“More Irish than the Irish themselves?”

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Early Modern History (1500–1700), Features, Issue 1 (Spring 1999), Volume 7

Eryn: Hiberniae, Britannicae Insulae, Nova Descriptio [A new description of Ireland, the British Isle] by Abraham Ortelius, Antwerp, 1573. Copied from Mercator's larger map of the British Isles, 1564.

Eryn: Hiberniae, Britannicae Insulae, Nova Descriptio [A new description of Ireland, the British Isle] by Abraham Ortelius, Antwerp, 1573. Copied from Mercator’s larger map of the British Isles, 1564.

The nature of history

‘When the curtain falls, it’s time to get off the stage.’ So remarked the British prime minister, John Major, after losing the 1997 general election. The curtain fell on the British empire a long time ago, but unlike politicians, British historians do not see a change of regime as invalidating their mandate to study erstwhile parts of the empire—notwithstanding the convention that history is written by the winners. Nonetheless, students are taught that background and training influence the way in which individual historians write history. Thus, a frequent question in final year ‘History of History’ papers is: ‘“All history is contemporary history.” Discuss.’ This invites a discussion of the way in which contemporary concerns apparently set an agenda for research and writing about the past. History is not an exact science, but neither is it an imaginary picture designed to legitimise the present, or one side’s view of the present. There are, after all, ‘the facts of history’; but particularly where history is contested, there is also a need for a pluralist approach, involving the use of different contexts of explanation and a sensitive choice of terminology, to provide a balanced interpretation of the past.
As an Englishman and Tudor specialist, what I found particularly intriguing about early Tudor Ireland was that here was another Tudor province inhabited by peoples who saw themselves as English, spoke English, and were governed by English law and administrative structures. In my innocence, I imagined that here was an English society which, by background and training, I was well equipped to study. Yet I soon discovered that things were not really what they seemed. What had appeared an obvious approach proved highly contentious in the context of Irish historiography’s established agenda and perspectives. Those ‘loyal English lieges’ I found in the records were, secretly, ‘Anglo-Irish separatists’. Ireland’s partition between two nations, Gaedhil and Gaill, was likewise misleading, because the ‘Anglo-Irish’ were increasingly gaelicised. And although the evidence seemingly indicated a strengthening of English influence in early Tudor Ireland, there was in fact such a universal yearning for ‘home rule’, and Ireland’s Gaedhil and Gaill had drawn so close to each other, that ‘direct rule’ had to be reimposed. No wonder, then, that Tudor rule proved so disastrous in Ireland: the attempt by bone-headed English officials to apply traditional English strategies of law and government to these non-English peoples was clearly a terrible mistake, and failure inevitable.

Inventing history: the Irish Free State

And yet I found it hard to believe that these apparently English districts of Ireland, notably the English Pale and the towns, really were so different from other Tudor borderlands. Did they really need special terms and concepts to describe them? In his extensive writings on Tudor Ireland in the Dictionary of National Biography, that precursor of professional history, the great Manchester historian, Robert Dunlop, had apparently managed pretty well without them—much better, in fact, than many of his more nationally-minded successors. Frequently too, the new terminology seemed to have originated in the Irish Free State’s educational policy of making history serve national needs by emphasising the state’s links with a Gaelic past, and marginalising its British identity.
In this context too, Dunlop’s work contrasted with the work of another historian of English birth, Edmund Curtis, who stayed on as professor of history at Trinity College after independence. In an obvious attempt to establish the relevance of late-medieval Ireland to contemporary concerns, Curtis populated his declining Anglo-Irish colony with nationalists and unionists. He invented a ‘unionist party’ headed by John Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury, and a ‘home-rule party’ led by James Butler, Earl of Ormond (an unlikely choice!). When Talbot was killed in France and England descended into civil war, the Irish home rulers allegedly swept to power by harbouring the defeated English Yorkists in return for a declaration of legislative independence by the Irish parliament in 1460. There followed a period of ‘aristocratic home rule’, culminating in the ascendancy of the Great Earl of Kildare, now promoted ‘uncrowned king of Ireland’, who defended ‘the blended race’ of Gaedhil and Gaill against English interference in Irish affairs. Home rule remained unchecked until Poynings’ Law—which re-established English control over the Irish parliament—and was not finally ended until the Tudors destroyed Kildare power following Silken Thomas’s revolt.

