The Princeton History of Modern Ireland
THIS VOLUME PROVIDES AN ACCOUNT of modern Irish history from the sixteenth to the twenty-first century. Its approach is both thematic and chronological in nature. Part 1 contains six overarching narrative chapters dealing with the main developments in society and politics throughout the period covered by the book. The aim here is to present readers with an up-to-date rendition of the course of Irish history. Part 2 then focuses on topics and themes that played a peculiarly important role in the shaping of that trajectory. These chapters range from exercises in intellectual, cultural, and literary history to analyses of formatively significant subjects like religion, nationalism, empire, and gender. The aim of the volume is to make available the necessary ingredients for an understanding of Irish history together with a range of insights on pivotal issues and key controversies.
The contributors to this collection constitute a new generation of historians whose work seeks to build on the achievements of their predecessors. Historiography in Ireland after the Second World War was devoted to advancing specialized research, but it can also be seen in part as a reaction against prevailing popular assumptions rather than a revision of a body of scholarly writing.1 In this last guise it aimed to free history from the influence of fable and polemic.2 Its main achievement was the accumulation of a sizable body of research that enriched the picture of the Irish past by systematically studying available evidence and archives. Looking back after a quarter century of progress in that direction, T. W. Moody was eager to draw attention to “unprecedented advances in specialist research, in professional technique, in the organisation of historians and in the publication of special studies, source materials, bibliographies and aids to scholarship.”3 Members of the succeeding generation of historians were still more focused in their objectives. Writing in the shadow of the Troubles in Northern Ireland after 1968 and then the accession of the Republic of Ireland to the European Economic Community in 1973, historians from the 1970s through to the 1990s were in general terms more withering in their approach to national traditions. Above all, skepticism about the legitimating narratives that underpinned the establishment of the two jurisdictions on the island of Ireland became pervasive. The principal targets here were the revolutionary ideologies employed to legitimize nationalist and unionist rebellion. Both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland have their roots in popular militancy. The last generation of historians sought to question the justification for this political stance. This could lend their writing a degree of urgency as well as a didactic tone. At times the temptation was to blame rather than explain what was not approved. This volume sets about incorporating the insights of earlier scholarship while moving beyond the more admonitory approach sometimes adopted by precursors.
Few, if any, states have been established by a formal “contract,” whereby their populations consented in an orderly way to their formation. Most commonly they have been a product of conquest or revolution. This general observation applies to India and Mexico, as well as to America and France. Much like these last two countries, contemporary Ireland has its origins in revolutionary change, and historians are obliged to account for the process of transition. Recounting major moments of national upheaval, like 1776–1787 in America or 1789–1799 in France, usually involves processes of evaluation as well as reconstruction. Since historians habitually revise their predecessors, they tend to reassess earlier evaluations as they embark on new attempts at reconstruction. In the American, French, and Irish cases, this commonly takes the form of new perspectives on the aims and achievements of the revolutionary generation. Yet it is soon found that this fresh vantage affects perceptions of the antecedent past, meaning the longer history preceding the revolution itself. The reason for this seems clear: revolutions have to justify themselves in relation to their past, and so a reappraisal of a revolution entails a revision of its past. The immediate heirs of the Irish revolutionary generation of 1912–1923 constructed a past that pointed to the legitimacy of their revolution based on two principles: the right to self-determination on the one hand, and the entitlement to assert that right by force of arms on the other. Both principles explicitly depended on one another, because the justification for the resort to violence was taken to follow from the prior existence of a self-determining people.
This position relied on a set of historical assumptions, above all the idea of the unity of a people in a position to proclaim themselves as constituting a state. In 1963, the Belfast historian J. C. Beckett challenged this picture by contrasting the history of Ireland with that of England and France. In the latter cases, Beckett thought, history disclosed a clearly ascertainable pattern based on the facts of political cohesion and continuity. Even Germany and Italy, though late in establishing their own unity, could apparently point to the continuous presence of coherent peoples. For Beckett, the history of Ireland seemed to be lacking on both counts: it was peopled by distinct and often opposing populations who at the same time were deprived of the instruments of self-government. This left Beckett searching for the significance of Irish history while struggling to avoid lapsing into teleology. The projected unity and continuity imposed on the past by republican and unionist militants in early twentieth-century Ireland should be rejected, Beckett argued. But he then wondered whether this exercise in ideological debunking did not at the same time deprive Irish history of any distinguishable subject matter. If there existed no enduring substratum of people whose travails could be collected into a continuous narrative, what was the history of Ireland a history of? Beckett’s answer was that continuity was supplied by the “land,” which influenced the careers of settlers and natives alike.4
Beckett’s question at first glance is more promising than his answer. If by “land” he meant landscape, then it is clear that this was continually made and remade by human labor. If, alternatively, he intended the term to refer to territory, then evidently this has not been a singular entity through the Irish past. What is ultimately most interesting about Beckett’s question is the extent to which it was fundamentally mal posée. Irish history can have no overarching meaning or pattern unless it could be said to be a product of design. The chapters in this book cumulatively show that there was no underlying purpose to which the history of Ireland can be made to conform. What we encounter, instead, is a sequence of attempts at political construction that met with various forms of contingent resistance. For this reason, the subject matter of Irish history is not to be sought in persistence and stability but in discontinuous processes of conflict and conciliation. Given that these processes spilled beyond the geographical boundaries of the island, Irish history should be seen as porous rather than self-contained—affected overwhelmingly by English and British policy, but also by European and American events, as well as developments in the wider diaspora.5
