Political Thought in Seventeenth-Century Ireland: kingdom or colony? Jane H. Ohlmeyer (ed.) (Cambridge University Press in association with the Folger Institute, Washington DC, £37.50) ISBN 0521650836

Published in Book Reviews, Early Modern History (1500–1700), Issue 4 (Winter 2000), Reviews, Volume 8

This volume on political thought in and concerning Ireland, is one of three resulting from a series of seminars convened at the Folger Institute under the aegis of John Pocock, which, regrettably, have not been published by the same press. The present volume, treating of the years pre-1641 to 1700, has four principal strengths. First, it includes fine essays on seventeenth-century debates concerning Ireland’s constitutional relations with England/Britain, a subject with a long academic pedigree that is considerably furthered by these essays. Second, it includes essays on the impact upon Irish affairs of political ideas formulated in Catholic Europe, a subject that has previously fallen more within the remit of historically-minded priest/philosopher/theologians rather than that of historians. Third, it includes essays on subjects that have previously been ignored and that might usefully be pursued further. Fourth, both explicitly and implicitly, it raises questions concerning fact and method that are likely to provoke continuing argument. Additionally, it opens rather than closes debate over the political ideas and controversies that prevailed in seventeenth-century Ireland and their influence upon society there, something that is admirably assisted by Jane Ohlmeyer’s introduction.
The essays in the first category are those by Aidan Clarke on Patrick Darcy, and by Patrick Kelly on William Molyneux’s, The Case of Ireland Stated. Clarke explains why, in June 1641, Darcy first argued that Ireland was a kingdom, distinct from that of England. Then he isolates the very different considerations that brought Darcy to print his arguments in 1643, and shows that it was yet another set of circumstances, immediately preceding the Restoration of 1660, which persuaded William Domville, an upholder of Protestant interests, to follow Darcy’s line in questioning the right of the English parliament to legislate for Ireland. What Patrick Kelly says of Molyneux flows logically from this, as he demonstrates that his prime Irish source was the text of Domville, who happened to be his father-in-law, rather than any writing of Darcy, who Molyneux would have regarded as a Papist rebel.
The essays by David Armitage and Charles Ludington treat of responses in Britain to the challenge presented by Molyneux to the authority of the English parliament. While doing so, Armitage shows that there were, by the late seventeenth century, economic as well as political reasons why these arguments of Molyneux, which previously have been considered narrowly politico/constitutional, were hotly contested. Then, both Armitage and Ludington show that people in England had further reason to counter the arguments of Molyneux in print because of the implications they had for England’s relationship with Scotland, especially in matters of trade and colonisation. Patricia Coughlan considers the 1650s pamphlets by Vincent Gookin, on England’s civilising role in Ireland, with those of the 1670s by his nephew Daniel Gookin on the responsibility of Puritan settlers in New England towards the native population there. She thus reveals how arguments formulated to meet particular circumstances in Ireland came to have relevance for the emerging British Empire in the Atlantic. Contrariwise, the essay by Allan Macinnes, ‘Covenanting Ideology in Scotland’ is on a subject long been recognised as having had a bearing on relationships between the several jurisdictions of the British crown, and his achievement is in tracing the continuing interaction between Scots in Scotland and Scots in Ulster.
Macinnes’s essay reaches out to those in category two because it shows how many Scottish people, like many in Ireland, had an altogether closer association with developments on the European continent than did most English or Old English leaders and apologists. The essays in this second category are by Bernadette Cunningham, Tadhg Ó hAnnracháin, and Jerrold Casway. The latter, who concentrates on Owen Roe O’Neill, his sponsors and associates, alludes to the gulf that separated these and their ambitions from the Old English constitutional authors, while Cunningham and Ó hAnnracháin show that continental Catholic ideas and values were not necessarily incompatible with those deriving from Common Law assumptions.
The most original essay is by Raymond Gillespie who identifies sources that have not been adequately investigated for their political content; sermons, verse in both Irish and English, reports by victims of the 1641 insurrection, and stage plays and other dramatic material employed to convey political messages. Finally, the volume is rounded off by John Pocock with a consideration both of the merits of the individual texts that have been discussed, and of the implication of what has been said of them for British History, broadly conceived.
Having thus appraised the contents of this volume, it remains to speak of its shortcomings. The editor and several contributors, like many historians of early modern Ireland, imply that the various peoples associated with Ireland during the seventeenth century were rigidly compartmentalised, with the most rigid division being between the Gaelic Irish and the Old English, and between those Catholics who had been on the continent and those who remained at home. Nobody is as blunt as this, but three authors allude to the shock provoked in Catholic circles in Ireland by the Disputatio Apologetica, published in Lisbon by Conor O’Mahony SJ in 1645, as if his call for the elimination of heretics and for the rejection of the Stuarts in favour of a Catholic monarch, was unprecedented.
