Ireland and the politics of bigotry – Part One

When the Irish Catholic priest Fr. Hugh O’Donnell decided it was time to build a Catholic church in Belfast he had a problem: it costs a lot of money to build a church. The Catholic population of Belfast was too small and too poor to provide enough money, so if he had to rely on the Catholics alone it would take forever. He had to seek help elsewhere. So he asked the Protestants of Belfast to help him out. As you do.


The Belfast Protestants responded immediately with overwhelming generosity and on Sunday 30th May 1784, Belfast’s first Catholic Church, St. Mary’s, opened in Chapel Lane. It was a memorable day. When Fr. O’Donnell arrived to say mass, Captain Cunningham of the Irish Volunteers, together with his men in full uniform, provided a guard of honour for him, and about half of the people who attended mass that morning were Protestants. Later in the week a letter written by the priest appeared in the local paper expressing his heartfelt thanks to the Belfast Protestants for their support and solidarity.

Times have changed. Fast forward to the 1960’s and we see the beginning of three decades during which the Catholics and Protestants of Northern Ireland made life a living hell for each other. For three decades no man, woman or child was safe from the murderous blitz of bullets and bombs which cost so many innocent lives and left a legacy of grief, pain and bitterness which will be recalled with anger by the people of the six counties for generations to come.

How could it have come to this? How could the ordinary people of Northern Ireland, who had once shown so much support and solidarity for each other, turn against each other in such an orgy of mutual and implacable hatred and lethal violence? We need to know the answer if we are ever going to put an end to the ugly blight of religious bigotry which has been a millstone around the necks of the working-class people of Northern Ireland, and to a lesser but still significant extent Scotland, for too many generations.

A little learning is a dangerous thing, as Alexander Pope so acutely observed. In order to get a full understanding of the situation, we must stand back and look at the whole picture, we must go right back to the time when Christianity first established itself in Ireland.

The Island at the End of the World

Few would deny that in the beginning, Christianity was beneficial to the people of Ireland. Palladius, the first Christian missionary, arrive on the island in 431. He was followed about thirty years later by the legendary St Patrick. Patrick and those who succeeded him expended a great deal of energy in establishing monasteries which served as excellent seats of learning. And the Irish were keen and quick to learn.

Those who went to study at the monasteries did not restrict themselves to spiritual matters; they also studied medicine and the classic works of the ancient Greek and Roman historians and philosophers. They made beautifully written copies of these works, which was fortunate, since the Roman Empire was being swept away, as the barbarian hordes spread to every corner of Western Europe.

Wherever they went the barbarians left a trail of devastation in their wake. Rome and other cities were looted, libraries were destroyed, and books were burned. But as civilization was laid waste in Western Europe, Ireland was mercifully spared. Thanks to the diligence of Irish students and monks, many ancient classical works and writings survived which would otherwise have been lost forever.

The monks of Ireland went forth to spread their learning throughout England, Scotland and Wales, and subsequently all over Europe, as far afield as Russia and Iceland. In what was left of civilized Europe in the wake of this wave of destruction, Ireland’s reputation and prestige grew enormously as a centre of education and culture. Thousands of students came to Ireland knowing there was no better place to study and learn.

The Irish thus played a major role in rekindling the flames of civilization in the aftermath of the barbarian rampage through Europe. Ireland fully deserved its reputation as the “land of saints and scholars”.

Saint Patrick. Photo: Simon CarrascoSaint Patrick. Photo: Simon CarrascoUntil the end of the 8th century the only serious battles that the Irish had been involved in were the internecine feuds, brought about by the constant struggle of the various Irish clans to gain supremacy. But that all changed in 795, the fateful years when Ireland’s cultural development was rudely interrupted by the Vikings. Under pressure from lack of living space and agricultural land in their home territory, they erupted like a thunderstorm from the North. The resulting orgy of plundering and killing put the monasteries in Lindisfarne and Iona out of business. The Northmen terrorised England, dominating almost all of it at one time, and even provided a couple of England’s kings.

The Vikings did not confine themselves to raiding. They established trading posts around the coast which still exist today as Ireland’s major cities: Dublin, Wexford and Limerick are their direct descendents. In time the newcomers were absorbed into Irish life and culture and after a couple of centuries became as Irish as the Irish themselves.

From that time until 1169 the Irish continued with their usual way of life: the monks and students continued to study and to spread their learning abroad, and the various regional kings fought each other for the right to be Ard Ri, the High king. The story related thus far is the history the Irish look back on with pride; it is the history of a strong, proud and cultured people, a people who were admired throughout Europe.