Groat of Henry VIII-the heraldic motifs of the Irish harp and the royal crown are symbolically united. (Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge)

Groat of Henry VIII-the heraldic motifs of the Irish harp and the royal crown are symbolically united. (Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge)

Dunlop’s mistake, it seemed, was to write for the wrong nation since, a few years after his DNB entries appeared, many Irish decided they were no longer British. Accordingly, his writings have been much less influential than Curtis’s inventions, which continue to influence work on Yorkist and early Tudor Ireland. Admittedly, claims about aristocratic home rule have since been qualified, but this is still a much more self-consciously political movement than its counterpart in English historiography—’self-government at the king’s command’. The ‘Anglo-Irish community’ remains an external force in English history, and its essentially Irish identity has since been reinforced through the notion of a ‘middle nation’ and the concept of ‘gaelicisation’, involving a reformulation of Curtis’s notion of ‘the blended race’ whereby the ‘Anglo-Irish’ abandoned their English language, law, and customs. Allegedly, therefore, it was the ‘Anglo-Irish’ colony’s progressive ‘gaelicisation’ which eventually forced Henry VIII in 1534 to begin the Tudor conquest.

Recent scholarship

Despite this, our understanding of the transition from medieval Ireland’s two nations to the centralised early modern kingdom has recently been transformed, through a veritable renaissance of scholarship on sixteenth-century Ireland. For instance, the Bibliography of my original survey of the period, Tudor Ireland (1985), lists 281 items, including ninety-six titles mainly about Ireland published 1972-84; whereas the Bibliography of my new book, Ireland in the age of the Tudors (1998), lists 451 items, including 108 predominantly Irish titles published 1985-97. Yet this research and writing has been very unevenly distributed, with little serious work on the earlier period. More importantly, our understanding of this transition continues to be obscured by a fundamental historiographical weakness.
Instead of discussing Tudor Ireland in its own terms, Irish historians usually divide the period between an extended middle ages, ending with the collapse of the Kildare ascendancy in 1534, and a belated early-modern phase beginning with the inauguration of ‘direct rule’. This had the effect of partitioning the subject between two different groups of historians, medieval and early modern, and leaving early Tudor Ireland as a kind of a no-man’s land, with very unfortunate results in terms of wider perspectives. For instance, the Kildare ascendancy is portrayed as the culmination of inherent forces for decline in the medieval lordship, while, with the benefit of hindsight, early modernists argue that ‘direct rule’ and the Tudor conquest were Henry VIII’s response to the evident shortcomings of ‘aristocratic delegation’. Yet, as closer attention to the actual evidence suggests, changes in the balance of power between Gaedhil and Gaill were precisely the reverse of those suggested: early Tudor Ireland witnessed a period of consolidation of English power and influence, followed by a period of internal weakness and political instability. Thus, the traditional focus on such themes as ‘Anglo-Irish separatism’, ‘gaelicisation’, and ‘aristocratic home rule’ really makes no pretence at offering an objective and balanced account of English rule in Ireland.
When I began work on Tudor Ireland nearly twenty years ago, my chief purpose was to provide a survey of English rule and an analysis of Ireland’s changing position within the wider Tudor state. This involved focusing on the common concerns of Tudor historiography so as to facilitate the kind of ‘horizontal’ comparisons between different Tudor provinces which were needed to distinguish between the typical and exceptional in Tudor Ireland. Yet this perspective also necessitated the dismantling of the more obvious conceptual and terminological obstacles erected by nationally-minded historians since Dunlop’s time and their replacement by the concepts and terminology of Tudor historiography. Even so, my book refrained from confronting directly basic nationalist assumptions about the historic relationship between Ireland and an Irish people, notably the origins of the claim in Bunreacht na hÉireann that the island of Ireland, rather than the traditional Gaedhealtacht, is the national territory, so conferring an Irish identity—and citizenship—on all those born within the island.
With hindsight, this strategy was probably a mistake. Tudor Ireland was successful chiefly as a Tudor survey: it made Irish developments intelligible to Tudor specialists. Moreover, when published in 1985, the book was the first such general survey to appear since Richard Bagwell’s massive three-volume Ireland under the Tudors (1885), and this happy chance also assured it a ready market among students of Irish history too. Yet, in an Irish context, Tudor Ireland fell between two stools: while it challenged individual aspects of the nationalist interpretation, it did not offer a full alternative account of the relationship between Tudor rule and the Gaedhil and Gaill, leaving it open to others either to ignore its more inconvenient insights or explicitly to reject them, as they chose.
In practice, both strategies were employed. The leading journal in the field, Irish Historical Studies, did not bother to review the book at all, nor indeed either of my related monographs. And when the later medieval volume appeared of the unfortunately-named New History of Ireland, the editors’ decision to describe as ‘Anglo-Irish’ those who saw themselves as ‘loyal English lieges’—despite the objections of some other contributors—can only be taken as a denial of their national identity and the English context of their history. It also made nonsense of a fundamental development of the later Tudor period—that which saw earlier regional sentiments sharpen into a separate Old English sense of identity vis-à-vis later English settlers—since, according to this interpretation, the English of Ireland had already become ‘Anglo-Irish’ centuries before. Finally, for volume three, the New History editors imposed another arbitrary change of identity on the English of Ireland, so that they reappeared overnight in 1534 as the ‘Old English’. Yet in reality, the medieval Englishry had consistently rejected an Irish identity for themselves: they saw it as an insult, implying that they were uncivilised, living like the ‘wild Irish’ in woods and bogs.
Who were these ‘Anglo-Irish separatists’ anyway? Clearly not the English magnates who dominated the lordship’s politics c.1450—neither York, the king’s lieutenant and heir apparent; nor his predecessor as lieutenant, Shrewsbury, killed in Gascony in 1453; nor even Curtis’s putative home rule leader, Ormond, York’s deputy whose son and successor, Wiltshire, was killed fighting for Henry VI at Towton. Are we really to believe that successive English kings would appoint as their representatives local magnates whose prime purpose was to curtail English influence in Ireland? And do separatists usually join an English rebel army invading England, as ‘Anglo-Irish’ Yorkists did in 1460 and again in 1487? Would they even join English Lancastrians in attempting to restore Henry VI by raising rebellions in Meath or south Leinster in 1462? Clearly not. No more would they gather in Dublin every St George’s Day to watch the pageant of St George killing the dragon and to witness the election by the lordship’s leading magnates in St George’s Chapel of a captain of the Brotherhood of Arms dedicated to England’s patron saint, George—because God was an Englishman and ‘St George’ was the rallying cry of English armies in Ireland. In reality, these ‘Anglo-Irish separatists’ saw themselves as ‘loyal English lieges’, and both their conduct, crown policy for Ireland, and the lordship’s central role in the Wars of the Roses only make sense on this assumption.
Much the same objections can be raised about the appropriation by historians of the terms ‘nation’ and ‘national’ for the embryonic Irish nation (in the modern sense), at the expense of the two nations of medieval Ireland. Similarly, the continued use of the term ‘gaelicisation’, with reference to what contemporary English officials described more generally as ‘degeneracy’, not only particularises to Ireland what was actually a commonplace of medieval frontier societies, but it also implies, quite wrongly, that Ireland’s Gaill were being accepted as Gaedhil. In reality, throughout the middle ages not a single Gall ever became a Gaedheal despite these alleged pressures on the Englishry. Interestingly too, Scotland’s Gaill were much more immune to ‘gaelicisation’ than their Irish counterparts, to judge by the work of Scottish historians; or perhaps the malady only flourished in Irish conditions.

