Timeline: Ireland before 1960

This timeline lists significant events in Ireland and Northern Ireland, up to 1960. It provides some insight into Irish history and background to the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

400s AD
St Patrick brings Christianity to Ireland, having arrived there as a slave.

Dermot MacMurrough, King of Leinster, is overthrown by Turlogh O’Connor and requests the aid of the English king, Henry II, whose soldiers assist MacMurrough and are given land in return.

Strongbow, Earl of Pembroke, becomes King of Leinster. English Barons begin to claim Irish land.

English authority in Ireland is confined to an area in the South, around present-day Dublin. The English regard this area, known as ‘The Pale’, to be civilised; those outside it are considered barbarians. This gives rise to the saying ‘beyond the pale’.

Seven years after an English invasion, Henry VIII is declared King of Ireland and begins sending Protestant settlers to the country.

In Tudor England, Queen Mary I initiates the plantation program, taking land from the Irish and giving it to English settlers.

James I continues the acquisition of plantations following revolts against English rule in the 16th century. The result is a Protestant majority in the northern region of Ireland.

The beginning of the Irish Rebellion of 1641, initiated by powerful Catholics against English rule in Ireland. Approximately 100 Protestant Settlers are massacred in Portadown, County Armagh.

Oliver Cromwell’s Protestant troops massacre Irish Catholics at Wexford and Drogheda in a violent campaign to punish Catholics for the events of 1641.

James II is crowned king of England and Ireland. A devout Catholic, he begins repealing Ireland’s anti-Catholic legislation.

The Battle of the Boyne: the forces of James II are defeated by the Protestant William of Orange near what is now Drogheda. He becomes King William III of England and Ireland, while the Protestants in Northern Ireland regale him as a hero. Within ten years more than four-fifths of Ireland will be in the hand of Protestant nobility.

The beginning of the ‘Protestant Ascendancy’ and the Penal Laws, which discriminate heavily against Ireland’s Catholic population. A Catholic man, for example, is entitled to leave a will distributing land amongst his sons, but if one son is Protestant then he is legally entitled to claim the entire estate. Catholics are also unable to enlist in the army, enter the judiciary or vote.

January: The Acts of Union, passed by the British and Irish parliaments the previous year, come into effect. The Irish parliament is formally abolished, leaving Ireland to be represented in the British parliament. This triggers revolts and violence in Ireland, particularly among the lower classes.

The beginning of the Great Famine, a seven-year long period of crop failures, food shortages and widespread starvation. More than one and a half million Irish starve to death, the majority of them poor Catholic tenant farmers. The famine is caused by crop disease but its effects are exacerbated by land policies imposed by English and Anglo-Irish Protestant rulers.

April: The first Home Rule Bill is tabled in the British parliament, proposing the establishment of a government in Dublin with authority over Irish trade and affairs. The bill does not pass but it stirs a campaign for Home Rule.

April: A second Home Rule Bill is introduced and debated in the British parliament but does not pass the House of Lords.

November: The political party Sinn Fein (‘We Ourselves’) is formed to lobby for Irish self government.

April: The British prime minister, Herbert Asquith, introduces a third Home Rule Bill into the British parliament. The bill is passed the following year, after a lengthy series of debates and amendments. Loyalists in Ireland’s north-east oppose Home Rule, believing it will lead to a Catholic-dominated government.
April: A show of force in Belfast as 100,000 Ulster Volunteers parade before Unionist leaders Sir Edward Carson and Bonar Law.
September 28th: In Belfast more than 470,000 Unionists protest against the Home Rule Bill by signing the Ulster Covenant, some using their own blood.

January 13th: The Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) is formally created.

August: The outbreak of World War I. Britain’s commitment to the war leads to the delay of Home Rule in Ireland. Concerned about growing political opposition, paramilitary activity and unrest in the north-east, the British government considers partitioning Ireland.

April: The Easter Rising in Dublin. The Irish Republican Brotherhood and Irish Citizen Army seize control of the city and declare an independent Irish republic. The uprising is put down by the British Army and the rebel leaders are swiftly executed. The Irish Republican Army is formed in the wake of this rising.

April: The British begin an attempt to introduce conscription in Ireland. The move is unpopular and contributes to the growth and rising popularity of Sinn Fein, which wins 73 seats in the 1918 election.

January: Sinn Fein announces that its members will not take up their seats in the British parliament. Instead, Sinn Fein proclaims an Irish Declaration of Independence and sets up a republican parliament in Dublin. The IRA launches a campaign of violence against British security forces in Ireland, marking the start of the Irish War of Independence.

November 21st: The first ‘Bloody Sunday’. In retaliation for the murder of British agents by the IRA, British soldiers open fire at a Gaelic football game, killing 12 people. Violence escalates across Ireland and large areas of Cork are set on fire.
December 23rd: The British parliament passes the Government of Ireland Act which introduces Home Rule but also partitions Ireland into two separate entities. The act establishes two parliaments: one in Dublin to govern the south (the Irish Free State) and one in Belfast for the six Ulster counties.

June: The end of the Irish War of Independence. British forces in Ireland begin to demobilise and withdraw, leaving military stations to the Irish Volunteers. The group splits based on support for the partition and tension between the Free State troops and the ‘Irregulars’ escalates. Dublin ratifies the Government of Ireland Act and the partition of Ireland is confirmed. The north remains under the rule of the United Kingdom and instantly civil war breaks out in Northern Ireland.

January 15th: The IRA declares war on Britain and begins a bombing campaign in England. Over the next 14 months the IRA conducts more than 50 bombings in England, most targeting government buildings, utilities and transport infrastructure. Seven people are killed in this attacks and almost 100 people injured.

July 1st: The Irish Free State passes a constitution that removes most of the nation’s obligations to Britain.

December 21st: The Irish parliament passes the Republic of Ireland Act, which formalises and completes Ireland’s transition to a republic. Northern Ireland remains part of Great Britain.

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This page was written by Rebekah Poole and Jennifer Llewellyn. To reference this page, use the following citation:
R. Poole and J. Llewellyn, “Northern Ireland timeline: background”, Alpha History, accessed [today’s date], https://alphahistory.com/northernireland/northern-ireland-timeline-background/.