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The Celts, Iron Age warriors from eastern Europe, reached Ireland around 300 BC. They controlled the country for 1000 years and left a legacy of language and culture that survives today, especially in Galway, Cork, Kerry and Waterford. The Romans never reached Ireland, and when the rest of Europe sank into the decline of the Dark Ages after the fall of the empire, the country became an outpost of European civilisation, particularly after the arrival of Christianity, between the 3rd and 5th centuries.

During the 8th century Viking raiders began to plunder Ireland's monasteries. The Vikings settled in Ireland in the 9th century, and formed alliances with native families and chieftains. They founded Dublin, which in the 10th century was a small Viking kingdom. The English arrived with the Normans in 1169, taking Wexford and Dublin with ease. The English king, Henry II, was recognised by the pope as Lord of Ireland and he took Waterford in 1171, declaring it a royal city. Anglo-Norman lords also set up power bases in Ireland, outside the control of England.

English power was consolidated under Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. The last thorn in the English side was Ulster, final outpost of the Irish chiefs, in particular Hugh O'Neill, earl of Tyrone. In 1607 O'Neill's ignominious departure, along with 90 other chiefs, left Ulster leaderless and primed for the English policy of colonisation known as 'plantation' - an organised and ambitious expropriation of land and introduction of settlers which sowed the seeds for the division of Ulster still in existence today.

The newcomers did not intermarry or mingle with the impoverished and very angry population of native Irish and Old English Catholics, who rebelled in a bloody conflict in 1641. The native Irish and Old English Catholics supported the royalists in the English Civil War and, after the execution of Charles I, Oliver Cromwell - the victorious Protestant parliamentarian - arrived in Ireland to teach his opponents a lesson. He left a trail of death and destruction which has never been forgotten.

In 1695 harsh penal laws were enforced, known as the 'popery code': Catholics were forbidden from buying land, bringing their children up as Catholics, and from entering the forces or the law. All Irish culture, music and education was banned. The religion and culture were kept alive by secret open-air masses and illegal outdoor schools, known as 'hedge schools', but by 1778, Catholics owned barely 5% of the land. Alarmed by the level of unrest at the end of the 18th century, the Protestant gentry traded what remained of their independence for British security, and the 1800 Act of Union united Ireland politically with Britain. The formation of the Catholic Association by the popular leader Daniel O'Connell led to limited Catholic emancipation but further resistance was temporarily halted by the tragedy of the Great Famine (1845-51). The almost complete failure of the potato crop during those years - during which Ireland exported other foodstuffs to England - led to mass starvation and set up a pattern of emigration that continued well into the 20th century.

The bloody repercussions of the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin added impetus to the push for Irish independence and in Britain's 1918 general election the Irish republicans won a large majority of the Irish seats. They declared Ireland independent and formed the first Dail Eireann (Irish assembly or lower house), under the leadership of Eamon de Valera, a surviving hero of the Easter Rising. This provoked the Anglo-Irish war, which lasted from 1919 to the middle of 1921. The Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 gave independence to 26 Irish counties, and allowed six, largely Protestant, Ulster counties the choice of opting out. The Northern Ireland parliament came into being, with James Craig as its first prime minister. The politics of the North became increasingly divided on religious grounds, and discrimination against Catholics was rife in politics, housing, employment and social welfare. The south of Ireland was finally declared a republic in 1948, and left the British Commonwealth in 1949.

Instability in the North began to reveal itself in the 1960s and when a peaceful civil rights march in 1968 was violently broken up by the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), the Troubles were under way. British troops were sent to Derry and Belfast in August 1969; they were initially welcomed by the Catholics, but it soon became clear that they were the tool of the Protestant majority. Peaceful measures had clearly failed and the Irish Republican Army (IRA), which had fought the British during the Anglo-Irish war, re-surfaced. The upheaval was punctuated by seemingly endless tit-for-tat killings on both sides, an array of everchanging acronyms, the massacre of civilians by troops, the internment of IRA sympathisers without trial, the death by hunger strike of the imprisoned and the introduction of terrorism to mainland Britain.

