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Definition: Irish from The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide

People of Irish culture from Ireland or those of Irish descent. The Irish mainly speak English, though there are approximately 30,000–100,000 speakers of Irish Gaelic (see Gaelic language), a Celtic language belonging to the Indo-European family.

Celtic tribes, the ancestors of the Irish, migrated to Ireland about 300 BC. Later known as Gaels (Irishmen), they settled on the Isle of Man and southwestern Scotland, and established colonies in western Wales, Devon, and Cornwall.


Irish in America: Long Journey Home

Summary Article: IRISH
From Cassell's Peoples, Nations and Cultures

The people of the island of Ireland. The modern Irish are divided into two communities based broadly on religion, ethnic origin and political allegiance. Around 90% of Irish are Roman Catholics; the balance are mainly Protestants, most of whom belong to various Presbyterian denominations, but a small minority of whom are Anglicans. Most Protestants are the descendants of Lowland SCOTS and ENGLISH immigrants; most Catholic Irish claim descent from Ireland's original Celtic inhabitants (see CELTS). Ireland is divided between the Irish Republic and the Province of Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom. The majority of Irish Protestants live in Northern Ireland, where they form some 55% of the population. Northern Irish Protestants are overwhelmingly Loyalists who support the continuation of BRITISH rule in the Province. While the majority of Northern Irish Catholics are Nationalists who want to see a united Ireland, a significant minority are Loyalists.

Because of Ireland's long history of emigration, the exact number of Irish is unknown. The population of the Irish Republic is 3.55 million and Northern Ireland 1.5 million. Around a million Irish-born people live elsewhere in the UK, and tens of millions of people worldwide claim Irish descent as well. The Irish Republic recognizes English and Gaelic (a Celtic language; see GAELS) as official languages, but Gaelic has been in inexorable decline since the mid-19th century. Despite considerable government financial support and compulsory Gaelic teaching in schools, Gaelic is now spoken as a first language by fewer than 20,000 people. It is extinct as a spoken language in Northern Ireland.

The early Irish

The early Irish were a tribal people who had little sense of common identity before their conversion to Christianity in the 5th century AD. Around this time they adopted the name Gaidel (in modern Gaelic Gaedheal) from Guoidel or Gwyddel (‘savages’), the BRITONS' name for the people of Ireland. Early Christian Ireland was divided into hundreds of local kingdoms and a smaller number of regional over-kingdoms (see DÉISI). The introduction of Christianity led to the development of a remarkable monastic civilization, which produced outstanding works of art and illuminated manuscripts, the most famous of which is the Book of Kells. The period is retrospectively viewed as a ‘golden age’.

VIKING invasions in the 9th and 10th centuries brought an end to this civilization. The Vikings founded permanent raiding bases around the coast, one of which was Dublin, and these developed into Ireland's first towns. The Viking attacks began a process of political centralization, and in the 10th century the High Kingship of Ireland developed as a formal institution. However, Ireland was still a long way from political unity when the ANGLO-NORMANS invaded in 1169 and created the country's long and frequently unhappy link with England. The Anglo-Normans quickly conquered the south and east of the country, building castles and walled towns and encouraging English settlement. The rougher west and north resisted more successfully and it was not until the beginning of the 17th century that the writ of the English government ran throughout Ireland. The English in Ireland tried to maintain their identity, but many adopted Irish ways.

The colonial Irish

The Protestant Reformation of the 1530s created new divisions between Gaelic- and English-speakers. Protestantism failed to find acceptance among either the Irish or ‘Old English’ settlers. The government planned to make Ireland more Protestant by introducing a policy of plantation, that is, dispossessing Catholics of their lands and replacing them with Protestant New English and Lowland Scots settlers. The policy was less successful than expected because Ireland's reputation for rebellions discouraged settlers. Only in eastern Ulster was a Protestant majority established: these were the ULSTER SCOTS. Nonetheless, the policy caused great discontent, which boiled over into a major Catholic rebellion in 1641. Civil wars broke out in England and Scotland soon after, and it was not until 1649–52 that the Irish rebellion was put down by Oliver Cromwell.

