Northern Ireland is today a constitutionally distinct region of the United Kingdom. Its story is sad, yet promising, confusing, and understandable.
The last Ice Age melted away some 10,000 years ago. The dramatic result created the English Channel, Irish Sea and hundreds of rivers and lakes. Great Britain and Ireland (long attached to the European continent) were now islands, and cultural history was about to change.
The Celtic people occupied great stretches of land across central Europe by 500 BC. They first arrived in Ireland around 300 BC, subsequently controlling and influencing this land that the powerful Roman culture never reached.
The Pope in Rome (Celestinus the First) sent the first Christian missionaries to Ireland in the 5th century, including St. Patrick. The Catholic faith spread rapidly, and by the turn of the century abbeys and monasteries were beacons of hope across Ireland.
This somewhat peaceful Celtic world was first invaded by the Vikings in the late 8th century. Their overpowering raids of monasteries and villages continued through the 10th century, and they eventually built permanent power base settlements at Cork, Dublin and Waterford.
Localized fighting over land and property continued for decades, but over time, some Celtic family groups and Vikings reached alliances - sort of a workable, live together understanding. That ended when the Irish King Brian Boru defeated the Danish Vikings in 1014.
In 1169, aggressive English and Norman forces crossed the Irish Sea; Dublin (a Viking stronghold) and other cities quickly fell, and the all-powerful Pope in Rome declared that Henry II (the English King) was now the "Lord of Ireland." As you can imagine, that didn't sit very well with the locals.
Centuries of conflicts and localized wars continued, and finally, the embattled Irish chiefs were forced to retreat into the northern province of Ulster (parts of which are now Northern Ireland). By 1607, most, if not all, would flee this land and the English saw an opening.
They quickly instigated a policy called 'plantation,' where waves of Scottish and English Protestants literally took the available land from the now weakened Catholics, laying the groundwork for the strongly-held differences and bitterness that remain to this day.
Understandably, the now angry and proud Celts rebelled, and bloody riots soon followed. Then, after the native Irish supported the losing side in England's Civil War, the worst for Ireland was yet to come.
In 1649, Oliver Cromwell, England's "Protestant" Lord Protector, (on the winning side in that war) led a punitive expedition into Ireland. The massacre was bloody, brutal and most destructive - and not yet forgotton.
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As the English enforced strict (none of this, none of that) new laws on the Catholics, Protestant powers increased, and Ireland and its northern areas grew further apart, primarily for economic reasons.
After more than seven centuries of Anglo-Irish struggle, marked by fierce rebellions and harsh repressions, Ireland and Britain were on paper (politically united) in 1800 by the Act of Union, however, countrywide unrest was still on the front burner. Adding more misery to that smoldering fire, the Great Famine of the mid-1800's served up starvation and death, and mass emigration followed, especially to the United States
The Home Rule movement of the late-1800's would be the catalyst for the separation of Northern Ireland from Ireland, because the southern Catholics desired total independence from the British, while northern Protestants feared rule by the Catholic majority.
Following the so-called 'Easter Rising' in 1916, where patriotic nationalist leaders proclaiming an independent Irish Republic, were all shot (executed) at Kilmainham Gaol by the British, the Anglo-Irish War began.
In 1921 a Treaty was signed giving 26 counties independence as The Irish Free State and leaving 6 counties part of the United Kingdom. The Irish Free State remained part of the British Commonwealth until leaving as the Republic of Ireland in 1949.
Northern Ireland remained part of the UK with its own devolved local administration, and the two parts of Ireland went their separate ways peacefully enough until the late 1960s. At that point tensions between Nationalists in Northern Ireland seeking to join it to the Republic and Unionists determined to keep it part of the UK boiled over and for almost the next thirty years civil disorder reigned, leading to much destruction of life and property. Eventually, in 1998, a jointly managed Assembly was established and government returned on a power-sharing basis between representatives of both communities.
On Monday, March 26, 2007, another historic accord was reached in Northern Ireland. Reverend Ian Paisley, the Protestant leader, and Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein collectively announced that on May 8, 2007, these two hostile groups would form a joint administration, and after years of bloody hostility, finally work together. The British government hailed this as a major breakthrough.
A relative calm is now in place in Northern Ireland, and tourism is on the increase.
This is a beautiful land of cool, crisp air, and long-held traditions of family and friends. Dozens and dozens of small towns and villages cover the countryside, and the calming steeples of Northern Ireland's many churches still point to a promising future.
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