During our stay in the beautiful Ireland we made a brief stop in the capital of Northern Ireland. It was really necessary. Belfast doesn’t just ooze history everywhere. The city itself is a flowing emotion. Every corner and every street is home to numerous voices that are confused through the centuries. They are voices intermingled with howls of victory, war cries, wails, cries, sobs and mourning. We can learn history authentically listening to them. In this article we will leave our experiences in Belfast for the end. We believe it is more important to synthesize in a very brief summary of the history of Ireland the context of what we have told so far. So without further ado, we begin…
To minimally understand the recent history of Northern Ireland, it is necessary to take a look at the past and the emotional archetype that has filtered through the centuries into the history of the Emerald Isle. Ireland’s history can be labelled with two terms: ‘freedom’ and ‘identity’. Although it may seem that words do not transcend more than they do on paper, the truth is that they are guardians of a magic capable of directing and diverting the course of history… These two words are a good example of this. In fact, liters of blood have been spilled due to them. Even so, it is foolish to generalize, because the truth is that not all Irish people yearn or have yearned for what really lies behind these terms: independence. It is important to bear in mind that these opposing feelings are practically myths per se, or at least they try to cover themselves with myths, to acquire their strength. As we will see throughout this article, the feelings that embody these terms in the Irish context have tried to be based on those old stories starring characters that unfailingly end up being mythified and whose exploits end up giving rise to the idiosyncrasy of the culture or people who take them as examples. In one way or another, these elements have functioned as the cornerstone of the present nation or the utopian country it should have been.
To some extent, Ireland has been relatively isolated until very recent centuries. For example, the Roman armies barely entered the island, although there was trade between the Romans in Britain and the Celts in Hibernia (that’s how the Romans called Ireland) and a failed invasion attempt by the Romans. In 82 A.D., the British governor Gnaeus Julio Agricola, who completed the conquest of Britain for Emperor Domitian and entered Scotland and Wales, tried to use a single legion to conquer Ireland. Grave error. According to the historian Tacitus, who was also the son-in-law of the governor, Julio Agricola wanted to take advantage of the services that a Celtic warlord offered him to conquer Hibernia. However, destiny opposed Rome’s wishes. An internal rebellion in his army and the uprising of the Scottish Picts diverted his attention from Ireland. The emperor, who had other interests in mind, ordered him to divert his efforts to the Pictish problem. Once he crushed the Pictish rebellion, Agricola was removed from Britain and replaced. Neither the substitute nor the emperor showed greater interest in the Emerald Isle, so they left it alone.
Ireland’s relative isolation in the past was due to its geographical location. Ireland’s remoteness from the mainland made it uninteresting for any outstanding trade route, an essential element for intercultural contact and exchange. Thus, the Irish idiosyncrasy was for an important part of its eminently Celtic history. The Celts arrived in waves from the middle of the first millennium BC and became the lords of the island as well as the introducers of the Iron Age. With the Celts the same thing happens as with the Vikings, at popular level it is believed that they were unified cultures when they were different tribes with idiosyncrasies and differentiable beliefs in fact. In this regard, it is important to note that the most prominent Celtic tribe who ruled in Ireland was the Gaelic. In any case, as historian Richard Killeen points out, the absence of invasions would have forged in the Irish a strong feeling of integrity and cultural unification solidly rooted in Ireland’s Celtic era. We will see how this principle makes sense later on, as the Irish who fervently pursued the above-mentioned values showed an interest in resurrecting the old Celtic values. This kind of retreat in the North Atlantic was interrupted by the first invasive incursions. Some invasions (logically we refer to the violent ones) had to be really traumatic. We must think that, contrary to the continent, Ireland did not have a forged character against invasions, and even less against the violent ones, so that the first colonizations, led by different Viking tribes in the first place and later by the British, were not well received. Of course, even if we seem to be talking about a complete isolation, that’s is not true. In fact, the various Irish Celtic tribes contacted the outside world for commercial reasons and, on other occasions, with less kind aims. A clear example of the latter is that of the Scoti, Celtic pirates who were integrated into Roman territory in Britain for the capture of slaves. Curiously, through the slave market is how one of Ireland’s essential characters would get there and make history. We refer to St. Patrick.
Catholicism takes action
It was St. Patrick who introduced Catholicism to Ireland and thus became the patron saint of the island. He lived during the 5th century A.D. Among other miracles, he is credited with the eradication of snakes in Ireland (according to legend, St. Patrick expelled them to the sea and therefore Ireland does not currently have snakes) and dozens of resurrections. He was British of origin and in the village where he was born he worked as decurion. He was kidnapped by Celtic pirates and taken prisoner to Ireland, where he was held captive for 6 years as a slave grazing livestock. Until then spirituality were indifferent to him, but during that period of time close ties with God. After leaving the island, he gradually grew in the episcopal scale until he was appointed bishop of Ireland. He received various divine visions in dreams that commanded him to preach in Ireland and convert Celtic pagans to Christianity for the rest of his life. And so it was, although if this confession was accepted so successfully in only a century it was surely because Gaelic lords did not hinder the process too much, they would even have protected and/or promoted the missions of St. Patrick and the rest of the Christian missionaries. In addition, St. Patrick tried to integrate Celtic beliefs with Christian ones, as a result of which is the religious syncretism we can still see today (for example, St. Bridget, patron saint of Ireland, known as the Mary of the Irish, would be the alter ego of the Celtic goddess Brigantia or Brigit, or Jesus Christ of the god Lug). Interestingly, the predominant Christian model that was finally established in Ireland was more similar to Eastern Orthodox Christianity than to Roman Catholic Apostolic Christianity. The Irish ecclesiastical organization was not the diocese (although it was present for a short period of time at the beginning), predominant in much of the European continent, but monasticism and asceticism, so that Christianity in Ireland has been instituted by an extensive network of monasteries.
It would have been St. Patrick too who introduced the symbol of the three-leaf clover, the allegorical symbol of the Most Holy Trinity, and the cross of St. Patrick. There is one important detail regarding this religious “colonization”, and that is that the Catholic Church did not immediately achieve political sovereignty. It would take many centuries for this to happen. In other words, the arrival of Christianity did not put an end to the authority of the Celtic lords of the island. In fact, the behaviour of Gaels with respect to monasteries and their abbots depended on the particular kings or lords. The kings of some tribes chose to attack and loot the monasteries and kidnap the Christians while others defended them from the attackers. In other cases there was some ambivalence, as happened with King Feidlimid mac Crimthainn, of the Eóganacht dynasty, who looted and defended Christians equally. The advent of Christianity is a fundamental episode in the history of Ireland and without it we cannot understand the evolution of society and the future of this region. Over time, the influences of Catholicism became directly integrated with the inherent elements of Irish identity, to such an extent that this confession would be linked centuries later to Irish nationalism and republicanism, both elements becoming a single entity.
The introduction of Catholicism into Ireland was indisputably a turning point. But Catholicism would not find a, easy context, quite the opposite. Until the 16th century it achieved a significant rate of native conversions… until the Lutheran Reformation and the consequent Catholic Counter-Reformation arrived, which turned upside down the whole of Europe starting the so-called wars of religion which, obviously, would also affect the British Isles. Even if the Reformation manifested itself as a rebellion against the injustices, the ostentation of the Catholic Church and the papal authority, it would be illogical to obviate the geopolitical interest it longed for, which was not only to seize power from the Catholic Church. Precisely, one of the most important slogans of this period and that would be coined in the Peace of Augsburg in 1555, the reconciliation that ended with the first religion wars that arose after the appearance of the Reformation, was “Cuius regio, eius religio”.
A titanic struggle
This kind of divine law was pretty convenient for kings and nobles regardless of their beliefs, since what it means is that the confession professed by the king or ruler has to be obeyed by the population he governs. In this way, many leaders already had the perfect excuse to face the Church of Rome converting to Protestantism, since there was no official church to lead this new branch of Christianity. Now, kings could establish their own church, as in fact happened in Britain. Something curious happened, because while in most of Europe Lutheran Protestantism had a certain acceptance (in some countries more than in others), in Ireland a solid wall was erected to protect Catholicism from reformist influences. Practically, Reformation had little place in Ireland at first, although some Protestant reforms were implemented in a very timid way.
Ireland became something of an aberration within Europe, an anomaly. In fact, this fierce defence of its own idiosyncrasy could be considered as the principle of Irish nationalism. It should be borne in mind that Ireland was under British rule from the 12th century, when the Anglo-Norman king Henry II integrated Ireland into the English crown (an episode of which we will speak more extensively in the next part), until 1922, and that England welcomed the Protestant confession. This means that all subject regions of the crown should compulsorily convert to Protestantism and abandon their former beliefs. “Cuius regio, eius religio”. Protestantism began to spread first through England and then through the rest of its possessions thanks to the British King Henry VIII, who, by the way, lived and died Catholic. The cause was a series of marital problems. To secure his offspring, the king looked forward to a man who could inherit his kingdom, but his wife, Catherine of Aragon, after several unsuccessful attempts failed to conceive a son. In return she gave him a daughter, the future queen of England and wife of Philip II of Spain, Mary Tudor. The king, fed up with so many “betrayals”, had only one alternative to get a male offspring: to divorce Catherine first and marry another woman to try his luck. Henry VIII had wasted no time and had already fallen in love with Anne Boleyn, the unjustly beheaded queen and a woman in the prime of life with effervescent fertility to exploit. However, the king seemed to be the victim of an evil eye, since Anne Boleyn did not give him any male either, but rather another daughter, the future Queen Elizabeth I of England.
