THE BIG BOOK: CAMBRIDGE HISTORY OF IRELAND, VOL. II: 1550–1730

Published in Book Reviews, Issue 2 (March/April 2019), Reviews, Volume 27

JANE OHLMEYER (ed.)
Cambridge University Press
£100
ISBN 9781107117631

Reviewed by Hiram Morgan

Ireland 1550–1730 is the second of four volumes intended as a flagship series on the history of Ireland for the ‘decade of commemorations’. The series showcases the work of a generation of scholars and inevitably invites comparison with Oxford University Press’s nine-volume New History of Ireland, dating from the 1970s. This volume is a veritable head-spinner—at once compelling, inspiring, depressing, frustrating, perplexing and enlightening.

Part of this reaction derives from the editorial decision to dispense with the traditional periods of Irish history with which we are familiar. The dates chosen here, like those of the other volumes, are arbitrary. In this case nothing of note happened in Ireland in either 1550 or 1730. The choice perversely and provocatively eschews the surely more logical span of 1534 to 1691, dealing with the conquest and colonisation of Ireland from the Kildare Revolt to the Treaty of Limerick, used by the comparable New History of Ireland III (edited by Moody, Martin and Byrne, 1976). It means that this volume offers nothing on the introduction of the Reformation in Ireland under Henry VIII. One can, of course, remedy this by buying the earlier volume, acquiring on-line access or searching the shelves in a university library, but the reader is still left having to contemplate dire money bills and papists without proper horses in the early eighteenth century! Periodisation is important in history, or at least it used to be, and should not be departed from in such a seemingly casual fashion. Fortunately there is compensation by way of a nicely poised and crafted introduction laying out the main features of early modern Ireland. In it Jane Ohlmeyer highlights global aspects of the Irish early modern experience and demonstrates this at the outset by archaeological evidence obtained from rubbish disposed of by the influential Loftus family at Rathfarnham Castle. Her world-encompassing perspective and the use of this type of evidence are testimony to how far things have come in a generation.

The main preoccupations of the New History were politics, religion and war. Understandably, this book has sought to shift the focus onto economic, social and cultural history. Political developments have been dealt with here in summary chapters by Ciaran Brady, David Edwards, John Cunningham, Ted McCormick, Charles Ivar McGrath and D.W. Hayton. There are wonderful essays on the creation of colonial Ireland in the early Stuart period and on its full operation by the early Hanoverian period. Edwards teases out evidence to show that there was no honeymoon in the 1620s and ’30s but rather continuous resistance, and the layers that Hayton builds up for 1691–1730 leave one pondering whether ‘apartheid state’ might not be usefully deployed to describe the combination of ancien régime and colonialism at work under the Protestant Ascendancy. Besides, McGrath tells how the army barracks system in Ireland became ‘a crucial component in the expansion of the British empire in the eighteenth century’. On the other hand, there is not enough on the Elizabethan Conquest and the 1641 Rebellion. The 1550–1603 essay, with its Eltonian title and composed with Brady’s usual perspicacity, highlighting the crown’s efforts to shire the country, is regrettably too short and serves only to tantalise the reader. There is not much at all on the causes and atrocities of 1641 until the rebellion receives attention obliquely at the end of the volume in relation to climate! Buyers of this book have a legitimate expectation to see these pivotal events properly covered, the more so given the amount of research that has gone into them in recent years, especially as a result of the work on the 1641 Depositions. Conversely, the reappraisal of religious change and differentiation in the period that had taken place is fully on display in the essays by Colm Lennon, Tadhg Ó hAnnracháin and Robert Armstrong. Another teaser of an essay is the comparison of the Confederate and Williamite wars drawn up by John Jeremiah Cronin and Pádraig Lenihan in the light of the Military Revolution’s impact. Their attempts to compare the use of cavalry by the Irish in both conflicts, to gauge the military role of the Scots in Donegal/Derry in the two wars and to pit Cromwell against King Billy (speed and ruthlessness versus willingness to negotiate) are intriguing and you are left wanting more. They ascertain a 30% population loss in the 1641–53 war, heightened by massacres, epidemics, forced famines, transportation and flight, and reckon that the damage to country and people in 1689–91 was heading in the same direction, only that the Williamite war was far shorter.

