Tumultuous is a good word to describe Ireland’s often troubled and sorrowful history, which is filled with invasion, repression, deadly conflict, religious discrimination and emigration. Ireland’s history dates back to 8000 BC, and progressed from a hunter-gatherer society to an agricultural one. Christianity came to the island in the 5th century, replacing the old tribal and Druid societies, though many of the Celtic traditions were preserved. In the 800s, the Vikings started invading and regularly raided and plundered the island for upwards of two centuries. They set up settlements (most notably Dublin), but were eventually pushed out of Ireland by the Irish king Muirecán. (Ireland was then made up of many small kingdoms, who fought each other for dominance of other counties and the entire island.) Then came the Normans. When an exiled Irish king sought help from (English) King Henry II, he sent Norman forces to (successfully) recapture the Irish King’s counties. This event established Norman lords in Ireland, who soon ruled big tracts of Iand. This worried Henry II so much he invaded in person in 1172. Now it was not only Irish lords that were battling for control of the country, but Norman and English ones as well.
Fast forward to 1536 and Henry VIII, who tried to conquer Ireland and extend English law over the country. This was met with fierce resistance, especially when he tried to convert the Irish Catholics to Protestants. This opened up a brutal few centuries, where the endeavour for Protestant rule over Ireland led to many atrocities and battles. In the 1600s, land was confiscated from Catholics and given to Protestant settlers (known as the Plantations), triggering the first wave of mass Irish emigration. Remaining Catholics were subject to persecution, with their rights becoming less and less as time went on.
The Irish Rebellion of 1798, led by the republican United Irishmen (who wanted to overthrow British rule and have a non-sectarian republic) was brutally quelled and Irish self-government was abolished. From 1845 - 49, Ireland suffered the Great Famine, which saw over a million people die from starvation and disease, and a million or more emigrate. Understandably, relations between the Irish people and the British got worse, as the government had many means to stop the severity of the famine. Another tragedy was that this period (along with other factors) contributed to English largely replacing the Irish language. From this time until 1912, there were many attempts at reinstating home rule (Irish self-government) and a number of rebellions were instigated but failed. It was also when two distinct groups emerged: the Irish nationalists (who wanted Ireland to be independent and governed by the Irish) and Irish unionists (who considered themselves British and wanted to remain in the union).
In 1922, after the Irish War of Independence and many years of fighting, the Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed and Ireland was divided into Northern Ireland (six counties) and Southern Ireland (26 counties), known as the Irish Free State. This lead to the Irish Civil War, fought between those who wanted a unified Ireland and those who wanted to keep Northern Ireland under British rule. The Irish Republican Army (IRA) lost, and Northern Ireland remained ruled by Britain.
The Irish Free State was a predominantly Catholic state and the Roman Catholic church had a massive impact on the formation of the country, as it had over much of Irish history. In 1949, the Republic of Ireland was established and left the British Commonwealth. Up until the late 1990s, the economy of Ireland struggled and emigration was an ongoing problem. Unfortunately the economic boom of the 90s and 2000s has faltered, and economic troubles have once again returned. That said, the conservatism of the Catholic church has lost its grip over society, with many social reforms that would have once been unthinkable being implemented in the 90s.
After the division of the counties in 1922, Northern Ireland became a predominantly Protestant state. Years of violence between pro-British Unionists and pro-Irish Republicans have marked its history, which is a complicated and bloody beast woven with political, ethnic and religious differences. It is as fascinating as it is heartbreaking, and worth reading about in a sphere that can do it justice. See our list of recommended books for books detailing this period.