The Elizabethan Conquest of Ireland: The 1590s Crisis, John McGurk. (Manchester University Press, £45) ISBN 0719049598

Published in Book Reviews, Early Modern History (1500–1700), Issue 4 (Winter 1998), Reviews, Volume 6

John McGurk’s Herculean study of the raising, supplying and impact of the Elizabethan army of the 1590s on England and Ireland is the result of years of painstaking research and is unlikely to be replaced as the standard work for quite some time to come. Aside from Bartlett and Jefferey’s recent Military History of Ireland and scattered articles, readers interested in the English army in Ireland had little choice but to resort to Cyril Falls’ Elizabeth’s Irish Wars. Readers should be aware, however, that McGurk’s is not a narrow military history of the operations of the Elizabethan army in Ireland, and, despite the title, adopts a broad approach and a wide frame of reference. His focus is not limited to Ireland: the heart of the project deals with the impact of the Nine Years’ War on central and local government and society in the English and Welsh shires. He concludes that the Elizabethan conquest had a major impact on the development of the English state in the sixteenth century. The book explores the administrative, material and economic effect of the war which eventually resulted in a reorganisation of the army and its logistics.
The first chapter explores the origins of the Nine Years’ War. McGurk is in command of the latest scholarship as he explains the conflict in the context of contemporary English writing on Ireland and in terms of ‘English aims’ and ‘Irish aims’. He explains the slow English strategic and policy evolution to the formula of force and famine to break the Irish ‘rebellion’. Nor is he squeamish in ascribing racism, land hunger and personal ambition to English operatives and commentators on the ground in Ireland. On the Irish side he notes the evolution of reverse-hatred from the 1580s onwards. The Gaelic eagerness to attach themselves to the banner of religion by the 1590s, and their love of Spain, made it almost impossible for Elizabeth to avoid a military conquest by the end of the century.
Yet how was this conquest to be effected? It is here that the author’s meticulous work is really demonstrated. In examining the ‘Machinery for the Irish war’ and ‘The demands of the war on the shires of England and Wales’, McGurk illustrates in great detail how the soldiers were recruited, equipped and dispatched to Ireland. Comprehensive studies of the shires of Kent, Lancashire, and Cheshire, in addition to a detailed examination of Chester, Bristol and the other Western ports suggest that there was a great reluctance on the part of the authorities and the general population to provide troops or to serve in Ireland. The majority of men who were shipped to fight were in fact pressed. Of these, a great many were criminals, vagabonds or other social ‘undesirables’, hardly the best material for creating efficient or committed fighting forces. When the statistics for death by disease are taken into account it is hardly surprising that desertion was endemic. The ‘country disease’ or dysentery took an enormous toll on the levies that arrived fresh from England. The common soldier was poorly shod, inadequately clothed, and hardly ever paid. Under these circumstances it is rather remarkable that the English were able to field an army at all: most of the problems stemmed from simple yet astounding corruption on the part of the captains on the ground and the contracted suppliers at the ports and in London. Maladministration, delays in supplies, and fraud kept the English soldier in a sorry state as he went out to confront an enemy hard to engage and an environment often disastrous for his health. Early on they even had to buy their own gunpowder! Given the state of this army, which was in McGurk’s words one of ‘corruption, discontent and suffering’, it is somewhat surprising that they were eventually able to defeat the Gaelic Irish forces of O’Neill and O’Donnell. Yet, Lord Deputy Mountjoy’s efforts at draconian discipline, massive resources and a brutal scorched earth policy directed against the native population eventually succeeded.
McGurk’s analysis continually points to Mountjoy’s tactics and leadership as the revolutionary factor that transformed the nature of Gaelic/English military conflict. Draconian and effective, he was fully aware of the departure that his tactics represented. The unprecedented rate of killing in Ulster in 1602 was acknowledged in a moment of rare and squeamish reflection: ‘We do now continually hunt all their woods, spoil the corn, burn their houses, and kill so many churls as it grieveth me to think it is necessary to do it’. A horrific campaign, an impoverished soldiery, and the immiseration of large portions of the native population were part of the price paid for England’s success in the Nine Years’ War, but so also was the near bankruptcy of its state finances. By May 1602 the English Privy Council would claim that it was the war in Ireland and not the various conflicts in Spain, the Low Countries and France which put the greatest strains on the English political nation. The 40,000 infantrymen and 2,000 horse recruited, paid for, shipped and supplied in the field created an unprecedented burden on the English shires and the central administration. The resultant strain was so great that one commentator concluded the war in Ireland was the equivalent of ‘a plague sent to the English’. And the cost of the seemingly interminable conflict did not end there: McGurk carefully reconstructs the impact of the casualties and the welfare needs of the returned wounded on society. The costs in lives lost, men wounded and lives ruined were enormous.
McGurk excels in reconstituting the daily life for the soldier in Ireland and the impact of this war on English society. His discussion of the Elizabethan soldier at war is especially good. The cost of this terrible war on the Irish was obviously enormous, however, McGurk’s book asks us to consider its less brutal but significant impact on English society. As a consequence this book’s importance transcends Irish history, and is in effect a major contribution to the rather moribund field of Tudor English history. My only major quibble then is with the title: The Elizabethan Conquest of Ireland, makes an exaggerated claim for what is essentially a study of the social impact of the war and the strains it put on Elizabethan government. One hopes that the choice of title was not a market ploy on the part of the press because it has the potential to mislead. In truth McGurk’s excellent work of the impact of Elizabethan England’s ‘Vietnam’ stands on its own and deserves a more accurate title.

Vincent Carey

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