Beginning in the late 8th century, Viking raiders began attacking the east coast of England and the northern islands off Scotland. The first recorded Viking raid in Ireland was in 795 A.D. on the island of Lambay, off the coast of Dublin. During the next few centuries, they controlled parts of the islands, exacting tribute, and pillaging villages and monasteries.
During the 9th century, the Vikings established trading ports in Dublin, Cork, Waterford, Wexford, and Limerick. As they settled in Ireland, Vikings intermarried and assimilated with the native population. Today, many Irish surnames such as Loughlin, Doyle, and Cotter are of Viking origin.
During the 12th century, Ireland consisted of a number of small warring kingdoms, and England was ruled by Norman kings (the Normans originated in Northern France where they gave their name to the region of Normandy). When Diarmait Mac Murchada, the King of Leinster, was deposed by the Irish High King, he turned to Henry II of England for help. Henry sent Norman mercenaries to assist, and Mac Murchada regained control of Leinster, though he died shortly thereafter. Then in 1171, Henry II seized control of Ireland, and with the support of Pope Adrian IV, he took the title “Lord of Ireland,” and the Norman lords established a presence in Ireland.
The Norman invasion brought many changes to Ireland like walled towns and the building of castles and churches. Like the Vikings before them, the Normans assimilated with the native Irish population. The Norman influence in Ireland lives on in surnames such as Butler, French, Roche, and Burke. Irish surnames beginning with “Fitz” are also Norman. Fitz is the equivalent of the Gaelic “Mac” meaning “son of.” For example, the name Fitzpatrick indicates a descendant of a Patrick.
As Norman influence declined in Ireland, the English monarchs took a more direct role in the governance of Ireland. In 1542 after a failed Irish rebellion, Henry VIII created the Kingdom of Ireland, bringing the area under direct English rule.
Around this time Henry made another decision that had far reaching consequences for Ireland. In 1527 after the Pope refused to annul Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Henry broke away from the Roman Catholic Church and created the Church of England, with the English monarch as its head. This English Reformation resulted in a rise in Protestantism across England, Scotland, and Wales. Ireland was resistant to Protestantism, and when England attempted to force it upon them—and failed—the Crown replaced Irish landowners with thousands of Protestant colonists from England and Scotland. These colonies became known as the Plantations of Ireland, whose long term effect was to replace the Catholic ruling classes with Protestants. Then in the 1600’s Penal Laws were introduced which denied Catholics many land owning and political rights. The repression of Catholics in Ireland continued up until the 1830s when Daniel O’Connell led the campaign for Catholic Emancipation.
In June 1963, when he visited Ireland, President John F. Kennedy gave a speech in Cork in which he said ‘Most countries send out oil or iron, steel or gold, or some other crop, but Ireland has had only one export and that is its people’.
Ireland has a history of emigration that goes back centuries. Plantations and Penal Laws created harsh conditions for Catholics and Dissenters (Protestants who were separate from the Church of England). For many emigration was the only option for survival. In the 1600s Irish migrated to the Caribbean and Virginia Colony. In the 1700s many Irish Quakers and Presbyterians departed for North America. Although the “Great Famine” of the 1840s is often mentioned as the time of mass migration out of Ireland, the decades after the famine saw even greater numbers of people leaving its shores.
The 20th century saw several waves of Irish emigration. During the 1940s, 1950s, and 1980s a great many Irish left Ireland for a new life abroad. The main destinations for Irish emigrants have been Great Britain, America, and Australia. Today it’s estimated that up to 100 million people around the world can claim Irish heritage.