The fact is that the king had these love affairs without having previously divorced, thus violating the sacred customs and ecclesiastical laws of the time. He chose spiritual disobedience because he did not find the approval of Pope Clement VII, among other things because he was confined in Castel Sant’ Angelo as a prisoner of the Habsburg Emperor Charles I of Spain and V of Germany, who was also the nephew of Catherine of Aragon. Charles I pressured the pope not to grant a divorce to the British king and to keep his aunt’s honour undamaged. Finally, Henry VIII was excommunicated by the pope. Irascible and with one more betrayal on his shoulders, Henry VIII decided to turn his back on the Church of Rome and establish his own, which since then has been known as the Church of England or Anglican Church (whose seat has been in the Canterbury Cathedral for centuries), which would be controlled by no one but himself. In this way, he proclaimed himself Supreme Head of the Church of England and took advantage of it to divorce Catherine secularly (perhaps to get rid of spiritual remorse and not to anger God). The establishment of an autonomous and self-controlled church was an authentic masterstroke of Henry VIII, since in this way he eliminated with one stroke all the authority and influence that the Catholic Church could have in England and that could interfere with real interests (for example, the population could hinder some mandate of the king on religious grounds). From this newly instituted church would emerge soon after the Church of Ireland, which would eventually become by royal order the official church of the island and of which the British king would also be the supreme leader. Although many historians maintain that the king died professing Catholicism, the Church of England and, consequently, the Church of Ireland would end up accepting Protestantism through a series of secular reforms.
Henry VIII finally got a son from his marriage to his third wife, Joan Seymour, a lady of the royal court: Edward VI, the first Protestant king of England. Since then, Protestantism would be a constant in this kingdom, except for some parentheses in which Catholicism again dominated, such as during the reign of Mary Tudor, rejected daughter of Henry VIII.
The Protestant reforms adopted by the Church of England would also end up being implemented by the Church of Ireland, not in vain was the British king the leader of both. However, not all the inhabitants of Ireland welcomed the real will. There was significant Catholic resistance, a despicable anomaly within a Protestant kingdom that did not comply with the maxim “Cuius regio, eius religio”. Since then, the persecution, rejection and repression of Irish Catholics and any movement related to them (nationalism, for example) by various British kings and queens, the Parliament and the Protestants was frequent. It was not unusual that the island was often regarded as a mere colony (rather than as a crown territory with the same rights as its fellows) populated by inept and primitive individuals who clung to anachronistic beliefs and rejected the modernization brought about by the Reformation. These discrepancies have repeatedly been the cause of various bloody conflicts between Ireland and England, and since then England has intensified its efforts to fully integrate Ireland into its idiosyncrasy. However, this total conquest of Ireland would never have been completed, since even in the worst circumstances it would have withstood a glimmer of Catholicism-nationalism-traditionalism.
One of the factors that definitely drove Protestantism in the Old World was Gutenberg’s printing press, which allowed the spread of the Holy Scriptures among the common people and annulled the exclusive access of the ecclesiastical elite. This allowed reformist speakers and theologians to discuss the biblical exegesis reiterated from Rome that the Church of Rome was God’s only intermediary with the man allegedly authorized by divine command. However, as we said, this factor, which had served as a weapon for Protestants in Europe against the Catholic Church, curiously had no effect in Ireland. In the sixteenth century Gaelic or Irish was still the vernacular language of most Irish (a language that the British kings were trying to eradicate and replace it by English in that eagerness to conquer Ireland physically and socially. Who was going to tell the kings of these centuries that their efforts would be rewarded in the long run, since today Irish is a language that very few dominate). It is known as Gaelic because it was the Celtic Gaelic tribe that ruled Ireland for most of the Celtic period until the arrival of the British Tudor dynasty. Therefore, the only way to introduce Protestantism in Ireland was by translating the Holy Scriptures and ritual and liturgical procedures into Irish. This was achieved… but it came too late to the Emerald Isle (in the 17th century). Another factor that nullified Protestant influences was the close contact the Gaelic lords still had with the Catholic Church and the pope. Even so, the people of Ireland were not the only ones to reject the reformist doctrines. A collective of British citizens of both England and Ireland known as “Old English” also rejected the new doctrine. The Irish branch of the Old English was that descendant of the island’s first Anglo-Norman settlers. It is curious that, in addition, the Old English of Ireland were normally persons of good social position who not only possessed diverse riches, lands and goods but often ruled in several villages. They were, therefore, conservative people who preferred to continue in the old system. In contrast were the “New English”, faithful and loyal to the British crown and the Protestant reforms introduced. The consequences were not long in coming and there was a progressive distance between the majority of the Irish and the Old English who continued to profess Catholicism and the minority of the New English of Ireland who had no objection to accepting the Protestant reforms from England.
All this happened in the historical period known as the Renaissance, an authentic reform and intellectual, artistic, philosophical and spiritual vindication that arose in the fifteenth century and which sought to reconnect with the classical Greco-Roman world to the detriment of many of the medieval traditions and doctrines, including confessional ones. This revolution provoked a 360º turn at all levels. One of the examples that best illustrates this radical change was the modification of the concept of monarchic power. Since the Middle Ages, specifically, since the coronation of Charlemagne as emperor of the Holy Roman Empire by Pope Leo III at Christmas in the year 800 according to some authors, symbol of the kneeling of the monarchy before the clergy, the Catholic Church had imposed itself as the supreme power of the world, superior even to that of any king, prince or emperor. The pope, therefore, became the rex mundi, the king of the world. But in the Renaissance, this changed. Now the kings of the world were, redundantly, the kings and emperors, and their authority was above that of the church and its vicar (Henry VIII of England illustrated this perfectly, as we have seen). The royal will and the divine will were now indistinguishable.
This change of conception was fundamental and was perfectly reflected in feudal societies, a socio-political organization characteristic of the medieval period. Until then, the provincial, feudal and palatine lords of Europe, who were ultimately under the orders of their corresponding king or emperor, had an autonomy and a not inconsiderable freedom over their possessions and vassals. To such an extent that on many occasions they implemented their own regulations and carried out campaigns against the territories of other feudal lords without giving prior account to their monarch, and they could even rebel against their dignitaries. In fact, this circumstance made Ireland more of a lordship than a kingdom dominated by the king of England because of the great power held by the Gaelic clans and dynasties. The relinquishment of their possessions and feudal power and their unconditional surrender to the king as systematized by the canons of the Renaissance would become a series of rebellions of important and powerful Gaelic dynasties, such as the Kildare, against British power. Precisely the beginning of this period in Ireland would be marked by the subjugation of the Irish regional powers and the installation of the complete and indisputable lordship of the British kings in the sixteenth century under the reign of Henry VIII. Specifically, it was in 1541 when Ireland went from being a mere lordship to being a kingdom dependent on the British crown, a title it would maintain until the union with England in 1801. Thus, Ireland became semi-independent since it was able to maintain its own system of justice and parliament. Thus, the lands and possessions of the Gaelic chiefs came to have a much tighter control and the regional rulers were forced to swear and perjure their obedience to the British kings. Having total control over Ireland, Henry VIII and his successors sought to integrate Ireland into Britain by imposing British laws, traditions, religion and language, countering the Gaelic idiosyncrasy and subjugating the Irish leaders. However, the results left much to be desired. Various Gaelic lords, while swearing obedience to Henry VIII and his successors, continued to develop their rituals and customs, including Catholic confession and liturgy, in defiance of British laws and the royal mandate.
The province of Ulster, the northernmost region of Ireland, to which present-day Northern Ireland belongs, was practically the last stronghold of the unviolated sovereignty of the Gaelic chiefs and lords until 1607. As we shall see throughout this article, Ulster will be the last bastion of many more things. A few years earlier, several Gaelic clans, previously enemies but now allies, clashed against a common contender during the Irish Nine Years’ War (1594-1603): the forces of Elizabeth I of England. The Celtic rebels would also receive support from Spaniards and Scots. It is also known as the Tyrone Rebellion because Hugh O’Neill, second Earl of Tyrone, was one of the main protagonists. The war was especially intense in Ulster. At first, the Gaelics scored several important victories. They won several battles but not the war. Even so, the English crown was clement and allowed the Gaelic nobles to keep their titles and lands. This did not seem fair to the New English and the British military, who had suffered the Gaelic rebellion in their flesh, so, as revenge, they decided to unceasingly pressure the Celtic nobles of Ulster. They even destroyed the lithic throne of Tullaghoge, Co. Tyrone, a very important symbol above all for the O’Neill clan, as it was where the different suitors were crowned. To these pressures were added a series of legal tricks that sought in one way or another to dethrone the Gaelic lords. Finally, all these circumstances forced the main Gaelic lords to flee their homeland on 4 September 1607, an episode known as the Flight of the Earls. Their destinies were different European Catholic kingdoms with the aim of gathering a sufficient military force to restore their power and the Catholic confession in Ireland. Their search was unsuccessful and they never saw the land where they were born. Thus, Gaelic dominance weakened to such an extent that it became almost anecdotal. Ulster was thus left with a power vacuum that was cleverly exploited by the British crown, which would thus begin to replace the dethroned Celts. Thus began the Plantation of Ulster. The possessions confiscated from Catholic Irish landowners and lords were reserved for the New English and Protestant Scots (Anglicans and Presbyterians). This action was really a strategy to consolidate British power in Ireland, and it was decisive, since at this moment the political (and perhaps to a greater extent, cultural and social) division that currently exists between Northern Ireland (which, precisely, is part of the United Kingdom) and the Republic of Ireland is beginning to be sketched out. However, the settlers did not come alone: in their luggage they carried their culture and their religious beliefs, i.e. the different Protestant confessions (Calvinist, Puritan, etc.). Just as during the first decades Protestantism barely found acolytes, the constant flow of Protestants established a gateway that favoured the establishment of this variant of Christianity.
With the flight of the Gaelic lords, Catholicism was left helpless in Ireland. Its greatest exponents were now the Old English who had been left alone and were surrounded by Protestants. Even so, we must remember that this group possessed an important power. They owned large tracts of productive and fertile land, held noble titles and ruled in several towns. In addition, they had remarkable representation in the Irish Parliament, so Catholicism still had a good basis on which to stand. All was not lost to Catholics. Disputes between Catholics and Protestants continued to happen, and still continue, albeit disguised with the mask of politics. Hatreds and struggles were unfailingly accumulated in the collective unconscious of the different sides. Instead of forgetting, both groups chose to maintain these affronts in their myths and oral traditions and, in short, in their day-to-day life and throughout the generations. It is therefore normal that in each consecutive conflict the explosion of violence was greater, in order to feed back again and again.