The Revisionist controversy

The second strategy, of contesting the evidence, was given added weight by Tudor Ireland’s embroilment in the Revisionist controversy. While the book was praised even by its critics for its attempt ‘to supply a fundamental lack’ by providing ‘for the first time…a conceptual framework for… Tudor Ireland’, its central thesis that Ireland was transformed ‘from a mere borderland region dividing two wider political entities…to an integral political entity in its own right’ was unacceptable to historians who ‘locate themselves within a nationalist historiographical tradition’. Revisionism is not of course peculiar to Ireland. Yet as the editors of a recent volume about the subject comment, ‘a characteristic of Irish “revisionism”’ is that ‘the controversy…is intensely parochial’… ’contributions to the debate on both sides have taken place mainly among the Irish themselves’, who are ‘at one in seeing Irish history as our history’. Since the campaign for nationalist orthodoxy was conducted chiefly before invited audiences in summer schools, and the charges generalised, the intended target was sometimes unclear. Nonetheless, Tudor Ireland was denounced ‘for emptying the evidence of its traumatic content’, and for failing to capture the ‘catastrophic dimension’ of the Irish historical experience. Clearly, it also ranked among ‘the nationally useless and undermining histories or pseudo-histories of Ireland written by Englishmen’. Less surprisingly perhaps, its restoration of Tudor terminological conventions was also disputed. Against this kind of revisionism, some nationally-minded scholars called for ‘present-centred history’ or even ‘purposeful unhistoricity’; they attributed these lapses from nationalist orthodoxy to the Revisionists’ lack of competence in Gaelic and therefore ‘an neamhshuim a dhéanann siad d’fhoinsí Gaeilge’; and they argued that a deliberate strategy underpinned Revisionist writings, including what was described as ‘tacit evasion’—’the simple expedient of ignoring the evidence’.

