Time Of Troubles: Irish Terrorism In The Big Picture


One of the reasons I continue to pursue my education is to feel more stupid, more often.  It’s true what has been said… the more you know, the more you know you don’t know.

Until experiencing The Story Of Ireland (presented to us by Fergal Keane), it had never dawned on me the direct relationship between Henry The Eighth and The Troubles between Ireland and England.  It goes something like this…

Henry Eight yanked England out of Catholicism in the mid 1500s.  His long-reigning daughter, Elizabeth The First, cemented that change (although there were yet recalcitrant royals and others to deal with in the 1600s).  However, Ireland was never brought over to the Protestant side.  With Ireland remaining Catholic, this guaranteed that the relations between England and Ireland would not just be a local concern between two island nations, but –since Europe had divided into Catholic and Protestant camps by this time- this division of faiths would be a continental affair.  Ireland would become a magnet for Catholic countries wishing to undermine England’s growing power.  Catholic Spain stood especially ready to aid Ireland in any rebellion or war against England, and Catholic France once sent a fleet to support her fellow religionists in Ireland– though the fleet (sent in 1796) never landed any troops or engaged in any sea battle, but turned back soon for safer ports).

Within Ireland, itself, the non-conversion of the natives only exacerbated the problem the Irish people had with the Protestant overlords being set over them by England and Scotland, mostly in northern Ireland.  The Scots-Presbyterians, Keane tells us, never assimilated to Ireland’s Gaelic culture– a problematic situation which was not helped by the gulf in religious doctrine between the two peoples.

I also did not realize just how much Oliver Cromwell’s anti-Catholicism poisoned relations with the Irish in the mid-1600s.  Cromwell, who did not rule England for that long as Lord Protector, manages to put all but 15% of Irish territory into the hands of Protestant landlords.  The Lord Protector also made it standard policy to meet every Irish uprising with a reprisal several times fiercer than the uprising.  By the time Cromwell’s short, close-minded (might we say fanatical?) reign was over, Ireland– which had been fuming– was now seething.  Keane informs us that nearly three centuries after the rule of the Lord Protector, Winston Churchill called The Troubles between England and Ireland, the “Curse of Cromwell.”

Also, I was not aware that two of England’s greatest statesmen, William Pitt and William Gladstone both attempted to alleviate the intolerable political situation in Ireland, but both were thwarted in their enlightened attempts, Pitt by King George The Third (whom we all do so love here in America), and Gladstone by Parliament, where his bill for Irish Home Rule failed in 1886.

I won’t go into the Potato Blights and Famines of the mid-1800s which devastated Ireland, but whatever importance to Irish (and American) history you attach to that time of horror and death… multiply it by ten.  The situation was intense and terrible and its repercussions far-reaching in both time and space.

Just one permutation of the Irish Potato Famine was the mass migration of many Irish folk to America, where a few men formed the Fenian Brotherhood… probably the first serious Irish terrorist organization.  It was during the American War Between The States that many of these guys received the military experience they would later put to work in their terrorist activities.  It is no coincidence that the first Irish terrorist attack England suffered was in 1867… just two years after the end of the American Civil War.  These acts of terrorism will continue to haunt and corrode Ireland and England for over a hundred years.

I found it so very interesting to step back with Keane and view the Irish-English struggle as part of the larger, global picture.  Not only in terms of the greater religious conflicts engulfing Europe during the fifteen and sixteen hundreds, but also in terms of the socialist/ anarchist revolution of the late 1800s.  Irish patriots were not the only anti-authoritarians dropping the occasional terrorist bomb upon the world.  The Black Hand attack on Archduke Ferdinand in 1914 that precipitated World War One was only the last of a multiple-decade, multiple-country black parade of terrorist attacks from groups discontent with the Imperialist world order.


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