The Troubles in Ireland and Bloody Sunday

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  • 0:04 The Troubles and Bloody Sunday
  • 0:48 Background
  • 2:41 Parliamentary Intervention
  • 4:22 Bloody Sunday and…
  • 6:08 Peace Talks
  • 7:25 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we explore the centuries-old rivalry between Catholics and Protestants in Ireland, and the political and military struggle for the six northernmost counties in Ireland during the thirty-year period known as 'The Troubles.'

The Troubles and Bloody Sunday

Rivalries often have long histories. In sports, rivalries bloom from something as small as geographical proximity or a slight between players or fans in the distant past. For example, the University of Michigan and the University of Minnesota football teams play each other each year for a brown jug, which Minnesota reportedly refused to give back to Michigan after a game 100 years ago!

The rivalry between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland is far less flippant and goes back several centuries. Indeed, instead of something as frivolous as a football game, conflict between Protestants and Catholics in Ireland often decided whether each group would be allowed to practice their own religion or the role of British government in Ireland.


The story of Northern Ireland goes back several centuries. Indeed, England had controlled Ireland in varying degrees since the Norman conquest of Ireland in the late 12th century. For centuries afterward, English control was nominal, and England only had effective control of Dublin and its environs. However, in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, various Tudor and Stuart monarchs began taking a greater interest in Irish affairs, largely because although England had become a Protestant country during the reign of Henry VIII, Ireland had remained a staunchly Catholic island. Many Protestants feared that attempts to impose Catholicism upon England would likely come from Ireland.

In addition to military campaigns, England also began taking land from rebellious Catholic Irish nobles and importing English or Scottish Protestant settlers into the seized territory. An opportunity for an enormous settlement opened up in 1607, when several Catholic earls fled from Ireland to Europe. These earls owned huge tracts of land in the North of Ireland in Ulster. With English settlements in Ulster, these Northern Counties evolved into a bastion of Protestantism in largely Catholic Ireland.

This became incredibly important when Irish independence from England finally became attainable in the years after WWI. In January 1919, Ireland declared independence from England, and the Irish Republican Army (IRA) began fighting a guerrilla war against the occupying British troops. Despite attempts at declaring martial law and maintaining British rule in Ireland, the British agreed to a truce in 1921 and recognized Irish independence in 1922. However, before doing so, the British Parliament partitioned Ireland, creating Northern Ireland out of the six largely Protestant Northern Counties. According to the law, Northern Ireland remained part of the United Kingdom.

Parliamentary Intervention

This did not sit well with the new state of Ireland who wanted the entire island unified under the Irish flag. Additionally, the minority Catholic population in Northern Ireland wanted to be part of the Irish state. The majority Protestant population, however, was relieved to remain part of the U.K., and the ensuing Northern Irish government became dominated by these Protestant unionists.

Catholics were openly discriminated against in Northern Ireland, and the Protestant government refused to address these issues. Violence often broke out between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. The unrest became so prevalent that in 1968, the British Parliament suspended Northern Ireland's ability to legislate for itself and began directly controlling the country.

Violence continued, however, as the Provisional IRA, a Northern Irish nationalist paramilitary organization, refused to accept any solution to the crisis other than complete British withdrawal and reunification of the six Northern Counties with the rest of Ireland. Until its demands were met, the IRA was determined to conduct a guerrilla war against British troops in Northern Ireland. In response, Protestants formed their own paramilitary organizations to oppose the IRA. The increased violence and intermittent warfare between Catholic and Protestant paramilitary groups, and at times British troops, continued for nearly three decades, a period of time that came to be called 'The Troubles.' British troops were unwelcome by either side; Catholics viewed the British presence as yet another impediment to Irish unification, and many Protestants feared the British might intentionally weaken the Protestant position in Northern Ireland, hoping to placate the IRA and end the violence.

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