‘Present-centred’ history

In the circumstances of modern Ireland, such criticisms are very understandable: given its divided present, with two states, each with its separate traditions and popular perceptions of the past, it is scarcely surprising that ‘the making of modern Ireland’ should also be contested. What is, however, surprising is the content of these criticisms. A feature of Tudor Ireland was its attempt to confront the reality of medieval Ireland’s partition before the Tudor conquest and the interaction between its two nations.

Richard Mí³r Mac William a Burc (d. 1243)-note the St George's Cross on his shield. (Trinity College, Dublin)

Richard Mí³r Mac William a Burc (d. 1243)-note the St George’s Cross on his shield. (Trinity College, Dublin)

Moreover, its focus on the revival of English influence from 1470 was manifestly also ‘present-centred’, although perhaps not in accordance with the nationalist agenda, since a common bond between the two Irish states since partition has been the continued predominance of English common law, language, and administrative structures in both.

Cinniúint an náisiúin: scrios na nGael nó fás na nÉireannach?

Cúis iontais eile maidir leis an bheachtaíocht seo is ea an moladh go gcuirfí níos mó béime ar an Ghaeilge. I bprionsabal, tá an moladh seo go tairbheach, sa mhéid gurb í an Ghaeilge teanga dhúchasach na nGael: tá sé níos éasca an mí-ádh a tháinig orthu mar gheall ar an choncas Tiúdarach a shoiléiriú ina dteanga féin ná i Sacs-Bhéarla, teanga an ghabhálaí. Sé an príomhimeacht a tharla i stair na hÉireann de réir ghnáthchuntaisí na tréimhse seo as Béarla, áfach, ná fás an náisiúnachais Éireannaigh—gluaiseacht dhearfach fhorásach, de réir cosúlachta, in aghaidh chumhacht an stáit Tiúdaraigh. Ach ó thaobh na nGael, ba bhocht an cúiteamh é seo ar scrios a gcultúir, forghabháil a gcuid tailte, agus roinnt (críochdheighilt?) na Gaeltachta idir ríochtaí gallda na hÉireann agus na hAlban. B’ionann an concas Tiúdarach agus galldú na tíre—Éire á tiontú ina ‘Sasana nua’. Pointe suntasach (de staidéar an choncais Tiúdaraigh as Gaeilge ná go dtugann sé aird ar chruinneas agus solúbthacht na téarmaíochta Gaeilge fá ghnéithe áirithe an choncais ó thaobh na nGael de—mar shampla, caidé go díreach a bhí i gceist le téarmaí cosúil le ‘English’ (Gallda, Béarla, nó Sasanach?) agus ‘Irish’ (Éireannach nó Gaelach?). Ach cruthaíonn sí chomh maith laghad an leanúnachais idir oidhreacht agus féiniúlacht na sean-Ghael agus an náisiún Éireannach nua a tógadh ar scrios shibhialtacht na nGael.
Ag deireadh na scríbe, áfach, ní bhaineann an méid seo leis an scéal, sa mhéid nach bhfuil na náisiúnaithe seo i ndairíre, de réir cosúlachta, fá úsáid na Gaeilge (i gcomórtas le cúpla focal a rá leo siúd ar bheagán Gaeilge, ar mhaithe le pointe polaitiúil a dhéanamh). De réir mar a thuigim, is in Ollscoil na Gaillmhe amháin atá roinn staire ina ndéantar dian-iarraidh ar stair na hÉireann a mhúineadh as Gaeilge; agus le fiche bliana anuas, is ormsa, ‘Sasanach frith-náisiúntaí’, a fágadh príomhchúram an teagaisc as Gaeilge fá dtaobh den choncas Tiúdarach.

[The nation’s destiny: destroying the Gaedhil or raising the Éireannaigh?

