The history of this little island country on the Atlantic
edge of Europe is absolutely steeped in darkness. From Viking raids to centuries of repression by the English
. From famine and emigration to the abuse of women and children under the mantle of Catholicism. It is heavy baggage. And it reaches to this present day.
However, the "Troubles" between Unionists and Republicans, in the context of which Irish violence kept making global headline for decades in the second half of the 20th century, are covered separately under Northern Ireland
The places covered here under the heading of the Republic of Ireland are (so far) limited to the capital city, Dublin.
Memorial sites related to the Great Famine (see below) can also be found in several other places all over the country, in particular in Cobh near Cork or in the form of the Dunbrody Famine Ship (a replica) in New Ross in County Wexford.
A good part of the dark history of Ireland
goes back beyond what is normally within the modern scope of dark tourism – see the concept of dark tourism
. But even though the Great Famine happened in the mid 19th century, its repercussions reached well into the 20th and are such a defining part of what characterizes Ireland's sense of its own history, that it has to be mentioned here as well.
It must not be forgotten that the famine happened in an already grave historical context. Ireland had been subjugated by its big neighbour Great Britain
(or rather: by England!) for centuries, almost in a manner of colonialism. That meant: exploitation and denying rights. In this case it had also always been a religious struggle – between (Irish) Catholicism and Protestantism
(especially the particularly English version of the latter). Religion coupled with politics based on power inequalities has always been an exceptionally poisonous and explosive mixture. We see it today around the world in an even wider-reaching kind of a so-called "clash of civilizations"… but that's another topic. Back to the Irish context, and down to earth, literally even, namely to the "earth apple" or pomme de terre: the potato.
The Irish had adopted the potato as the single most important staple food from the 16th century onwards. When in the mid 19th century the crops were massively affected by the so-called "potato blight" (a fungus-like disease that kills the plant), the poor Irish population – which had been growing rapidly (Catholic country!) – were suddenly facing starvation in their millions.
But one has to realize that it was actually only a potato famine – it didn't mean that there wasn't any other food around. There was. Plenty. But it kept on being exported (to England and overseas) despite the starving masses. How come? It's to do with the so-called Penal Laws that had been imposed a century and a half before by Britain in order to repress Catholics and favour Protestants in Ireland. Catholics – i.e. the vast majority of the Irish – were not only barred from higher-level jobs but were not allowed to own land. Instead they were mere tenants who had to pay their (Protestant) landlords for land use. This exacerbated the situation of the poor when the potato crop failed. Not only could they not eat, they couldn't afford the payments to their landlords either – let alone buy alternative food products. The landlords – and the English – were shamefully indifferent to the situation. Few gave support to the starving population. Most just let it happen – or even aggravated the situation.
So the "Great Potato Famine" was in reality not simply the result of misfortune, an act of nature (or dare I say: God?) in the form of a disastrous crop failure. But it was at least as much the result of sheer politics – of the powerful repressors against the subjugated poor.
One immediate effect of the famine other than the starvation of hundreds of thousands of those poor was the way out: emigration. Indeed, a couple of million chose that path out of desperation. Or worse: their landlords, rather than feeding them, paid their fare to America in order to simply get rid of them. They welcomed their departure. They had been a burden. And with the poor peasants gone there was more land for farms, i.e. especially for sheep. How convenient! More sheep meant more wool, and more wool meant more profit for England's booming textile industry. It's an oversimplification, I know, but there is enough disturbing truth in this reasoning all the same.
The emigrants who more or less involuntarily found themselves shipped over the Atlantic
to America were initially far from saved. The ships were often crammed and ill-equipped for the journey – and as so many lost their lives during the crossing these vessels became known as "coffin ships
However, the millions of emigrants who did make it formed the base of the vast Irish "Diaspora
" today – which outnumbers the Irish at home several times over. This influx of Irish blood into America also explains the close ties between the USA
and Ireland to this day – in a way an even more "special relationship" than that with Great Britain
(except militarily). And it's no wonder that visits to Ireland feature very high on Americans' European travels. Many come specifically for genealogical roots tourism
Population levels in Ireland dropped so dramatically as a result of starvation and emigration from the mid 19th century that they still haven't gone back to pre-famine levels to this day. I'm not saying they should
rise (see here
) – but it has to be understood that the effect of the famine on the Irish populace is still very much a reality even over a century and a half later!
The struggle to overcome this situation, that is: the struggle to rid the country of the grip of the English "colonial" power has, unsurprisingly, also a very long and a deeply dark history in Ireland. There had been various rebellions and other liberation movements through the centuries. At the beginning of the 20th century, these gained, again, momentum … possibly more than ever before.
Meanwhile, and despite fierce opposition by the Unionists in Ulster in the north of the country (see Northern Ireland
again), Home Rule
for Ireland was eventually promised by England, but it promptly got delayed with the outbreak of the First World War
– in which many Irish volunteered, and went fighting alongside the English against Germany
At home, a group of rebels who had not joined the war instead used the moment to have another attempt at seizing power and declare a Republic, namely in the Easter Rising of 1916. They marched into Dublin and took control of strategic positions, including the Post Office which they made their HQ. From here they proclaimed an Irish Republic.
The rebellion was, again, quickly crushed by the might of the English. But then the English "masters" made a big mistake. Not only did they capture the rebel leaders and send them to jail, they proceeded to execute 15 of them (see Kilmainham Gaol
). That way, the rebels, who had actually not had much backing among the general populace to start with, were turned into martyrs! With that boost, the stone set in motion could not be stopped.
