I remember David Steel, a Scot, saying “the trouble with the Irish is that they never forget, and the trouble with the English is that they never remember!”
So for those with poor or selective memories, here are four surprising bits of Anglo-Irish history.
1. The first “English” King to invade Ireland was Henry II in 1171. (Although most English people at the time would probably have considered him a Norman or Frenchman). He sought and obtained the Pope’s blessing for his expedition, because the Pope considered Henry a good Catholic, and hoped he would sort out the unruly Irish Church which still followed a lot of Celtic Christian traditions, and seems to have tolerated a lot of old pagan practices too. Plus, Henry made a large donation to the Pope’s project to rebuild St.Peter’s Church in Rome, which he made the Irish pay for! However, he also had the support of a lot of Irish people who saw him as a (much-needed) competent ruler.
2. There followed 400 years of “English” rule in Ireland before anyone anywhere used the word “Protestant”, but there were numerous rebellions and conflicts in Ireland without any religious elements. Although religion was a big issue in English politics in the 16th Century, the Tudor monarchs left the Catholic Church in Ireland alone. The gradual spread of Protestantism was mainly in Dublin and not state-sponsored. It hardly bothered the majority of Irish people.
3. The first Irishman to bring religion into politics was Hugh O’Neill who led a rebellion against the English in the reign of Elizabeth I. Hugh was not very religious, but hoped to use this as a way of uniting various groups of Irish rebels, as there was no real common cause at the time, and of getting financial and/or military help from the Pope, Spain, France, or almost anyone he could contact.
4. William of Orange, or King William III, was not anti-Irish but rather opposed to King Louis XIV of France who seemed to be using Ireland as a back door to England. A lot of the people killed in the battle of the Boyne were French, plus a lot of Dutchmen in King William’s army. The Pope gave William his blessing before the battle, recognising him as the legitimate King of England and Ireland.
Finally, let us all celebrate St. Patrick’s Day together, remembering that he was probably not Irish, but could have been a Scot, a Welshman, or even a Liverpudlian. As my name is John Murray, I have probably got either Irish or Scottish ancestry, but my grandmother (nee O’Neil) came from Dublin, and I used to live in Wales, so my loyalty is to Britain. All of it.
Think too that in Patrick’s time there was no distinction between Catholic and Protestant, and that we should all be glad of the influence Christianity has had on the culture and society of the whole of the British Isles. It should be something to unite us. It still could be. Thank you Patrick!