The Florentine humanist Niccolò Machiavelli distinguished in his Discourses between states established by accident and those created by design.6 The formation of the Irish polity after 1541 fits neither model. To begin with, it did not come into existence as an independent entity but as a dependent province of an expanding English empire. In addition it was a product of both accident and design. Machiavelli’s principal examples were Sparta and Rome: the Spartan commonwealth had been the deliberate creation of a founding legislator, while the Roman republic was brought about by chance. The kingdom of Rome, naturally, had an original founder, but the constitution of the republic was a product of circumstance. Yet despite its contingent origins, Rome was blessed by fortune. In the case of Ireland, accident combined with design to produce a less happy result. This volume opens in the middle of the sixteenth century, with the passage of the Kingship Act of 1541 that established Henry VIII as King of Ireland. This brought an end to English lordship over the country by subjecting the Kingdom of Ireland directly to the imperial crown. It was an act of deliberate constitutional design, yet it collided with the reality of an existing set of forces.7 In this way, from the Tudor period onwards, statecraft competed with contingency in Ireland. The Irish polity was not so much “constituted” by a harmonious arrangement of orders as marked by a collision of countervailing powers.
The relevant contingencies were determined by the pattern of settlement in Ireland. The attempt to consolidate Henrican power occurred against the background of Norman invasion and occupation, beginning in the twelfth century. After the subjection of Irish territory to the authority of Henry II in 1171, Norman settlement penetrated westwards from Leinster and Ulster as far as Galway and Mayo. This resulted in the establishment of powerful earldoms under the Geraldines, the Burkes, and the Butlers, though these were soon independent of the Dublin government and the crown.8 This was followed by the relative attrition of Norman power as native Gaelic resurgence diminished the might of settler communities and the authority of administration within the Pale receded. Under these circumstances, Norman colonists, now styled “Old English,” were suspected of “degeneration” as their culture merged with that of the “mere Irish.”9 Tudor policy was designed as a response to these developments. This policy began with the scheme of surrender and regrant under Henry VIII, designed to subject the disaffected Irish to common law tenures. However, pledges of allegiance on the part of the Irish nobility were not matched by corresponding acts of subordination. Rebellions were then met by new waves of colonization between the middle of the sixteenth century and the early seventeenth. These occurred in the midst of the spread of Protestant Reformation, dividing the religious loyalties of “New English” planters from the Catholicism of the Old English and native Irish combined. Settlement, from then on, introduced an adverse population as an instrument of imperial consolidation.
Irish history, of course, cannot be understood in terms of the interaction between happenstance and an isolated legislative act. There was no single exercise of political will that set Ireland in a durable constitutional mold. Instead, the country was variously refashioned by a succession of attempts at design. What complicates the picture is that this succession of policies generated new forms of resistance in the process of implementation. Yet in general terms, a dialectical pattern can be discerned over the course of the sixteenth and seventeen centuries. To begin with there was an attempt to transform the medieval lordship into a provincial kingdom, subject to the sovereignty of the English crown. The English monarchy did not govern a passively receptive province but acted through the counsel of an Irish parliament. The problem was that this mixed regime presided over an imperfectly assimilated population. The plantation of Munster from 1586 and the plantation of Ulster from 1606 introduced politically amenable constituencies committed to English government and the Protestant faith. Colonization was an arm of conquest intended as an instrument of pacification. But if this strategy made it possible to secure the territory, it also made the country more difficult to hold. As the seventeenth century progressed, expropriation and sectarian animosity bred disaffection among all sections of the Catholic population.10 The goal of a “perfect” conquest that would pacify the kingdom eluded every attempt at political subjection. In fact, pacification consistently sparked rebellion, leading to new demands for more effective subordination. A dynamic process of hostile action and reaction became entrenched.
A major push for a final conquest was launched in the aftermath of 1641. In October of that year, a Catholic rebellion against the administration in Ireland culminated in acts of atrocity against English and Scottish planters, drawing the country into the wars of the three Kingdoms that beset England, Ireland, and Scotland through the 1640s and 1650s.11 Catholic royalist insurgency was met by Cromwellian retaliation between 1649 and 1653. Previous attempts to manage the Irish had been implemented by the crown. Now the new model army was led by Cromwell to deliver control of the country to a rump parliament at Westminster. English victory was accompanied by a dramatic series of confiscations. Before the confederate wars of the 1640s, Irish Catholics still held nearly two-thirds of the land. After the Cromwellian settlement, their tenure was reduced to approximately eight percent, rising again to twenty after the Restoration. This amounted to a drastic social revolution, giving rise to a significant transformation of government. More than fifty thousand confederate troops piled into continental armies. Prominent rebels were executed or exiled as indentured labor. The remainder, along with compliant Catholics, were systematically expropriated. From now on the Irish parliament was controlled by Protestant lords and gentry. Catholics were excluded from executive offices under the crown.