A hurricane called Cromwell
Another dispute that was decisive in the history of Ireland was the Wars of the Three Kingdoms (1639-1651), which sowed violence in England, Scotland and Ireland. However, this conflict must really be understood as a variant of the bloody Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648), the first great war in the world in which all of Europe participated. This war had a lot to do with religion, since a country’s belonging to the Reformation or the Counter Reformation already determined the side in which it was going to participate. The Wars of the Three Kingdoms was the consequence of the clumsiness of King Charles I of England and Scotland and his desire for power. His intention was to take to the extreme the new concept of power advocated by the Renaissance and become the absolute and indisputable king of the United Kingdom. He wanted to impose himself even on Parliament and reduce its power and, consequently, that of the citizens as well. Basically, what he wanted to establish is what is known as absolute monarchy. However, his aspirations fell on deaf ears. He should not have annoyed the established powers of the different islands. Moreover, at that time the British Parliament had a large representation of radical Puritans who had no regard for Catholics and Charles I was suspected of flirting with Catholicism. To make matters worse, Charles I’s representative in Ireland, the martinist Thomas Wentworth, a man who fundamentally pursued personal wealth had sought the slightest legal vacuum to confiscate the lands that the new English had acquired after the flight of the Gaelic Earls, but also of the Irish and the Old English. Charles I and his followers were making the English Parliament too uncomfortable. The fact is that the Catholics of Ireland, both Gaelic and Old English, feared reprisals from Puritan parliamentarians against them for their religious beliefs. In this way, the marginalized Gaelic leaders still left in Ulster devised an uprising taking advantage of the Wars of the Three Kingdoms, which would later be joined by the Old English. The rebellion had several successes in Ulster: they managed to seize a multitude of lands belonging to the New English and with slaves. However, they made a grave mistake and a great injustice that would lead to a violent response from the British. It is said that 10000 prisoners were massacred: men, women and children of all ages, although this figure may have been exaggerated for propaganda purposes. Be that as it may, there were summary executions and piles of corpses.
Once the coalition between the Old English and the Gaelic was borned, they formed the Confederation of Kilkenny (1641-1649). This is how the first Irish nationalist organisation was born. Confederate Ireland was loyal to Charles I of England. However, the hopes of the Irish to recover their legitimate lands were eradicated in 1649. The king was deposed and executed that year by Parliament and the famous commander of the parliamentary forces, Oliver Cromwell, who had acquired a power similar to that of the king, began the violent invasion of Ireland. Cromwell, a recalcitrant Protestant, was willing to have no regard for any collective that was Catholic and to avenge the thousands of compatriots killed by Catholics during the revolts. His was a kind of religious crusade against Catholic heresy, resulting in unstoppable persecution of Catholics. So it was, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, Cromwell’s armies razed entire populations to the ground and murdered all those sympathetic to Catholicism. Finally, in the 1650s, Cromwell appeased the rebellion of the Gaelics and the Old English and severely punished them by taking away huge tracts of land. Along with their unparalleled persecution, Catholics ended up relegated to the less fertile regions of the island, keeping the poorest and worst cultivable lands (especially those in the west of Ireland, while the most fertile would be those in the southeast and the north). The consequences were clear: decades of food shortages and an injured economy would harass Catholics. This episode was considered another new affront by Catholics. The illegitimate land grab by the Cromwellians (read “the English invader”) would play an outstanding role in the nationalist and independence movements of the following centuries, in such a way that these rebellions would manifest themselves in the form of rural movements, sometimes led by secret agricultural organizations such as the Whiteboys, which would champion the recovery of their legitimate lands and the fight against Protestantism.
And since we’re talking about Ireland’s agrarian society, the reader has to keep one thing very much in mind throughout this article. The agricultural sector was the basic and essential pillar upon which Ireland has always rested. In fact, the multiple modifications of the agrarian laws throughout the centuries were the detonator of diverse conflicts that devastated the island again and again. Many agrarian collectives were the undisputed authors of various rebellions, in which many secret organizations and paramilitary groups were forged that would play an essential role in them. And even if this was not the case, the political leaders of other social classes were forced to appeal to the agricultural world in order to obtain the necessary and sufficient support to carry out their reforms. In short, those who owned land and livestock harboured a certain amount of power, and the greater the amount, the greater the power and the greater the capacity to influence society and politics.
Returning to Cromwell, in order for the reader to get an idea of the power he managed to achieve after taking over the reins of war, once England was left without a king and became directly governed by Parliament, the Protestant commander rose as Lord Protector of the three kingdoms and established the Protectorate, also known as the Commonwealth of England, a sort of totalitarian republic. The power he acquired was immense, to the point of having the capacity to dissolve parliaments at will. This parenthesis lasted until 1660, when the monarchy was restored.
The Jacobite hope
Another event that would redirect Ireland history was the Nine Year War or the Augsburg League War (1688-1697), whose tentacles would end up reaching the distant Emerald Isle. This conflict was caused by France’s expansion along the Rhine. At first, the contenders were France and the Augsburg League, an alliance formed by several kingdoms and palatinates of Europe, such as Spain, Bavaria, the Holy Roman Empire. Later England would join commanded by William III of Orange. However, we will focus on Ireland.
After the hiatus produced by the Commonwealth of England, the monarchic restoration manifested itself in the person of Charles II, who was succeeded by James II of England and VII of Scotland. Again, a king following the Catholic faith and with absolutist aspirations had acceded to the throne. British Protestants saw their stability threatened again, so without a second thought they staged a coup d’état led by the Protestant William III, Dutch prince of Orange, who came to the throne of England in 1689. This episode is known as the Glorious Revolution and, obviously, it was supported by the New English of Ireland who, let’s remember, were of Protestant confession. On the other hand, the Jacobites received the support of the Gaelics and the Old English. Several important battles took place, but without a doubt the decisive one was the Battle of the Boyne river, in which the Williamite won the victory. After that defeat, James II was forced into exile in France, where he spent the last years of his life, and William of Orange finally declared himself king of England, Scotland and Ireland. The Battle of the Boyne is an episode that Protestants in Northern Ireland commemorate every July 12.
The surrender of the Irish Jacobites was consummated with the Treaty of Limerick of 1691, which was not too restrictive. On the one hand, it allowed the Jacobites to continue living outside the island and, on the other, it ensured religious tolerance. And as an example of the fact that intransigence is not always fed by rulers, part of the Protestant population and, ultimately, the Irish Parliament, which since the Cromwell government was represented mostly by Protestants, did not accept the religious tolerance of the treaty. In this way, the English conquest of all Ireland was finally completed, a longing that, with greater or lesser intensity, has been present in Britain since the time of Henry II in the twelfth century. We enter, therefore, into the period known as the Protestant Ascendancy, in which the Kingdom of Ireland was under the dominion, in addition to the crown of England, of landowners and Protestant lords and the clergy of the Anglican Church of Ireland and England. This long period of Irish history lasted until the 19th century, when Catholicism again became a serious threat to Protestants.
The Protestant Ascendancy
As we were saying, Protestants of the Irish Parliament did not accept the amnesties for Catholics from the Treaty of Limerick, so they decided to establish some punitive and discriminatory laws to completely neutralize Catholic influence on the island: they are known as the Penal Laws (“Na Péindlíthe” in Irish) and are another element strongly embedded in the collective unconscious of Irish Catholics. Most prevailed until the end of the 18th century. Among other things, they redistributed and limited the land owned by Catholics (at the time, Catholics owned only 10% of the island’s land, which was often also the least fertile) being aware that land ownership was linked to greater power and a greater possibility of access to politics. They were forbidden to carry arms and be part of the royal army, to legislate and hold public office and, obviously, to accede to any political question. Moreover, if the younger sons of the families became parishioners of the Church of Ireland, they could disinherit their older siblings. Added to all this were the occasional persecutions of Catholics.
The Protestant Ascendancy of Ireland was a period in which Protestants hardly faced any serious threat. It is true that some threats appeared when some Stuart was crowned, but the Jacobite motivations of the Stuart ended with the end of the lineage, which came in 1766 with the death of James III of England and VIII of Scotland, the last of the Stuart. Even so, it must be added that during the second half of the 18th century a more liberal Protestant group in the Irish Parliament proposed to relieve the Penal Laws that had been imposed against Catholics (this happened just a few years before the repeal of most of these laws). In the end, Catholics had lost all their allies who might threaten Protestantism with the death of the last of the Jacobites. Even so, most of these regulations finally began to be repealed in the 1770s, not because parliamentarians had reflected on the cruelty of those infamous laws, but because important political interests had come into play. The War of Independence of the United States began in 1775. The British Empire was short of military personnel (just before the War of Independence, England had been occupied in the Seven Years War against France), so it was forced to recruit Irish soldiers regardless of their confession or political affinity (something that would be repeated in the First World War). The problem was that Catholics had access to arms and to the army strictly forbidden. Consequently, the emergence of a more open mentality among some Protestant members of the Irish Parliament and British needs led to the Catholic Relief Acts. Among other changes, these statutes promoted the recovery of land tenure, restored Catholic inheritance rights, allowed Catholic suffrage and, consequently, the possibility of participating in island politics, and restored Catholic seminaries for the formation of priests (during the Protestant Ascendancy, Catholic priests had to migrate to the European continent to obtain the priesthood). This favoured greater equality between Catholics and Protestants and greater democratisation of Ireland. What they did not know at the time was that all those liberties given to Catholics would become a hard blow to Protestantism in the long term…
The first steps to revolution
The loss of dominance and its legitimate possessions in Ireland awakened a feeling of dispossession and deprivation in Catholics and in any Irishman who felt a slight attachment to his past. The Irish nationalist idiosyncrasy has been constantly fed by those who, according to the nationalists, are their enemies: the English barbarians. Since the Anglo-Norman invasion in the 12th century, many English rulers have spread a propagandistic view of the average Irishman as a primitive and crude individual. The Irish were people who required punishment to cure themselves of their spiritual and cultural deviations. In this way they could justify to their people many of their acts in that colony rooted in the past, because that was how Ireland was often considered, as a colony rather than as an integral kingdom of Britain. Thanks to this circumstance, and as incredible as it may seem from all we have told, Irish Catholics and Protestants ended up collaborating side by side to reduce the power and abuses of the British crown. From the 12th century onwards, the various Gaelic, Catholic and Protestant governments were obliged to rely directly on the British crown and Westminster (the seat of the English Parliament) when legislating and deciding their future. A law could not come into force without the approval of these organisms, and if that reform conflicted with British interests, they could forget about it. If we add to this some restrictions that England imposed on Irish trade, it is normal that tensions were at their peak. In other words, the Irish, irrespective of their beliefs and their faith, were looking for the same objective: national sovereignty and greater Westminster independence.
