In the 16th century the Tudor monarchs began a re conquest of Ireland. Henry
VIII declared himself king of Ireland in 1541, the first English monarch to do
The Tudors introduced new English settlers and embarked on a series of
military campaigns against the Gaelic Irish and the great Anglo-Norman lords
who had fallen away in their allegiance to the Crown.
When the army of
Elizabeth defeated the Irish at the battle of Kinsale in 1601, it marked the
beginning of a new order. The native political system was overthrown and for
the first time the entire country was run by a strong English central
From the 16th century onwards the English Government made strenuous
efforts to impose Protestantism. The reformed religion did not really take
root, however, partly due to its close association with the repressive policies
of the English administration. The main exception was in Ulster where the
Government promoted a successful colonisation by new settlers, mostly Scottish
Religion added complexity to the political situation. The new
colonists were Protestant and formed a distinct group from the Old English, the
remnants of the Anglo-Irish colony who were still Catholic and increasingly
disaffected from the Government.
To a large extent political power and office
were now in the hands of the colonists, the New English. When the Gaelic Irish
of Ulster rebelled against the Government in 1641 they were soon joined by
their Old English co-religionists.
In 1642 a rebel assembly, the Confederation
of Kilkenny, met, but divisions soon appeared as Ireland became enmeshed in the
English civil war between King and Parliament. The rebellion was ruthlessly
crushed by Oliver Cromwell and his parliamentary army. Further Protestant
colonisation took place under Cromwell. This time the large-scale confiscation
of land and the banishment of its former owners to the poorer areas of the
country ensured that property and political power passed to the new colonists.
The accession of the Catholic King James II in 1685 changed the situation only
temporarily. His pro-Catholic stance was unpopular in England and Scotland and
among the Ulster Scots. When William of Orange challenged James II for the
throne the entire country except Ulster backed James. The two kings contested
their throne in Ireland and William emerged victorious after a series of
battles, the most famous being William's defeat of James at the Boyne in 1690.
William's victory left the Irish Catholics politically helpless and made
possible the Protestant ascendancy that followed.
Many leading Catholics like
Patrick Sarsfield (James' commander-in-chief) went abroad to serve in
Throughout the 18th century
Catholics were seen as a threat who might rally in support of a Stuart attempt
to regain the English throne. The Government enforced a severe code of penal
legislation against them. The Presbyterians also suffered religious
disabilities but on a much lesser scale. Power was concentrated in the hands of
the small Protestant ascendancy.
The American War of Independence had an
important influence on Irish politics. The American example encouraged the
Protestant ascendancy to press for a measure of colonial self-government. In
1782 the Irish parliament, hitherto subservient to London, was granted
independence. Ireland was now effectively a separate kingdom sharing a monarch
with England, but the Dublin administration was still appointed by the King.
One of the leading figures in this parliament was Henry Grattan. From 1778
onwards the penal legislation against Catholics was gradually repealed. The
parliament made moves to improve and liberalise trade.
The French Revolution,
with its ideas of equality and liberty, had a major impact on Ireland. The
Society of the United Irishmen was founded in 1791 to press for radical reform.
Its members were mainly Presbyterians from the north. The leading figures were
Wolfe Tone, Napper Tandy and Lord Edward Fitzgerald. The war with France led to
severe military repression in Ireland. The United Irishmen rebelled in 1798,
aiming to unite Catholics and Protestants, including Presbyterians, and to
break Ireland's link with England. In spite of French help the rebellion was
badly organised and easily suppressed. After the defeat of the rebellion, the
London Government decided to unite the British and Irish parliaments. The Irish
parliament, an unrepresentative assembly, was induced to vote itself out of
existence in 1800.