The ‘mere’ Irish and the colonisation of Ulster, 1570–1641

Published in Book Reviews, Book Reviews, Issue 4 (July/August 2018), Reviews, Volume 26

Palgrave Macmillan
ISBN 9783319593623

Reviewed by James O’Neill

James O’Neill is an independent heritage consultant based in Belfast.

Perhaps it’s a coincidence, or maybe it’s the recent 400th anniversary of the start of the Ulster plantation, but there has been a recent influx of monographs and edited volumes examining that pivotal yet still divisive period of Irish history. Johnathan Bardon’s The plantation of Ulster (2011) provided a fresh and eminently readable narrative, which was followed by Audrey Horning’s Ireland in the Virginian sea: colonialism in the British Atlantic (2013), The plantation of Ulster: ideology and practice, edited by Eamon Ó Ciardha and Micheál Ó Siochrú (2012), and The Scots in early Stuart Ireland: union and separation in two kingdoms, edited by David Edwards and Simon Egan (2016). All drilled down into the less-explored details of a subject that has been all too frequently exploited and misused by either side of the political divide in the North of Ireland. Gerrard Farrell’s work can happily and comfortably take its place in the growing corpus of scholarly work on this prickly and often volatile subject.

Rather than gently ease the reader into his thematic analysis, Farrell starts with a bang. From the outset he challenges the framework and language used by previous historians when discussing the relationship between the native Irish and the English/Scots colonisers. He uses methods developed in America, as the relationship between natives and European colonists was re-evaluated in the 1950s and ’60s from the perspective of the native underside—making history look east from the viewpoint of the native rather than west from that of the colonisers. On introspection, this reviewer found himself rather shamefully guilty of obvious bias of language in his own work. Touché, Dr Farrell, you have my attention!

Following on from the introduction, Chapter 2 deals with the position of Ireland as a kingdom or a colony or a hybrid of both, while Chapter 3 discusses the nature of Ulster after the destruction of the Nine Years War but before the Ulster plantation project got under way; here Farrell deftly handles foundation myths of the plantation such as the frequently mentioned ‘wilderness’ found by the incoming Scots and English settlers. Chapter 4 covers the cultural superstructures found in Ulster—political, religious and linguistic—and the efforts (or lack thereof) of the English to reform, reduce and replace all three. Chapter 5 examines the economic base of Irish society, framing this through the class structure of the native élite but also, refreshingly, of the landless majority, whose voice is seldom (if ever) heard in the historiography of the period. Chapter 6 deconstructs the idea of the ‘deserving’ Irish and how land allocations were used to disrupt and destroy traditional ties between the native élite and landholders and the landless majority, with the final chapter tying it all together in a succinct and persuasive conclusion.

This book is very much a counterpoint to the narrative of benign cooperation and acceptance of the native Irish during the plantation, which Farrell links to modern politics of reconciliation following the Good Friday agreement. The core of his thesis is the subaltern role of the native Irish in the plantation project. It explores the Crown’s expedient placation of the Irish élite and the fallacy of the ‘civilising’ programme for the Irish natives. There was little inclination to convert the Irish to Protestantism; indeed, civility was impossible in any other language than English. Moreover, the native Irish were never a welcome part of the plantation programme and were considered only worthy of becoming a servile underclass rather than developing into full subjects equal under the law. Irish acquiescence was a result of the removal of the senior Irish nobility and a pragmatic attempt to find a place within the new social and economic structures, rather than an acceptance or approval of English law and culture. This simmering discontent found full expression in the explosion of violence from the Irish landless class during the 1641 rebellion, which was very similar to the events seen during the overthrow of the Munster plantation in 1598.

It should almost go without saying that this work is well written and structured. The author’s argument is convincing and supported by a myriad of information and supporting evidence. Indeed, in some cases, primarily in Chapter 6, this level of detail sometimes serves to slow down the flow of the writing, leaving the reader somewhat overcome and a bit confused. In a way this is a positive element, as it means that Farrell’s work will remain a rich vein of information and sources for later research (which is a very good thing), but it makes for a challenging first-time read. I have some issues with the author’s interpretation of the empty landscapes as representing population mortality rather than migration and his rather crude use of native Irish troop numbers to extrapolate population figures (troops representing 16.6% of the population in Ulster when no other country in Europe could raise above 5% is a bit of a stretch), but these are the minor niggles of a quarrelsome pedant.

Overall, the book is intensively researched and its well-wrought argument is compelling and convincing; it provides an effective counterpoint to other, more benign interpretations of the relationship between natives and colonists during the Ulster plantation. While I may not agree with all of the claims made by the author (but surely historians disagreeing is an essential part of the process), this work provides an enlightening and essential new strand to the discourse of the plantation and will prove indispensable to our understanding and continuing research of the period.


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