Making Ireland British, 1580-1650

Published in Early Modern History (1500–1700), Issue 4 (Winter 2001), Letters, Reviews, Volume 9

Nicholas Canny
(Oxford University Press, £55)
ISBN 0198200919

In 1976 Nicholas Canny set the agenda for a generation of scholars of early modern Ireland with The Elizabethan Conquest of Ireland: a pattern established, 1565-76. He now presents us with a major study of the colonisation of Ireland in the turbulent years that followed. It is product of many years’ work in archives in Britain, Ireland and North America, of debates won and lost; it builds not only on his own work but on the work of others whom he has inspired, provoked and antagonised. It is especially to be commended for its innovative use of a wide range of sources, both literary and documentary. These have been carefully examined, collated, compared and criticised. In particular, his comprehensive research on the extremely difficult and highly contentious 1641 depositions is especially noteworthy.
He begins with one of most difficult texts in English literature—The Faerie Queene (London 1590,1596). This allegorical poem is far more than just a series of violent, pornographic knightly quests. Canny’s explanation of its intellectual and Irish context is free from the jargon and presumptions which all too often mar the work of literary critics. In particular he shows why Spenser gave up this project unfinished. The Faerie Queene had been intended to win over and galvanise English public opinion to tackle Counter-Reformation Catholicism in Ireland and elsewhere before it was too late. Instead, in the midst of the escalating Nine Years War in Ireland, he turned to a manuscript treatise directed at decision-makers in Whitehall in the hope of getting more immediate action. As a result he wrote A View of the Present State of Ireland in 1596. This too is a difficult text, one frequently misread and misjudged by scholars and general readers alike. It contains an analysis of the Irish problem and a proposed solution—a strong, ruthless and relentless military governor, the destruction of great Irish lineages, colonisation of their confiscated lands and evangelisation of the rest of the Irish population.
The protagonists of this study are the servitors. These crown servants were members of the New English Protestant class of soldiers, officials and churchmen who were then, like Spenser, establishing themselves in Ireland. Having done so much to provoke the Desmond revolt and then to plan the subsequent Munster plantation, they were extremely disappointed when, with the exception of Spenser, they were pushed aside in the distribution of lands by well-placed courtiers and wealthy English merchants. They had a better opportunity under James I when Sir Arthur Chichester, himself a servitor, was appointed Lord Deputy. They had the best of the so-called lesser Jacobean plantations in Leitrim, Wexford, Laois and Offaly. However Canny also notes that Chichester was the first to promote Scottish involvement in the Ulster plantation partly as a way of interesting the king in the project. Indeed Canny’s exploration of the Scottish angle is excellent and he shows the emergence of some exclusively Scottish areas even within the precincts of the London Companies’ plantation of Derry.
The 1622 commission (set up to investigate why Ireland in its conquered state was such a terrible drain on the English exchequer) exposed the corrupt practices of servitors. Nevertheless these rip-off merchants continued to push new plantation projects often in league with fortune-hunting courtiers—usually indigent Scots with more titles than lands—who wanted in on the act. In 1633 Wentworth began by humbling the pretensions of the servitors but colonisation remained at the forefront of his own plans. Canny argues that the new governor’s interest stemmed from a desire to complete the Reformation. The Old English proprietors were to be dispossessed in a piecemeal and clandestine process in order to impoverish the Catholic clergy whom they supported.
The portrait of colonial Ireland conjured up from estate records and the depositions is magnificent. The introduction of skilled farmers and craftsmen, the establishment of iron-smelting and other export-oriented manufacturing schemes, the promotion of new crops and cattle breeds and the establishment and growth of plantation towns are all highlighted. Indebtedness was causing the further erosion of native landholding—not just Gaelic but Old English as well. Some native landlords tried to save the situation by themselves acquiring English tenants, whilst some of the most eager money-lenders turn out to have been Protestant clergymen. Canny uses the depositions to show New English trade connections from Cork coastal towns throughout Munster and up into the South Midlands, and similar trade connections stretching out from Dublin across the rest of the country. The servitors were the highest achievers. They had official and unofficial incomes; they knew the country and its opportunities and had metropolitan connections. The Munster plantation was clearly doing better than Ulster (though Canny only has depositions from the poorer Ulster counties of Fermanagh, Cavan and Monaghan). In fact everywhere throughout Ireland colonisation was in progress either through commercial or political pressures and Canny is able to contrast the figures of those settling in Ireland from Britain favourably with those heading for the New World.