Another surprising aspect of this criticism is the call for more emphasis on Gaelic. Of course, the misfortunes the Gaedhil suffered through the Tudor conquest are more easily explained in their own language than in the queen’s English, the conquerors’ language. Yet traditional accounts in English are upbeat, focusing on the rise of Irish nationalism in opposition to the Tudor state, even though this was small compensation to the Gaedhil for the destruction of their culture, the expropriation of their lands, and Gaeldom’s partition between two foreign kingdoms of Ireland and Scotland. The Tudor conquest spelled anglicisation—Ireland’s transformation into a ‘new England’. Yet studying the conquest through Gaelic does at least highlight the language’s terminological precision and flexibility regarding native perspectives on conquest—for instance, what terms like ‘English’ and ‘Irish’ actually meant. It also highlights just how little continuity there was between traditional Gaelic identity and the new Irish nation built on the ruins of Gaelic civilisation.
These comments are beside the point, however, since such nationalists are not serious about using the language (beyond parroting a few words for political reasons to those who have none). Galway has the only university history department with a tradition of teaching history through Gaelic; and as regards the Tudor conquest, for over twenty years the chief responsibility has rested with me ‘an anti-national Englishman’.]
Yet choice of language carries a penalty: having opted for the conqueror’s language, nationally-minded historians cannot then expect to manipulate English terminology like Humpty Dumpty in Alice in Wonderland.

The origins of the modern Irish nation

Tudor Ireland attempted to balance traditional perspectives on the making of modern Ireland by focusing on the Tudor context of developments. In view of the dusty response to this broadening of the traditional agenda, however, a more realistic strategy might have been to spell out more directly its implications for the nationalist interpretation. Accordingly, Ireland in the age of the Tudors extends the original book, both thematically and chronologically, to offer a more comprehensive survey of medieval Ireland’s transformation under the impact of the Tudor conquest. A new chapter on the break-up of the traditional Gaedhealtacht argues that Irish identity in its modern sense was predominantly the product of Tudor state formation. Its foundations were laid by Henry VIII’s erection of his English lordship into a second Tudor kingdom which was co-extensive with the island of Ireland and its inhabitants. Under the impact of the Tudor conquest, renewed English colonisation, and the Reformation, medieval Gaeldom was partitioned between separate Tudor and Stewart kingdoms, and those Gaedhil resident in Ireland, abandoning their own institutions and law, were brought to see themselves as common Irish subjects, with the Old English, of this new English kingdom.

Drawings produced with a map of ‘The Kingdome of Ireland' by Hondius Jodocus, 1616. (E T Archive)

Drawings produced with a map of ‘The Kingdome of Ireland’ by Hondius Jodocus, 1616. (E T Archive)

Thus, before 1541 the essence of Irish, or Gaelic, identity had been Gaeldom’s historic culture, law, and institutions, which were shared with the Irish of Scotland but excluded Ireland’s English inhabitants; by 1641, the Irish, or Éireannaigh, were Ireland’s native and Catholic inhabitants, whether Gaedhil or Gaill, but excluding Scottish Gaeldom. In short, the Tudor conquest created a new composite nation which claimed the island of Ireland as its national territory. Hitherto, more nationally-minded medievalists have in effect disguised the extent of this revolution: they have marginalised traditional cross-channel ties both between Irish and Scottish Gaeldom and between English lordship and kingdom respectively, and by developing unhistoric concepts like ‘Anglo-Irish separatism’ and ‘gaelicisation’ have fashioned an Irish identity on modern lines for the medieval Englishry. Ireland in the age of the Tudors, in a second new chapter, restores the English identity of the medieval English of Ireland and discusses its central role in the Wars of the Roses.

Irish history and the Good Friday Agreement

Upon publication of Ireland in the age of the Tudors, however, the historiographical climate has, in one key respect, been fundamentally altered—in theory at least. This concerns the Good Friday Agreement: if the legitimacy of the Northern state is no longer contested, nor the British identity of many of its citizens, it follows that there is more than one ‘making of modern Ireland’, and also that Irish history is not solely our history. Is it therefore too much to ask that Ireland’s more nationally-minded historians might likewise allow its medieval settlers their English identity and abandon the use of loaded terminology which privileges one context of explanation over others?

Steven G. Ellis lectures in Tudor history, in  both English and Irish, at  University College Galway.

Further reading:

S.G. Ellis, Ireland in the age of the Tudors (London 1998).

C. Brady (ed.), Interpreting Irish history (Dublin 1994).

D.G. Boyce and A. O’Day (eds.), The making of modern Irish history (London 1996).

D. Ó Ceallaigh (ed.), Reconsiderations of Irish history and culture (Dublin 1994).


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