From the Editor…

Published in Early Modern History (1500–1700), Issue 4 (Jul/Aug 2007), Letters, Volume 15

The kaleidoscope of history

The Flight of the Earls is one of those iconic episodes that represents a seismic shift in Irish history, nothing less than the eclipse of the old Gaelic order and its replacement by a new colonial dispensation, exemplified by the Plantation of Ulster. Inevitably it is a story of loss, expropriation and cultural genocide. But as Éamonn Ó Ciardha points out on the opposite page, it was also the catalyst for some positive developments: the fostering of a vigorous Irish Catholic culture at home and abroad; and the social and economic re-ordering of Ulster: what had traditionally been seen as Ireland’s most economically backward region (albeit not the uncivilised wilderness of loyalist stereotype) was transformed by the eighteenth century and the foundations laid for its industrial revolution in the nineteenth.
It would be tempting, therefore, to see the Flight as a pivotal moment in the emergence and the setting in stone of two diametrically opposed cultures, traditions or even nations. Yet we should be wary of projecting recent divisions backwards into the past. The Flight and the consequent Plantation occurred in the reign of James I, the first ‘British’ monarch, who, notwithstanding his low profile in the popular imagination across the water, laid the foundations for the United Kingdom. And yet within a century, not once but twice (and with equally disastrous results), the Catholics of Ireland rallied to the cause of his son (Charles I) and grandson (James II). And within two centuries the ideology of the Glorious Revolution that helped to overthrow the latter would evolve into the republicanism of the United Irishmen that aspired to unite (and did, however fleetingly) Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter. Truly the metaphor that most aptly applies to Irish history is not of divisions set in stone but of a kaleidoscope of shifting alliances.


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