However, though the last Roman legion didn’t leave Britain until 404 A.D., the Romans never undertook an invasion of Ireland. Why not? Mystère. Well, their name for it, Hibernia, meant “land of winter” which was perhaps reason enough to stay away; cf. the verb “hibernate.” This meant that at the time of the fall of the Roman Empire, Ireland had not been Romanized and Hellenized the way Gaul and other Celtic lands west of the Rhine or south of the Danube had been.
The first invasion from the East was by Christian missionaries from Britain who came with the purpose of converting the Irish – no mystery there – and by the mid 4th century, the Church had a foothold in Ireland. A major contribution of the Church was the introduction of Latin, the lingua franca of Europe, and even Greek, tools which would at last bring the literature and learning of the Greco-Roman world to Ireland.
In fact, a notable figure in Church History emerged at this time: Pelagius hailed from Ireland (what St. Jerome thought) or Britain (what others think); he was very well educated in both Latin and Greek and, around 350 A.D., went off to Rome to ply the trade of theologian. Pelagius opposed St. Augustine and his grim views on the fall of mankind and predestination (cf. Calvin); instead Pelagius rejected the doctrine of original sin and preached the need for the individual freely to find his own way to God and salvation – quite a modern viewpoint, really. Unfortunately, Augustine won out and became a saint and a city in Florida, while Pelagius was branded a heretic. However, Pelagius’ writings continued to be cited in the Irish Church during the Middle Ages, which points to a spirit of independence and which raises questions about the Church’s orthodoxy during that period.
In the 5th century, Rome took an interest in Ireland and a Gaul named Palladius was sent by the pope to be the first bishop of the Irish in 431. Patricius, a Brittano-Roman, the man known to us as St. Patrick, was sent the following year. It is tempting to think (and some do) that Palladius and Patricius were sent to combat the Pelagian heresy and shore up orthodoxy in the Irish church, an issue that will come up yet again. Though this version of events does detract some from the glory of St. Patrick, it in no way suggests that he did not drive the snakes out of Ireland.
While the rest of Europe including Britain was plunged into the dark ages and subject to barbarian invasions, the relatively peaceful land of Ireland became a center of monasticism and learning.
By the year 800, however, Viking invaders began to arrive on Irish shores. One of their goals was to plunder monasteries, something they proved uncommonly skilled at; another more constructive goal was to set up settlements in Ireland. They founded towns that still bear Nordic names, such as Wexford and Waterford of crystal fame. These groups eventually merged with the native population and are known to historians as the Norse-Irish. In fact, some classic Irish surnames trace back to the Viking invasions, e.g. MacAulife (Son of Olaf) and MacManus (Son of Magnus).
The year 1066 is remembered for the Norman invasion of England under William of Normandy (Nick Brimble in The Conquerors TV series). The year 1171 is remembered for the Norman invasion of Ireland under Henry II (Peter O’Toole in both The Lion in Winter and Becket). The Normans declared Ireland to be under the rule of the English king, established a feudal system of fiefdoms, built castles, signed treaties, broke treaties, etc. Actually, Henry II already ruled over vast holdings; as Roi d’Angleterre, Duc d’Anjou and Duc de Normandie, he inherited Britain and large areas in France. And then thanks to his marriage to the most powerful woman in Europe, Elėanor d’Aquitaine (Katherine Hepburn in The Lion in Winter, Pamela Brown in Becket), his domains were expanded to include southwestern France. All this was called the Empire Angevin. So, land rich already, why did Henry need to launch this invasion? Mystère.
For one thing, Henry was instructed by Pope Adrian IV by means of a formal papal edict Laudabiliter to invade and govern Ireland; the goal was to re-enforce papal authority over the too autonomous Irish Church (nothing new there). Adrian was the only Englishman ever to be Supreme Pontiff ; his being English does suggest that his motives in this affair were “complex.” For another thing, the deposed King of the Irish Province of Leinster, Dairmait Mac Murchada, had come to England in 1166 to seek Henry’s help in winning back his realm and, surely, solidarity among kings was motivation enough! Perhaps though, it was simply to give Henry’s barons more land to lord over – remember it was his son King John, who would be forced to sign the Magna Carta by angry barons at Runnymede in 1215. In any case, by the late 15th century the area under English control was the region around Dublin known as the English Pale. The term pale is derived from an old French word for pike and basically means a stockade; by extension it means any defended delimited area. The expression “beyond the pale” comes from the fact that it was dangerous for the English to venture beyond that area.
