From the time of the Great Potato Famine of 1845–1849, which decimated Ireland, the country's population remained below 5 million people. That figure declined throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as many Irish left the country for England and the United States. For centuries the British had controlled Ireland, but in the nineteenth century Irish nationalist groups fought for independence. The conflict between the Irish and the British, often a very deadly one, not only focused on the control of the island but also involved religion. The overwhelming majority of the Irish population was Roman Catholic, while the British population was largely Protestant united under the Church of England. One of the dilemmas confronting the British concerned the Irish Protestants, who lived mostly in the northern part of the island. The Protestants did not wish to live in a united Ireland with a Catholic majority. Thus, by the summer of 1914 civil war loomed, but the outbreak of World War I temporarily halted any further violence.
In 1916 Irish nationalists launched the Easter Rebellion in Dublin, an attempt to overthrow English rule by armed force. The revolt was quickly crushed. Following World War I, however, violence resumed as Catholics and Protestants battled each other, primarily in the north. In an effort to help stem the violence, the British Parliament passed the 1920 Home Rule Bill granting separate legislatures to the southern twenty-six counties and the six northern counties. But the Irish Republicans rejected the bill, and the fighting continued. A year later, in December 1921, the British government signed a treaty with Irish representatives that resulted in the creation of the Irish Free State. As part of the agreement, however, the six counties in the north with Protestant majorities could opt out of home rule. They eventually became part of the United Kingdom.
During World War II Ireland remained neutral. Prime Minister Eamon De Valera announced the government's position early in 1940. Irish neutrality sparked a great deal of controversy, but De Valera maintained this policy, arguing that Ireland was best served by staying out of the conflict. In 1949, Irish Prime Minister John Costello withdrew from the British Commonwealth and declared Ireland a republic. The United Nations (UN) formally granted the Republic of Ireland membership in 1955.
During the Cold War the Republic of Ireland maintained its traditional neutrality. In 1949 the founding members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) invited Ireland to join the organization. The invitation touched off a fierce debate in the country over whether joining NATO should be linked to an end of the partition of Ireland. The Irish Republicans, or those who supported a united Ireland, believed that an appeal could be made to the United States that might lead to a unification of the six northern Irish counties with the Republic. However, the U.S. State Department informed the Irish government that the dispute was not a matter for the collective security pact. The Americans were worried about offending the British, and President Harry Truman's administration also expressed concern about the Irish government's refusal to allow the Allies to use its ports during World War II. Nevertheless, the United States considered Irish membership in the collective security agreement important because of Ireland's strategic location and the potential of locating military bases there. Ultimately, Ireland elected not to join NATO.
Although the Irish Republic did not formally join the defense pact, Ireland for the most part sympathized with the West in its struggle against the Soviet Union. The people of Ireland, an overwhelmingly Roman Catholic nation, looked unfavorably upon the antichurch policies of the communist governments in Eastern Europe. The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) established a liaison with Irish intelligence networks in the mid-1950s, and Irish governments supplied the United States with intelligence information throughout the Cold War. In the UN, the Irish delegation generally voted with the United States and the rest of the Western bloc. Ireland also received financial assistance totaling nearly $150 million from the United States through the Marshall Plan.
Because Ireland did not join NATO, defense of the nation fell solely to its own army. Sean MacBride, the minister of external affairs, visited both Great Britain and the United States in 1950 in hopes of gaining some military assistance, but his efforts were rebuffed. The armed forces of Ireland were relatively small because the government could not afford to pay for a large military establishment. Government expenditures were modest, as Ireland was one of the poorest nations in Europe. The nation had never industrialized and lacked many key natural resources, leaving its economy stagnant until the 1970s. Ireland joined the European Union (EU) in 1973 and thereafter began receiving subsidies from the EU, which helped expand its economy.
Irish support of U.S. policies toward the Soviet Union helped Ireland secure from Washington a commitment in the late 1970s that the United States would ensure Ireland's central role in the peace talks concerning Northern Ireland. As the Cold War wound down in the late 1980s, Ireland began to prosper economically and also took on a greater role in international affairs.
Justin P. Coffey
Keogh, Dermot. Twentieth-Century Ireland: Nation and State. New York: St. Martin's, 1994.; Patterson, Henry. Ireland since 1939. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.