The French Revolution (1789-1799) was decisive in consolidating these feelings of independence on the Emerald Isle. The French Revolution was another Renaissance in terms of all the changes it brought to society, philosophy, politics, religion, etc. Its leaders cunningly employed the tension of the common people, or better known as the Third State, from the unjust treatment given by the clergy and kings (the First State) to redirect society. Disseminating the concentration of power so that the masses could elect their rulers, destroying the supposedly divine and unappealable right of monarchies and religious curias and appeasing the superstitions and spiritual fears that hindered the evolution of the human being (remember that in the second half of the 18th century the Enlightenment arose) were its main objectives. In the end the Revolution achieved them, because the French Revolution is the progenitor of today’s democracies (although in between we have advanced quite a bit).
The echoes of the revolution spread to every corner of the world and, over time, induced other revolutions. In the case of Ireland they curiously began to spread through the north of Ireland, through the province of Ulster, to which Belfast and Northern Ireland belong. And it is in this circumstance when the close relationship between Irish nationalism and republicanism with religion is noticed, although some people has sometimes sought to hide it behind the mask of secularism. Precisely if the French Revolution first permeated Ulster it was thanks to the fact that, in the counties of Antrim and Down, the majority confession was Presbyterian. Broadly speaking, Presbyterianism is a kind of Protestantism born in Switzerland and Scotland and whose founding fathers were John Calvin and John Knox among others. From Scotland it was introduced into Northern Ireland through Scottish immigrants. Scottish and Irish Presbyterians, like Catholics, suffered the pressures and humiliations of the Anglican Church, such as land grabbing, but this did not prevent sparks from flying between the two confessions. It is obvious that the Anglican Church was just another tentacle of the British monarchy, so the values of the French Revolution became a weapon against both institutions.
Nevertheless, thanks to two great orators, a process of union and “twinning” began to put aside religious discrepancies (temporarily at least) for the sake of achieving the desired Irish national sovereignty. These characters were the lawyer Theobald Wolfe Tone and the doctor William Drennan. Both founded in Belfast the Society of United Irishmen in 1791 from which they called for the union of all Irish to face British rule. Finally, the manifestos promulgated by both characters would become the saint and sign of the later Irish Republicans, whose movements would begin to see the light in the mid-1790s as the French Revolution advanced and would end up being preeminently Catholic. Although they did not want to notice, Catholics, Presbyterians and the rest of the Protestants in Ireland pursued a common goal, they only had to unite, but prejudices and quarrels made the work very difficult.
How did they intend to achieve Irish independence? The clearest way was through a popular insurrection supported by the militias that were emerging in those years, such as the Defenders, a small Catholic army that arose as a result of the struggle between gangs and sects of opposing confessions. In order to support the uprising it would be necessary the help of revolutionary France, which would not take long to accept the proposals of the leaders of the Society of United Irishmen to send a French contingent to the Emerald Isle to definitively expel British influence. The uprising began in Dublin on the night of May 23-24, 1798, although the revolutionaries already had some defeats on their backs. The various sects that emerged during this period undermined revolutionary aspirations and would continue to do so in later centuries through their absurd wars.
In 1793, the loyalist sector to the British crown of the Irish administration created the Militia, a military organism in which Catholics and Protestants were mixed, with tens of thousands of armed men. To further strengthen Ireland’s security against the uprisings, the Irish authorities created another military corps known as Yeomanry in 1796. As revolutionary ploys and pretensions were discovered, Yeomanry began to persecute, torture and execute the revolutionary leaders, i.e. the members of the Society of United Irishmen. Their best-known acts of vandalism and inhumanity were those committed in Ulster under the command of General Gerard Lake against the members of the Society and the Presbyterians in 1797. All these atrocities fanned the revolutionary fire and, although the Society’s directories from other provinces and counties were dismantled (even in Dublin, where they planned to begin with the uprising), finally the Irish offspring of the French Revolution saw the light. While it is true that the revolts achieved important victories, such as the conquest and establishment of the Wexford Republic, the revolutionary process lasted only a few months until the loyalist authorities regained control again in November 1798. Not even the French support, which went so far as to send several expeditions to Ireland, served to make the Irish Revolution a success. However, these events were not in vain. Many historians agree that it was at the end of the 18th century when the seed that would sprout like modern Ireland was sown.
The Act of Union
The defeat of the revolution led to the Act of Union of 1801 and to the only ingredient missing to end up upsetting the Irish. This led to the elimination of the powers of the Irish Parliament, which was left entirely under the authority of Westminster, and the establishment of the Anglican Church of Ireland as Ireland’s only official religious institution. The last of the partially independent kingdoms of Britain was finally absorbed by the London metropolis (the kingdom of Scotland had already been engulfed in 1707). And so the United Kingdom was born.
It is curious that Catholics willingly accepted this union. They saw in it a promising future for insular Catholicism, since among other things there was talk of completely repealing the Penal Laws and significantly increasing the Catholic presence in the English Parliament. The total freedom that Catholics pursued was known as Catholic Emancipation. It seems that the opportunity to establish Catholic reforms was getting closer and closer. However, Catholics were greatly disappointed, because King George III did not want the Protestant “nature” of his kingdom to be altered by individuals eager for change; he was interested in keeping Catholics at bay and not giving them more concessions than they had already obtained through the Catholic Relief Acts of the previous century. And so he did. Moreover, the Protestants in the Irish Parliament did not approve of this Catholic Acts, considering that the relative sovereignty they still held could be undermined. In these, the most conservative Protestant sector (the one defending Catholic repression) began to overtake the more liberal sector in the Irish Parliament. Catholics were once again losing the last allies in favor of a more or less complete Catholic emancipation.
Daniel O’Connell, the messiah of nationalism
The nineteenth century was decisive in forging the nationalist consciousness that would lead to the events of 1922. Obviously, the late eighteenth-century revolution and the French Revolution were instrumental in planting the seed of this sentiment, but the nineteenth century was the period in which the seed took root and began to grow. The Act of Union was begun to be seen as a betrayal and trick of the ancestral enemy of the Irish. Little by little, the nationalist sector of the Irish people came to understand the features they had in common and the transcendental political purpose they had been pursuing for a long time, a purpose that was tarnished and clouded by the appearance of the various sects that promoted the internecine wars and fraternal confrontations to which we have already made mention. We could speak of a sort of butterfly effect, of a series of very fortunate events that, as a whole, helped to write history as we know it. One such event is the Industrial Revolution and the birth of an incipient globalization. The appearance of the railway allowed the diffusion of all kinds of things, and not only the material ones, but also the ideological, ethical and political ones. The railway was one of the inventions that allowed the modernization of the world. In Ireland, for example, it made it possible to structure a national press system, more effective trade between regions, offered new jobs, introduced leisure travel and tourism, and so on. But, more importantly, it allowed the connection between people and the exchange of views and cultural elements, and not only that, but also partly blurred the differences between people. Somehow, a more global interconnection made it easier for people in different regions to understand that they had more in common than they thought. In other words, the railway, and consequently the 19th century, acted as catalysts for twinning and union. Interconnectedness was therefore key for awareness of a much more transcendental concept of community, that of nation, to begin to take hold, which would allow the union and collaboration of local communities that were previously cut off and that shared the same interests without knowing it.
We have already mentioned that Irish nationalism has strong religious components and, in fact, could not be understood without contextualizing it with the 19th century movements for Catholic Emancipation. Well, the person who syncretized both concepts, as a sort of modern Saint Patrick, was Daniel O’Connell (1776-1847), possibly the most renowned person in the history of Ireland, not in vain is considered the first leader of the nationalist movement. We spoke about him briefly in the previous part when we placed the monument that commemorates him in the street that bears his name in front of The Spire. Remember that he was born in Kerry County into a wealthy family (the O’Connell dynasty bears the surname of the ancient Gaelic lords of the Irish Celtic period). He studied at a Jesuit college in France and later trained as a lawyer in London. During his stay in France he witnessed the escalating violence of the French Revolution. This deeply impacted him and provoked a profound rejection of the use of violence as a means to achieve political objectives. Daniel O’Connell was also a Catholic, so he did not take kindly to the non-denominational character of French republicanism.
Daniel O’Connell fulfilled the archetype of the leader called to lead a revolution. Usually, revolutions and reformist movements are led by a reduced elite of people, those closest to the highest levels of society, with certain economic resources, with a representative intellectual baggage and significant oratorical abilities. The fact is that both Irish nationalism and Catholic Emancipation had a fundamental impulse after the foundation of the Catholic Association by Daniel O’Connell and his colleague Richard Lalor Sheil in 1823. Paying just one penny a month, anyone could become a member of this organization, that is to say, it was an institution accessible even to the less well-off. From its bosom began the proclamations for the freedom of the Catholics of the United Kingdom and was constituted as the nucleus around which the struggle for the Irish identity would be concentrated. Do you remember that the Protestants of England and Ireland would regret in the long term the concessions they made to the Catholics at the end of the 18th century? Well, this is where the Catholic boom begins as a result of those concessions. Let us remember that since the end of the 18th century Catholics had regained the right to vote and, therefore, access to politics. O’Connell’s Catholic Association had spectacular success in recruiting like-minded people. The more people, the more votes for this cause. We must also bear in mind that the Catholic Society had a whole system of dissemination of propaganda composed by the clergy of Ireland (many of its members were priests and even bishops), which favored the dispersion of the cause during ceremonies among all the parishioners who attended them. Thus began a great mobilization of the masses, one of the first in modern history.
Daniel O’Connell had to face various obstacles and clashes. For example, his organization was banned, but in 1826 he was reborn with the same objectives but with a different name: the New Catholic Association. Still, O’Connell’s fortitude and courageous temperament paid off. Thanks to him, Catholics finally gained access to the British Parliament and important political and legislative posts. The turning point came in 1828, when O’Connell’s party won the Clare County elections. Later and once in Parliament, he would approach the Whigs (as the liberal sector of the British Parliament is known) with whom he collaborated until 1841, when the Whigs lost to the Tory (name given to the conservative sector of Parliament) led by Robert Peel.
