Ireland Under the Union, 1800-1922

Module code: HS2323 

Module co-ordinator: Stuart Ball

Module Outline

Few countries have a more controversial history than Ireland, and no period of Irish history is more controversial – and myth-laden – than that of the Union with Great Britain. This covered more than a century, from its establishment in 1800 to the partition which followed the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 – a settlement so emotively difficult for the successful rebels of Sinn Fein and the IRA that it led to the outbreak of bitter and bloody civil war in early 1922.

The political, social and economic developments in Ireland during this period are so inter-woven that it is impossible to consider one without the others, and so the course examines and integrates all aspects of the history of Ireland from 1800 to 1922. Key themes are the nature of peasant rural society, the land question, the role of religion and sectarian hostility, social violence and political rebellion, and the development of Irish nationalism. The tension between constitutional tactics and the threat of force runs through political developments from O’Connell and the campaign for Catholic Emancipation in the 1820s to Redmond and the Ulster crisis of 1912-14. The key turning points of the period are the Great Famine of 1845-51, the impact of the Land War and Home Rule in the 1880s, and the effects of the First World War and the ‘War of Independence’ or ‘Troubles’ of 1919-21.

Topics covered

The course begins with the population expansion and agricultural problems which led by the 1840s to one-third of the Irish population being dependent entirely on the potato for existence, and another one-third being partly dependent, and so to the devastating crisis which resulted from the failure of the potato crop in the late 1840s: the Great Famine. We also consider the causes and nature of violence in pre-Famine rural society, and the role of secret societies. On the political side, the campaign of Daniel O’Connell for Catholic Emancipation and the reasons for its attainment in 1829 are explored, as is the failure of O’Connell’s efforts to secure Repeal of the Act of Union in the 1830s and 1840s.

Social and economic topics in the middle period of the course include the changes in agriculture and the nature of rural society after the Famine, the absence of industrial development and urban growth in most of Ireland, and the exception of the rapid rise of Belfast as a major Victorian industrial city. Political developments range from the unsuccessful ‘Young Ireland’ rising of 1848, to the growing political power of the Roman Catholic church, the revolutionary underground Fenian movement and its rising in 1867, and the beginning of the parliamentary constitutional ‘Home Rule’ party in the 1870s.

The problems of the land system and the demand for devolution came together in the critical decade of the 1880s, with the Land War of 1878-82 and the Home Rule crisis of 1885-86. The leadership of both movements was held by one person, Charles Stewart Parnell, and the course examines his rise and dominance from 1878 to 1890, and his downfall in the divorce scandal which split the parliamentary Irish Nationalist party that he had forged.

We then examine developments in the political vacuum which followed for the two decades from Parnell’s early death in 1891 to the Parliament Act of 1911, which curtailed the power of the House of Lords and opened the way to the passage of a Home Rule Bill. Topics considered in this period include the attempts of Conservative governments to undermine Home Rule with social reforms, the Gaelic revival and cultural nationalism, and the rise of Ulster Unionism. Social and economic topics include the changing role of women, the lack of a labour movement, and the land purchase legislation and end of the landlord system.

The final part of the course looks at the crisis decade from 1912 to 1922, which opens with the confrontation between Ulster Protestantism and the Liberal government over the Third Home Rule Bill that seems to be taking Ireland to the brink of civil war by the summer of 1914. We then consider the impact of the First World War, the aims and results of the Easter Rising of 1916, the rapid advance of Sinn Fein, the successful tactics of the IRA in the guerrilla war of 1919-21, the resulting treaty and partition in 1921, and the causes of the civil war which began in 1922.


During each week, we examine three important topics in discussion in seminar classes, for which students do some preparatory reading. In each session, the topic is set in its wider context by an introduction from the course tutor, after which there are one or two short oral presentations (of about three minutes each) by students about an aspect of the topic that they have found to be particularly interesting or important. The course tutor then raises key questions and issues about the topic for general discussion and debate by the whole class.


Students write two essays of 2,500 words, each of which counts for 25% of the marks, and there is also an exam in the summer term which counts for 50%. The very extensive published literature in books, biographies and articles makes it possible to examine specific topics in depth in the coursework essays, and students have 90 different questions to chose from, each of which is provided with its own individual list of recommended reading.


  • Paul Bew, Ireland: The Politics of Enmity 1789-2006.
  • D.G. Boyce, Nineteenth-Century Ireland: The Search for Stability.
  • Alvin Jackson, Ireland 1778-1998: Politics and War.
  • Cormac O Grada, The Great Irish Famine.
  • Charles Townshend, Political Violence in Ireland: Government and Resistance since 1848.
  • Jeremy Smith, Britain and Ireland: from Home Rule to Independence.
  • Oonagh Walsh, Ireland’s Independence 1880-1923.