In April 2023, on the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday agreement in 1998, I was invited to speak in a podcast about Irish history for an ALCS Reteach podcast. Reteach is a fantastic toolkit ‘for teachers seeking fresh viewpoints, deeper subject knowledge and diverse thinking.’ It offers free resource lists to help teachers ‘offer students broader perspectives on key topics’.
Ireland is often Britain’s ‘forgotten colony’. Children learning history at school in the UK may study the British Empire in Asia and Africa but often know very little about how our neighbour Ireland was colonised. Roughly 6 million people in the UK have Irish parents or grandparents, and many more have Irish roots. That’s why I created some resource lists on Irish history.
I wrote two lists for teaching history from the Irish perspective, one about the Great Famine and the other on the 1916 Easter Rising. Researching for the podcast, I wanted to gain a sense of the broad sweep of Irish history. One book I read was The Irish Difference by Fergal Tobin. It starts by pointing out our common British–Irish culture. Our suburbs look similar; we speak the same language, and share a common body of literature, as well as food customs and a widespread love of football and alcohol. Yet there are deep-rooted differences, dating back hundreds of years.
Drawing on Tobin’s excellent account, here I’ll focus on two key differences. They’re both linked to colonialism in Ireland: land and the battle for independence.
England began colonising Ireland in the 1100s, and by the 16th century, Ireland was under English control. During the Reformation of the 1530s, England left the Catholic Church, and King Henry VIII set up his own Church, the Church of England. The king introduced the Reformation to Ireland too, but it was a policy imposed from above. The Reformation didn’t succeed in Ireland, and the country remained mostly Catholic, except for parts of the North, which had large numbers of Protestant setters.
Those settlers were there because English rulers had given large swathes of Irish land to Protestant migrants from Scotland and England; they became major landowners. Ireland remained largely rural, with an economy based on agriculture.
Population: rise and fall
The Irish population increased from the late 18th century; the simple diet of potatoes, milk and buttermilk was healthy compared to the English diet. Poor Irish people were more robust and taller than their counterparts in England.
But over-reliance on the potato crop caused disaster when potato blight infected the potatoes in the 1840s, leading to the Great Famine of 1845–52. Out of the Irish population of 8.4 million in 1844, a million people died of starvation or famine-related diseases and up to two million left Ireland. This was a catastrophic loss of population.
And it was particularly catastrophic because the laissez-faire British government expected the Irish landlords to provide relief for their tenants. But since many tenants were unable to pay their rent, the landlords were short of cash. They were overwhelmed – even with the best will in the world, the landlords couldn’t provide relief to all their impoverished tenants.
My resource list includes titles that explain how the colonial farming system led to disaster, a story of the famine told through the eyes of an Irish and an English child, and a book explaining how huge numbers of Irish people migrated to the USA to escape the famine.
Land switches hands
Many landlords went bankrupt because of the famine and lost their land. These landlords were descendants of the Scottish and English settlers who’d been encouraged to settle in Ireland with offers of land. Their estates – amounting to a quarter of Irish land – were now sold at bargain rates.
Farmers who’d survived the famine were encouraged to buy this nice, cheap land – and 96% of the new owners were Irish. There was a shift in land ownership towards tenant farmers during the late 19th century, which led eventually to the 1903 Wyndham Act. The tenant farmers became landlord owner-proprietors. In 1914, two-thirds of Irish tenants owned their own land – unlike in England, where you still had a landowning class, with farmers working for the landowner. This was a significant way that Ireland became different from England.
The battle for independence
On the political front, the 19th century saw the growth of cultural nationalism. Across Ireland, movements developed to spread the Gaelic language and culture and reject English culture. You had the establishment of the Gaelic Athletic Association and the rise of curling and Gaelic football across the country. Sportspeople stopped playing cricket, the quintessential English sport – even though it’d been really popular.
The Easter Rising
In the late 19th century, the growth of cultural nationalism fostered a political movement for Home Rule. The Easter Rising of 1916 was led by a group of rebels outside of the mainstream home-rule movement, determined to free Ireland from British rule by force. It divided people in Ireland – even families were divided, with some members supporting the rebels and others opposing them. I’ve included a fiction title in my resource list that looks at this issue from the viewpoint of a 12-year-old Dublin girl. Another title looks at women who played significant roles in the struggle.
The British army brought in massive reinforcements to crush the rising, executing most of the leaders by firing squad and imprisoning many others. The brutality of the British reaction shifted opinions in Ireland against British rule. People who’d jeered at the rebels in 1916 now wanted an end to British rule. Achieving independence seemed possible.
I’ve just been watching the 2016 mini-series ‘Rebellion’, which has been released on Netflix. It could be useful for secondary-school history students. It starts with the Easter Rising of 1916. We see the rebellion from a variety of perspectives – Irish rebels, Irish people opposed to the rebellion, and opinions of the British soldiers and leaders. We see the shift in opinion against British rule after the Rising.
In 1918, Irish people refused military conscription to fight for Britain in World War I. Once a population won’t fight for you any more, it’s hard to keep ruling them. The second season of ‘Rebellion’ picks up the story in 1920, in the midst of the ferocious Irish war of independence (1919 to 1921). Irish Republicans were fighting Protestant Unionists in Ulster, in the North of Ireland, while Republicans battled the British army in the South.
Following a truce at the end of 1921, the Irish Free State formed in 1922, with 26 counties. The six mostly Protestant counties in Ulster achieved home rule, but remained part of the UK. The compromise led to a year of civil war between supporters and opponents of the 1922 treaty; the former won, and the six counties have remained outside Ireland ever since.
Ireland was now independent but remained a poor, mostly agricultural country, and many still emigrated for a better life. Britain mostly left Ireland alone until the 1960s, when conflict between the civil rights movement (which campaigned to end discrimination against Catholics) and Protestant organisations led the UK government to intervene militarily in Northern Ireland. The Troubles are covered in the UK history curriculum, so that’s a topic teachers and students will be familiar with.
After the Troubles ended in the 1990s, Northern Ireland experienced economic growth, as did Ireland – the rise of the Celtic Tiger. In Ireland, the workforce expanded, and emigrants returned to take up jobs. Fewer Irish people felt they needed to migrate, and from the early 21st century Ireland became a country of immigration rather than emigration.
Close but different
Ireland today retains cultural similarities to England, but it’s part of Europe. Its thriving culture is known around the world – Irish literature, folklore, traditional music, dance, St Patrick’s Day, sports and of course pubs. Ireland is close to the UK but fundamentally different. And all children educated here will benefit from learning more about our neighbour’s history.
 Tobin, 159
 Ibid., 160