Seventeenth-century Ireland—making Ireland modern

Published in Early Modern History (1500–1700), Issue 4 (Jul/Aug 2007), Reviews, Volume 15

Seventeenth-century Ireland—making Ireland modern
New Gill History of Ireland, 3
Raymond Gillespie
(Gill and Macmillan, €18.99/£14.99)
ISBN 0717139468

The Open University once offered a course entitled ‘Conflict and Stability in the Development of Modern Europe’. Students were required to focus their attention on the long years of peace in Europe as much as on those episodes of war or conflict that ravaged the continent with tedious regularity. In this book Raymond Gillespie suggests that the study of Irish history in the seventeenth century might benefit from a similar approach. A research emphasis on ‘shared assumptions’, the interfaces of daily life rather than the occasions when they broke down, might provide a more fruitful line of enquiry into this turbulent period of Irish history. Gillespie does not suggest that we discount those periods of intense violence during the century but points to the potential benefits of refocusing our attention on interfaces of shared experience of life in this period.
This emphasis on ‘shared assumptions’ and the implied natural tendency, therefore, for interests to gradually coalesce has its pitfalls. This is reflected in the title of Chapter 6, ‘The Quest for a Settlement’, rather than the quest for the outright victory of one party over another, which was how many sources reveal that the conflict was generally understood by contemporaries. For many of the Old English, for example, the English parliament and the Scots in the North were patently not seeking a ‘settlement’ but rather the extirpation of Catholicism. In this war à l’outrance, truces, cessations and negotiations were the means of gaining tactical advantage rather than stepping-stones to an agreed settlement.
A plea for a shared rather than a divided history obviously has a potent appeal in the Ireland of the present day. Conflict appears to have gone out of fashion. These observations are merely evidence of how the book is thought-provoking and how it will prompt research activity in the area of cultural, social and economic history, Professor Gillespie’s particular forte. Overall it makes a significant contribution to understanding a society whose political, social and confessional complexity, as Gillespie points out, baffled even contemporaries. Undergraduates in particular will be grateful for this user-friendly guide to understanding what happened in seventeenth-century Ireland.
The narrative structure divides the century into the orthodox periodisation: from the late sixteenth century to 1641; the Confederate war in the 1640s and the Cromwellian conquest; and finally from the Restoration to the Treaty of Limerick. The dominant themes are nonetheless skilfully interwoven in the narrative, and the book engages successfully with thematic threads of three-kingdom history, Ireland as colony or kingdom, culture and belief, and socio-economic conditions. Given the author’s previous work, it is no surprise that he offers a trenchant corrective to largely simplistic analyses of the confessional composition of Plantation Ulster.
A striking example of the rich tapestry of this text is the observation that cultural differences between the Old and New English contributed to their difficulties. One is struck by the thought that one of the reasons the Old English were eventually forced into rebellion was on the grounds of bad taste, appalled to the point of exasperation by the culture of the parvenus or nouveaux riches, evidenced, for example, by such crass funerary monuments as that erected by the earl of Cork to his late wife.
There is a useful if limited bibliography; a more extensive guide would have added significantly to the book. For the lay reader some more maps, detailing the conflict in the 1640s, for example, would greatly assist in an understanding of the period. Although excellent maps are available elsewhere, they are not readily accessible to the general reader. Student, scholar or general reader could hardly wish for a better guide to this century. As the book itself makes clear in the chronological structure, the unfortunate pattern of interaction was stability and conflict, and neither was understandable in isolation from the other. This book is an essential starting-point for those who would engage in debate about what happened in Ireland in the seventeenth century.

Billy Kelly is a lecturer in the School of History and International Politics at the University of Ulster.


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