Reshaping Ireland 1550–1700

Published in Book Reviews, Early Modern History (1500–1700), Issue 1(Jan/Feb 2012), Reviews, Volume 20

Reshaping Ireland 1550–1700Brian Mac Cuarta SJ (ed.) (Four Courts Press, €55) ISBN 9781846822728

Reshaping Ireland 1550–1700
Brian Mac Cuarta SJ (ed.)
(Four Courts Press, €55)
ISBN 9781846822728

The essays collected in this volume have been assembled as a tribute to Nicholas Canny by his colleagues and former students on the occasion of his retirement from the established professorship of history at NUI Galway. They centre on two themes that have been at the heart of Nicholas’s own concerns over the years as a research historian and teacher: the political and intellectual history of early modern Ireland and the overseas expansion from England to the New World. Of the fifteen essays assembled here, twelve traverse Ireland’s long iron century, stretching from the brutally suppressed Geraldine rebellion of 1534–5 and the extension of the English Reformation to the lordship (1536–8) to the grim Cromwellian decade of 1650–60. A further three pieces take the volume into the false dawn of the Restoration, with its disastrous—from the Irish point of view—sequel, the War of the Two Kings (1688–91), and the dishonoured Treaty of Limerick, concluded in the October of the war’s final year. One hazard of undertaking editorial responsibility for a volume such as this is to find oneself lumbered with substandard contributions, offloaded by professed well-wishers who, one suspects, have already done the round of the academic journals with them to no avail. That, I hasten to say, has not happened here: all the essays are well up to standard. I single out two that address the ‘big questions’ for the way they challenge the received wisdom. In the first, the opening essay, Ciarán Brady—in 22 pages of dense, Namierite-style analysis—succeeds in tracing a course through the maze of failed Tudor attempts to pacify Ireland and offers a novel explanation for why they ended so badly. The key lies, he argues, not in the clash of incompatible ideologies nor in irreconcilable religious convictions, nor yet in the restiveness caused by the early projects of plantation, nor finally in the failure of the Crown to invest the resources necessary to solve the Irish problem. Rather the key lies, he believes, in the reluctance of the makers of policy to face the dilemma posed to them by two uncongenial policy options: either to reconcile themselves to constructing an Irish polity ‘radically different from and inevitably hostile to the English model of a commonwealth’ or ‘to condone the bloody implication that arose from rejection of that proposition’. Despite Ciarán’s graphic style his essay is not an easy read. Nevertheless, read it must be by all students of Irish Tudor history, undergraduates, postgraduates and academics.The second accolade goes to David Finnegan, who treats the reader to a sophisticated, confident and erudite foray into early modern Irish intellectual history. His training at Cambridge, an internationally renowned centre for the study of political thought, stands him in good stead in his analysis of the accounts of Irish history that emerged from Old English clerical circles between 1570 and 1640. It suited these Catholic clerics in the aftermath of the Reformation to adhere to the long-standing ‘Anglo-Irish’ account of how the English Crown gained dominion in Ireland: by means of a papal grant contained in the bull Laudabiliter in 1153 and subsequently endorsed by the principal Gaelic chiefs in the form of a translatio imperii on the occasion of Henry II’s expedition to Ireland in 1171. Needless to say, such an account was not acceptable to the Crown in the 1570s, having rejected papal jurisdiction in 1534. Nor was the Crown disposed to accept the reputed translatio imperii with its implication of conditionality. In these circumstances it was forced to fall back on the hoary fable put into circulation by Geoffrey of Monmouth, according to which the English Crown’s claim rested on a pre-historic conquest by the legendary King Arthur. Finnegan is interested in the polemical battle that ensued for the way it shows a radical mind-shift on the part of the Old English in the matter of identity. In these histories they identify themselves with the hitherto contamined Gaelic Irish, as joined with them as fellow citizens of the one historic Catholic nation and as such heirs of early medieval Ireland’s glorious Christian heritage. In that connection Finnegan is deeply critical of sceptical revisionists who have foregrounded the occasional evidence of ethnic tension through the late seventeenth century. That the two communities should have united at some point in the early seventeenth century seems unsurprising to Finnegan, as the consummation of a development whose gestation can be traced stretching back into the medieval period. Suffice it to say as a final word on Finnegan’s powerfully argued piece that to one whose contention in similar vein over the years—admittedly on a different but equally valid evidential base—was for the most part discounted, it comes as music to the ears.John McGurk provides a glimpse of the horrors of the ‘iron century’ in recounting the radical prescription of Captain Thomas Lee for governing the recalcitrant Irish—they perversely having refused to succumb to the Greek gifts brought by the newcomers (unlike the natives of North America): gunpowder, European disease and alcohol. Annaleigh Margey shows how the development in the new