Kindness, cruelty and the Nine Years’ War

Published in Issue 5 (September/October 2021), Platform, Volume 29

By Éamonn Toland

Charles Blount, the eighth Lord Mountjoy, was distraught. As commander of Queen Elizabeth’s forces in Ulster, he had ordered his troops to end the Nine Years’ War by starving Irish rebels into submission, at a cost by 1603 of tens of thousands of mostly civilian lives. Senior English officers had witnessed children eating the corpse of their mother. In an attempt to restore law and order out of the chaos they had wrought, a Captain Trevor had arrested and executed a group of old women for kidnapping and eating children. Mountjoy expressed fulsome remorse at the collateral damage he was inflicting: ‘We do now continually hunt all their woods, spoil their corn, burn their houses, and kill so many churls, as it grieveth me to think that it is necessary to do this.’ Academics have tried to explain how people who are capable of kindness and compassion can also be responsible for such horrendous cruelty. Oxytocin, the so-called ‘hug hormone’ that helps parents and infants to bond simply by looking into each other’s eyes, can also dehumanise the ‘other’ in fight-or-flight situations. The scorched-earth tactics that Mountjoy deployed in Ulster, and that would destroy one in three German towns in the Thirty Years’ War two decades later, allowed soldiers to distance themselves from the suffering they had caused.

We all like to think that we are the good guys. It is fundamental to our well-being. We now have evidence that we are naturally predisposed to be kind and collaborative. Our genes aren’t selfish. Evolution doesn’t care whether we are naughty or nice. If kindness helps genes to reproduce, then kindness and collaboration can flourish.

For most of the 300,000 years that Homo sapiens has walked the earth population levels were very low. There may have been less than half a million of us as recently as 20,000 years ago. In an environment where food and land are abundant, the fittest have a huge incentive to collaborate in hunting and gathering, warding off predators, sharing tools and matchmaking across bands rather than competing over resources. For 95% of the time that human beings have been on the planet, survival of the fittest for our species has meant survival of the kindest.

There is evidence that a rudimentary moral sense is innate, including research on how three-month-olds track the movements of ‘good’ puppets, ‘bad’ puppets and ‘neutral’ puppets. By the time they can reach for a toy after the show, six-month-olds ‘overwhelmingly’ reach for the good guys. One twelve-month-old used the good puppet to hit the bad puppet over the head. There’s also evidence that an inner moral voice—a conscience—that applies the emotional brakes on bad behaviour by making you feel good when you do good things and feel bad when you do bad things is nearly universal, shared by 99% of women and 97% of men.

Nurture helps to shape the parameters of what we feel good or bad about, what is taboo, who should be seen as an enemy and who is an innocent stranger. We are deeply social creatures, and we are adept at copying the behaviour of prestigious adults in our group. We are instinctively kind to our friends, and we expect kindness in return.

It was only when populations soared that we were forced into conflict. The earliest known war graves, in Jebel Sahaba near the Egyptian–Sudanese border, are around 14,000 years old. It would be another 5,000–7,000 years before the first cities were founded, in places like Jericho in the Jordan Valley, and Uruk and Eridu in modern-day Iraq. Some were initially built without defences, but by the time that writing was invented in Sumeria, around 5,000 years ago, walls and defensive fortifications were in use across Mesopotamia. Our inner moral voice was still a hindrance to cruelty, until we persuaded ourselves that ruthlessness was a necessary evil to right wrongs. We are not sociopaths but we are natural-born narrators. Convincing ourselves that we were good made it so much easier to be bad.

Mountjoy was not a two-dimensional villain. He was an officer fighting in hostile territory, whose main strategic advantage was that he could maintain his supply lines while eliminating those of his foe. He was distressed by the devastation, but with the Crown nearly bankrupt, and nearly 30,000 of his soldiers dead, he still believed that it was necessary. Rebel leaders would flee four years after signing the Treaty of Mellifont, leaving Elizabeth’s successor, James I, to colonise Ulster (‘for want of people unmanured’) with settlers from Scotland and England. Francis Bacon was thrilled at the living space opening up in Ireland, and the potential for easing overpopulation and discontent in Britain.

The orders and conditions approving the Protestant plantation of Ulster began with the familiar pieties about ‘His Majesty … not respecting his own profit’, but James was told that ‘the well planting of this colony’ would bring more good than ‘the planting of ten times as much land in Virginia’, where Jamestown had been founded a few months before. It would ‘extirpe the very root of rebellion … increase the public revenue, and reward the public servitors’. What could possibly go wrong?

The history as much as the territory of Ulster has been contested ever since. Nearly one third of planters may have died in the rebellion of 1641, whether in conflict or of the starvation, hypothermia and disease that followed their expulsion from their homesteads in the bleak midwinter. Cromwell would describe the reprisal killing of 3,000 souls in the 1649 siege of Drogheda as the ‘righteous judgement of God’ that deterred further bloodshed. His New Model Army spared the inhabitants of Clonmel and Kilkenny despite suffering heavy losses, but Cromwell’s son-in-law, Henry Ireton, soon destroyed crops to starve rebels into submission, killing as many as 200,000 people, or between one in ten and one in three of the population. Parliament also seized the land of Irish Catholics who had fought for God, king and country. The deposed aristocrats were pejoratively called ‘Tories’, from tóraí, the Irish word for outlaws.

Above: Lord Deputy Sir Charles Blount, Lord Mountjoy. (Weiss Gallery, London)

By the late eighteenth century, while Catholic and Protestant weavers were fighting pitched battles in mid-Ulster, others were appealing to the better angels of our nature. Scots-Irish Presbyterians debated the republican ideals of the American and French revolutions. Radicals like William Drennan used the pages of the Belfast News-Letter to seek wide-ranging reforms before forming the Society of United Irishmen to bring together Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter and ‘abolish the differences that had long divided Irishmen’. St Mary’s, the first Roman Catholic church to be built in Belfast, was financed by Protestants in 1784, since the Catholic population was too poor. As the linen mills boomed, the Catholic population grew nearly twentyfold in 50 years, to become 32% of the inhabitants by 1834. Migrant weavers brought the conflicts of mid-Ulster to Belfast. Sectarian riots occurred from the 1850s to the 1880s. In 1869, when Belfast Corporation opened the City Cemetery, the differences that had ‘long divided Irishmen’ were so internalised that a 9ft sunken wall was built to keep the remains of Protestants and Catholics apart.

Since the beginning of recorded history, we have told stories to justify our dark side. We don’t reason dispassionately. We are adept at curating evidence in our favour and discounting evidence that causes remorse. Smart people come up with smart excuses to avoid listening to dissenting voices. We all suffer from biases of which we are only dimly aware, but who wants a world without passion? Passion drives us to exceed expectations. Passion breaks the chains of human bondage and tears down the walls of totalitarian states. Passion can point our inner moral compass towards a better place.

The cycle of violence was broken in Northern Ireland by the Good Friday Agreement. Leaders took courageous leaps for peace. As the UK left the European Union, Theresa May suffered the heaviest parliamentary defeat in British history in her efforts to avoid a ‘hard’ border on the island of Ireland.

In a deeply polarised world, with tensions rising in Northern Ireland, it is more important than ever that we reach beyond our biases to recognise what we have in common. As Vasily Grossman said, ‘Kindness, this stupid kindness, is what is most truly human in a human being’.

Éamonn Toland is the author of The pursuit of kindness: an evolutionary history of human nature (Liberties Press, 2021).


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