Migration of population was a standard feature of early modern European history. Much of this occurred against the background of waves of barbarian inundation in late antiquity and sequences of settlement and resettlement continuing down through the high middle ages.12 The Saxon incursions and the Norman conquest are examples of a widespread European process. In due course, territorial annexation and regnal incorporation became characteristic continental dynamics.13 For this reason, it is interesting to examine the Irish experience in comparison with other European attempts at political integration. The union of Spanish crowns and the expansion of the French state are conspicuous examples of these processes of amalgamation. Yet in the English case, consolidation failed to win even minimally comprehensive support. Eastern colonization of Slavic regions by German settlers from the twelfth century led to the coexistence of populations from the Baltic to Slovenia.14 As in Ireland, the Reformation brought new tensions to German and Slavic territories. For example, orthodox Germans were forced to flee Bohemia during the course of the Hussite wars. Thereafter, centralization was pursued under Habsburg rule from 1526 by building a court party among the Bohemian estates and playing the kingdom against Moravia, Lusatia, and Silesia. Conflict followed, culminating in Habsburg victory over the Bohemian estates on the afternoon of November 8, 1620, the expulsion of Czech nobility, and the confiscation of their estates. The region was then devastated by the Thirty Years’ War. At the end of that brutalizing contest, the Habsburg crown asserted its power over depopulated Bohemian territory, yet the diet soon recovered a definite constitutional role. Fifty percent of landed estates changed hands after the Battle of White Mountain, and the German language soon acquired equal status in administration, yet native aristocratic families regained authority in affairs of state.15 An influx of German settlers buttressed the new regime, while the remaining Slavic ruling families cooperated with Vienna. In Ireland, by comparison, the Catholic nobility was more or less completely disempowered.
That process had not led to peace and prosperity, however. Commenting on Irish conditions in 1672, the political anatomist, William Petty, ascribed continuing discontents to two sources: first, to ongoing disaffection among the Catholic Irish; and second, to the division of imperial sovereignty between distinct legislatures. The solution, he argued, lay in a policy of combining “Union” with “Transmutation.” The former was a proposal to incorporate the two kingdoms by reviving the arrangement in operation under the commonwealth, the latter was a scheme for transplanting the majority of Catholics and replacing them with well-disposed settlers from the mainland.16 In this way, Petty believed, divergent peoples could be blended into a coherent state. The idea of exchanging substantial bodies of population was never pursued beyond the stage of purely speculative projection. However, proposals for a legislative union were ultimately implemented, nearly a century and a half after Petty floated the idea. But if the project of mass transplantation was never seriously contemplated, in a deep sense the attraction of amalgamating nationalities persisted through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Petty’s was just a drastic means of effecting a common objective.
The consequences of the Cromwellian conquest along with the Restoration settlement threatened to be reversed after the accession of James II: a Catholic monarch on the British throne allied to the French was not merely an affront to Scottish and English sensibilities, it also undermined the security of the Protestant population in Ireland.17 Their strength lay in their monopoly of land and therefore power, their weakness in the scarcity of their numbers. The retreat of James II at the Battle of the Boyne on July 1, 1690 followed by the Battle of Aughrim and the Treaty of Limerick that concluded the Williamite War enabled the victors to address this situation.18 The Protestant monopoly of public life was increased, and the expropriation of rebel forces implemented. Confiscations continued down to the end of the century, reducing Catholic holdings to approximately twelve percent. This was not quite Petty’s dream realized by chance, although the flight of Jacobite forces into continental armies was a necessary prerequisite for the allocation of their lands. Since 1641, Catholics had gambled their future on insurrection, leading Petty to conclude that with the victory of “the English” they had at least a “Gamester’s right” to requisition their opponents’ estates.19 From 1692, with the legislative authority of the Irish parliament more firmly entrenched, the balance of property was underwritten by an exclusive regime of power. Within three years, the Dublin parliament began to enact a series of proscriptions aimed at permanently depriving Catholics of political purchase and reducing the influence of their doctrines, liturgy, and ecclesiology.
These regulations have come to be known as the “popery” or “penal” laws. Their passage was completed in 1728, when Catholics were denied the right to vote in elections to parliament. Over the preceding decades, a series of measures of varying character and significance sought to diminish the threat that popery was felt to pose to the reigning establishment. Most conspicuous among them were attempts to restrict the intellectual commerce between the Catholic clergy and the continent, provisions for further reductions in the Catholic share of the land, and measures to address the suspected evasion of legislation.20 Between 1649 and 1728, in a succession of sudden and sometimes violent developments, a comprehensive revolution in Ireland had occurred, transforming property relations and the distribution of power. Down to 1782, Ireland was administered by a proscriptive constitution subordinate to the final authority of Westminster. The Church of Ireland enjoyed the status of a national church presiding in the face of widespread religious dissent, most conspicuously among Presbyterians and Catholics. At the same time, despite these apparently stark polarities, Presbyterian industry developed in the north, while Catholic merchants and small farmers prospered in all four provinces
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