Ireland and England: Overview and Geography/Demography

Topics: Demography

Ireland is an island country lying to the west of Great Britain. It is separated from Great Britain by St. George’s Channel, the Irish Sea, and the Northern Channel. At its greatest length, from northeast to southwest, it measures three hundred and two miles. The first human settlements on the island on the northeastern edge of Europe were made relatively late in European prehistory, about six thousand B.C. It remained relatively uninhabited and uninvaded. The only knowledge of this Ireland is through references in Greek and Roman literature and pagan legends that survived into the Christian period.

Sometime between six hundred and one hundred fifty B.C. Celtic peoples from Western Europe, Known as Gaels, invaded and subdued the inhabitants.

The basic units of the Gaelic society were the Tuatha, which were petty kingdoms. They remained independent of each other but shared the same common language, Gaelic. There was also a class of men called brehons, “who were learned in customary laws and helped to preserve throughout Ireland a uniform yet archaic social system.

(Grolier) One reason for the unique nature of their society was that the Romans, who had transformed the Celtic societies of Britain and other societies with their armies, roads, administrative system, and town structures, never tried to conquer Ireland. 

A result of Ireland’s isolation from Romanized

Europe was the development of a distinctive Celtic type of Christianity. While Saint Patrick introduced Latin Christianity into the country in the fifth century, the system of bishops with territorial dioceses which was modeled on the RomaRomaninistrative system, it cd not find security in Ireland at the time.

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(Grolier) Though the independent tuath remained the basic unit of Gaelic secular society, the sovereign monastery became the basic unit of Celtic Christianity. During the sixth and seventh centuries, Irish monasteries were great centers of learning. Such missionaries as Saint Columba and Saint Columban were sent out to the rest of Europe. While the rest of Europe was in the Dark Ages, this was Ireland’s golden age. (Grolier)

In the late Eighth Century, Vikings from Scandinavia began to raid Ireland. The other parts of Europe about this time were responding to the pressures of the invasions by developing the system of feudalism. However, the Gaelic society did not lend itself to such developments because it lacked the heritage of Roman law that provided the framework for the feudal system. (Grolier) The complex and detailed kinship arrangements in which both property-holding and succession to leadership roles were regulated by brehon laws. This impaired the exchange of land for military service, a basic bargain underlying feudal systems.

Eventually, the Gaelic society managed to organize resistance. In 1014, Irish forces led by King Brian Boru decisively defeated the Vikings at the Battle of Clontarf. King Brian was given the title ” high king of Ireland “. (Grolier) During Brian’s tenure (1002-14) his power throughout much of the island was insignificant. Without the infrastructure of feudalism, he was unable to make the transition from symbolic kingship to the effective monarch, which was beginning in other parts of Europe. (Grolier) Though the Vikings were gone, they left their mark upon the island by founding Ireland’s first cities, including Dublin, Limerick, and Waterford.

The unity experienced under Brian had long disappeared by the time Ireland faced her next challenge. It came from, the highly effective feudal monarchy founded by William the Conqueror after he invades that country in 1066 from Normandy (Grolier), England. In 1171, Henry II, a descendant of William, took advantage of a letter from Pope Adrian IV. It authorized Henry to make himself overlord of Ireland to bring the Irish Church more “in line with Roman standards.”(Grolier) Many Anglo-Norman barons along with their retainers had already seized large parts of Ireland when Henry himself went to the island accompanied by an army to receive the formal submission of those barons and most Irish Kings.

In those areas where the Anglo-Norman barons settled and scattered the native Gaelic aristocracy, a feudal system was established similar to their native English and Norman lands. However, it was not an effective centralized monarchy like the Norman feudalism favored in England. (Grolier) The English government was usually distracted and did issue much authority to the colony. Ireland was mainly divided into three concentric regions at this time: 1. Dublin and its immediate area was the only area where the English exercised any authority; a broad area of territories beyond Dublin which were semi-independent fiefs of the great Anglo-Norman lords ; 3. territories on the western coast of Ireland that retained Gaelic customs and remained completely outside of the English rule. (Grolier) 

The English colony in Ireland reached its peak in the early fourteenth century. The Gaelic society was enjoying a considerable resurgence. Not only by winning back territories from the colonists but through the change of the Anglo-Normans into an ” Anglo-Irish” aristocracy. As Anglo-Normans intermarried with the natives and adopted the Gaelic language and customs, they progressively became to be “more Irish than the Irish “. (Grolier – O’Brien, 34)

The Anglo-Norman conquest hurried reforms that brought the Irish church more in line with Roman standards. English legal practices and civil administration were introduced. Additionally, an Irish parliament, modeled on the English one, was created in the late thirteenth century. (Grolier)

By the end of the Middle Ages, it became clear that the Anglo-Norman conquest was a failure. In the sixteenth century the English monarchs, Henry VIII, Mary I, and Elizabeth I, made concerted efforts to reconquer Ireland by use of the military and by the establishment or plantation of colonies of English settlers upon the island. (O’Brien, 36)

However, Henry’s ties between the Church of England and the papacy complicated the attempts of reconquest. In Ireland, unlike England, there was practically no inherent sympathy with the Protestant reformers among either the Gaelic-Irish or the Anglo-Irish. Consequently, the transformation of the Church of Ireland into a Protestant church was rejected overwhelmingly by the majority of the population. (Grolier) 

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Ireland and England: Overview and Geography/Demography. (2022, Jun 14). Retrieved from

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