The Big Book(s)

Published in Issue 6 (November/December 2013), Reviews, Volume 21

The Irish rebellion of 1641 and the Wars of the Three Kingdoms

Eamon Darcy
(Royal Historical Society, Studies in History series, €62)
ISBN 9780861933204

The shadow of a year: the 1641 rebellion in Irish history and memory

John Gibney
(University of Wisconsin Press, $29.95)
ISBN 9780299289546

Ireland: 1641. Contexts and reactions

Micheál Ó Siochrú and Jane Ohlmeyer (eds)
(Manchester University Press, £75)
ISBN 9780719088179


Soon after the Irish uprising began in October 1641, its causes and characteristics were fiercely disputed. In some—mainly Protestant—quarters it was portrayed as sudden, unjustified and horribly bloody. Erupting into a cloudless sky of peace and prosperity, the violence was a reminder of Catholic perfidy and Irish barbarism. Catholics countered by stressing the dispossession and discrimination that they had suffered, particularly over the previous century, during which England had sought to tighten its hold over Ireland. They also contended that the amount of bloodshed had been exaggerated, often for Machiavellian purposes. Furthermore, Protestant reprisals matched anything perpetrated by the original insurgents. The rebellious Irish, defeated in warfare by 1653, and with their successors vanquished in fresh fighting between 1689 and 1691, struggled to circulate their version of events. They sensed that their case for better treatment was hampered so long as the reputation for butchery remained. Accordingly, they pleaded that the evidence on which the unfavourable interpretation rested should be made fully available and subjected to close analysis. The evidence that offered the key to what was said to have happened in and after 1641 lay in 31 volumes (supplemented by two more) that had passed into the safekeeping of the Protestant citadel of Trinity College on the centenary of the rising.

The documentation consisted of depositions about sufferings and losses. Agents appointed by the Protestant state recorded the victims’ statements. Belief that the depositions would reveal all and settle the controversies was strengthened by their inaccessibility and complexity. Intermittently from the eighteenth century through the nineteenth and into the twentieth century there were pleas that the materials should be published verbatim. Only towards the end of the twentieth century did this scheme become feasible, thanks to the forceful lobbying of an international consortium of scholars. Determined campaigning, conspicuously by Jane Ohlmeyer and Micheál Ó Siochrú, and the beneficence of funding bodies, together with advances in technology, have allowed the materials to be digitised and made available electronically. In time, the hope of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century controversialists will be realised when the documents are published in full by the Irish Manuscripts Commission.
Before the arrival of these aids, full and convincing narratives of the sequence of events had been compiled by Michael Perceval-Maxwell (1994) and Nicholas Canny (2001). Earlier still, back in 1966, Aidan Clarke had described the growing estrangement and ambiguous loyalties of the Old English, settled in Ireland since the twelfth century and actors (willing or unwilling) in the rising. Clarke and other enquirers utilised the theory of a general crisis—social, political, economic and even ecological—evident throughout and beyond Europe by the 1640s, into which Ireland was sucked. These pioneering studies may be amplified, refined and even amended in the light of searchable texts of the depositions but are not likely to be discarded. What more remains to be probed is, therefore, limited although fascinating. Some, in a tradition reaching back to the mid-seventeenth century, may still wish to settle once and for all how many died, whether or not there was a premeditated massacre, and to apportion blame between newcomers and natives, Protestants and Catholics, or English, Scots and Irish. More constructively, as has long been appreciated, the documentation, when properly approached, can yield insights into issues of gender, literacy, oral communication, material possessions, modes of agriculture and manufacturing, money-lending and other financial dealings. Because so little of the routine operations of the Irish law courts have survived, the quasi-judicial status of the depositions promises rare insights into the humdrum realities of everyday existence. Moreover, the information about the rituals and pathology of violent crowds connects up with themes that fascinate historians of other times and places.

Some, but rather few, of these matters are tackled in three works written since the depositions database was inaugurated. One, a revised doctoral dissertation by Eamon Darcy, looks again at 1641: its causes, its course and its consequences. He begins to wrestle with the intractable task of disentangling the intertwining of the spoken, heard and written. Rumour, hearsay, prophecy and bald lies all had roles in the unfolding and denouement of the Irish drama, as in so many other crises. Applying findings from England and continental Europe about the commercial and partisan motives of printers who specialised in sensationalism, he looks searchingly at the tracts that retailed news of Ireland. Otherwise Darcy compares Irish events with what had happened elsewhere earlier in the century: in the Iberian peninsula, the Spanish Americas, Virginia and central Europe during the Thirty Years’ War. These are not new comparisons but are pursued with vigour and authority. He is unlucky, however, that in a second publication—a collection of essays edited by Professors Ó Siochrú and Ohlmeyer—specialists in colonial American, German and Iberian history have been invited to reflect on the parallels, remarked at the time or uncovered later, between the lot of the native Irish under Tudor and Stuart rule and that of other conquered peoples and contested territories. Bloodshed bespattered the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, yet its ubiquity hardly diminishes the horror of what occurred in Ireland.