This text was extreme, and unhelpful to Irish peace negotiations of 1645, but nobody can have been surprised by O’Mahony’s ideas. Such views were commonplace among continental Catholics opposed to the compromises being entered upon during the peace negotiations leading to the conclusion of the Thirty Years War, and opinions of this sort were certainly enunciated by many who had engaged in the insurrection of 1641, as they were by some Gaelic poets, including Gaelic priest/poets, who sought to justify that action. After all, most priests in Ireland had been trained in seminaries on the continent (mostly in Flanders and in French cities once under the control of the Catholic League), where the more extreme political opinions of the Counter Reformation held sway. Many of them (like most popes of the early modern period) would therefore have fostered reservations over the preferred Old English political stance that Catholic subjects should prove their loyalty by offering a simple oath of allegiance to a Protestant monarch, and most of them would ultimately have gravitated towards the political position where membership of civil and religious communities should coincide; that, in the case of Ireland, being Catholic. Therefore, as the Old English lords of the Pale made common cause with the Ulster insurgents in December 1641, they laid emphasis on their continued loyalty to King Charles I, not because they thought this was credible but because they were left with no option but to join the insurrection. Then, by professing their loyalty, they were also leaving the way open to salvage something of their previous political and social influence in more propitious times. What the Old English leaders said was, therefore, no more than a legitimisation for the action they were forced to enter upon, and they were all too aware that their arguments were contradicted by the rhetoric and deeds of those already in arms, and by many of their own subordinates.
My second concern is that most the authors in this collection see themselves as historians of ideas rather than historians of political thought. As such, they contextualise the ideas they discuss only by reference to the precise political moment when they were articulated, and make insufficient allowance for interest, by which I mean socio/political no less than economic interest, in influencing which particular set of ideas (from among the many to which they had been exposed) the various actors and political groups in Ireland chose in order to legitimise their actions. Once account is taken of the disparate interests which were in competition, it becomes apparent that the Ireland of the seventeenth century was a site for a variety of political views and options such as prevailed in few European societies at that time. This also explains why paralysis so often ensued at moments of rapid political change, and why more unified forces from outside were repeatedly able to impose their authority on competing forces in Ireland.
That said, this, more than any previous publication, draws attention to the conflict of ideas that did occur in seventeenth century Ireland. Its failure to allow for the sheer diversity of competing views that prevailed at any given time may be attributed partly to the employment of the New British History model as its organising framework. The involvement of John Pocock, the prime advocate of New British History, with this project will explain the choice of this model, although Pocock here concedes ground to some of the criticism that has been made of New British History as he first formulated it. Thus that preposterous phrase, ‘the Atlantic archipelago’, has been jettisoned, as has the supremacist solecism, ‘the British Isles’, and Pocock now favours the politically neutral term, ‘the three kingdoms’, for the unit he would have us study, and permits the inclusion of Britain’s Atlantic settlements, within his framework.
However my essential criticism of the New British History—that the insistence that historical events in Britain and Ireland be treated as if these happened within a self-contained polity and society blinds us to contacts and influences that stemmed from the continent of Europe—remains valid and seems to be proven by the preoccupation of several authors in this volume with Ireland’s relationship with Britain at the expense of that with the European continent. To sustain my case, it is only proper that I should allude to a distortion of John Pocock’s own making. In his afterword, he concludes (p.280) that the theme of the seventeenth century in Ireland is ‘the assertion and defeat of the Catholic Old English attempt to speak in the name of the kingdom of Ireland’. John Pocock may wish this to be true since it would facilitate a dovetailing of developments in Ireland with those in Britain. His contention, however, does not accord with what did happen in Ireland over the full course of the seventeenth century, which was the truly ‘European century’ in the history of modern Ireland. First Spain, then Scotland, then France, Spain, the Papacy, and finally France alone, successively joined with elements of the Irish population to challenge the claims of England (or Britain) to be the sole arbiter of Ireland’s destiny. The Old English cannot be identified as the protagonists in any of these episodes, except perhaps in the last one where some rash members of that community came to exert an unusual influence over King James II. Rather, they responded hesitatingly to conflicting events and ideas that were borne in upon them both by their fellow countrymen who had spent time on the European continent, and by those, from within Ireland and from without, who would have the country brought into closer communion with Britain.

Nicholas Canny


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