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Moments in time: the making of modern Ireland*

From Stone Age hipsters to Irish Potato. *Not all of it worked out well for us.
Apr 6th 2015, 10:00 AM 13,946 11

Source: Gerard Crowley

AS WE COMMEMORATE the 1916 Easter Rising – and because we like a bit of fun on a bank holiday Monday – we asked ‘historian’ Garvan Grant to take a lighter look at some other pivotal moments in Irish history.

First arrivals

Hard as it is to believe now, there was a time when Ireland was uninhabited – at least by Irish people. There were, of course, trees, rocks, dinosaurs, snakes and a large number of goats.

However, this changed one fateful day about 8,000 years ago when a young northern European couple chanced upon the island. Séamus Óg and Máirín, who were original Stone Age ‘hipsters’, were sailing to Novus Yorkus in order to start a new life when their currach was blown off course by some sideways rain.

They sheltered in a black pool (‘dubh linn’) and decided this ‘lovely little island’ would be their new home. Irish history was never the same.

Mission accomplished

By the fifth century, the Irish had settled into their new home. However, they had little to do with godliness, while their cleanliness was taken care of by the frequent showers.

As well as working hard, they also liked to sing, dance and party like there was no tomorrow and no God. However, before long, they were to be proved wrong on both counts.

The arrival of a Welsh slave was to change that as he convinced them through a shrewd mix of preaching and snake-banishing that Christianity was the one true faith.

To be fair, the Irish embraced their new religion with gusto (while still keeping one eye on the singing, dancing and partying).

Vanquishing Vikings

The conversion of the population meant the Irish tribes could stop fighting each other and just be nice and Christian to each other. It was a time of great harmony on the island and no one could ever ruin this.

Then, one day, while the Irish were relaxing on the beach, a young man spotted a ship heading towards them carrying some loud, noisy men wearing funny hats.

A wise old man told him it was probably just another stag party, adding: “As long as it’s not a ship full of marauding Vikings, we should be fine.”

Unfortunately, that’s exactly what it was and Irish history took another twist.


If one person could be singled out to have had a huge impact on this country, it might be Dermot Mac Murrough. His love of women, and specifically one woman who wasn’t his wife, changed the course of Irish history more than any other single event.

Dermot’s abduction of the wife of his rival, Tiernan O’Rourke, did not go down well with anybody, least of all with Tiernan and his wife, and Dermot was driven out of Ireland.

In a similar situation, very few Irish people would have done what Dermot did next: sought help from the king of England. But that’s what he did, thereby unleashing centuries of fun, games and unhealthy rivalry between these two nations.

The Great Famine

Legend has it that Sir Walter Raleigh captured the first potato in South America and brought it back alive to Ireland. This is unlikely, as the Irish would never fall in love with a vegetable discovered by an Englishman.

The Irish had, however, become extremely fond of potatoes by the 19th century and a potato famine was really the last thing they needed.

To deal with it, some of Ireland’s politicians formed a utility called Irish Potato. Similar to Irish Water, it didn’t really solve any problems and the Irish people were forced to find their own solutions, which included emigration. Irish history was about to go global.

Treaty time

From 1916 on, there was a lot of fighting around as the Easter Rising led to the War of Independence. As with most wars, nobody was really enjoying it and a truce was signed in 1921.

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Unfortunately, the subsequent Treaty was not welcomed by everybody and caused the Civil War, which was about as ‘civil’ as most other wars.

When the fighting stopped, Ireland was left with two political parties on either side of the Treaty debate: Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. They would dominate Irish politics until they finally merged in 2016. (Note: That last bit is not technically ‘history’.)

Becoming European

After the second World War, Ireland kept a relatively low profile for a couple of decades, enjoying Catholicism, unemployment and the fact that everything was black-and-white. Then, in 1973, we joined the EEC and went from being poor, trod-upon Irish folk to sophisticated, modern Europeans.

Joining the EEC made sense for the economic well-being of the nation, but there was something more important at stake: the soul of the nation. Would being more closely linked to foreign types damage the pure and Christian nature of the people?

The Church did all it could to prevent this, including banning the Irish from travelling abroad and threatening to tell God if any Irish person was found watching TV or staring at tanned, good-looking foreigners.

However, the Irish embraced the new ‘immorality’ with gusto (while still keeping one eye on the old religion, of course).

Birth of the Celtic Tiger

It would be hard to choose a single moment from the past 25 years as the one that most shaped the nation. Being ‘crowned’ world champions at Italia 90? Bertie Ahern becoming supreme leader? Ireland winning the Euromillions and building the Celtic Tiger, the first never-ending economic boom in history? Dustin not winning the Eurovision Song Contest?

So let’s choose another one. How about ‘right now’? As we commemorate the Easter Rising, let’s remember the most important resource this country has ever had: its people.

We’ve been through it all over the last few thousand years but we keep on fighting for good, laughing when times are tough and getting by no matter what. Let’s take a moment to celebrate all that.

The Trueish History of Ireland by Garvan Grant with illustrations by Gerard Crowley is published by Mercier Press, price €7.99

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Garvan Grant


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