Making Ireland English: the Irish aristocracy in the seventeenth century

Published in Early Modern History (1500–1700), Issue 6 (Nov/Dec 2012), Reviews, Volume 20

Making Ireland English: the Irish aristocracy in the seventeenth centuryJane Ohlmeyer (Yale University Press, £40) ISBN 9780300118346

Making Ireland English: the Irish aristocracy in the seventeenth century
Jane Ohlmeyer
(Yale University Press, £40)
ISBN 9780300118346

This enormous tome is Jane Ohlmeyer’s second book and has its origins in her first: a biography of Randall MacDonnell (1609–83), 1st marquis of Antrim. His eye-catching career prompted Ohlmeyer to wonder whether or not his experiences were ‘typical’. Eighteen years later, she has provided an answer that is rather more comprehensive than simply ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Making Ireland English is a study of Ireland’s multifaceted aristocracy over the course of the first seven decades of the seventeenth century. Ohlmeyer glances beyond these years but this is the period upon which she concentrates, and in doing so she has produced a work of remarkable scope: 482 pages of text are followed by 78 pages of notes, capped with a further 44 pages of tabulated appendices. Its size alone is striking and, indeed, it is difficult to think of any work on any period of Irish history that anatomises a single social group on the scale undertaken here.


Ireland’s hereditary peerage was a legacy of the medieval conquest, deriving its legitimacy from the English Crown. But the 1541 Act for the Kingly Title, which formally declared Ireland to be a distinct kingdom in its own right, was a crucial milestone in its development. Gaelic aristocrats were, on submitting to the authority of the Crown, formally recognised as members of the peerage, and by the start of the seventeenth century there were 27 members of the Irish peerage, about four fifths of whom were ‘Old English’ (descendants of the original medieval colonists). Thanks to the sale of noble titles in the reign of James I, Ireland’s peerage had ballooned to 92 by 1641, only 68 of whom were actually residents of Ireland. But a third of those resident peers were New English, a concrete reflection of the increasing colonisation of Ireland in the seventeenth century. By 1641 half of the peerage were still Old English (who were also the largest single group of landowners), with the remainder being a mixture of Gaelic Irish (9%), Scottish and Welsh; these proportions were still valid as late as 1685. Alongside this shift in the origins of the peerage was a shift in their faith: there were three Protestant peers in 1603 but this had increased to 39 by 1670. These statistical changes need to be seen in the context of a level of conflict and upheaval that was probably without parallel in Irish history, a process of change in which the aristocracy were intimately involved and by which they were profoundly affected, for better and for worse.


Ohlmeyer’s study of the peerage places great emphasis on the concept of noble ‘honour’, the sense that there were modes of behaviour and a style of living that aristocrats were expected to aspire to and to uphold. Viscount Muskerry, for instance, thanked the Cromwellian court that acquitted him of crimes against Protestant settlers in the early 1640s, for, as he put it, ‘I can live without my estate, but not without my credit’, his reputation, his ‘honour’. Aristocracy could be a state of mind as well as a fact on the ground. The facts on the ground are, however, distinctive in their own right. During the Wars of the Three Kingdoms the Irish aristocracy, of whatever background, were not so much courtiers as warlords whose personal stances determined the battle lines and whose retinues fought the battles. The increasing importance of religion as a factor in Irish life ensured that the nascent Protestant aristocracy were well placed to benefit from the land confiscations that followed in the 1650s. The extent of aristocratic landholding could vary enormously, from the vast patrimonies of the earls of Antrim, Clanricarde and Ormond, to name but three of the wealthiest, to the scattering of more modest (but still substantial) holdings that were characteristic of the peerage as a whole. And some made vast gains thanks to the confiscations of the 1650s: the Annesley family, ennobled as earls of Anglesey after the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, went from owning just under 15,000 acres in 1641 to just under 145,000 in 1670. Ohlmeyer naturally places a great emphasis on the practical basis of aristocratic power, which was essentially derived from the ownership of land, and she illuminates this in exceptional detail. But she goes beyond this to examine the manner in which such power was exercised, along with the ways in which its use became embedded in the culture of the aristocracy. Indeed, in many ways Making Ireland English is primarily a study of the acquisition and maintenance of power.