However, there was one province that resisted the influence of Catholicism and change. The reader will have guessed what it is: Ulster, the province that always seems the last to accept the new paradigms, the only thing that in this case will never accept Catholic Emancipation. Let us remember that the Emerald Isle is currently divided into the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland that belongs to Protestant and Anglican Britain. From this data, the reader will be able to guess what happened to Ulster after rejecting the Catholic revolution: it kept his Protestant confession. Although the Protestants of Ulster had their quarrels and inequalities (remember that the Presbyterians descendants of Scots and the Anglicans of the Church of Ireland descendants of British did not always share objectives), instead they had a feeling in common: the rejection of Catholicism.
Since Daniel O’Connell, who became one of the world’s best-known figures of his time, Ireland has become an exporter of democracy and a certain liberalism and progressive ideas. It should be noted that O’Connell’s influence can be found in the American Democratic Party, in the Labour Party and in trade union movements in Britain and Australia, and so on. And not just in the 19th century. Ireland continues to set an example in the 21st century by becoming in 2015 the first country in the world (we refer to the Republic of Ireland in this case) to legalize homosexual marriage by popular referendum.
The 19th century was synonymous with prosperity and reform for Ireland, especially from 1828 to 1841, a period of political dominance by O’Connell and the Whigs. The educational level of the population increased significantly, as did the number of schools and other educational institutions (a boom in Catholic schools happened thanks to Daniel O’Connell, through which new educational systems were introduced, somewhat different from those professed by Protestant schools), certain tax systems were modified, religious tolerance improved, agricultural trade and exports increased. On the other hand, potato cultivation was introduced during this period. This was very important for Ireland. On a practical level, it allowed the substitution of grain crops and other foods with low nutritional levels for potatoes, as well as the addition of novelties to Irish gastronomy. In addition, the potato can adapt to less fertile soils, so that the regions with poorer soils and, consequently, more prone to hunger, found an unbeatable solution to their impoverished situation. In fact, a significant percentage of the Irish population became exclusively dependent on potatoes as their main food, which also entailed significant risks. All these reforms led to improvements in the population: the diet and health of the poorest improved, infant mortality was reduced, fertility and the birth rate increased and, as an inevitable consequence, the population increased. And we know this for sure because the first population census was carried out in Ireland in 1841. The result: about 8 million people lived on the island at that time. It was the first time and for the moment the last time that so many people would inhabit Ireland because, although the previous censuses were very inaccurate, before 1760 it is estimated that there would be just over 2.5 million people. For the reader to get an idea, Ireland today has a population of just over 4.5 million people. But a series of painful events drastically reduced Irish demographics, as we shall see below. Be that as it may, of those 8 million people, a large majority still had few resources.
In Ulster curious things were still happening with epicentre in Belfast. It seems as if this province has nothing to do with the other three. Perhaps because of its greater proximity to Great Britain, it is in Ulster where the Industrial Revolution penetrated first with all its advances (not in vain, the Industrial Revolution is born in the British metropolis). Ulster, moreover, was not lagging behind the economic and social expansion of the rest of the island. Based in Belfast, the linen industry began to grow and became one of the most profitable industries in Ireland. The increasing need to export these products abroad (especially to meet Britain’s textile needs in wartime) led to the expansion and development of the port of Belfast. For example, the construction of the Victoria Channel was completed around 1849. Moreover, unlike the other provinces, the population of Northern Ireland did not opt exclusively for potato cultivation and maintained a wide diversity of agricultural products. It is important to note that Belfast’s main industrial leaders from that time onwards were Protestants, i.e. more akin to Britain’s confession than to the resurgent Catholicism of the rest of Ireland, which would further strengthen the ties between Ulster and Britain.
Although it seems that the Industrial Revolution only brought benefits, nothing could be further from the truth. The industrial development of Belfast and the promise of better living conditions attracted people from all walks of life, that is, Protestants and Catholics ended up working side by side even though the quarrels were still present. Belfast also became a pilgrimage center for the most extreme or sectarian religious movements. The wars for differences of thought and faith were not long in coming and the riots began. The most important because of the bloodletting they ended up in were those of 1886. To all this must be added a change of meaning in the theology prevailing in the Presbyterian elite of Ulster. Throughout the 19th century the liberal sector of Calvinist Presbyterianism (known as the “New Light”) had dominated, which, in fact, did not feel much rejection of the nationalist and republican movements of the 18th century Society of United Irishmen. However, in 1840 the more conservative sector (known as the “Old Light”) gained greater representation, and with them also came inflexibility against Catholicism. The unstable volcano of theological and community differences erupted again and its effects were to last until very recent times, as we will see below.
Another fundamental sign of the Irish 19th century was the “anglicization” of the island. The Irish or Gaelic language began to seclude in small sectors of the population, in the deepest Ireland. As we have already mentioned in past posts, a little more than a million Irish use Gaelic in the 21st century, although it is still taught in schools to avoid losing it irreversibly. It really was an inevitable consequence, it is what modernisation and globalisation brings with them. From a Darwinian point of view, we could say that only the best adapted languages survive, in this case, those that are most imbricated in the dominant power. That is what happened in Ireland. With its total inclusion in the United Kingdom, it was only a matter of time before the English idiosyncrasy prevailed. All sections of society began to use English as the base language. One of the first was obviously trade. Then education, literature and administration, music, etc. would be influenced. In fact, the parents of modern Ireland, including Daniel O’Connell, mastered Gaelic, but eventually abandoned it and opted for English for practical reasons: in this way, they reached more people. They could have extolled the native language of Ireland as an identity symbol of Irish culture, but their main tool was politics, tradition was considered a secondary means with which to achieve their interests.
O’Connell’s decline began in 1841 with the arrival in Parliament of the Tory, the conservative sector. Since then, O’Connell, who had already achieved Catholic Emancipation, concentrated his efforts on another great and difficult goal: to dismantle the Act of Union of 1801. However, he failed in his attempt. Although he employed the same techniques as during Emancipation, the Catholic elite did not show as much interest in this new struggle and did not get enough support to bring about any kind of change. On the other hand, in 1845 came the nefarious Great Famine of Ireland, which we will discuss in more detail in the following article, which drowned the Emerald Isle in misery and death. To make a brief introduction to the magnitude of the Great Famine, we will only say that the population of Ireland lost 1.5 million souls (20% of the population): it is estimated that about one million died from hunger and disease and the rest were forced to emigrate. From then until the second half of the 20th century, emigration became a fundamental feature of Ireland’s history. In addition, during his later years, O’Connell had to deal with a small organization known as Young Ireland. This small group, led by young bourgeois, coincided to some extent with O’Connell’s philosophy and aspirations, yet these individuals advocated a nationalism based on ancestral tradition and cultural elements, leaving politics in second place, just the opposite of O’Connell. They sought the implementation and recovery of Irish ethnic and tribal traits, including the language of their ancestors. They were the introducers, for example, of the tricolour flag of the future Republic of Ireland, based on the tricolor flag of the French Revolution.
The road to independence
The Great Famine had decisive social consequences, and not only because of the great loss of population. In the following article we will detail the causes of the Great Famine, a situation that could have been avoided or, at the very least, diminished if the administrations had taken better decisions. But if the Great Famine was important, it is because it stoked the embers of nationalism and anglophobia. The union of Ireland and England was supposed to have resulted in an improvement in the lives of the Irish and a greater appreciation on the part of the British hierarchy. However, the opposite was true. England had left Ireland to die, treating it more as a colony with no future prospects than as an integrated, equivalent part. Therefore, the rejection of the Act of Union of 1801 and anglophobia was gradually radicalised among some nationalist sectors. This led to a series of uprisings and armed clashes between, fundamentally, the Young Irelanders, members of Young Ireland, and the British authorities in Ireland. One of the most important was the Ballingarry uprising, led by William Smith O’Brien. Even so, the rebellions were appeased, but in general most of them ended up becoming new elements of Irish nationalist mythology and motivation for future reactionaries. It should be noted that those who came out favored or more or less unscathed from the Great Famine were the lieutenants and the upper-middle class, who maintained their social positions and possessions to a greater or lesser extent.
Although the Young Irelanders uprisings did not achieve anything in the short term and were practically dismantled by the authorities, some groups managed to survive. They were the ones who would write many of the events of the 19th and 20th centuries in Ireland. In 1858 the Fenian Brotherhood or Irish Republican Brotherhood is founded practically at the same time in Ireland and New York. Its name already indicates us which are its sources of inspiration, since “fenian” refers to the Fianna, the mythical band of warriors led by the legendary Fionn mac Cumhaill. Fenians were constituted as a radical reactionary secret organisation that supported the use of arms and violence to achieve their objectives, i.e. confrontation and subversion against the British Empire and its expulsion from Ireland to proclaim an independent republic. Its structure resembled that of the military establishment. Fenians would eventually make history, as many of their members would end up being the leaders of the main Republican political parties and even presidents of the Republic. Obviously, their ideology was republican and nationalist, so their main objectives were everything that endorsed the Union of 1801. His actions led to a series of violent clashes with the British authorities. Possibly, their best-known vindication was the Clerkenwell bomb, an act that can only be branded as terrorist and that is very reminiscent of those perpetrated centuries later by the supporters of the IRA. In November 1867, Fenian leader Richard O’Sullivan Burke was arrested in England on charges of promoting several reactionary acts. He was imprisoned in the Clerkenwell prison. A Fenian cell devised a plan to get him out of there in a very unsubtle way: by placing a barrel of dynamite in front of the prison wall overlooking Burke’s cell. The explosion wreaked havoc on the neighborhood: 17 people perished and 120 were injured. The attack was worthless because Burke had been transferred to another part of the prison. This shocked English society and, although it is true that the Fenians did not achieve their main objective, they did succeed in getting the British Prime Minister, William Ewart Gladstone, to promote a series of legislative reforms to bring Ireland closer to England in the context of the Union in order to appease the Fenians and thus avoid future massacres. Among other things, the recognition of the Church of Ireland as Ireland’s exclusive religious institution was withdrawn.
