Any one of the worst things that has happened to Ireland historically would be considered a major tragedy in most other countries. The country's past includes imperial takeovers, economic collapse, and population diaspora - a complex history that movies don't always get right. However, it's also a country marked by the resilience, joy, and spiritedness of its people.
The worst times in Irish history started centuries ago and continue today in a country that has been conquered, starved, brutalized, and even artificially divided. With a country's history that is as lengthy as Ireland's, a list of how the Irish have been victimized is quite sobering. Here are just a few examples of bad things that have happened to Ireland.
The "Penal Laws," which the English ruling class passed over the Irish peasant class in 1695, were a stringent set of rules that - among many other prohibitions - forbade Irish ownership of land and required the transfer of property from Catholics to Protestants. As a result, the Irish essentially became sharecroppers dependent on one crop: the potato. Potato farming, the profession many Irish were forced into, basically allowed for a subsistence life on farmland owned by an English landlord, who resold this and other crops at great profit. The landlords prospered; the people struggled.
In 1845, when a blight began to affect the potato crop, and sharecroppers could no longer pay rents, they were evicted. When hungry people began to eat the blighted potatoes, they contracted cholera or typhus. Thousands died. However, despite claims of famine, huge quantities of food and livestock were exported from Ireland during this time period under British military guard. In the decade from 1840 to 1850, 1.5 million Irish inhabitants out of 8.2 million disappeared. Some emigrated, but many perished. Ireland has never reached the population levels it held in the mid-19th century.
Hunger and desperation in the 1840s drove a massive Irish emigration to other countries around the world. Since 1700, it is estimated that around 10 million Irish-born individuals have left the country. This in a nation that in 1840 only had 8.5 million people. During the 1840s, those who were able to escape death from disease or hunger by emigrating to North America were faced with the prospect of boarding what were called "Coffin Ships". In keeping with this name, as many as 30% of the passengers who attempted to leave Ireland by ship perished from disease or privation while on board. The owners of these ships were typically unscrupulous and attempted to spend as little as possible on such resources as food, water, sanitation and healthcare.
One newspaper from the period describes life on board like this: "The torments of hell, might, in some degree, resemble the sufferings of the emigrants on board...Take all of the stews of Liverpool, concentrate in a given space the acts and deeds done in all for one year, and they would scarcely equal in atrocity the amount of crime committed in one emigrant ship during a single voyage."
Oliver Cromwell emerged from British political chaos to take military control of England in the late 1640s. When English royalists - whom Cromwell defeated in the English Civil War, allied with Irish Confederates - the English Parliament decided to send Cromwell to Ireland at the head of an army. Cromwell landed at Dublin on August 15, 1649. A deeply fanatical Puritan Protestant, Cromwell considered this mission a crusade as well as a political struggle against Catholics and the Papacy. He attacked Irish coastal towns in the Eastern and southern parts of the country, slaughtering captives, priests, and civilians with "no quarter" given. One garrison commander was beaten to death with his own wooden leg.
By 1650, Cromwell had captured any Irish town of consequence. Subsequently, Irish land was confiscated and turned over to individuals who had financially supported the invasion, Catholicism was officially persecuted, and many opponents of Cromwell fled the country. Cromwell remains one of the most hated figures in Irish history.
On April 24, 1916, the day after Easter, Irish republicans began an armed rebellion centered mostly in Dublin. The rebels believed that British preoccupation with World War I and the element of surprise would lead to a successful outcome. Initially, the republicans were able to seize barracks and some strategic locations around the capital, but they either neglected or failed to secure ports and railroad stations that allowed the British government to reinforce Dublin with thousands of troops. Disorganization, poor equipment, and the news that a German shipment of arms had been repelled by the Royal Navy greatly diminished the enthusiasm and participation in the rebellion. What became known as the Easter Rising was put down in less than a week when rebel leader Patrick Pearse issued an order to surrender. British response to the revolt was swift and brutal.
By May, dozens of defendants were dragged before secret court martials that did not allow a defense. On May 3, the British began executing individuals involved in the republican leadership. These included Patrick Pearse, shot by firing squad, and James Connolly, who, because of a wound suffered during the fighting, was executed while tied to a chair. Ironically, these executions outraged the previously ambivalent Irish population and united them in hostility against British rule and occupation.