One would think the papacy would have been grateful for Ireland’s heroic contribution to the resurgence and spread of Christianity. But alas, no! The Catholic Church had changed a great deal since the days of Saint Patrick. It had become worldlier and less spiritual as it sought to increase its wealth and political influence throughout Europe. And Rome was losing patience with Ireland and the Irish way of life.

There were two reasons for this. First, there was the question of the Brehon Laws, which were still widely observed in Ireland. Brehon Law was a fairly egalitarian system which had served Ireland well for centuries. But it permitted divorce, and it allowed a man to marry his brother’s widow, which the Church considered to be incest. Even more serious, the Irish were not keen on the idea of paying tithes to the Church. Rome was not prepared to tolerate this indefinitely.

The other reason for Rome’s discontent was the political set up in Ireland, with several regional kings constantly fighting each other for the position of High King. It is true that similar power struggles were always going on in England, Scotland and elsewhere in Europe, but there was one difference: in other countries whoever was king was the sole king in that realm, and he would dutifully toe the papal line. ‘One Church, one king’ was Rome’s policy.

In the mid-twelfth century Theobald, Archbishop of Canterbury, wrote to the Pope asking permission to invade Ireland in order to impose stricter control over “…a rude and ignorant people”. With these words the lying stereotype of Ireland as a land of ignoramuses was born. At the stroke of the pen, Ireland’s long standing reputation of the “land of saints and scholars” was erased from the historical record.

Later on, after the Anglo-Norman invasion of Ireland another “holy” man named Gerard of Wales, who was of Welsh-Norman ancestry, wrote slanderous accounts of the Irish as filthy ignorant savages. This anti-Irish propaganda was to be used for centuries to justify the cruelty and oppression inflicted upon the Irish people by the British ruling class. It finds an echo to this very day in the racist jokes about ‘thick paddies’, although anyone who has had any dealings with the Irish or who has ever spent time in Ireland, knows that the Irish are an intelligent and enterprising people.

The Normans

In 1155 Pope Adrian IV wrote to Henry II, granting him permission to invade and rule Ireland. Among the conditions for Papal recognition of his rule, Henry had to ensure that each household in Ireland donated a penny a year to the Church, and the Church must have jurisdiction over both Ireland and England. Henry did not like the idea of the Pope having any say in the running of England and did not take up the offer till 16 years later, when certain events made him change his mind.

Dermot Mac Murrough, king of Leinster, was exiled from Ireland in consequence of his feuding with another provincial king, Rory O’Connor. He asked Henry to help him regain his kingdom and Henry redirected him to the Earl of Pembroke, better known to history as Strongbow. An agreement was made whereby Strongbow would help him defeat his enemies in Ireland and in return would receive Dermot’s daughter’s hand in marriage and inherit Dermot’s kingdom when he died. Strongbow went over to Ireland with a well equipped army, defeated Dermot’s enemies, and duly married his daughter.

When Dermot died soon after, Strongbow wasted no time having himself crowned High King of Ireland. Henry II was not going to put up with that. In 1170, accompanied by a papal legate, he took his army over to Ireland and declared himself King with the full authority of the Pope behind him. The Irish clergy submitted to his rule immediately; so too did Strongow and the other Norman barons.

Trim Castle, constructed in 1175, was one of the physical manifestations of English rule in Ireland. Photo: William MurphyTrim Castle, constructed in 1175, was one of the physical manifestations of Norman rule in Ireland. Photo: William MurphyBy 1175 all the provincial kings of Ireland had submitted to Henry and had their lands restored except for the lands he had doled out to his Norman barons and the area around Dublin and the coastal region extending southwards to Dungarvin, which he reserved for himself. Rory O’Connor of Connaught was to be recognised as High King of the rest of Ireland and was given the task of collecting tithes and tributes from the reluctant Irish.

All this was agreed to in the Treaty of Windsor to which Henry put his name. But the treaty was soon broken by Henry, who continued to grant more land to his Norman barons, and by the barons themselves, who continued to steal more and more land by force of arms. A century later they controlled about 75% of Ireland’s territory. The conquest of Ireland was Britain’s first venture into imperialism, and it was carried out with the full blessing of the papacy. It was to sow the seeds of all Ireland’s sorrows for centuries, right up to the present day.