It is the extensive socio-economic treatment in the second half of the book that wins the prize. The contributions here reflect a level of research, depth and comprehension not available or even conceived of in the 1970s. Clodagh Tait produces a very fine analysis of social relations during the seventeenth century, sorting out the distinctions between yeomen, freeholders, husbandsmen, labourers and cottiers in the country and between freemen, apprentices and the poor in the towns, as well as how ethnic status and social mobility were reflected across colonial Ireland. Mary O’Dowd, with her huge knowledge of gender history, makes good use of scattered records on courtship, marriage and family to explore the roles of women, men and children in the changing patriarchal, religious and ethnic environment being wrought by conquest and colonisation. A quite different sort of civilisation and one newly delineated through examination of domestic spaces and everyday objects is Susan Flavin’s work on cultural change in the home. It turns out that the civilising process there was not all male-driven Anglicisation but rather one that was commercial, global and female. Complementing this picture is Jane Fenlon’s well-illustrated essay on art and architecture, a subject that was in its infancy a generation ago. The essay on the aristocratic mentality of honour in England’s Irish colony would have been an unlikely academic subject at the time of the New History but sources such as genealogies and patents of nobility have been readily enough available for Brendan Kane to undertake it. The problem lies in defining the theory and practice of honour in such a fluid situation. It was seen as arising increasingly from service to the crown but that, it seems to me, had many pitfalls. ‘The Lie’, a poem by Walter Raleigh, the biggest plantation grantee in Ireland, has its fickle nature about right:

‘And give the world the lie.
Say to the court, it glows.
And shines like rotten wood.’

This is a fascinating subject but was it in the end false consciousness? The Gaelic and Gaelicised Irish like James FitzMaurice, Turlough Luineach and Hugh O’Neill made fools of English governors in this regard, and Raleigh’s Cromwellian successors, who made a new Ireland, threatened the system by removing the fount of honour. Yet Kane’s wide-ranging piece shows authoritatively that honour mattered—not surprisingly, I suppose, in a place where it served so often as a reputational mask for collaborators, crooks and parvenus.

Regarding language and literature, Marc Caball gives us the benefit of his great knowledge of bardic poetry, but his treatment of the other aspects of Gaelic writing is sadly truncated. Bernadette Cunningham follows on with the evolution of a bilingual cultural scene from the Four Masters to O’Carolan through a mixture of strategies, subversive, pragmatic and opportunistic. Meanwhile, Deana Rankin has explored the contemporaneous development of the print industry in Ireland from government monopoly to market orientation. The rise of this market economy is scrutinised all too briefly in Raymond Gillespie’s brilliant exposition. In spite of devastating wars, currency shortages and harvest crises, immigration and a rapidly growing population went hand in hand with a diversifying agricultural export economy and the early stages of industrialisation. The transitional role of the Old English Catholic gentry and merchant classes is well acknowledged in this trajectory. The only thing left to wonder here is whether the antecedent native economy based on military power and gift circulation in the north and centre of the country was as weak as Gillespie suggests. Annaleigh Margey’s essay on Tudor and Stuart plantations and Micheál Ó Siochrú and David Brown’s on the Cromwellian land settlement provide further background. Since it is only in these that we get some glimpse of the capitalist investors who helped create this new economy, it strikes me that the book probably needed a background essay about state formation and capitalist development in Britain and Western Europe to fully explain what took place in Ireland. Judging by the adverse weather effects of volcanoes, however, we do have a global perspective—and, if sunspots prove important, a solar-system-wide one as well—brought to bear on Ireland in Francis Ludlow and Arlene Crampsie’s piece on the environmental and climatic conditions. They show that the worst phases of the so-called Little Ice Age coincide with critical years at the end of the Nine Years War and the beginning of the Confederate one. This is an important addition to our knowledge but what level of causation can and should we attribute to it? Surely political calculation and moral responsibility still mattered in the decision-making of the individuals who were all being affected by these background circumstances.

This volume has no essay on the Irish in Europe, but William O’Reilly’s tour d’horizon on the Irish in the Atlantic is a simply marvellous achievement. The Renaissance Latin literature of Ireland, the focus of much recent study, is not dealt with either, but Ian Campbell makes great use of such writings in his examination of Irish political thought in the period. Furthermore, unlike some other contributors here, who are more likely to name-check the work of a fellow historian than to explain a complex historical term, Campbell goes out of his way to clarify what would otherwise be a complex topic. In a final essay Nicholas Canny traces a Whiggish ascent of history, writing about early modern Ireland from bigotry to enlightenment, beginning with binary Catholic/Protestant propaganda through Nationalist/Unionist perspectives up to the present vigorous state of university-based researchers. This is all very fine and dandy, but one has to wonder about the increasing corporate ethos of academic publishing in which all of this is now wrapped up. This book retails at a hefty price and does not include a properly consolidated bibliography!

Hiram Morgan lectures in history at University College Cork.

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