Before the 1920s, the modern independent state of Ireland did not exist. While Ireland has ruled itself for most of the time since the first inhabitants, it was not until the twentieth century that Ireland became a single independent state.
The island has been inhabited for roughly 12,000 years. Unlike Britain, there is no evidence that the island had any inhabitants tens of thousands of years ago. It was not until the disappearance of the ice sheets in about 10,000 B.C. that the country could be inhabited. The island had no inhabitants in the paleolithic period. The mesolithic hunter-gatherer culture came to an end and was replaced by a neolithic culture with agriculture but mostly without metal in about 4000 B.C., followed by the widespread use of bronze. By 2600 years ago, there was a general use of iron technology on the island.
In the fourth century A.D., the literate and Christian history of the island began. While there were some literate people present in Ireland prior to the fourth century and the pagan culture coexisted with Christianity for a long time, the fourth century profoundly changed the island. The appearance of the Roman Catholic church that survived the fall of the western roman empire changed the culture of the island forever.
Pagan Europe did not go down without a fight, and in the eighth century A.D. the first Viking raids came to the island. The raids were fairly small in scale but effective at carrying away much wealth and inspiring terror. Christians at the time were often being defeated in war by people of other faiths. At the time, it did not seem inevitable that Christianity would remain the majority faith in Europe forever. Between the late eighth and early eleventh century, there were many wars between Irish and Scandinavian armies, with the battle of Clontarf being the beginning of the end of Viking power in Ireland. At no point were the Vikings able to conquer most of the country. Instead, they would at most occupy territory by fighting for one Irish state against another.
By the end of the eleventh century, the Christian religion had secured the dominance of the island. In the twelfth century, Ireland was still split into a number of different states and had rarely or never been united as a single kingdom. French Normans conquered most although not all of Ireland between 1100 and 1300, and there were the first English invasions as well. Norman and English rule did not last long, and by the end of the fifteenth century, Ireland was back under the control of a few Irish kings.
In the 1500s the English began to imagine a lasting conquest of Ireland. With the help of many Irish lords that opposed the Fitzgerald dynasty that controlled most of the island in 1500, the English were able to conquer the island. By the early 1600s, the entire island was under the control of a single government for the first time. This was the beginning of the conflict between the Catholic and Protestant faiths that continues today. The religious difference made it difficult for the Irish to accept English rule, and in the long run, prevented the English from ruling over the island forever.
The seventeenth century was a dark and violent part of Irish history. There were many revolts against English Protestant rule and much bloodshed that did not lead to a conclusive victory for either side. Wealthy Irish often had their land confiscated during this time, which led to many revolts and much violence. The eighteenth century was relatively peaceful but did involve a large famine that ensured continued hatred of protestant rule.
In the nineteenth century, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland was established, and this would last until the war of Irish independence. The most destructive famines of Irish history occurred in the nineteenth century, leading to emigration as well as death, and the population of the country significantly declined during this time. Most of the agricultural land was owned by about 10,000 families who lived in England and rented it out to farmers who could not afford to buy their own farmland. Not all of the Irish were in favor of full independence, and the people split into Nationalists and Unionists. The Nationalists wanted a fully independent state, the Unionists, on the other hand, wanted Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom.
By the end of the nineteenth century, it seemed likely that Ireland would be able to separate from Britain without war. The local government act of 1898 mostly broke the power of the landlords and gave local rule to democratically elected representatives. It seemed likely that Britain would let Ireland go without war. The government of Ireland act in 1914 would have resulted in the peaceful separation of the two states but was delayed by the beginning of the first world war. The inability of the Nationalists, Unionists, and British to agree on the terms of separation led to violence. Between 1916 and 1921 there was much political violence in Ireland. The Irish republican army, insisting on nothing less than full independence, waged a guerilla war against the British during these years. The war ended with 26 out of Ireland’s 32 counties becoming part of the new, independent Irish state, and the northernmost six remaining part of the United Kingdom.
1922 was the beginning of the Irish state as it exists today, encompassing most although not all of the island. In the short run, the state was troubled economically, and the population declined to less than three million in 1961, compared to a height of eight million more than a century before. However, the population finally began to increase again in the 1960s and has reached almost five million. Violence between Catholics and Protestants continued after the war. From the 1960s to the late 1990s an armed campaign intended to free Nothern Ireland from the United Kingdom took close to 2000 lives. Eventually, the moral support for this violence came to an end, and Northern Ireland remains part of the United Kingdom. Political support for separating Northern Ireland from the U.K. remains, but no longer involves organized violence.
Today, the population of Ireland continues to grow, having increased by well over one and a half times since its low point in the early sixties. The days in which the population seemed to be shrinking away to nothing are long gone. While Ireland remains significantly more religious than the U.K., the power of the catholic church is less than it was before. The people have not abandoned Catholicism, but the church no longer has the power and influence it did in earlier times. Over the last few years, the economy of Ireland has been growing extremely fast, a few times more quickly than the economy of any other country in Europe. The future of the country seems very bright, with crime rates also falling in the last few years and political violence being nearly a thing of the past.