Ireland has an incredibly interesting history that dates back 9000 years ago to its first settlers: stone-age peoples who sailed west from Britain to the island of Ireland. For vacationers wanting to experience the creme de la creme of prehistory, Ireland is a wonderland of both Mesolithic and Neolithic sites; we're talking older than Stonehenge – even older than the pyramids of Egypt! To see what everyday life was like in Ireland almost 6000 years old, visit the Ceide Fields (near Ballycastle). Other amazing prehistoric sites to consider visiting include the archeological ruins surrounding Lough Gur in County Limerick – which includes Ireland's largest stone circle – the prehistoric fort of Dun Aengus on the island of Inishmore (one of the Aran Islands); and the monuments of Bru na Boinne (Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth), which together form an official UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Interesting historic sites relating to Celtic
Ireland, which developed after several waves of invasions by Celtic tribes, include the Hill of Tara and the Rock of Cashel. The Hill of Tara is a giant in Irish history. Known for being both ancient and mystical, this was the seat of the High Kings of Ireland. The Hill of Tara still contains many ancient monuments – including the Stone of Destiny. And looking out from the hill's summit, on a clear day visitors can see over 20 counties of Ireland.
After the collapse of the Roman Empire, which never managed to conquer Ireland, most of Europe fell into the Dark Ages. Ireland was the exception. The 5th century saw the arrival of Saint Patrick to Ireland, who after a period of captivity returned to Ireland as a Christian missionary. It is said that St. Patrick converted the pagan King of Munster to Christianity at the Rock of Cashel, and today this magnificent fortress is home to truly splendid medieval architecture.
As the Irish population became Christianized, the early-Middle Ages in Ireland was a period of great monastic learning and enlightenment. The reputation of Ireland's great scholars spread throughout continental Europe as Irish monasteries and abbeys preserved many ancient texts and spread the influence of Insular art. (There is a very interesting book on this era called How the Irish Saved Civilization
by Thomas Cahill). Visitors today can still see evidence of this fascinating period of Irish history. One of the finest examples can be found inside The Book of Kells
; this 1200-year-old book, which details the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, resides in the Old Library of Trinity College in Dublin.
Visiting the ruins of these wonderful early-Christian monasteries opens a door into the soul of Ireland; we recommend visiting Clonmacnoise, Glendalough, Jerpoint Abbey, Durrow Abbey, Monasterboice, Kells as well as several early-Christian sites that are located on Irish islands including Inis Cealtra, Inishmurray and the spectacular Skellig Michael, Ireland's second official UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Politically, the early-Middle Ages in Ireland was an era of small, fragmented kingdoms led by minor kings who were (somewhat) ruled by the High Kings of Ireland. Viking invaders arrived soon after, establishing large port towns like Dublin, Cork, Limerick and Waterford, and by the end of the 12th century, the Normans (already in power in England and in much of France) invaded Ireland – with the Pope's blessing. Their Anglo-Norman lords then began establishing cathedrals and large castles unlike anything ever seen in Ireland prior; Trim Castle and Kilkenny Castle are two such castles.
Keep in mind however that while the (Norman) kings of England controlled this very feudal Ireland for almost 400 years, their lords never fully conquered the entire island. And while they (along with the Irish nobility) began to build fortified towns and castles, many Celtic clans still held their own territories – and many of the local Irish lived in farming communities far from large towns, which allowed them to preserve their own legal system, customs, and language. Great Irish castles to visit from this era include Cahir Castle, Bunratty Castle and Blarney Castle, home to the famous Blarney Stone. It's also important to note that the English crown largely kept out of Irish affairs during this period as it was busy fighting in the Hundred Years' War followed by the War of the Roses. This all changed with the emergence of the Tudor dynasty in the 16th century.
Concern with rebellions and the self-rule of the Irish lords prompted England's King Henry VIII of the Tudor dynasty to tighten his grip over the island of Ireland. This was a time of great change in Ireland (really throughout all of Europe as the Protestant Reformation was in full swing). During this period Henry changed his title from "Lord of Ireland" to "King of Ireland." He permanently severed England's ties with the Roman Catholic Church, made himself head of the newly-created Church of England, and began taking possession of Ireland's monasteries, abbeys and convents.
Under the Tudor's rule, England, Wales and Scotland all effectively became Protestant, and Ireland's Catholic population was repeatedly discriminated against. Many northern families belonging to Ireland's ancient Celtic aristocracy fled to mainland Europe (The Flight of the Earls in 1607), and for roughly the next 200 years, the English crown "colonized" what it considered a wild and unruly Ireland. Known as the Plantations of Ireland, many Irish landowners had their land confiscated in primarily Ulster (the north) and Munster (southwest), and the land was then given to Protestant settlers from England, Scotland and Wales.
Due to powers and privileges reserved for Protestant citizens only, by the 17th century (and largely until the 20th century) an Anglican-Protestant minority socially, politically and economically dominated the Irish Catholic majority (as well as converted Irish Protestants, non-Anglican Protestant faiths, and Ireland's Jewish population). These three centuries became a period of reforms, rebellions, repressions and strife in Ireland. Due to the 19th-century Great Famine, the country lost roughly a quarter of its population as one million died and another million emigrated (many to the United States and Canada).
These religious, political and economic policies laid the foundation of the Catholic-versus-Protestant warring that plagued Ireland for much of the 20th century. Catholics identified as Irish nationalists, while Protestants considered themselves unionists and loyal to the British Crown. This is largely the reason that the island of Ireland today is divided between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.
At the turn of the 19th century, Ireland officially became part of the United Kingdom. Irish nationalism and separatism grew steadily over the next century, leading up to the start of the First World War. In 1919 an Irish Republic was declared, signaling the start of the Irish War of Independence. You can learn a great deal about this period of Irish history by paying a visit to Dublin's Kilmainhaim Gaol, a historic prison that was in operation from the 1780s to the 1920s; a guided tour of its cells will shed light on the rebellions that led up to the war, which lasted for three years and concluded with the creation of the Irish Free State in 1922.
An Irish Civil War immediately followed because of disagreements over the outcome of the war for independence. This was because the new free state was still technically part of The British Empire and because the six counties of Ireland's northeast voted to not be part of the new state; they formed what today is the country (sometimes called region or province) of Northern Ireland. In 1937 the Irish Free State voted to completely disconnect itself from British rule and established the Republic of Ireland.