Aristocrats are an obvious subject for study, especially in the early modern period, when they unequivocally constituted the ruling class in most European societies; Ireland was no exception. Even aside from their significance, aristocrats tend to generate copious quantities of source material, making life much easier for the historians who study them. This is a fact of life rather than a value judgement; the lives of those less exalted leave fewer traces, and it is to Ohlmeyer’s credit that she does not become bedazzled by the splendid trappings of her subject-matter. She is admirably forthright about the sometimes grubby origins of the Irish aristocracy as conquerors, speculators and social climbers, and she has included a great deal of colourful and fascinating detail on the manner in which they lived their lives, and even met their deaths: often peacefully, occasionally on the battlefield—and, on at least one occasion, from an opium overdose. Such colourful nuggets are scattered throughout the text, but the contribution that this prodigiously researched book makes to the study of its subject is structural in nature. Ohlmeyer reveals a huge amount of information about the manner in which the Irish aristocracy was transformed in the period under scrutiny, how they maintained themselves in the world as landowners, and how they sought to maintain their patrimony through both fortuitous marriage and factional alignment. A striking feature of the book is the extent to which it reveals how kinship networks could override confessional considerations on the ground: the disfavour shown to Catholic landowners before and after the Restoration could be discreetly set aside for those within the right circles.


The history of Ireland’s aristocracy is largely inextricable from the history of Ireland more broadly—or at least the history of Ireland as it has usually been written—and the compendious length of the book can perhaps be excused, as it provides a useful recap of many of the key issues in the history of late Tudor and Stuart Ireland. It must be said, however, that there is little new in Ohlmeyer’s basic analysis. At the outset she states that a key argument of the book is that the ‘resident peers helped to make Ireland English’. It illustrates how the Stuart sovereigns exercised imperial power over a troublesome dominion and how a particularly English institution, the hereditary peerage, was successfully transferred to Ireland, where it served as an effective instrument in the Crown’s efforts to ‘civilise’ Ireland. Yet readers will search in vain for this argument being sustained in any meaningful way in the pages that follow. In that sense the book is far less successful in explaining the process of Anglicisation and colonisation than equally massive works such as Nicholas Canny’s Making Ireland British (2001) and William J. Smyth’s Map-making, landscapes and memory (2006). One certainly gets a very strong and detailed sense of how many of the Irish aristocracy, in the course of their transformation, gravitated towards the imperial centre, but there is relatively little probing of how they consciously fostered an imperial project. For example, in the later seventeenth century did the peerage promote the development of an increasingly commercial economy as part of a conscious ideological programme? Or did they simply promote new economic ventures that could sustain the spiralling expenditure involved in maintaining their lifestyles?


The devil, as the man said, is in the detail, but in this case it is an especially welcome devil. Making Ireland English is a prosopographical study of a particular group rather than a study of imperialism, though it certainly speaks to the latter. Few would argue but that the aristocracy were key players in the tumultuous change that Ireland underwent in the seventeenth century (and the study of the Irish aristocracy can surely extend to their descendants, who remained such a crucial fixture of Irish life for the next two centuries). The substance of the book ends on a somewhat arbitrary (if understandable) note, with the Williamite victory of 1691. Given the manner in which Ohlmeyer is preoccupied here with the structures of noble power, it would have been useful had she addressed the question of how the aristocracy of the seventeenth century morphed into the ascendancy of the eighteenth. But given the scale of what she has actually accomplished, that might be asking too much; should scholars of a later era attempt to emulate her endeavours, they will have a very impressive foundation on which to build.


It is safe to say that Making Ireland English is not pitched at fans of Downton Abbey; this is an unashamedly specialised work. Ohlmeyer writes in a sprightly and accessible style, but even specialists might find it a daunting prospect, given the sheer scale of her exposition and the relentless level of detail she deploys. It is not as argumentative as one might expect, but what she has done is isolate and examine a vitally important social group in unprecedented depth. There is much to commend here and it undoubtedly will repay cherry-picking and re-reading. It scrutinises the Irish aristocracy from a remarkably wide range of angles and, in doing so, Ohlmeyer has put flesh on their bones in a manner that is bound to interest students and scholars of any level of early modern society. On those grounds alone this will surely be an indispensable work with which to make sense of seventeenth-century Ireland and its enduring legacies.  HI


John Gibney is History Ireland news editor.


Copyright © 2022 History Publications Ltd, Unit 9, 78 Furze Road, Sandyford, Dublin 18, Ireland | Tel. +353-1-293 3568