Place in focus: Ireland

Place in focus: Ireland

Britain has had a complex relationship with its near neighbour. Chris Paton explains the history of Ireland and challenges to family history research there

Header Image: Irish Jaunting Car from TheGenealogist's Image Archive

Chris Paton, Specialist in Scotland and Ireland Family History

Chris Paton

Specialist in Scotland and Ireland Family History

The island of Ireland today carries two separate territories, of course: the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. Prior to 1922 it existed as a single country, albeit one with a historically divided people. That division may well have affected the lives of your ancestors.

St Nicholas, Carrickfergus
The Norman built St Nicholas, Carrickfergus, Co. Antrim, and a Celtic Cross

The origins of the conflicts that afflicted the island go back to Norman times with settlements such as that of the ‘Pale’ region around Dublin. To go ‘beyond the Pale’ was to venture into the territories of the Irish Gaelic speaking clans, and beyond the security of Norman rule. In time these ‘Old English’ settlers, as they became known, assimilated with their Gaelic speaking neighbours. It would not be until the early 17th century that the modern story of Ireland would really begin.

In 1607, the power of Gaelic Ireland was broken when its most powerful nobles fled into exile, paving the way for the Plantations of Ulster in 1609. Through this policy of James I, thousands of Protestant settlers from England and the Scottish Borders were granted lands in Ulster, the most rebellious of Ireland’s provinces, in order to pacify it. The Scots were Presbyterian, the English predominantly Anglican. They built walled towns and fortified houses, from which they traded with Britain.

The Battle of the Boyne
The Battle of the Boyne

Following the Glorious Revolution of 1689, James II fled to Ireland, and was defeated at the Battle of the Boyne. In the aftermath of the Williamite succession, another major wave of Scottish Presbyterians arrived, fleeing a famine in the Scottish Borders, and by the early 1700s had soon formed the majority of the Protestant community. Despite this they were almost as heavily discriminated against as the Roman Catholic Irish majority, with Anglicanism established as the state church. Many of these ‘Scotch-Irish’ or ‘Ulster Scots’ Presbyterians later emigrated to the American colonies, and would soon play an instrumental role against the British during the Revolutionary War.

The Anglican-dominated order in Ireland became known as the ‘Protestant Ascendancy’, and operated its own Dublin-based parliament. Roman Catholics and Protestant nonconformists were forbidden to sit within it. Much of the economy was based on growing livestock and later grain for the demands of the rapidly expanding British Empire, as well as timber, though for the majority of the island subsistence farming was the key means to survival. In the 1790s the Presbyterians of Ulster and their Catholic countrymen planned to overthrow the Dublin parliament through a movement known as the United Irishmen. In 1798 they arose in rebellion, but were crushed. So unpopular was the Dublin government that by 1801 it had been abolished and Ireland formally annexed to Great Britain to form the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.

Belfast City Hall
Belfast City Hall

Throughout the 19th century the great cities of Belfast, Derry and Dublin expanded and industries such as the manufacture of linen in particular thrived, but partly due to the scarcity of natural coal and iron resources the Industrial Revolution largely bypassed the island. The island did have a massive potential workforce, with thousands joining the British Army or migrating to Britain to work as ‘navvies’, carving out much of the nation’s canals and railway infrastructure. The majority of the population, however, scraped by as peasants in the harsh, rural landscape. When the famine of the late 1840s hit the country it decimated the population, with almost a million people dying from starvation and another million forced to emigrate.

The union was not popular with many. Despite political reform to extend rights to the Roman Catholic majority, several abortive uprisings and an Easter Rising in 1916, matters came to a head with the War of Independence, which ultimately saw the Partition of Ireland in 1922. Six of Ulster’s nine counties elected to remain within the United Kingdom, with the rest of the island forming the Irish Free State. This dominion state of the British Empire eventually became the Republic of Ireland in 1949.

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From a family history point of view there are many unfortunate problems with research in Ireland. Many Anglican church records, probate records and other documents were destroyed during the Irish Civil War of 1922. Most Roman Catholic registers survived, though in some cases these only date back to the early 19th century. Particularly unfortunate also has been the almost complete destruction of the island’s census records from 1821-1891. However, out of such adversity has come a great deal of effort to make accessible the records that have still survived, such as Griffith’s Valuation, a 19th century census substitute, muster rolls, trade directories, monumental inscriptions and more. The civil registration of Irish vital events commenced in 1845 for Protestant marriages only, and was expanded to cover births, marriages and deaths of all denominations from 1864. All of these records happily still exist, and contain the same level of detail as those in England and Wales. They can be ordered from the General Register Offices of both the north and the south.

Timeline: Ireland

Flight of the Earls – Hugh O’ Neill and 90 Gaelic nobles flee to Spain
Plantations of Ulster commence with Protestant settlers from Britain
Battles of the Boyne and Aughrim see Jacobitism defeated in Ireland
Famine hits Ireland; an eighth of the population dies
United Irishmen rebellion, inspired by the French Revolution, fails
Ireland joins Britain to form the United Kingdom
Catholic Relief Act secures political emancipation for Irish Catholics
MP Daniel O’ Connell’s Repeal Association formed to repeal the union
Worst period of the Great Famine begins
Irish National Land League established to fight for reform of land rights

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