Why is Ireland Split into Two Countries?
Northern China. Northern France. Northern Canada. Northern Chad. All these are regions of particular countries. Northern Ireland is different. It is a different country from the south, with a different government, a different flag, and a different soccer team. Any map will show you that there are two different countries on the island of Ireland. Why?
The answer has a lot to do with the bigger island to the East of Ireland: Britain. Britain has long been the more powerful of the two islands, in large part because of its closeness and trade with the rest of Europe. Britain itself was divided into three countries: England, Scotland, and Wales. England was usually the strongest of the three, and in the 1100's England invaded and conquered Ireland.
Kind of. English rule was patchy. Much of the time, it was local Irish lords who were really in charge. Peasants might not even know the name of the English king. The area around Dublin (Ireland’s capital) that the English did control was called the Pale. Everything else was beyond the Pale (a phrase people still use in all sorts of ways today).
In the 1500’s, England tightened its grip, extending its control to all of Ireland. England’s most famous king, Henry VIII, was the key figure, and it had a lot to do with his marriage problems. Henry’s parliament in London declared him head of the church in England, which allowed him to sideline the pope in Rome and grant himself a divorce from aging Queen Catherine. When the leading landowner in Ireland made the mistake of siding with the pope and calling Henry a heretic, Henry sent an army, crushed the opposition, confiscated the rebels’ property, and made all Ireland bow to his authority.
Over the next two hundred years, English kings and queens suppressed a series of revolts in Ireland. These were more than irritants: they threatened England’s survival. The reason was that Ireland’s Roman Catholic lords were often in league with Catholic Spain and France, Protestant England’s greatest foes. Queen Elizabeth was so rattled by one uprising that she had the leaders drawn by horses through the town, hanged till half dead, then disemboweled and cut into quarters.
The long-term solution was to destroy the power of the Irish lords who refused to convert to Protestantism. The way to do that was to take not only their lives but also their land. England wanted to give it to loyal Protestants, but there weren’t many of them in Ireland. So English monarchs gave the land to English and Scottish families willing to move there. Crucially, many of them settled in Ulster, an area in northeastern Ireland that maps closely onto today’s Northern Ireland. By 1700, almost all of Ireland was owned by Protestants.
Life was mean for Ireland’s Catholic peasants. No wonder many took their chances and moved to the United States, especially during the horrific potato famine of the 1840’s. Those who stayed in Ireland found a new way of expressing their anger: politics.
Their demand was Home Rule—that the Irish should govern Ireland. This demand, however, was too much for Ireland’s Protestants, who now dubbed themselves Loyalists to English rule in Ireland. They didn’t want to live in a country governed by the Catholic majority.
In 1914, these Loyalists became desperate when Home Rule became law. Implementation stalled with the outbreak of the First World War later in the year, but not before Protestants in the North had landed 25,000 rifles and millions of rounds of ammunition. They were willing to fight to preserve the link with London and the power and privilege that gave them in Ireland.
England demanded Ireland’s allegiance in the war, and they got it. In April 1916, however, a small group of radical Irish nationalists seized the centre of Dublin and declared Ireland a republic, free from British control. Germany, Britain’s wartime enemy, sent weapons in support.
Britain dispatched gunboats and troops and within a week had crushed the Easter Rising, as it was known. They had little choice but to put down a rebellion in wartime. But they miscalculated when they tried and executed sixteen of the leaders. Irish opinion now swung decisively behind the martyrs.
Ireland set up its own government in 1921. But there was an opt-out clause for six counties in Ulster. They could choose whether to be under Dublin’s authority or London’s. They chose the latter. This was the moment when Ireland split in two. The South would become the Republic of Ireland, the North part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
Neither side was satisfied. Southern Republicans felt they should control the whole island. Some took up arms. In the North, Protestants felt besieged and the Catholic minority were second-class citizens.
Ireland became Irelands. The process and the results were bloody. Unification looks unlikely. The divide may be the best way of coping with the discord created by the Protestants who settled there hundreds of years ago.