The anglophobic environment was already dense in the second half of the 19th century, as well as serving as a breeding ground for new reactionary political formations. The most important was undoubtedly the Home Government Association, moderately chaired by lawyer Isaac Butt. However, he was soon replaced by Charles Stewart Parnell, a member of the British Parliament and a more aggressive leader than Butt. This organisation, like its predecessors, pursued national sovereignty through various social reforms, including the restoration of the authority and decision-making power of the Irish Parliament. In other words, they wanted to rescind the Union of 1801. Another was the modification of land ownership laws, which had remained unchanged for many decades (since the colonization of Cromwell in the 17th century). We must remember that land was not only a good to be exploited, but also a symbol for the Irish. Somehow, the system of land distribution in Ireland was considered an affront by the nationalist Irish and an unjust imposition of an illegitimate and unjust government. Broadly speaking, the land belonged to a very small number of powerful landowners, yet it was worked by tenant farmers. This relationship was negative for the farmers, and even more so after the Great Famine: the tenant farmers were exploited and received little profit. The fact is that an evident discontent was generated in this sector of the population that was taken advantage of first by the nationalists and later by the English government. Another tension, to which should be added that of the Catholics, the Fenians, etc. Thus, anglophobia progressively increased and created the ideal context for future events. The authority of the British and Protestants in Ireland was being increasingly challenged (the best example is that of the Fenians and all the bombings they carried out during this period). It is curious that such disparate social classes ended up uniting in what would ultimately be the Irish National League, the first political party with a nationalist ideology. Its first leader was Parnell, of Protestant confession and who, surprisingly, won the support of the Catholics. This newborn political party was also supported by the Fenians, considered by Catholics as a secret organization suspected of secularism.
Faced with the rise of the nationalists, that won 86 seats in the House of Commons in the 1885 elections, the Ulster Protestants stood in the way. In a way, this ancestral struggle between confessions resurfaced and the profiles and objectives defended by each one were defined. Those who rejected the Union tended to feel more affinity for Catholicism and those who defended it were more affinity for Protestantism. In that context, Parnell tried to introduce a statute for approval in Parliament now that he seemed to have several allies in his favour. It is known as the Home Rule and basically gave Ireland some autonomy even if it continued under the auspices of Britain. It was proposed in 1886 but rejected by the House of Commons. This was celebrated by Ulster Protestants. In fact, the latter were willing to go to the last consequences to ensure that both this and the three Home Rules that would be proposed years later did not come to an end (in 1914, when the nationalists almost got the third Home Rule proposed to be implemented in Ireland, the Ulster Volunteer Force was created, a local militia that created riots to show its rejection of nationalist status. Unfortunately, another major conflict cancelled the bureaucratic process: the Great War).
The rise of Irish nationalists and the accumulation of support from different social sectors were fundamentally due to a factor to which we have already referred: the Industrial Revolution and the incipient globalisation within the island. With the railways, Ireland was interconnected. This interconnection happened at all levels, including information. It is precisely in the middle of the 19th century when the main Irish newspapers manage to reach almost every corner of the island. Considering that the media are a very effective propaganda transmission mechanism, the rest is history. Nationalist newspapers displayed the virtues of Irish nationalism, and this, as we have just seen, had its effect. So did the Unionist newspapers with the Union of 1801. As a result, the different political blocs were consolidated and constituted as enduring collectives which, in fact, still persist. Of course, the expansion of the education system, which reduced the number of illiterate people, played a fundamental role in all this. Even so, there were still a few decades left for Irish nationalism to finally achieve its desired goal.
At last! Independence comes true
Parnell’s death brought with it a curious phenomenon: the birth of organisations similar to Young Ireland and the Fenians in the 1890s and early 20th century, that is to say, collectives that, more than in politics, underpinned their anglophobic reformist yearnings in tradition. The most important was the Gaelic League. All these organisations agree on the claim to Gaelic symbols and tradition. They were clear anti-modernist and romantic movements that tried to break with that unstoppable technological and urban revolution, as they considered it a corrupt offshoot of the also corrupt English empire. Many playwrights and writers were part of these movements, such as William Butler Yeats or George William Russell. They helped the “gaelicization” of Ireland to take shape, calling for the revitalization of the Gaelic language and the recovery of traditions and ancestral folklore. Curiously enough, Parnell was blamed for having buried this sentiment for the sake of politics. As with the Young Irelanders, they considered politics to be an antithesis of culture, although they obviously had an interest in it and were aware that they would have to use it to achieve their goals. They saw politics as a utilitarian, materialistic and rationalist tool that opposed and tried to swallow or mask impetuous, visceral, romantic and symbolic traditionalism. A few paragraphs back we detailed how Irish political leaders put politics before culture while in Europe, in general, the opposite was true. Well, the 1890s was an exception to this rule. To a certain extent, these organizations had points in common with other traditionalist movements, such as Nazism or the philosophies advocated by René Guénon, Mircea Eliade, Carl Gustav Jung, etc., who, to a greater or lesser extent, rejected the modern world in search of a return to the roots and a mythical and utopian past. Although the creation of a cultural sustenance to justify a particular political cause was not a novelty in Ireland, it is true that it was this manifestation of the late nineteenth century that definitively integrated symbol and folklore into Irish nationalism and republicanism. Do you remember when we said that in Ireland there is an interest in preserving the Gaelic language through even the education system? Well, you can get an idea of where and when this motivation arises. However, the reader should not think that these claims were restricted to the 19th century. Even in the mid-twentieth century President or Taoiseach Éamon de Valera continued to support these initiatives (in fact, the coining of Gaelic terms for political office is owed to de Valera, who introduced them along with the 1937 constitution). More important, however, in maintaining tradition was the collective self-image that had been forged by much of the Irish people.
The recovery of Ireland’s primary language was yet another facet of the interest in resurrecting ancient Celtic-rooted Irish traditions. This is perfectly exemplified by Ireland’s industrial situation in the twentieth century, which was still very poor and underdeveloped, since all industrial and technological innovations were linked to modernism and this in turn was linked to the undesirable British Empire. As a result, Irish leaders supported work more closely related to that of the ancestral tribes. Thus, until very recently, Ireland was still a country that depended heavily on the agricultural sector, whose productivity could do nothing against that of an industrialized economy. Somehow, Ireland again became an anomaly within the new world. This cost the Republic dearly, because it did not manage to jump on the bandwagon of the economic boom of the 1950s experienced by the capitalist world, becoming one of the most backward economies in the Western world until at least the 1960s, a decade in which a major generational change occurred that was more willing to embrace openness and internationalization.
In April 1916, some of these traditionalist organizations, headed by the Irish Republican Brotherhood or Fenians, secretly devised an uprising to proclaim the Irish Republic. Within this group we could highlight the Irish Citizen Army, a nationalist militia that was instituted to protect the trade unionists of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union (ITGWU) which, as we mentioned in the previous post, was led by James Larkin. This union played a leading role in the Dublin Lockout of 1913 in which 20000 workers clashed with 300 employers. It was one of the largest worker mobilisations in history and it was predictable that it would take place in Ireland, one of the countries with the worst working conditions in the Western world. This mobilization was strongly repressed by the Dublin Metropolitan Police. The Irish Citizen Army was formed to help the workers.
Returning to 1916, 150 revolutionaries took over the centre of Dublin, sheltering in the city’s General Post Office, from where they manifested their republican proclamations. Also, six garrisons of rebels were stationed in different parts of the city center to protect their leaders from the authorities who were about to arrive. The scuffle was intense and there were several casualties on both sides, although those of the Republican side were mainly due to subsequent executions. Republicans and nationalists lost another battle… but not the war. Those who fell on that ill-fated day enlarged the list of martyrs of the nationalist cause and strengthened the motivation of their compatriots.
This episode, known as the Easter Rising of 1916, ushered in a turning point that would change the history of Ireland forever. There were fundamental political changes. The party that had previously led the nationalist cause fell into disgrace in the 1918 general election, ceding power to the Sinn Féin (“we” or “ourselves” in Irish), a party created by Arthur Griffith in 1905 after Parnell’s death and reconstituted in 1917. Its name is reminiscent of that of the Fenians. Possibly they are related in their most basic lines of thought, which would not be rare, since Arthur Griffith was part of this secret organization.
In 1919 would occur the episode that would give rise to the so longed for centuries Irish Republic: the Irish War of Independence (1919-1921). Don’t think that this was the classic war between well-organized and formed armies. During these years there was a guerrilla war full of traps and atrocities caused by both sides: on the one hand the Irish Republican Army, better known as IRA, the future official army of the Republic of Ireland, and the British authorities of Ireland. Let us pause at this point briefly to avoid future confusion. Throughout the twentieth century several paramilitary groups arose under the name of IRA. However, the original Irish Republican Army is that led the Irish War of Independence, which was born out of another paramilitary group, the Irish Volunteers, who were formed in 1913 to look after the interests of the Irish nationalists and to ensure (even though they failed to do so) that the 1914 Home Rule was established, and the same that will form the armed forces of the Republic of Ireland. This IRA functioned as the armed wing of Arthur Griffith’s party. From this organization, or taking it as a source of influence, several homonymous groups would be formed, among them the best known today, the Provisional IRA, that is, the terrorist group that committed unforgivable and violent acts that claimed various victims from the 60s to the 90s in Northern Ireland and that ceased its armed struggle in 2005. While the Original IRA eventually became the protector of the people, its successors chose the path of terrorism. Diverse divisions and internal ruptures would give rise to many other armed groups that would coin the same self-designation. The curious thing is that the different branches delegitimized each other and argued for their authenticity. Although it is said that many of these branches of the IRA have ceased their activity, the truth is that they have done so relatively. Some cells are still active, such as the 2012 IRA or New IRA, which emerged in 2012 with the alleged aim of fighting drug trafficking and the peace process in Northern Ireland and which brings together members and resources of the other past organisations. Even so, there is one point they all have in common: the desire to unify all of Ireland without exception (and that includes Northern Ireland) under the umbrella of the republic and nationalism, of course, using force if necessary or even if it is not.
