The Irish Republican Army (IRA): A Troubled History

By | March 10, 2020

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Mural of The Troubles, Belfast, United Kingdom. (Getty Images)

The history of the IRA, or Irish Republican Army, is long and complicated, filled with religious tensions, political uprisings, and lots of mayhem. So who exactly are the IRA, what do they believe, and what do they want? It's a bit of a tricky answer because there have not been one but several IRAs throughout Ireland's history, but the Irish Republican Armies have all wanted, in some form or another, the political and religious independence of the island of Ireland from any foreign nation, namely Great Britain.

To understand why this is important, we have to go all the way back to the 1160s, with the Anglo-Norman invasion of Ireland. Before this, the Irish isle was not ruled by any singular government, existing as a collection of various smaller kingdoms under the vague authority of the High King. When the Normans invaded, however, they claimed the whole island and brought it under English control. As one might imagine, the Irish didn't like this much, and there has been bloody conflict pretty much ever since. The native Irish people even nearly won back control of the island in the 1500s, but King Henry VIII pushed back hard and declared himself both King of England and Ireland.  

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King Henry VIII. (Wikipedia Commons)

Total military domination may have worked on Ireland if not for the fact that Henry VIII and most of the English monarchs who followed pushed their Protestant Church of England religion on all those under their rule. The Irish would not abandon their Catholicism, and the religious struggle became deeply entangled with issues of political oppression across the land. The Irish continued to rebel and tried out some pretty wacky things, including once invading Canada just to mess with Great Britain, but nothing really panned out.

Things just kind of chugged along like that until 1912. Ireland was still putting itself back together after the Great Potato Famine heavily reduced the population through starvation or emigration, and those left were tired of the constant English intervention and oppression. They wanted democratic control over at least local issues, but England wasn't keen on the idea, splitting the country between Irish Nationalists who thought Ireland ought to rule itself as an independent nation and Unionists who liked the status quo. While Nationalism was more popular among the Catholic majority, the wealthier Protestants in Northern Ireland leaned more Unionist for fear of economic decline if cut off from England's power.