Interestingly, a side-effect of the Norman invasions of Ireland was the spread of the patronymic “Fitz” which derives from the French “fils de” meaning “son of” or “Mac” in Gaelic. Thus we have the Irish names FitzGerald, FitzSimmons, FitzPatrick, etc. (The name FitzRoy, meaning “natural son of the king,”  is not Irish as such but rather Anglo-Norman in origin.
One more thing: in the 14th century, there was the brief and unsuccessful incursion into Ireland by Edward, the brother of Robert the Bruce (Angus Macfayden in Braveheart, Sandy Welch in The Bruce). This was a Scottish attempt to create a second front in their own struggle against the Anglo-Normans by attacking the English Pale.


Part II: From Tudors to Modern Times
The Tudor invasions of Ireland under Henry VIII and Elizabeth I broke through the English Pale and brought the entire island under English rule, but not necessarily under English control as rebellions constantly broke out. However, the process of extirpation of Gaelic culture, language and laws was begun and the system of plantations and settlements took more and more land away from the Irish population. This was now colonialism in the full modern sense of the term. But why was this so important to the British crown – mystėre?
For one thing, the English gained control over the oak forests (once dear to the Druids) that covered the island; the deforestation of Ireland provided the British merchant fleet and the Royal Navy with the timber needed for Britannia to rule the waves. The conquest of Ireland was the first step in the creation of the British Empire, the settlements in Virginia and New England being next steps that followed quickly.
This is not a “feel good” story. Rebellion and brutal repression are a constant theme. Catholicism became nationalism for the Irish and became a wedge used by the British to isolate and subjugate the population. In the early 17th century, King James I introduced laws and regulations that flagrantly favored Protestants and penalized Catholics. Things only worsened with the infamously brutal military campaign waged in Ireland by Oliver Cromwell in mid-century.
Interestingly, during the wars in Ireland in the 17th century, Irish earls and soldiers retreated to France to serve in the French army and continue the struggle against the British. But that is how the great Bordeaux wine, Chateau Lynch-Bages, the fine cognac, Hennessy, and the stately Avenue MacMahon in Paris all got those Irish names – another mystery solved en passant.
With the overthrow of the last Catholic English King James II and the installation of William and Mary on the throne in 1689, there began the period of the Protestant Ascendancy, a ruling clique of the right kind of Protestant (no Presbyterians and, of course, no Jews) that was in control of Ireland for over two hundred years. The system lasted into the 20th century. We pass over in silence the malevolence that this regime and Robert Peel’s government in London showed toward the population of Ireland during the Great Famine of the 1840’s.
There was a long-standing literary tradition in Ireland going back to the pre-Christian era and the prose epic Táin Bó Cúailnge (The Tain), click HERE . As English took root, Irish prose and poetry followed eventually leading to eminent writers both Protestant (Oscar Wilde), Catholic (James Joyce) and Jewish (Bram Stoker). In fact, for writers like Joyce it was an imperative to show that Irish authors could bring the English language to new heights.
After WWI, Ireland was partitioned into the independent Irish Republic and the British province of Northern Ireland, part of the U.K. After the seventy years of “The Troubles,” there was the combination of the Good Friday accords in the 1990’s and common membership in the European Union which brought about peace. The planned Brexit move could well jeopardize this delicate balance.
Though it has played a role in world history, Hibernia is not that large a land. To put things in perspective, the population was about 3 million in 1800 and it is just over 5 million today.
During the Protestant Ascendancy and until recently, millions of Irish emigrated to the United States and to places throughout the British Empire, including England and Scotland themselves. Their descendants and the Irish in Ireland have found a way of coping in an Anglo-Saxon world, as full-fledged citizens of the countries they live in. So in the diaspora, we have John Lennon and Paul McCartney, we have Georgia O’Keefe and Margaret Sanger nėe Higgins, … . The Irish Republic itself has emerged as a very modern European state and a force in industry, culture and politics – separation of Church and State, hi-tech operations, musician/activist Paul David Hewson (aka Bono) and so on. Ulster can claim Nobel Prize winning poet Seamus Heaney and John Stewart Bell, the physicist and author of the revolutionary “Bell’s Theorem” for which he would most certainly have received a Nobel Prize had he not died unexpectedly in 1990.
But, as sociologists have noted, once a population is conquered and suppressed, they are blamed for their own history and a prejudice against them can linger on, however subtly. For example, in the English language today, almost all the commonly used terms that are Irish in origin have a negative connotation of mischief or worse: blarney, malarkey, shenanigans, paddy wagon, hooligan, limerick, donnybrook, leprechaun, shillelagh, phony, banshee. The only exceptions that come to mind are colleen and shamrock. However, sociologists have also noted that in the U.S. it is an advantage to have an Irish name when running for political office – thereby providing one solution to the mystery of what’s in a name.

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