Short History of Ireland in the 17th Century

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In the Gaelic system which our early ancestors lived under from the earliest times, almost all were farmers/herders and as such had the right of common ownership of the soil. Their landlord was a chief or king elected by them. This was true from the earliest times until the twelfth century when Dermot MacMurrough invited Norman mercenaries to Ireland to help him with his local problems. From then on, things began to change. The newly arrived Normans seized large tracts of land from Irish chiefs they defeated in battle. Every time the Irish people revolted, and they did with habitual regularity, English soldiers were sent in to put down the rebellion. After the Irish were successfully subdued, the conquering soldiers were rewarded by grants of land--taken, of course, from the rebel Irish. By 1640, 35% of all the tillable land in Ireland was owned by invaders or English soldiers/settlers.

Throughout the fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries there were numerous small uprisings by the native Irish, but in 1641 they mounted a nationwide war. Known as the "Great Rebellion" it dragged on for eleven years and caused wholesale death and destruction throughout the whole island. Finally, Oliver Cromwell came to Ireland to put this rebellion down "once and for all." He proceeded by marching on every Irish city, slaughtering any and all that resisted him. Typical was his march on Drogheda. When his army entered the town, in addition to the defending soldiers, there were also 3000 unarmed civilians there. Cromwell's soldiers began killing everyone in sight, and when the slaughter was over, only thirty Irish people remained.

When the war ended in 1652, one third of the Irish Catholic population had been killed and additional thousands had been transported to the West Indies to work as slaves. Cromwell's soldiers were granted generous grants of land as a result of their "excellent effort." To make room for his soldiers, Cromwell issued his famous order, "to hell or Connaught"--either move to the barren lands of western Ireland or be killed. By 1655, land owned by non-Irish had increased to 75%. In spite of all this, it was said, "an Irish nation still existed--separate, numerous, and hostile."

Because of the savagery with which this rebellion had been put down, the English authorities believed that Irish rebellions were a thing of the past. They soon found out that they were wrong. New trouble started in 1685 when Charles II, King of England, died and was succeeded by James II, a Catholic. The native Irish, almost 100% Catholic, rejoiced at this turn of events as they believed King James would restore their lands to them. They therefore gave him their wholehearted support. The powerful nobles in England, who were predominantly Protestant, were not about to lose their power without a fight so they invited William of Orange to come to England to be their king. He happily accepted their offer.

In 1688 William defeated James, who promptly fled to France to set up plans for regaining his throne. His strategy was to first gain a beach-head in Ireland where he knew he had overwhelming support. He landed in Ireland in 1689 and won a quick series of battles. Shortly after, William and his army landed in Ireland and on July 1, 1690 they defeated James in the famous Battle of the Boyne.

Although the English had again been victorious over the Irish, they felt that something drastic had to be done so that they never again would be faced with a threat of a Catholic army on the island so close to them. The English government therefore enacted a series of laws whose aim was to reduce Irish Catholics to "insignificant status, fit for nothing but to hew wood and draw water." Called the PENAL LAWS, Irishmen were forbidden the following rights:

One of the most hated provisions of these laws was the one that obligated all Catholics (but not Protestants) to tithe the Church of England. Since Ireland was more than 95% Catholic, the Protestant ministers received their income from people who never came to their church. As a result of this forced giving, the annual income of a minister in Ireland was usually three times that of one in England. The irony of this law is that the names of all the heads of households that paid their tithes were dutifully recorded and today these lists have proven to be an excellent source of genealogical information for people tracing their Irish roots.

Short History of Ireland in the 18th Century



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