A new anatomy of Ireland: the Irish Protestants, 1649–1770

Published in 18th-19th Century Social Perspectives, 18th–19th - Century History, Book Reviews, Early Modern History (1500–1700), Early Modern History Social Perspectives, Issue 2 (Summer 2004), Reviews, Volume 12

Toby Barnard
(Yale University Press, 344.40)
ISBN 0300096690

Irish Protestant ascents and descents, 1641–1770
Toby Barnard
(Four Courts Press, 355)
ISBN 1851826939


The preface of A new anatomy of Ireland mentions the works of other historians with the startling statement that ‘anyone keen to know what happened in Ireland between 1659 and 1800 should turn to those books, not to this’. But if it does not tell what happened, what does it do?

Following an excellent opening chapter outlining the inherent qualifications and caveats applicable to such a venture, it offers an impressionistic portrait of Protestant society via its myriad inhabitants and their travails, arranged thematically (and hierarchically) along class lines, with ‘peers’ at the top and ‘the lower people’ at the bottom. On the whole such dissections are useful, but structurally they pose difficulties; given the origins of the emergent Protestant ascendancy in military conquest (especially after 1649), might not ‘soldiers’ be a more appropriate category to begin with? Despite the wealth of incidental detail, relatively little sense of the broader structure of Irish society within which Irish Protestants existed emerges. The strict social delineation makes sense when dealing with distinct groupings such as the peerage or the clergy, but Barnard’s categories of ‘agents’, ‘the middle station’ and ‘the lower station’ seem far more fluid (in religious and social terms) than such categorisation permits. Indeed, the latter chapter, the longest (and most interesting) in the book, inevitably involves crossover and interplay with Catholics. And while he situates Protestant Ireland within a wider world without recourse to ‘British’ history, there is little engagement with those closer to home: the dispossessed natives. Can Irish Protestants truly be understood in isolation from those whom they sought to supplant? While Protestants undoubtedly feared them, how did the Catholic Irish view their new masters? Barnard is aware of these issues but does not fully engage with them here. His work here ‘concerns itself little with the processes by which Protestants ensconced themselves’. But surely those processes were fundamental to their maintenance and self-perception? The seventeenth century is addressed relatively infrequently here, being invoked as an adjunct to the eighteenth, thereby missing the opportunity to engage with the formation of the nascent Protestant community in the crucible of war and colonisation. While the minutiae of Protestant life are readily evoked, the broader question of how that community established itself in the midst of upheaval and uncertainty at the expense of others, and the legacies for all concerned, is unfortunately not addressed here. The synthetic nature of the study, with paragraphs jumping across decades, seems to impute a static and curiously passive quality to Irish Protestants, who, after all, decisively and irreversibly changed the island in so many ways.

In fairness, Barnard is aware of the inherent pitfalls of what is an ambitious venture, and of the relative brevity of his survey, crammed with the results of his remarkable archival ventures in scouring high and low for material with which to work. But unfortunately this wealth of detail often serves to obscure the meaning. There is a continual tension between tentative, tantalising insights and the oppressive weight of the incidental, almost antiquarian, detail used to illustrate them. While Barnard writes in an elegant, accessible manner, a tendency toward cryptic epigrams often obscures his point. Superfluous detail abounds, and the voices and testimonies of his innumerable subjects are curiously muted. Indeed, despite the detail, one can readily question the depth of Barnard’s analysis. For example, on p. 43, in discussing the pretensions of the ‘quality’, we learn of the importance of such guides as The gentleman instructed, which by 1753 had reached its thirteenth edition. But nowhere does Barnard mention its contents, surely a more instructive guide to this facet of upwardly mobile mentality than any statement of its quantity? It is a pity, as there is much of value here: the sections on the peerage and the ‘quality’ are impressive, and the book gets particularly interesting as it goes down the social ladder. The sections on office-holders, agents, and especially the ‘lower people’ ably evoke social worlds rarely addressed in Irish historiography. In fairness, A new anatomy probably should not be seen in isolation from its forthcoming sequel on the material worlds of Irish Protestants; taken as a completed whole, Barnard’s vision of the Irish Protestant community may counter many of the above criticisms. But his stricture that ‘to make it manageable, the fabric has been rent asunder’ seems unfortunate; one bigger book may have been more difficult but may well have been more rewarding. Its key difficulty is that, in scrutinising Irish Protestants, A new anatomy of Ireland has largely excluded Ireland.

Irish Protestant ascents and descents forms a companion volume of sorts, being a collection of essays (all bar one published since 1991) on the social history of the Protestant community that offer more specific diversions from the broader synthesis of the larger work. Diverse topics include an extensive and impressive overview of the Cork settler community that foreshadowed (and inspired) A new anatomy, specific dissections of Protestant mentality (notably the excellent piece on the continual utility of the 1641 rebellion via sermons, and a highly original piece on gardening, outlining its humble role in the colonial venture as a form of improvement: in seeking to ‘improve’ Ireland’s landscape, the garden was an obvious place to start), and studies of the continual efforts of the established church to reform and improve both its community and itself. Pieces on individual settlers and their families amply illustrate that modesty and failure have as much to tell posterity as success; in this sense, the book’s title proves appropriate. Such micro historical studies of individuals are models of their kind, thoughtfully illustrating broader processes with insight and subtlety. The conclusion does not directly address what went beforehand, but in a handful of vignettes sets out the stall for Barnard’s argument that a vibrant, varied and distinctive Protestant culture was created in Ireland in the eighteenth century.

These essays are of a particular and distinct nature: the subject is the Protestant colonial community, its development and often its discontents. It is a staple of Irish historiography, and Toby Barnard has proven that he can do it very well, but the perspective here is predominantly from within the estate wall and the Anglican pulpit. Like the larger work, there is little engagement with the Catholic Irish. But ironically, the more rounded nature of these essays ensures that they often prove more illuminating than the monograph in locating Irish Protestants within the Ireland of their time. They may well have formed a distinct society of their own, but if so, they were a society within a society.

Hopefully such omissions will be addressed in the forthcoming sequel to A new anatomy, The grand figure. But taken on its own terms, and despite its utility as both guidebook and compendium, A new anatomy of Ireland remains disappointing. With regard to the essays, a more varied selection (or two) could easily be dug from Barnard’s back catalogue, but here his skill and assiduousness as a historian of Protestant Ireland is undeniable. How his ongoing project will be concluded is, however, another matter entirely.


John Gibney


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