In the following century the Irish not only regained much of their territory, they also won the cultural contest with the Anglo-Normans. The Norman settlers from the first invasion adopted the Brehon Laws, and married into Irish families. They even spoke the Irish language. Laws imposed on them by England to stop this assimilation into Irish culture had little effect.

The Tudors

English monarchs were never happy with the state of affairs in Ireland and in 1494 Henry VII sent Edward Poynings as Lord Deputy to bring Ireland into ‘whole and perfect obedience’. Poynings introduced a law decreeing that Ireland’s parliament could only meet with royal permission and could only pass laws that the king of England approved of.

Henry VIIIHenry VIIIThe breach between Henry VIII and Rome brought about new changes. In 1536 Henry forced the Irish Parliament to recognise him as “the only and supreme head of the Church of Ireland”. The Pope’s authority was to be renounced and the population was to pay a tax or tithe to the new Church (of England). He was declared King of Ireland in 1541 and demanded that the Gaelic nobles abandon not only their loyalty to Rome, but also their Gaelic language and customs.

Most of the population and the clergy only paid lip service to the new Church of Ireland, which was to be the Irish branch of the new (Anglican) Church of England, and carried on much as before. It was not until the reign of Elizabeth I that the real and brutal oppression of Ireland began. In 1570 Pope Pius V declared Elizabeth a heretic and forbade all Irish to obey her laws. This, and the encroaching upon their land by English settlers, led to the Munster rebellion.

This rebellion, aided by a small armed force supplied by the Pope, was put down with murderous cruelty. Not only the armed rebels, but every man, woman and child who got in the way of the English, were put to the sword. Sir Humphrey Gilbert, military governor of Munster, lined each side of the pathway leading to his camp with the severed heads of his victims in order to terrify the local population.

By 1583 the rebellion was over, its leaders slain, and the province laid waste. The suffering of the people was beyond belief:

“Out of every corner of the woods they came, creeping forth on their hands for their legs would not bear them. They looked like skeletons; they ate corpses. If they found a plot of shamrock they flocked there as a feast”.

To justify this slaughter the Elizabethans revived the propaganda used by the Catholic Church and the Normans to excuse Henry II’s invasion in 1171. They even went further in their insulting and demeaning diatribe which portrayed the Irish as sub-humans who did not merit humane treatment. This is the pattern that has been followed ever since by powerful countries when suppressing weaker countries. It was used by Europeans settlers to justify the slaughter of Native Americans and Africans; it was used by Hitler to justify the killing of millions of Russians to gain his Lebensraum.

In the words of Jean-Paul Sartre:

“How can an elite of usurpers, aware of their mediocrity, establish their privileges? By one means only: debasing the colonised to exalt themselves, denying the title of humanity to the natives, and defining them simply as absences of qualities – animals, not humans. This does not prove hard to do, for the system deprives them of everything.”

To Hell or Connaught

In 1641, while England’s royalists and parliamentarians were at war with each other, the Irish Catholics tried again to free themselves from English Protestant rule. The English could not give Ireland its full attention until their own civil war ended. Then, in 1649, Cromwell arrived with his army, having first defeated the Levellers in England, the left wing of the parliamentary army, who sympathised with the Irish. His brutal treatment of the Irish earned him their everlasting hatred.

At this time the English ruling class believed themselves to be God’s chosen people. Once again the Irish people were portrayed as a kind of sub-species of humanity, no better than animals, in order to justify the horrific cruelty inflicted upon them. Once again defenceless women and children were put to the sword in an orgy of torture and mass murder. The inhabitants of Drogheda and Wexford were murdered. Cromwell boasted that of the 3,000 citizens of Drogheda not 30 of them escaped with their lives, declaring that “…I am persuaded that this is a righteous judgement of God upon those barbarous wretches…”

By the time the God-fearing Cromwell had done with them the Irish had their population reduced by half, more than 600,000 of them dead and 100,000 sold into slavery. The English parliament passed a law whereby the people of Ulster, Leinster and Munster were to be driven west of the river Shannon into the area of Connaught and Clare; any Irish found East of the Shannon after May 1st 1654 were to be put to death. All of their land was to be given to English settlers. This was the infamous “to Hell or Connaught” policy, although this law had to be ignored later as the new English landowners needed the Irish to work the land for them.

The Catholic population lost huge tracts of the best land and were forbidden from living in towns or having any part in the political administration of their country. Their wealth and political power was lost to a new ruling class who were Protestant in faith and entirely pro-English. It is not difficult to understand why the Irish Catholics bitterly resented and hated their Protestant usurpers.

Part 2 >>