Darcy traces the longer impact of the uprising, but his account, always well informed, is overshadowed by the greater detail offered by John Gibney. In The shadow of a year, Gibney supplies the fullest account in print of the persistence and the refreshing of the hostile Protestant story and of the stuttering attempts by Catholics to substitute their alternative interpretation. The individual chroniclers and propagandists—Sir John Temple, Sir Richard Cox, Walter Harris, Matthew Carey, J.P. Prendergast, Mary Hickson and J.A. Froude—have been plotted before. Placing them in sequence brings out continuities and occasional innovations. Tribute is paid to Robin Dudley Edwards, the professor of history at University College Dublin, for pressing the infant Irish Manuscripts Commission to undertake publication of the depositions (abandoned for a mixture of financial and ideological reasons), and to Walter Love. Gibney has examined the copious notes made by Love in the 1960s as he read through the writings on 1641. Love’s premature death prevented his planned study of how 1641 had been treated over more than three centuries. What exact form it was to take was never decided; the possibility of a film, perhaps by John Houston, had been mooted.

A surprising and notable finding from Gibney’s assiduous researches is the lack of a popular tradition relating to 1641 retrievable through the collections of the Irish Folklore Commission. The silence is possibly explained by the omission from the commission’s remit of the counties of Northern Ireland, where memories may have been ineradicable. It contrasts with the tenacious traditions noted by investigators for the Ordnance Survey during the 1830s.

Gibney’s discovery—or lack of it—throws into relief the problems in deciding the relationship between history, myth, rumour and hearsay with which Darcy also grapples. The latter introduces popular ballads and chapbooks known to have been shipped into Ireland as factors in shaping hostile images of the Irish and in articulating grievances. This is rather too trusting of the common assumption that reading or hearing specific words then led to particular acts. Among the contributions to the Ó Siochrú–Ohlmeyer collection, varying strategies for coping with the sectarian strife that troubled much of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Europe are revealed. They range from the conscious fabrication and memorialisation of martyrs to calculated amnesia as the best responses to personal and communal tragedies. Sustained parallels with what occurred elsewhere have long been sought by investigators of 1641. In 1938 R.B. Merriman posited the existence of six contemporaneous revolts. Ó Siochrú and Ohlmeyer put the interested more heavily in their debt with their edited volume, which tests this and other hypotheses. Striking similarities certainly appear, but also a strengthening sense of the distinctiveness of Irish events. Those contributors who concentrate on the local dimensions are forthright. Aidan Clarke, whose entire academic career has been bound up with the years that pivoted on 1641, with unparalleled precision (and some asperity) concludes that the depositions reveal no massacre (a term which he also reminds us had different and less grandiose meanings at that time). He begs, as he and others have before, that the energy and ingenuity that go into wrangling over causes and the counting of bodies be transferred to what the documents can tell of the experiences of particular people in specific places. Willie Smyth, applying his skills as a historical geographer, shows the potential of the depositions to assist in the process. Dave Edwards argues, on the basis of the government’s frequent recourse to martial law, for the continuously unsettled state of at least some regions of Ireland during the century before 1641. Hiram Morgan and Igor Pérez Tostado have recovered direct evidence through printed pamphlets of how the Irish war was reported, as well as influenced by activities, in the Iberian peninsula.

Oddly, although there are suggestive comparisons of 1641 with apparent genocide in south-east Asia, not confined to the seventeenth century but coming even into the 1970s, there is as yet no exploration of the possible continuities in indigenous Irish discontent and the ways in which it was customarily expressed. The Nine Years’ War at the end of the sixteenth century has not left a deposit of print and manuscript comparable to the 1640s. Nevertheless, the ways in which fighters and bystanders in the war of 1689–91, in 1798, between 1916 and 1922 or after 1969 acted (and were portrayed as acting) may be susceptible to comparison with the conflict of the 1640s and 1650s.

It is likely that ascertainable fact, memory, hearsay, rumour, invention and myth will still gather around mid-seventeenth-century Ireland. Since ingenious scholars have attuned themselves to the silences of the sources, the babel of voices from the depositions threatens to deafen. It has long been hoped that easier availability and full analysis of the testimonies would clarify society and economy in early seventeenth-century Ireland. But, as with the earlier protagonists of Catholic or Protestant, Irish or English, interpretations, partisans can find in the documents evidence of harmonious coexistence, economic advances and material comforts or of barely suppressed animosities, widespread immiseration, official brutality and injustice. Thanks to the readier access to the materials and the unprecedented barrage of exegesis, the feverish ransacking of the depositions is set to continue. More unexpected and illuminating details will shine bright beams into murky corners of seventeenth-century Ireland, but inevitably much will remain in the shadows to be conjured by the imaginative or inventive. The funding of the 1641 depositions project became possible only in an atmosphere when peace prevailed. It would be ironical if, instead of furnishing examples of happy coexistence, it led to more systematic study of destructive and tenacious hatreds.

Toby Barnard is a fellow and tutor in history at Hertford College, Oxford.


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