Story: Irish

Page 1. Understanding the Irish conflict

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For centuries, conflict set the Irish people against each other, and against the English. Irish migrants who settled in New Zealand brought with them the same issues that divided their countrymen at home.

These issues were interwoven. They represented conflicting ideas of personal and national identity.


Ireland has two main religious groups. The majority of Irish are Roman Catholic, and a smaller number are Protestant (mostly Anglicans and Presbyterians). In the northern province of Ulster, Catholics outnumber Protestants.

More Catholics than Protestants emigrated to New Zealand.


From the 12th century Ireland was ruled by the English. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the Irish settlers who came to New Zealand were British citizens. But many Catholic Irish believed Ireland should have its own government, independent of England and the British Crown. They were known as nationalists. In contrast, Irish Protestants generally supported British rule of Ireland. They were known as loyalists.

In 1921, after an uprising against British rule, Ireland was divided into two. Six out nine counties in the northern province of Ulster remained part of Britain (the exceptions being Cavan, Donegal and Monaghan). The rest of Ireland achieved self-government within the British Empire, as the Irish Free State. It became an independent republic outside the empire in 1949.


Irish Catholic peasants resented their land being taken by Anglo-Irish Protestants. These people held power as landlords and supported English rule. By the 1860s half of Ireland was owned by just 750 people, nearly all of them Protestants.

Events and groups mentioned in the Irish story

The Protestant ascendancy

In 1704 Catholics were excluded from political rights. By this time, Catholics owned less than 10% of the land. During the 18th century Protestants, who comprised only about 10% of the population, established political and economic power as landlords.

The Orange Order

The Orange Order was set up in 1795 to defend Protestants against Catholics in Ireland. The name comes from Protestant King William of Orange, who defeated Catholic King James II at the Battle of the Boyne on 12 July 1690. This day is still celebrated by Irish Protestants.

The Fenians

In 1829 Catholics were allowed political representation. Despite this concession, Irish nationalists began to push for political independence and land reform. One group who argued for this in the mid-1800s were the Fenians.

Sinn Fein

By the first decade of the 20th century the British government was prepared to grant ‘home rule’ to Ireland. Those in Ulster, which had a Protestant majority, opposed this and pushed for separation from the rest of the country.

The First World War stalled progress, and in the Easter Rising of April 1916, a group of radical nationalists known as the Sinn Fein (meaning ‘ourselves alone’) seized the General Post Office in Dublin, hoping to spark a revolution.

The Troubles

From the late 1960s a civil rights movement broke out in Ulster to promote the political and social rights of the Irish Catholic minority there. This led to violence with the involvement of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) on the Catholic side and the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and Ulster Defence Association (UDA) on the Protestant side.

How to cite this page:

Jock Phillips, 'Irish - Understanding the Irish conflict', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 23 May 2024)

Story by Jock Phillips, published 8 Feb 2005, updated 1 Mar 2015