Northern Ireland lost its vestige of parliamentary independence and has been ruled from London ever since. The Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 gave the Dublin government an official consultative role in Northern Ireland's affairs for the first time. The jubilantly received ceasefire of 1994 was undermined by further murders, the reoccurrence of terrorism in Britain and the perceived intransigence of the British government in Whitehall. The mood shifted again with the election of Tony Blair in 1997 with a huge Labour majority to support him. The two sides resumed discussions and, in 1998, formulated a peace plan that offered a degree of self-government for Northern Ireland and the formulation of a North-South Council that would ultimately be able to implement all-Ireland policies if agreed to by the governments in Belfast and Dublin. As part of the plan, which was fully endorsed by a referendum, the South gave up its constitutional claim to the North. The whiff of peace is definitely in the air.

By the late 1990s the Republic's economy was booming, mainly thanks to an injection of investment funds from the EU that have helped renovate the country's infrastructure. It's been said that Ireland has skipped straight from an agricultural economy to a post-industrial one, as large computer and telecommunications firms have been moving in, bringing jobs and investment. The century and a half tradition of emigration has slowed and possibly even stopped, as young people are staying or returning from abroad for new jobs in new industries. The downside? Try and buy a modest two bedroom house in Dublin now and you're looking at little change from US$1 million.


U2 may be Ireland's loudest cultural export, but of all the arts, the Irish have had the greatest impact on literature. If you took all the Irish writers off the university reading lists for English Literature the degree course could probably be shortened by a year. Jonathan Swift, Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, W B Yeats, Samuel Beckett and James Joyce are just some of the more famous names. Joyce is regarded as the most significant writer of literature in the 20th century, and the topographical realism of Ulysses still draws a steady stream of admirers to Dublin, bent on retracing the events of Bloomsday.

It's possible to add at least a couple of dozen more contemporary names to this heady brew, though it might be argued that the more spectacular highlights are JP Donleavy's The Ginger Man; Brendan Behan's Borstal Boy, Roddy Doyle's 1993 Booker Prize winner Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, Patrick Macabe's brilliantly disturbing The Butcher Boy and anything with the word 'peat' in it written by the poet Seamus Heaney.

As well as being a backdrop for all sorts of Hollywood schlock (Far & Away, Circle of Friends), Ireland has been beautifully portrayed on celluloid. John Huston's superb final film, The Dead, was released in 1987 and based on a story from James Joyce's Dubliners. Noel Pearson and Jim Sheridan's My Left Foot won Oscars for Daniel Day-Lewis and Brenda Fricker with the true story of Dublin writer Christy Brown, who was crippled with cerebral palsy. Lewis also starred in In the Name of the Father, a powerful film telling the story of the wrongful conviction of the Guildford Four for an IRA pub bombing in England. Neil Jordan's The Crying Game is another depiction of the IRA, but with a sexual twist. Roddy Doyle's chuckly books lend themselves well to screen tales: The Commitments, The Snapper and The Van have all been filmed, while his film Michael Collins depicts the life of the man who helped create the IRA.

Jigging an evening away to Irish folk music is one of the joys of a trip to Ireland. Most traditional music is performed on fiddle, tin whistle, goatskin drum and pipes. Almost every village seems to have a pub renowned for its music where you can show up and find a session in progress, even join in if you feel so inclined. Christy Moore is the king of the contemporary singer-songwriter tradition, traversing the whole range of 'folk' music themes and Moore's younger brother, Luka Bloom, is now carving out a jingly whimsical name for himself. Younger artists have their own takes on Irish folk, from the mystical style of Clannad and Enya to the sodden reels of the Pogues. Irish rock is always in amongst it, from Van the Man, Bob Geldof and crabby Elvis Costello to Sinéad O'Connor and The Cranberries.

Although English is the main language of Ireland, it's spoken with a mellifluous lilt and a peculiar way of structuring sentences, to be sure. There remain areas of western and southern Ireland, known as the Gaeltacht, where Irish is the native language - they include parts of Kerry, Galway, Mayo, the Aran Islands and Donegal. If you intend to visit these areas, it would be beneficial to learn at least a few basic phrases. Since Independence in 1921, the Republic of Ireland has declared itself to be bilingual, and many documents and road signs are printed in both Irish and English.

Irish meals are usually based around meat - in particular, beef, lamb and pork chops. Irish breads and scones are also delicious, and other traditional dishes include bacon and cabbage, a cake-like bread called barm brack and a filled pancake called a boxty. The main meal of the day tends to be lunch, although black gold (Guinness) can be a meal in itself. If stout disagrees with you, a wide range of lagers are available.

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