This afternoon, I said “Hello” to Gerry Adams, and he said “Hello” back. I was walking down Oliver Plunkett Street in Cork City Centre when I passed him and a group of his cohorts, one of whom stuck a No on the Lisbon Treaty pamphlet in my hands (for you Americans, we’ll be posting something about the Treaty soon. You’ve probably never heard of it, but it is actually pretty important, I think). So who is Gerry Adams, many of you Americans are asking? Well, if you’ve watched the evening news more than a few times in the last few decades, you’ve probably seen his face (do a google image search for him and you’ll see).

Adams is the President of Sinn Féin (pronounced Shin Fane), a political party in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. To really understand Sinn Féin, you need at least a little understanding of Irish history, so here’s my own “Irish History for Dummies,” or, in this case, for clueless Americans. In as short a space as possible, I’ll give you the highlights of Irish political history from the Norman invasion up to and including the Irish Civil War. In the next few days, I’ll bring the history up to the present day. To any Irish readers, I’m sorry for any errors and for skipping over such interesting characters as Wolfe Tone, and to any English readers, I’m sorry you look like right bastards whenever you’re mentioned in Irish history.

The Normans invaded Ireland from England in 1169 when the deposed King of Leinster (a region of Ireland) asked for help from the Norman English monarch, Henry II, in regaining his throne. To make a very long story very short, the English never left, and centuries of English domination of Ireland followed, with the Irish occasionally rebelling against the foreign occupation. English monarchs encouraged English settlements, but this began before there was such a thing as Protestantism, so at first, at least, the settlements were more of a political tool to control Ireland and less of a religious weapon against Catholicism.

Although there were periodic armed revolts against the British, there were also political movements which achieved various levels of success in gaining the rights of Irish Catholics. Sinn Féin, which means “ourselves” or “ourselves alone,” began as a political party in the early twentieth century (although the term is much older), and while it had nothing to do with the Easter Uprising of 1916, Éamon de Valera (who did participate in the uprising) would subsequently take over the party and lead it to win the majority of Irish seats to the United Kingdom Parliament in a 1918 election. Instead of going to England to sit in Parliament, however, many of the newly elected Irish Ministers of Parliament went to Dublin and formed an Irish Parliament, the Dáil Éireann, which declared Ireland independent.

The Irish Republican Army (IRA) was the rebel armed force that won the Irish War of Independence in 1921. The British negotiated a treaty that created the Irish Free State, which would remain a part of the Commonwealth. One of the conditions of the treaty, though, was that six counties in the northern part of Ireland, where there was a higher percentage of Protestants, could opt out of joining the Free State and instead remain as part of the United Kingdom, which they did.

Civil war followed as Irish opinion split, some believing that independence for much of the island was worth temporarily giving up the North (which was expected by some, at least, to eventually join the South), while others couldn’t accept a divided Ireland. People on both sides of the conflict continued to call themselves the Irish Republican Army. Eventually, those arguing for accepting the treaty and the division won.