After WWI, independence did come, following a short War of Independence at the end of which a Treaty was negotiated according to which Ulster in the north would remain part of the UK. The pro-Treaty vs. anti-Treaty controversy caused a deep divide in Irish society. When the pro-Treaty side narrowly won in 1922, Civil War ensued but petered out by 1923. The new mostly-independent Ireland slowly found its feet and in 1948 officially left the Commonwealth and became a Republic.
But it had all come at a price: partition
. And the separation of Ulster from the rest of Ireland was to be the root of the bitter "Troubles" that shook the north of Ireland, and the UK at large, through the second half of the 20th century. But that is covered under the separate headings here, namely under Northern Ireland
The Republic of Ireland remained a kind of poor house in Europe for many decades, with high levels of unemployment, low productivity and continuing emigration. Joining the EU
in 1973 opened the country up and conditions improved. Two decades later a veritable economic boom eventually set in during the 1990s. For a time Ireland was even referred to as the "Celtic Tiger
" – in analogy to the so-called "Tiger" states in South-East Asia, such as Thailand
, which had seen a similar boom. But that phase of sudden prosperity was not to last either. A property/construction bubble burst and Ireland nearly went bust. This time, at least, the safety net of EU membership softened the fall.
Dark tourists can see traces of this burst bubble in the form of large abandoned housing complexes in several parts of Ireland (around Dublin
especially). Like modern dead ghost towns
which had never actually even been alive, they just stand there half-finished and empty, like warning symbols of bad investment practices.
Other houses of shame go back much further in history and also form a very special, and very Irish dark legacy: the so-called workhouses and the Magdalene Laundries. The former were institutions for the poor, where they would find shelter and work – which in effect was little short of enslavement, rarely chosen voluntarily. Even the buildings themselves resembled prisons in a rather drastic way. Few of these workhouses survived after their closure. One exception that I am aware of is the Donaghmore Famine Workhouse Museum in County Laois. A few other surviving structures of this type (e.g. in Birr) may also be turned into something similar. We will have to wait and see. Given the current trends it would not surprise me if such developments did indeed take place.
The well-publicized scandal surrounding the Magdalene Laundries is of even more sinister character. These institutions, first founded in the late 16th century, were "asylums for fallen women" – where "fallen" didn't just mean former prostitutes or unmarried mothers, even perceived "promiscuity" or simply being "too pretty" could have been enough for young women to be sent to these "asylums". Rape or child abuse victims were similarly victimized even further through this system. In the asylums, the women were not just supposed to work in the associated laundries, for no pay (i.e. slavery again!), but they had to endure a monastic-like regime of enforced silence and prolonged prayer sessions. And often enough, physical abuse came on top of it all. Tens of thousands of women went through this system.
These sound like stories from centuries long gone by – but no: in Ireland such Magdalene Laundries existed up until almost the end of the 20th century! The last one closed as late as 1996! The plight of the women received some enhanced recognition in recent years, especially through a number of books and films, such as the 2002 movie "The Magdalene Sisters".
Needless to say, the treatment of women in these institutions was a drastic violation of human rights … as encoded in the EU – how Ireland, a European Community member since 1973, could have got away with it appears a mystery today. But it probably has to be explained within the context of the generally more closed-off societal attitudes of old, borne out of the devout Catholic Irish "conservatism" in general. Even more scandalous was the revelation that many state organizations as well as high-profile companies used the services of these laundries, apparently without batting an eyelid.
It was only in February 2013 that the Irish government finally issued a formal apology to the victims. Allegedly there is also talk of a national memorial being commissioned to commemorate the sinister legacy of the Magdalene Laundries. What will come of this remains to be seen.
Given that the Magdalene Laundries were church institutions, the scandal surrounding them has also seriously dented the former authority of the church in Ireland.
Moreover, recently uncovered child abuse cases in the Catholic Church, even at the highest levels, have further undermined its formerly tight grip on Irish society.
And so the modern Ireland is a very different country to what it had been only a couple of decades ago: more agnostic, more open, more modern, more tolerant … although some xenophobia of old still persists (only quite recently did Ireland have to cope with any influx of foreign immigrants at all). But for instance you couldn't have even imagined mentioning the issue of gay rights 20-30 years ago. Now they are being implemented at a degree that appears more enlightened than in many other Western nations.
For the traveller
, Ireland has in general long been a wonderful destination, and this more modern Ireland actually enhances this attractiveness (only very stubborn traditionalists could object here). Obviously there's still the dramatic coastline and the eponymous green scenery of the Emerald Isle to admire. Then there are quaint villages, traditional pubs and – of course – the music. Now add to this a vastly improved infrastructure and other blessings of modernity, plus a rekindled awareness and celebration of the delights of high-quality Irish food & drink
, and you have a truly heady mix of great allure.
I've so far only had far too short a stint in Ireland (the north
), and that not at the best of seasons (December!). But even that little taster was enough to make me long to go back before too long and explore more. The main draw, it has to be admitted, is less the dark tourism side, despite all that dark history, but rather the "lighter and brighter" sides of Ireland. But still, when I do go back one day I'm sure I'll uncover more for this dark niche branch of travellers' special interests too. And then I'll report back here.
- Ireland 1 - coastal forces
- Ireland 2 - coastal glory
- Ireland 3 - coast and castle
- Ireland 4 - coastal hazards
- Ireland 5 - fisheries
- Ireland 6 - rural
- Ireland 7 - sheep on the road
- Ireland 8 - boggy
- Ireland 9 - Celtic cemetery
- iconic Ireland
All images except 'iconic Ireland' courtesy of Andreas Ries