This civil war period is probably the most glorified in Irish history, and it plays a key role in the historical consciousness of both Catholic and Protestant communities, which keenly remember (often with advantage) the atrocities perpetrated against them and conveniently ignore those which their own community committed. Cromwell's land settlement destroyed what was left of the Catholic land-owning class, and by the end of the 17th century, 90% of land was owned by a small class of ANGLO-IRISH Protestants, even though most of their tenants were Catholics.

The defeat of the exiled Catholic king James II by the Protestant William III at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690 confirmed this Protestant ascendancy. Celebrations of the anniversary of this battle provide the focus of the annual Loyalist ‘marching season’ in Northern Ireland.

Modern Irish nationalism began to develop in the late 18th century, and initially drew support equally from both Protestants and Catholics as Ireland lost its own parliament. However, as the movement developed in the 19th century it came increasingly to be dominated by Ireland's Catholic majority and its demands for Catholic emancipation, land reform and Home Rule. The British government's failure to provide adequate relief during the Great Famine of 1845–51 only heightened dissatisfaction with British rule. All too often the British government ignored Ireland's problems, acting only after Irish frustration had boiled over into violence. In this way the government undermined constitutional nationalism and, by showing that it got results, encouraged the tradition of political violence that has blighted Ireland. For their part, Nationalists blamed England for all of Ireland's problems and looked for the roots of true Irishness in an idealized Celtic, Catholic past. This identity made it increasingly hard for Protestants to be accepted as truly Irish. Their support for Unionism steadily increased, so that by the end of the 19th century most considered themselves to be British rather than Irish. This failure of nationalism to develop an inclusive Irish identity is a largely unacknowledged factor in the present division of Ireland. Irish Protestants feared, and continue to fear, that there could be no place for their cultural identity in a Catholic-dominated Ireland.

Independence and compromise

The Republican Easter Rising in 1916, the pro-Republican Sinn FÉin's party's victory in the 1918 general elections and the Anglo-Irish War that followed (1919–21) forced the British to accede to Nationalist demands for independence. However, fears that Protestant Unionists would obstruct a settlement by armed rebellion led the British government to partition Ireland in 1922. The bulk of the country became the independent Irish Free State (Republic of Ireland from 1948), while the six counties of Ulster that had a Protestant majority became the province of Northern Ireland within the UK. Most Nationalists have never accepted the legitimacy of the settlement, and it caused a civil war in the Free State in 1922–3.

After independence, the Republic of Ireland experienced decades of economic stagnation. Emigration, which had begun on a large scale in the 19th century, continued unabated. Northern Ireland was more industrialized than the south and enjoyed greater prosperity. The Catholic minority in the Province experienced systematic discrimination (as did the much smaller numbers of Protestants in the south). The Nationalist refusal to accept the legitimacy of Northern Ireland justified this discrimination in Protestant and Unionist eyes. The development of a Catholic civil-rights movement in the 1960s was met by Protestant mob violence, and in 1969 the descent into the long period of inter-communal terrorism known as the ‘Troubles’ began. The 1997 Good Friday Agreement, involving the British and Irish governments, provided a constitutional framework for the rival communities to resolve their differences. Despite the cessation of most of the violence, the implementation of the Agreement has been difficult: the history of mutual suspicion among both of Northern Ireland's communities is a strong one.

The outbreak of the Troubles was accompanied by the decline of Northern Ireland's traditional textile and shipbuilding industries. In contrast, the Irish Republic at last began to experience economic growth as a result of being a net recipient within the European Economic Community (now European Union) since 1973. This has turned the Irish into enthusiastic Europeans. Investment in hi-tech industries, such as computing, culminated in the booming ‘Celtic Tiger’ economy of the 1990s. Prosperity is bringing major social changes in its wake. The Republic is an increasingly secular society and the influence of the Catholic Church is rapidly declining. No longer an exporter of population, the republic is now experiencing immigration from the Third World and with it the growth of racism in what is still a very homogenous society. The Irish still like to project themselves as an easy-going and laid-back people who enjoy a pre-industrial pace of life, but this image is increasingly at odds with modern realities.

© Weidenfeld & Nicolson 2005

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