Ireland from Independence to Occupation 1641-1660 Jane Ohlmeyer (ed.) (Cambridge University Press, £40)

Published in Issue 3 (Autumn 1995), Reviews, Volume 3

The uprising of the Ulster Irish in October 1641 has long been recognised as one of the critical moments in Irish history, and a number of studies have dealt with the lead up to the revolt and its immediate impact. The following two decades of war, famine and dislocation, culminating in the restoration of the Stuart monarchy, have, however, been comparatively neglected. Early nationalist interpretations portrayed the conflict as a struggle for liberty against English domination. This idealised and oversimplified version of events was later discredited by the writings of J.C. Beckett and others, but no new analysis replaced it. Since then historians have largely steered clear of the 1640s, discouraged by the Byzantine complexity of events, seemingly characterised by nothing more than confusion, chaos and sectarian bloodletting. In fact, the years following 1641 witnessed a political renaissance in Ireland as Catholics (both Old English and Gaelic Irish) formed a powerful alliance to assert their rights in the face of an increasingly assertive and aggressive central government. An examination of this alliance, and the forces mobilised against it, is of central importance to an understanding of the early modern period.
For this reason alone, the appearance of this volume is a welcome development covering as it does a wide variety of political, military, economic, diplomatic and cultural topics. The book includes a comprehensive chronology of events and a good basic bibliography, while Jane Ohlmeyer’s introduction is a masterly synopsis of the historiography of the period. Her approach is both vibrant and innovative and places Ireland firmly in the European context. The assertion on the first page, however, that unlike the Dutch and Portuguese, the Irish made no bid for national self-determination during these years contradicts the title of the book itself. It is true that the confederate Irish had no desire to break the connection with the Stuart monarchy but circumstances dictated that they establish a number of national institutions operating independently of crown control. Nine general assemblies, elected by Catholic freeholders, met between 1642 and 1649, each of which in turn nominated a supreme council of nobles and commoners to supervise the day to day administration of affairs. Provincial and county councils were also established as the country experienced a remarkable flowering of representative government. The confederates pursued independent political, military and diplomatic policies before finally, in 1649, coming to terms with the king’s lord lieutenant. They were, to borrow a phrase coined by J.H. Elliot, ‘national constitutionalists’, loyal to the crown but anxious to assert the privileges of their kingdom as a separate political entity. In these tentative steps can be perceived the genesis of modern Irish Catholic nationalism.
As for the other articles in the compilation, Nicholas Canny’s piece on the 1641 depositions is a excellent summary of his ongoing research into this rich contemporary source. The retaliatory nature of violent Catholic attacks on the colonial community, which he outlines, certainly challenges many of the traditional assumptions on the nature of the initial revolt. The fact, however, that the depositions were compiled, in the years after 1641, by a commission intensely hostile to the Catholic interest, needs to be emphasised, and investigated, to a greater degree. Scott Wheeler’s review of the four armies in Ireland is little more than a straight-forward narrative of events and is superseded by the following article (Geoffrey Parker and Rolf Loeber) which aims to place military developments in Ireland in a broader European context. This is a useful beginning, particularly the sections dealing with the importance of artillery and fortresses, but clearly a lot more research needs to be done in the area. Jane Ohlmeyer’s second contribution continues with this European approach, exploring the nature of confederate foreign policy. Making good use of Spanish and French sources, she plots the confederates’ failure to obtain substantial military and financial aid from abroad, which was a major factor in their final collapse.
Michelle O’Riordan’s work on the Gaelic sources has sparked huge controversy of late, a fact alluded to in the first footnote, although she surprisingly fails to list her main detractors. Her basic thesis, that political changes are not reflected in the poetry, is here applied to the 1640s. O’Riordan argues that the poetry of this period is less contentious than the prose, particularly concerning the often tense relations between the Old English and the Gaelic Irish. It emphasises instead the topics on which the confederates could agree and as a result, does not reflect the contemporary political reality. The poets’ approach, however, far from being politically naive, or ill-informed, clearly echoes the more sophisticated confederate ideal of Irish Catholic unity, replacing the old straight-forward racial distinction between native and outsider. Kevin McKenny adopts the unusual approach of arguing against the evidence of his own statistics, in attempting to prove that Catholics did not fare as badly from the land settlements following the confederate wars as has hitherto been believed. Apart from one or two individuals, the Marquis of Antrim being the most notable, his figures clearly show that this patently was not the case.
The article by Raymond Gillespie deals with perhaps the most crucial, though most neglected, area of study—the Irish economy at war. Then, as now, economic developments had an enormous impact on political and military policy, which historians of the early modern period ignore at their peril. The lack of reliable data makes the task facing the economic historian extremely difficult, but Gillespie’s excellent synopsis provides a solid base for further research. He outlines the wide diversity of economic experience during the period, largely at odds with the simplistic models which have prevailed until now. After 1646, however, a general crisis seems to have developed. The confederates faced increasing difficulties in raising supplies, while the onset of famine conditions in 1648 and the outbreak of bubonic plague the following year further undermined the military effort. All these factors led to a general war weariness and contributed to their final defeat at the hands of Cromwell.
The final section (John Adamson, Phil Kilroy, Toby Bernard and Aidan Clarke) deals mainly with the Protestant community in Ireland and its relationships with the Stuart kingdoms of England and Scotland. John Adamson’s examination of the effect of the internal politics of the English Parliament on developments in Munster during the crucial period of 1646-7 is particularly illuminating. The other articles by Kilroy, Bernard and Clarke, although full of interesting detail, might possibly have been amalgamated into one piece, as there is a considerable amount of over-lapping in their subject matter.
This volume is impressive in many ways, but as Jane Ohlmeyer herself admits, it falls far short of being a comprehensive analysis of the period. The articles are heavily weighted towards the Protestant interest in Ireland, with no study devoted to the confederate Catholics’ personnel, institutions or internal policies. As the confederates were the major players in the country during the 1640s this omission is particularly unfortunate, as is the failure to examine the nature of Catholic experience during the Interregnum. The lack, until very recently, of quality research in these areas make such gaps difficult to avoid, but perhaps the editor will consider a follow-up volume which could incorporate some of these themes.

Micheál Ó Siochrú


Copyright © 2024 History Publications Ltd, Unit 9, 78 Furze Road, Sandyford, Dublin 18, Ireland | Tel. +353-1-293 3568