As we were saying, atrocities, murders, kidnappings and massacres were frequent during these years. Every time one side committed an outrage, the other side retaliated with greater intensity. This war was the predictable deflagration of so many emotions repressed and contained for centuries. No collective was spared from the conflict: farmers, Protestants, Catholics, policemen, businessmen, poor citizens… all suffered the hardships of the conflict. Taking advantage of the heat of war, Sinn Féin took the opportunity to establish Ireland’s first sovereign civil institutions, among them the Dáil Éireann or Assembly of Ireland, which still functions today and is the one that appoints the Taoiseach or President of the Republic; alternative tribunals to the British, finance departments, etc. As the reader will have noticed, some of these institutions retain their Gaelic name. In other words, that folkloric-traditionalist-mystical-mythical objective pursued by various Irish nationalist organizations, both secret and not for centuries, has finally managed to introduce between the whole rationalist and positivist amalgam that usually governs politics.
Throughout the conflict there were several famous episodes. In the first part of this series of articles, we talked about one of them: Bloody Sunday on November 21, 1920, which clearly represents that escalation of violence that was constantly fed back. However, the most notable event was the partition of Ireland. As has happened repeatedly throughout the history of the island, Ulster did not tolerate political and administrative change.
In 1920, the Home Rule was finally introduced, the fourth and the first to be successfully completed under the name of Government of Ireland Act. This statute, which finally gave Ireland significant autonomy, led to the creation of two parliaments: one for the six Protestant counties of Ulster and one for the rest of Ireland. Thus the present Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland were born. In December 1922 the Irish Free State was proclaimed, a nation partially independent of Great Britain. In October of the same year the Constitution of the new state was approved and in December it began to function. Indeed, it was not until 1949 that Southern Ireland was constituted as a Republic. Until then, a Provisional Government functioned in this region within a constitutional monarchy that still adhered to the British Empire. It was not until 1949 that Ireland finally became a completely independent and self-governing Republic. In 1922 national symbols were minted, including the tricolour flag introduced seven decades earlier by the Young Ireland. Thus, in 1922 the south of the island belonged to the Republic of Ireland, which was largely Catholic, and the north to Northern Ireland, an autonomous province of Great Britain with a majority Protestant confession (approximately 2/3 of the population). That is to say, Catholics had returned to governing much of Ireland after an extended period of time and difficulties… except in Ulster, where precisely the fear that republicanism and nationalism would also spread throughout this province caused Catholics to be repressed in various ways, for example by preventing them from gaining access to high positions within the Northern Ireland administration or by favoring employment for Protestants and loyalists to the detriment of Catholics. It seems as if the Penal Laws were re-emerging.
Northern Ireland remained politically unchanged from the 1920s to the 1960s. Although it had to go through a number of economic problems (as did the rest of the island) and withstand the occasional bombing by the German Luftwaffe during World War II, Northern Ireland was able to keep a stiff upper lip.
The 1960s was a period of fundamental change for the whole of Ireland. As we have already outlined, the new generations put aside the conservatism defended by the leaders of the 1920s revolution and embraced openness to the modern world. This was reflected in major changes in education, economy and industry. Foreign and international elements such as television, supermarkets or free trade entered the island during this decade, opening the door to external influences. Another clear example of this change in mentality is that in 1973 Ireland became a member of the European Union. Indeed, all these changes brought benefits to Ireland. Its economy and exports grew, it underwent significant industrial development and emigration was virtually halted by increased wealth. Dependence on the rural world was therefore reduced. In the case of education, it was in this decade that the first educational centres financed directly by the State were inaugurated (until then education was denominational and firmly directed by the Catholic Church).
But what happened in Northern Ireland in the 1960s? Since the division of Ireland, the Catholic-nationalist minority in Northern Ireland had been cut off from society. Even in certain villages this section of the population was practically isolated in ghettos. Access to certain jobs was very restricted for them and their political representation was anecdotal. The Protestant-Unionist parties maintained this situation through gerrymandering. On the other hand, a criminal procedure was activated whereby anyone could be imprisoned without a trial. Obviously, many people suspected of being related to the independence of Ireland ended up suffering this situation, among them, many important members of the main nationalist parties. This was really another way of deflating the power and influence of nationalists and Catholics in Northern Ireland politics. So, in January 1967, the NICRA (the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association) was formed, seeking social equality for the Catholics. The NICRA called several demonstrations and some of them tried to be cancelled by the administration. However, NICRA resisted and disobeyed those orders. Thus began the social unrest that would last for too long. Unionists went out to meet the Republicans. Northern Ireland’s security forces marched to placate the riots, although they were criticised for being impassive to the Unionists’ provocations. The violent sects of the different sides once again made their presence felt and the violence escalated. The final trigger occurred in August 1969 in Bogside, a nationalist and Catholic ghetto in Derry County. Dozens of Catholics from this area clashed with police and Unionists for three days that seemed endless. Finally, the British army had to intervene to defuse the situation. There were several deaths, including two children. Northern Ireland thus became an anarchic region through passivity and sometimes provocation by the ruling elite and certain speakers, such as the Reverend Ian Paisley, founder of the Democratic Unionist Party and a great enemy of Republican politics.
The army of the Republic of Ireland, the IRA, was criticized for not intervening to protect Catholics. There began to appear painted on the walls mocking the IRA under the slogan “IRA: I Ran Away”. This unstable situation led to the birth of the Official IRA and the Provisional IRA, the most extreme branches of Irish republicanism. From then on, a period of turbulence and extreme violence began in Northern Ireland (although it would also spread through the Irish Republic and England) known as “The Troubles,” which would last until the 1990s, when the opposing ideological parties of Northern Ireland and the government of the Republic of Ireland and England would finally come to their senses and opt for diplomacy and compromise.
This period was completely shameful and tragic, something that should have been avoided at all costs. Thousands of people died, many of them completely innocent. Violence and sectarianism understood neither age nor gender. Children, men, women and the elderly all suffered equally from the folly of that time, a period engraved in the minds of many people and whose reminiscences continue to this day, unfortunately.
1972 was probably the worst year. 470 people died and there were 2000 bombings, not counting the thousands of wounded and the dozens of people who lost their homes and belongings. We must not think that either side was better than his nemesis. Both loyalists and republicans, both represented by ignominious paramilitary and sectarian groups, committed atrocities of all kinds. Kidnappings, sabotage, burning of properties, attacks and persecutions were frequent activities by both and have even reached the twenty-first century, although with less intensity. It should be noted that the Provisional IRA did not play much of a role in the early years. They barely had the troops and means for armed struggle. However, this changed from Sunday 30 January 1972. On that fateful day, a demonstration in Derry attended by 10000 people was violently placated by the British army, but not in an ordinary way. On that day the Parachute Regiment of the British army came. This military force had been trained to shoot first and ask questions later, and that’s what they did. This day ended up being known as Bloody Sunday, you can imagine why… This was the turning point that would lead to the recruitment of numerous volunteers to the ranks of the various IRAs. And so began the armed war and the attacks of the IRA, which not only affected the authorities related to the Union and Great Britain, but also, as we say, innocent people. After Bloody Sunday, the IRA executed the Bloody Friday on July 21, 1972, when they blew up 26 bombs in downtown Belfast, killing 11 people and injuring 130. We take this case as an example because it represents very well how this period occurred: it was a constant escalation of violence in which one side responded to its enemy with more cruelty. One thing that our guide told us during our stay in Belfast and that had a great impact on us were the coercive and criminal tactics that were used during The Troubles. People were randomly kidnapped and dumped in armoured vans. Once locked up, they were forced to count to ten. If the kidnappers noticed a suspicious accent, they shot them and left the bodies on the streets in plain sight as exemplary punishment.
This guerrilla war or ethnic war, an unparalleled absurdity that left a trail of thousands dead, ceased relatively in 1998 when the Belfast Agreement was signed, in which almost all the parties of different sign agreed to end the conflict and disarm the paramilitary groups. And we highlight “relatively” because not all the paramilitary groups were disarmed. The Provisional IRA, for example, ceased its criminal activities in 2005, when it destroyed most of its arsenal, although it was in 2008 when the Republican army definitively confirmed in a report that the organization had been completely dismantled and lacked an organized leadership, that is, the Provisional IRA was already harmless… relatively. Because during those years other dissident branches of the IRA emerged (and continued beyond the Provisional IRA).
This great summary of the history of Ireland was intended to get to this point, because we wanted to relate it to the history of the places we visited in Belfast. Although officially the period of The Troubles ended in the late 1990s, the provocations and hatred have not ended in Northern Ireland. And testimonies of this can be found in 2019. There are still neighbourhoods full of security cameras and even houses protected by high walls with barbed wire. A number of richly coloured murals that have become an inherent tourist element in Belfast allude to the confessional and ethnic resentment still held by different groups. The different idiosyncrasies continue to be incompatible, to such an extent that each neighborhood plays its own sports without sharing them with the opposite side. The tricolour flag of the Republic of Ireland and the British flag delimit the neighbourhoods and are often used to provoke the opposite side. Worst of all, dissident groups from the IRA are still committing outrages directed mainly at the British authorities and attacking the “State of Peace” in Northern Ireland. Car bombs and shootings are still a reality in this part of the developed world. One of the last was in June of this year, when members of the so-called New IRA claimed responsibility for the bomb that blew up a police car in Belfast. Will this irrational situation of animosity ever end? The past quarrels have resisted, there have been many confrontations and many emotions accumulated practically since Celtic times. Wishes and yearnings confronted and sabotaged each other. Leaving the history of quarrels and confrontations in the past and aspiring to a more noble and collaborative future does not seem like something immediate.
Visit to Belfast
The name of Belfast derives from a Gaelic term that refers to its situation at the mouth of the river Lagan. Belfast has been inhabited since ancient times. The oldest archaeological records take us back to the Copper Age. For example, near the city is a megalithic monument known as the Giant’s Ring dating from 5000 BC. However, its origin as a city can be placed in 1613. Its foundation is closely related to the Plantation of Ulster after the Flight of the Earls. Many British and Scottish settlers settled in Belfast which, since then, began to become one of the busiest centres in Northern Ireland, thus predisposing it to be a great city. The future industrialization that would suffer with the Industrial Revolution made it one of the most developed places in Northern Ireland and the capital of this region.
