England and the 1641 Irish rebellion

Published in 1641 Rebellion, Book Reviews, Early Modern History (1500–1700), Issue 1 (Jan/Feb 2010), Reviews, Volume 18

Cope
(Boydell Press, £50)
ISBN 9781843834687

 

76_small_1265290873The outbreak of the 1641 rebellion posed two related problems for the English administration in Ireland. First and foremost, the lords justices and council had to suppress the insurgency and organise efforts to defend the colony. Second, they had to relieve those who had been dispossessed by Irish rebels and subsequently flocked to Dublin for safety. These refugees are the focus of this book. As Cope argues, those who survived presented numerous logistical and economic problems to the lords justices. Crippled by inadequate supplies to mount a defence of the colony, the English council in Ireland had no choice but to harass Westminster for much-needed funds and support. In a world where natural, social, political and economic phenomena were explained as acts of divine providence, MPs responded to the petitions of the lords justices and council as they knew best. They imposed four days of fasting and prayers to coincide with ‘a public collection for the poor distressed women and children come out of Ireland’. In the months that followed, the English parliament debated the best method of raising money for beleaguered Irish Protestants in Ireland and England, while sporadically collecting once-off charitable donations for relief. By January 1642, the House of Commons had gradually formalised these piecemeal fund-raising efforts into what became known as the Act for a Speedy Contribution and Loan.
To encourage popular support for this act, parliament turned to those whom they knew could impel Londoners to donate money—Puritan preachers who warned their congregations of a belligerent and universal Catholic menace that threatened their very existence. Through the medium of pulpit and print, parliamentary supporters ‘stressed the deserving nature of the Irish settlers’ who had lost their lands and lives to Irish rebels. Contrary to popular propaganda, as Cope points out, some of these settlers had managed to survive behind enemy lines, such as George Creichton, a Scottish minister based in Virginia, Co. Cavan, and others whose connections with prominent leaders of the Irish rebels allowed them to ‘negotiate’ their survival, either by remaining in Ireland or by being escorted to England. Parliament raised over £45,000 under the provisions of the Act for a Speedy Contribution and Loan. The distribution of this fund depended largely on one’s connections with those who walked the corridors of power in early modern Ireland and Britain. By June 1643, however, owing to a lack of public interest, parliament abandoned its efforts. In essence, therefore, Cope’s book is a study of surviving the Irish rebellion and of the attempts by the English parliament to aid those who managed to do so.
Cope illustrates how the Irish rebellion was used by parliament to effect change in the English psyche and how various forms of media were adopted to promote this. Drawing on a number of contemporary sermons and pamphlets that portrayed ‘a clearly deserving body of sufferers’, he contrasts this with the real-life experiences of those who suffered at the hands of the Irish rebels. The most significant addition to our understanding of the 1641 rebellion, however, is the author’s work on the donations to, and distribution of, the Act for a Speedy Contribution and Loan. This illustrates the extent to which contemporary readers in London, such as Nehemiah Wallington, had become politicised by the events in Ireland that they encountered through print. It also reveals how those who suffered at the hands of the Irish rebels were compensated, and the various bureaucratic agencies through which they had to go.
While Cope must be commended for his work on the financial relief granted to Irish Protestants, his work lacks a wider perspective in places. By looking at the Irish rebellion through the lens of survival, Cope does not pay enough attention to other acts passed by parliament or to other literary tropes adopted by pamphleteers to persuade readers to aid the Irish cause. For example, returns from the Adventurers’ Act, while disappointing, still illustrated other parliamentary attempts to relieve Irish Protestants. The money thus raised was intended to fund an army to suppress the rebellion. Indeed, news reports highlighted the major successes achieved against the Irish rebels as a means of encouraging further donations under the Adventurers’ Act. Contemporary pamphlet accounts, while full of instances that described the plight of Protestant victims of rebel agression, did not simply call for relief, they also called for revenge. This notion of revenge for the massacres committed in the 1640s recurred at pivotal moments in the Wars of the Three Kingdoms, most notably in Oliver Cromwell’s justification for putting the inhabitants and garrison of Drogheda to the sword. Nonetheless, Cope’s book is a must-read for those who wish to better understand one aspect of how Englishmen responded at a popular level to the Irish rebellion of 1641.  HI


Eamon Darcy is a postgraduate student at Trinity College, Dublin, working on the 1641 Depositions Project.

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