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Why was there so much violence in Ireland?

This page was written by Arthur Reeves. I am most grateful to have his kind permission to include it on the web site.

This is a very complicated question, and I can only begin to offer a few reasons as a ‘start’ to try and contextualise the problems in Ireland.

First, people in the 21st century still struggle to comprehend the problems in Ireland and similarly ministers in the 19th Century also did. Ministers in Westminster tended to ‘view Ireland through an English lens’ – that is, they assumed that the nature of Ireland’s problems was the same as those in England. It was not.

What makes people tick? Think: how much do you ‘care’, for example, about the recent Scottish Nationalist Party suggestions for making Scotland wholly independent? Now think how you would answer if I asked you when you were starving.

Generally speaking, the average Irishman did not really care about the Union or Home Rule. Agrarian violence throughout the nineteenth century, right up until 1881, was based centrally around economic conditions. When the Irish suffered with bad harvests, they revolted. Ribbonism/Whiteboy-ism existed throughout Ireland as local groups which responded to local problems, which explains why the West, which suffered the worst economically, also tended to suffer the worst outrages.

At the same time, during the nineteenth century, organised pressure groups arose, which were designed to restore the Union . In 1879 this culminated with the ‘new departure’ under Parnell: where the mass movement of the Land League, which aimed to attain the '3 Fs', were going to work with the Irish Parliamentary party to attain results. When the 3Fs were granted, the aim came to be Home Rule. It is not clear how many average tenants really supported Home Rule and how many were mesmerised by Parnell.

This is not to suggest that there was not strong nationalist feeling in Ireland:

  1. Catholics were a majority, yet oppressed by the minority: Protestants. In every area of civic life (right up until the 1880s) Catholics were kept out of the higher offices of the civil service, police force and at Dublin Castle. Catholics were not admitted to Parliament until 1829 and an established Irish Church existed until 1869, yet Catholics in many areas represented 95% of the population.
  2. Alan O’Day argues that land was the major factor. Catholics felt that the land had been stolen from them. O’Day argues that land reform was more important to most of the Irish than Home Rule.


In the North of Ireland – Ulster – there existed a protestant majority who tended to support the Union. Ulster was economically better off than the South and benefited from the Union. This caused friction between the North and South. 

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Last modified 4 March, 2016

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