Unfortunately, our stay in Belfast was very short. However, we made the most of it and here is the result. Below is a list of the places we visited that fueled our desire to return someday:
Cavehill. It is a basalt hill that governs Belfast from the heights. It is perforated by three large caves and is believed to have served as inspiration for the author of Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift, who imagined the rocky mass as a sleeping giant protecting the city (and who, as a curiosity, rests in Dublin’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral, although this is a subject for the next post). Its top is crowned by a typical circular fort called “ráth”, such as those found all over Ireland: McArt’s Fort. In addition, the place is famous for the paranormal activity that was recorded at the beginning of the last century. According to some stories, it was common to hear crying in the Cavehill forests at midnight. They seemed to come from the ghost of a man wandering among the trees. The most resounding sighting of the presumed spectrum occurred in 1915 by a couple as they quietly strolled through Cavehill. The encounter resulted in a hasty escape and the accidental fall of the witness, who had to be treated for the deep cuts and wounds that had occurred. The spectrum was sighted on several more occasions during the coming years until in 1922 another couple ran into the skull of a person in the forest, Police inquiries led to the location of the rest of the skeleton and the identification of the body. Its owner was John Scott, who disappeared a few years before in these woods, where he secretly went to take his own life. The body was given a dignified burial and it seems that his spirit was finally able to rest in peace, because the strange phenomenology ceased from then on.
Europa Hotel. At first glance, this building looks like a hotel like any other, but we could describe it as a cursed building. In fact, it is almost a miracle that it can still be seen standing, as its foundations have wanted to give up on several occasions. The Europa Hotel in Belfast beat the tragic record of being the most bombed hotel in the world: 33 explosions took place in its interior or near between 1971, when it opened its doors, and 1994, 20 of them during the first three years of the hotel’s existence. This period of time may sound familiar to the reader because, indeed, it is when the Provisional IRA reached its peak of violence. Among other reasons, the IRA chose the Europa Hotel for its visibility and for having become a symbol for Belfast as the first international hotel in Northern Ireland. Fortunately and miraculously, no one died in spite of so much attack. We imagined that the employees of the hotel, who were not to blame for the political conflicts, must be in a constant state of nerves, with the uncertainty of whether they would reach the safety of their homes in one piece at the end of the day. Such was the insecurity during those decades that the doors of the rooms were welcomed with a small sign in which the guest was urged to be prepared at all times in case he had to evacuate. The most reassuring thing that could happen was to receive bomb alerts (between 1991 and 1993 there were about 250 alerts). During those years, the hotel became a swarm of journalists, who chose the hotel because of its proximity to the political conflict that was decimating Belfast, so today we have a multitude of first-hand accounts of what was happening within the walls of the Europa Hotel. In 1993 it suffered the most serious attack, that almost knocked down the entire building. There was a period when the building was popularly known as the “fibreboard hotel” because the glass windows, constantly shattered by bombs, were replaced by more resistant high-density fibreboards. Today the building stands as a symbol of resilience in the face of folly and gratuitous violence and as a tragic reminder of things that should never be repeated again.
The Titanic Museum. One of the most visited tourist attractions in the capital of Northern Ireland is this museum, the Titanic Belfast, which commemorates the history of one of the greatest engineering works of the twentieth century. It is situated adjacent to the Harland and Wolff shipyards, where the RMS Titanic and its transatlantic brothers, the RMS Olympic and the HMHS Britannic were built. These shipyards saw the light in 1858, coinciding with the rise of the Industrial Revolution in Ulster, and would mark a turning point in Belfast, which would become an authentic and prosperous port city. Eleven years later, Gustav Schwabe, cousin of one of the owners of the Harland and Wolff shipyards, founded the White Star Line, the famous shipping company, the author of the trilogy of transatlantics mentioned above. The two titanic cranes, Samson and Goliath, witnessed firsthand the birth of those three ocean giants. It is no coincidence that Belfast was the epicentre of the birth of the great ships of history. As its name indicates, Belfast is located at the mouth of a river, an ideal place for the shipbuilding industry. Be that as it may, Titanic Belfast and its surroundings are an essential visit for those who want to know in depth the history of the most famous ship in the world.
The Game of Thrones’ studies. Practically next to the Titanic Belfast and northeast direction by Queens Road we arrived at the Titanic Studios, where numerous scenes of, fundamentally, the first four seasons of the HBO series were recorded.
The Big Fish. This is a sculpture about 10 meters long consisting of numerous painted ceramic tiles and manufactured by John Kindness in 1999 as a commemoration of the Lagan River regeneration program. It is located in Donegall Quay. It is necessary to get a little closer to observe that each tile contains a character or episode drawn from the history of Belfast. And as with the rest of the island, Belfast is no stranger to the legends that populate Ireland. In fact, the Big Fish is given a different name. Have you guessed? Indeed, they also call it the Salmon of Knowledge.
Albert Memorial Clock. No, although in the photograph it may seem that we are in London, it is not so. This tower is a miniature Big Ben, in fact it is popularly known as such, although its original name is Albert Memorial Clock. It is so named because it was erected in memory of Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s husband, who died in 1861, and is a symbol of loyalty to the Union and the British crown. The architect was William Joseph Barre, who in 1865 won a public competition. Although he did so narrowly, as there was a scandal with the money that was going to finance the project. Instead of Barre, the money went to the company Lanyon, Lynn and Lanyon, which had won second place. However, popular pressure made Barre to be considered the legitimate winner. Construction was completed in 1869. It reaches an altitude of 34 metres and the ashlars are made of sandstone. Its high altitude makes it one of the most conspicuous monuments in Belfast, an outstanding meeting point for tourists and citizens. On the west side of the tower we find a statue of the Prince Consort. It is often compared to the Leaning Tower of Pisa because it has an inclination of about 30 cm because, at first, it was raised on an unstable and swampy ground.
Belfast City Hall. From 1888 it became necessary the presence of an administrative building in Belfast that reflected the new state of Belfast, because that year Queen Victoria granted it the title of city. It was inaugurated in 1906 and the design was in charge of Alfred Brumwell Thomas, one of the exponents of the Neo-Baroque or Baroque Revival style. Precisely, the Belfast City Hall building is often used as an example of this architectural style, although more specifically it belongs to the variant known as Edwardian Baroque, an architectural current widely used by the British Empire in its public buildings during the time of Edward VII (1901-1910). An interesting fact is the close relationship between this city hall and the Titanic. Firstly because William Pirrie, viscount and ultimately Lord Mayor of Belfast between 1896 and 1897, was also managing director of the Harland and Wolff shipyards. On the other hand, the interiors of the city hall have a reasonable resemblance with the finishes of the cabins of the Titanic, not in vain Pirrie was in charge of the conditioning of the city hall.
It is worth mentioning the coat of arms of the city, conceived in 1890 (although some symbols were already present in the seal of the city in 1640), for the curious symbolism it presents. Its blazoning indicates the following:
“Party per fesse argent and azure, in chief a pile vair and on a canton gules a bell argent, in base a ship with sails set argent on waves of the sea proper. On a wreath of the colours, a sea-horse gorged with a mural crown proper. Dexter, a wolf proper, ducally gorged and chained or; sinister, a sea-horse gorged with a mural crown proper. Motto: “Pro tanto quid retribuamus”.
Both the vair and the supporting wolf come from the arms of Sir Arthur Chichester (1563-1625), founder of Belfast and an important figure in the province of Ulster. Other figures, such as the ship, the bell or the seahorses, refer to the great link that Belfast has always had as a port city with the sea. The motto, a biblical paraphrase, means “What return shall we make for so much?”
St. Anne’s Cathedral. Also known as Belfast Cathedral, this grandiose cruciform temple was built over the St. Anne’s Church in 1776, both consecrated to the mother of the Virgin Mary. In Romanesque style, its foundation stone was laid on 6 September 1899 and its last element would be installed in 2007: a stainless steel spiral at the top of the building known as “the Spire of Hope”. It is the only cathedral that serves two different dioceses, the Anglican and the Catholic. Inside it houses, among other things, a precious mortuary cloth lined with Irish linen that commemorates the victims of the Titanic, a brief organ and a single tomb, unlike most cathedrals. In it is buried Lord Edward Carson, lawyer and charismatic leader of the Unionist cause in Ulster. He is one of the few people who has received a state funeral without being a monarch.
If the traveller carefully scrutinizes the exterior of the cathedral, in one of the corners he will see a commemorative plaque that redirects him or her to a beautiful local tradition of solidarity. It is known as “Black Santa tradition” and, as the plaque tells us, was inaugurated by dean Samuel Bennett Crooks in 1976, when violence was at its height in Northern Ireland. Crooks became a small ray of hope and solidarity between so much blood and idiocy. From 1976 to 1985, this man sat on the steps that welcomed the cathedral the days before Christmas to ask for money for charity. To resist the indomitable Irish cold, the dean wrapped himself in black garments, and from here came his nickname as Black Santa. The proceeds are donated either to local charities or to finance the restoration of the cathedral. Fortunately, this tradition continues today. Each December, the dean in charge prepares to wait on the steps of the cathedral for the arrival of the charitable souls as he faces the freezing winter cold.
Freemason’s Hall. As we strolled through Arthur Square, in the heart of Belfast, a building caught our attention. Well, more than the building, the symbols that adorned its façade: a pentacular star, a lamp, a chalice… Until we approached the access door and saw the symbol that revealed what it was: a compass and a square intertwined. Indeed, we were in front of the Masonic lodge of Belfast, which has also been the headquarters of the Donegall Masonic Club since 1878. Its functions are to promote recreational activities for its members and guests and charitable works. Among its members are important personalities both from Belfast and from all over Ireland, such as Sir Robert Baird, director for decades of the Belfast Telegraph; George Hamilton, third Marquess of Donegall; Augustus Frederick, third Duke of Leinster; James H. Stirling, president of the Chamber of Commerce and member of the Senate, etc.
And this is as far as we can go. Obviously we had a lot to discover and visit, but we already have the perfect excuse to return there and imbibe ourselves with its magic again. And of course, the reader will always be invited to travel and marvel at us.
We also invite you to get to know Dún Laoghaire at the following link:
And if you want to see more wonderful places in Northern Ireland, visit the second part of this series of posts:
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