On the Irish response to colonisation, Canny is on weaker ground. He sees no independent intellectual initiative from Gaelic Ireland; the native response was either a reaction to conquest and colonisation or the continental influence of the Counter-Reformation. His glib commentary includes some cheap shots at opponents in the debate and a mischievous reading of the mid-sixteenth century poem ‘Fab˙n f˙ibh, a shlaugh Gaoidheal’ which he claims to be really early seventeenth-century. Canny also asserts that the big divide in early seventeenth-century native politics is not between Gaelic Irish and Old English but between those (especially landowners) who stayed at home and those (especially Catholic clergy) with continental experience. This argument makes a lot of sense but insufficient evidence is adduced to prove it. Furthermore it does not explain the differences between the continental veterans such as Owen Roe O’Neill and Thomas Preston any more than it explains the activism of Patrick Darcy who had been educated in England and not the continent. Plainly a lot more work needs to done on Irish political thought.
These remarks should in no way detract from Canny’s greatest achievement—his reappraisal of the 1641 rebellion. It is plain from the depositions that the colonists had acquired enough Irish to learn something of the insurgents’ motivations. Several things come out. Indebtedness, religion and political crisis in Britain were problems for sure but so was the recent colonial activity in Connacht and Leinster. A chronology is established for the first time. The Scots planters were not only left untouched initially but actively stood aside as their English neighbours were driven out. The massacres in Ulster weren’t immediate but follow the first insurgent reverses. Although the rising started in the North, risings followed in other provinces as much of their own accord as by over-spill. These witnessed massacres every bit as nasty as the North with some of the worst happening in the Catholic towns. Catholic clergy may have helped instigate the revolt but in most cases they are shown as trying to save Protestants from the mob. Canny details such phenomena as the stripping of the colonists being expelled, the digging up and desecration of Protestant corpses and even the mock trials and execution of English breeds of cattle! Canny is right in concluding that it is the servitors who had the last laugh in spite of 1641. It was the so-called Old Protestants who won the war for Cromwell and who ultimately dictated the settlement.
Canny entitles his first chapter ‘Spenser sets the agenda’, yet there is very little evidence adduced throughout the book to indicate that Spenser was the model that subsequent colonial planners were following. There is no doubt that Spenser was an advanced colonial thinker, though maybe too time-specific and probably far too sophisticated for many who came after him. As good a case could be made for the mid-sixteenth century thinker Sir Thomas Smith, and indeed it has been made by Canny’s mentor D.B. Quinn in his seminal essay, ‘Sir Thomas Smith and the beginnings of English colonial theory’ (Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 1945). Equally good cases could be made for the influence of Sir Francis Bacon and Sir John Davies in the early seventeenth century. Another case could be made for the longer-term influence of the Norman chronicler Giraldus Cambrensis—one line which Canny quotes from Wentworth about Irish ‘idleness and want of manufacture’ is straight from Giraldus’s Topographia. Canny might have got more mileage out of Spenser if he had reappraised the authorship of ‘The supplication of the blood of the English’ (Analecta Hibernica, no.36). Written by an anonymous but highly literate colonist, this is an exasperated cry for help after the overthrow of the Munster Plantation in 1598. I am convinced that the author is Spenser who was driven out of Munster and died in penury in London the following year. It reads like a premonition of 1641; a deposition forty years before its time.
The title of the book itself is also puzzling. (The original and more apt ‘Ireland in the English colonial system, 1580-1650’ was changed at the suggestion of the publishers.) The intention of all the agenda setters was to anglicise Ireland. Spenser wanted to keep the Scots out and he used ‘Britain’ merely as an imperial euphemism for ‘England’. There was a flirtation with the Scots at the start of the seventeenth century but Wentworth, and later Cromwell, regretted that this increasingly Presbyterian group had ever been let in. They formed separate communities in the North (as Canny shows) and they only became ‘British’ over the course of the nineteenth-century industrialisation of the North East. Canny further shows the 1641 rebellion to have deeper and more particularly Irish roots than the short-term crisis of Charles I’s British monarchies. It seems that this self-confessed ‘Brito-sceptic’ historian has bowed to the commercial and political dictates of ‘New British History’ even though in a very Irish way his book’s argument and content is its absolute antithesis.

Hiram Morgan


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