Irish History: Volume XI
Foreign Invaders in Ireland
We’re taking a break from our spooky posts on this Columbus Day (or, if you prefer, Indigenous Peoples’ Day) to reflect on a topic that remains a sore spot for the Irish in modern times: the colonization by outside forces of their island. For as far back as we know, people have been trying to take over the lush, rolling green hills and sprawling farmland Ireland has to offer. And, for as far back as we know, the Irish have been resisting their invaders and would-be colonizers at every turn! Here’s a few of the most notable attempts:
First off, we have to face facts and say: the people who we know as the “Irish” colonized the land first. Most of what we know about the first few centuries of Ireland’s history comes from the 8th century tome The Book of Invasions. As the Irish were the only Celtic-language country that the Romans didn’t colonize (one for the win!), written history took a little longer to catch up in Ireland. The Book of Invasions is thus a mixture of mythology and history, making no distinctions between the two, but it does confirm one major thing: the last of the six invasions of Ireland was by the Gaels/the Celts. Around 500-300 B.C.E., a group of nomadic tribes broadly referred to as the Celts (the Gaels are one such tribe,) discovered how to use iron and made Ireland their permanent home. Who was there originally? According to myth, it was the descendants of Noah (yes, Christianity’s Noah,) then five more races of humans/mythological beings: another group of Noah’s descendants, the Fomorians, the Nemedians, the Fir Bolg, and the Tuatha de Dannan. We can’t know for sure beyond what the book tells us!
Moving forward to recorded history: who else but the Vikings would start out our confirmed accounts of invasions in Ireland? Between 795 A.D. and 1014 A.D., Vikings carried out innumerable raids all along the coast of Ireland, though this eventually turned into settlements. Dublin, Cork, Wexford, Waterford, and Limerick were all originally Viking settlements and remain some of Ireland’s most thriving cities till this day. But have you ever wondered why the Vikings always seemed to be trying to take over, well, everywhere? The answer’s less complex than you’d think (and has nothing to do with their thirst for a fight)—it’s just that Scandinavia isn’t that big! Young Vikings were looking for a place to settle as livable land was scare where they were from.
Then comes a period of invasions that wouldn’t have happened if not for the English…but we’ll cover them last. What may be more surprising than the Vikings is who came calling in 1315: the Scottish! Scottish King Robert Bruce sent his brother along to the Irish to help them with their English problem and form an alliance…or take over. Unfortunately, a Europe-wide famine caused the Scottish troops to dwindle and retreat. The English remained, and 300 years later the Spanish tried their hand at aiding the Irish. Though King Philip III of Spain landed over 4,000 foreign troops on Irish soil in 1601, too many men were lost on the journey and the Spanish-Irish alliance was quickly defeated.
Two other countries we never relate to the Irish but definitely did their best to get in on the action? The Netherlands and France! The Dutch, led by William of Orange, landed in Carrickfergus, Ulster in 1690 and defeated the last Catholic King of England (and Ireland): King James I. This defeat ensured Protestant rule for many years, and made a definite break with the old Gaelic way of life. This wouldn’t be the last time someone came against the English on Irish soil—the French landed on nearly the same spot as the Dutch in 1760 and attacked the English forces there. While the French force proved to be small and retreated quickly, this attack would prove to be the last wholly foreign invader to breach Irish borders in history!
And then, the sorest subject of all, the English. Britain’s long history of (successful but to the chagrin of the Irish) colonization in Ireland began in 1169 when an ousted Irish king invited the Normans to Ireland to help him win back him throne—and the Normans just took over instead. This began a period of 700 years of English/British involvement in Ireland. King Henry II of England still controlled this land in 1171, but still decided to invade it himself (as the first English King to set foot on Irish soil) with a retinue of 500 knights and 4,000 soldiers—just to make sure he was getting his fair share of the plunder. And we can’t forget the Tudor Age (1530s-1630s)! During one of the most destructive periods in Irish history, the Gaelic way of life was nearly decimated as Henry VIII forced the Irish Catholics to bow to his newly Protestant rule (and we all know that didn’t go well for anyone.) And then, there was Cromwell…for all his enlightened politics, Cromwell was particularly harsh to the Irish, with his campaign in the 1650s that wiped out up to 50% of Ireland’s population. Theirs is a long and aggressive history!
So, while the Irish may not be the original inhabitants of the Emerald Isle, they’ve been there long enough (and fought off enough invaders) to call it their own. This spirit of resistance is now part of the Irish identity and character. How else would they still be speaking Irish Gaelic to this day, even after 2,000 years of hostile takeovers? (P.S. Check out this interesting report about Celtic DNA proving how long the current race of people have been there.)
This post is part of a series. Read our last history post, all about the modern reboot of the Tailteann Games, here. Check out the blog every Monday and Thursday for more posts about Irish history, dance culture, community news, and spotlights on our dancers, staff, and families—among other fun projects! And don’t forget to dance along with us on both Facebook and Instagram.
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