An argument defending the right of the kingdom of Ireland (1645)

Published in Book Reviews, Early Modern History (1500–1700), Issue 2(March/April 2011), Reviews, Volume 19

An argument defending the right of the kingdom of Ireland (1645)Conor O’Mahony, translated by John Minahane (Aubane Historical Society, £20) ISBN 9781903497630

An argument defending the right of the kingdom of Ireland (1645)
Conor O’Mahony, translated by John Minahane
(Aubane Historical Society, £20)
ISBN 9781903497630

John Minahane has provided a clear and comprehensive translation of Disputatio Apologetica de jure Regni Hiberniae, which made the first full statement for Irish separatism. It was made after the 1641 rising, when a proto-national government, the Catholic Confederation of Kilkenny, was struggling for survival. This radical political endeavour was the work of Conor O’Mahony, a County Cork Jesuit based in Lisbon. He was clearly inspired by the recent reassertion of Portuguese independence but he chose not to embarrass his hosts, seeking to disguise his identity and the place of publication as ‘C.M. Hiberno’ and ‘Francofurti’. O’Mahony delivered his proposal as a logical argument rather than in flowery, humanist rhetoric. This was in keeping with the seriousness of his purpose, the fact that he was proving a self-evident truth—that Ireland ought to be independent—and was in line with his qualifications as professor of scholastic theology. O’Mahony challenged the four principal grounds for English title to Ireland—just war, religious mission, consent and peaceful possession. Henry II’s invasion was ‘unjust and thoroughly evil’ in that it was on behalf of an adulterer, Dermot McMurrough, and had exceeded its original purposes by invading other men’s lands and the lands of the church. As regards the Christianising mission laid down in the pope’s bull of Laudabiliter, this had been obtained under ‘false pretences’. Thus the papal contract with the English king was null and void at the outset and, even if it was to be taken at face value, it had achieved ‘the direct contrary’ in delivering the country to heretics. On the claim that the Irish kings had accepted Henry II as their sovereign, this was not, and never was, universal and those who did so were under duress. ‘The law of nature de facto will invalidate every contract concluded or extorted by grave fear and coercion.’ The other argument for English title was a prescriptive right derived from prolonged occupation. Here O’Mahony went into a complicated examination of property law to show that acquisition in ‘bad faith’ could never establish title either in the original claimants or their heirs and that the continuance of English occupation far from conferring right merely compounded wrong. Most importantly, the Irish had good grounds to depose these kings. Here O’Mahony used the arguments that Suarez had developed against heretic kings, including James I. He held that sovereignty rested with the people, who had merely transferred their right to kings, and ‘the estates of that kingdom with the fullest right can and should deprive such kings of all dominion over Ireland, now that they have become heretics and tyrants’. The Irish Jesuit then gave a long list of countries, including England and Scotland, which had deposed their kings and set up new ones, and went so far as to assert that even the pope could be removed if he fell into heresy. O’Mahony closed with an exhortation to his fellow countrymen to choose ‘a Catholic king, an indigenous or native-born Irishman who will be able to govern them as Catholics’. The obvious thrust of this and who the king should be is not developed. What follows instead is a series of complicated analogies, based on a biblical source, about fighting with only the left eye, though the conclusion could not be plainer—that the Irish to succeed must finish the job of either killing or expelling all the Protestants. Furthermore, in the push for final victory unity was essential because in the past the English had succeeded only by exploiting Irish dissensions. Although O’Mahony finished with a disclaimer that he had nothing personal against Charles I and called upon him to abandon heresy, his book’s appearance in Ireland did not have the unifying or galvanic effect he hoped. The supreme council of the Confederacy ordered it burned by the public hangman in Kilkenny, and the Franciscan Peter Walsh denounced it in sermons at St Canice’s Cathedral. O’Mahony’s book, far from assisting the opposition of Rinuccini and Owen Roe to the proposed Ormond Peace with Charles I, was used as a weapon against them as indicative of their alleged ambitions. In Portugal, when the book was brought to the attention of the state, it was promptly banned. The translator tells us about this reaction in his long introduction. In this, besides berating the current crop of Irish historians, he provides all the known information about Conor O’Mahony, describes the sources he used and details the Portuguese Restoration that influenced him. The only thing that might be added is that O’Mahony was probably also the author of the anonymous Mercurius Ibernicus news pamphlet that was published in Lisbon the same year. It is extraordinary that it has taken 355 years to have a translation of this incendiary book made into English. Whilst it is true that the Irish works in Renaissance Latin have been disregarded, the main reason is political. O’Mahony’s proposal was monarchical and sectarian and was of little use to a subsequent secular republican tradition with its intellectual origins in the English commonwealth of Oliver Cromwell. Minahane has done us a definite service here. O’Mahony’s book is a critical milestone in the history of Irish political ideology, as well as a significant application of the theories of the internationally important Suarez in the history of political thought. And there is no reason to hold bloodthirsty religious extremism as a sufficient cause to prevent its further study. After all, proposals for drastic coercion have not prevented intensive research into A view of the present state of Ireland, Edmund Spenser’s anti-Irish, anti-Catholic diatribe of 1596. HI Hiram Morgan lectures in history at University College Cork.

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