skill of cartography was driven in North America and in Ireland by the needs of colonial settlement. Rolf Loeber and Terence Reeves-Smith describe the grandiose building scheme of the eighteenth Baron Audley for his new estate in Ulster and they seek to restore his reputation as ‘one of the most prolific builders of his period’, much of his work having been mistakenly ascribed to his son-in-law, Sir John Davies, the Irish solicitor general. Jane Ohlmeyer tabulates the gradual Anglicisation of the Irish peerage in the seventeenth century. She argues that the peers played a major part in making Ireland British, or at least ‘a new England in all but name’. Relatedly Bernadette Cunningham, in a typically well-researched and carefully argued piece, demonstrates how in the seventeenth century the language of the newcomers had begun to oust the native Irish, in the upper echelons of Irish society at least, as the language of politics and commerce. Jason McHugh offers a case-study dealing with the rising of 1641 in Wexford. His purpose is to show that latent tensions between natives and newcomers ensured that the flame of revolt in Ulster in late October 1641 had sparked rebellion in Wexford within ten days. Brendan Kane throws a valuable light on the Irish administration of Thomas Wentworth. He explores an incident in which Wentworth brazenly faced down an allegation of responsibility for the death of a lowly barge-operator and turned the tables on his highly placed accuser by persuading the English council to regard the accusation as an intolerable slur not alone on his own honour but also on that of the king, the latter having personally selected him for his exalted office. As so often, Aidan Clarke in his contribution finds a way of casting new light on an already much-examined question. He diverts attention from the depositions of the victims of the Catholic atrocities in Ulster in the course of the rebellion of the 1640s. Instead, he examines the commissions of the authorities that prompted them and shows how these were made gradually more precise as to the information requested so as to maximise their value as tools of propaganda against the rebels. Kevin Forkan tests the reality of the British identity under the banner of which Scottish and English planters initially allied against the rebels in 1641. He finds it to have been quite superficial. It began to unravel as the crisis subsided. By 1650 the Cromwellian regime was forced to recognise the separate identity of the Ulster Scots and of their Presbyterian church system. Here he finds the origins of the Ulster dissenting tradition, which he reminds us ‘was of no little importance in the north Atlantic world’. Alan Forde wades through a mass of polemical history and theology in his piece that explores the after-life of the Ulster rebellion as an iconic event in seventeenth-century British history as well as the posthumous reputation of Archbishop James Ussher of Armagh as an iconic Protestant ecclesiastic. Both were refashioned by English Protestant historians in the 1670s and 1680s to drum up anti-Catholic fervour in support of the extravagant claims of Titus Oates and for the exclusion of the Catholic James II from the succession. These bids may have failed but, Alan argues, the crusade helped to create a distinct Protestant identity. Meanwhile, the episode provides ‘a rare insight into the way the Irish past was used to shape the English present’. Pádraig Lenihan teases out the extent to which Aughrim as a battle is considered decisive in a way that the Boyne was not. In his estimation, casualties were not as serious as has been thought: some 3,500—less serious than those lost at Dungan’s Hill and Scarrifholis. The real disaster was the loss of land and the loss of a significant land-owning élite that resulted. In the long run, the steady trickle of Catholic landowners conforming to the Church of Ireland strengthened and legitimised the Protestant state. In that sense ‘Aughrim was a catastrophe’. The final essay, by Toby Barnard, describes how the Irish Catholic landowner Richard Bellings managed to hold on to his extensive Irish estate through the vicissitudes of post-Treaty Ireland and to carve out a career for himself as a courtier and diplomat. The cost was the gradual erosion of the family’s Irish connection. In the next generation the heir sold out his Irish lands, though he remained—as did his descendants—a staunch Catholic.Finally, a word of congratulation to the editor for assembling such a formidable team of contributors, representing in age the whole gamut of the profession in Ireland. He also contributed an insightful article outlining the career of the German trader Matthew de Renzy, who when his business collapsed became a landowner in the Ulster plantation, at which he enjoyed greater success. In thoroughly German fashion, he learned Irish in his middle years and developed an antiquarian interest in Irish history. But none of this mellowed his view of the natives, whom he considered thoroughly undependable.The collection is topped by a brief foreword by the president of NUI Galway, in which he reflects appreciatively on Nicholas’s staggeringly successful career and his contribution to the college. It is tailed by an equally brief outline by the doyen of Atlantic history studies, John Elliott, expressing his appreciation for Nicholas’s pioneering contributions to that subject.  HI
Brendan Bradshaw SM is a Life Fellow of Queens’ College, Cambridge.


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