Nicholas (nwhyte) wrote,

August Books 5) A Viceroy's Vindication? Sir Henry Sidney's Memoir of Service in Ireland, 1556-78

Reviving my 16th-century history project, I come to this interesting first-person account by the man appointed to rule Ireland by Elizabeth I in 1565–1571 and again in 1575–1578. Let's bear in mind that in the last hundred years only Bertie Ahern, W.T. Cosgrave and Éamon de Valera (and, stretching a point, Augustine Birrell) have run the Irish government for longer than that, so he demonstrated considerable staying power. In 1583 he wrote a long account of his public life to Sir Francis Walsingham, who was the queen's Principal Secretary and whose son was about to marry his daughter. It is almost all about his time in Ireland, and in a decent introduction 39 pages, followed by 69 of the main text) Ciarán Brady offers a decent contextualisation of the details, including helpfully pointing out the relatively few instances where Sidney has improved upon the actual facts.

What struck me was that Sidney clearly portrays his mission as one of getting the Irish chieftains to live peacefully under the English crown; and that by his account the problem was the peaceful bit rather than the crown bit. He still wanted to destroy the most powerful alternative power centres. Shane O'Neill actually was killed, and his head sent to Dublin Castle 'pickled in a pipkin', as Sidney memorably puts it. He was unable to dislodge the influence of the Earl of Ormond, who was related to the queen through her mother, and so was able to short-circuit the official lines of communication by asking his cousin to curb her annoying bureaucrats.

But there is no question in Sidney's mind, or in his account in the Irish chieftains' minds, that they will work out a relationship with the queen's government in Dublin; the only issue is how long it will take. He has an account of the honest gentry, nobility and business community of Cork beseeching his help for them to "become English, and accordingly to live under English law, and by the same to be defended, each weaker from his stronger neighbour". Of course, Sidney would say that, wouldn't he; and it has unfortunate overtones of Terence O'Neill's infamous statement that "if you give Roman Catholics a good job and a good house, they will live like Protestants because they will see neighbours with cars and television sets; they will refuse to have eighteen children". But it's interesting because Sidney is actually identified by many historians - including , as he happily admits, Ciarán Brady, the editor of this book - as a key initiator of the policy of colonisation and dispossession which eventually did win the day, rather than of good government and assimilation. There's little evidence of that from his own account.

Sidney also had a couple of economic policies: he banned the export of unspun wool, so as to boost the native Irish spinning industry; he tried to regulate trade in wine, obviously to boost government revenues but also to promote economic development in the ports which were permitted to import; and he bemoaned the reversal of these policies by his short-termist successors (who he hints were bribed to do so). He has a couple of curious blind spots as well; there's an anecdote about the difficulty of English officials dealing with Irish-speakers in the administration of justice (in which the day is saved by his bête noir, the Earl of Ormond); he also negotiated with a couple of Catholic bishops who are keen to get royal endorsement as well, implying that he thinks this could have been worked out in the end. There's a nice note of his meeting with the pirate queen, 'Grany I'Malley'. And he refers to my ancestor, Nicholas White, on just one page, portraying him as Ormond's man (but 'honest') on a three-man commission dealing with the administration of Munster.

Not really a book for anyone who is not already fairly well-read in sixteenth-century Ireland, but a fascinating primary source.
Tags: bookblog 2010, people: sir nicholas white, tudor history, world: ireland

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