Nicholas (nwhyte) wrote,

January Books 12) Tyrone's Rebellion, by Hiram Morgan

The Nine Years' War lasted from 1594 to 1603; its consequences were catastrophic for Ireland, in that the old Gaelic order was weakened to the point that its leaders chose exile in Europe rather than continue life in their devastated homeland; the political impact in England was massive as well, in that it caused the spectacular end of the Earl of Essex (whose expedition to Ireland is the only contemporary event directly mentioned in any of Shakespeare's plays).

In this book, Hiram Morgan does not tell any of that story. He ends the narrative in 1596 when Hugh O'Neill, the Earl of Tyrone, made the strategic decision to ally with Spain and continue the war rather than accept the peace terms on offer. The book as a whole is an explanation of how matters got to that point: essentially the clash between O'Neill's desire to achieve endorsement from Queen Elizabeth of his political dominance in Ulster, and her commitment to increase the central power of her state and uphold her own honour and dignity - a clash of principles which could have ended quite differently, either with a negotiated settlement (if the Queen's officials had been more politically adept at selling the necessary concessions to her and to each other) or indeed in an Irish/Spanish victory (if the Spanish had been luckier with the weather, and/or O'Neill had been even half as good a commander in field combat as he was at guerilla strikes and general strategy).

Morgan makes the point, which I have seen elsewhere and which remains valid, that the war in Ireland was a mirror-image of the contemporaneous conflict over here, where England supported Dutch rebels against Spanish rule. Over here the result was a draw, with each side getting half the territory; considering how extended their supply lines were, the Spanish were lucky to get that much.

However, Morgan is really writing about beginnings rather than endings, which suits me fine. He starts with two excellent chapters comparing the rule in Ireland of the activist but abrasive Sir John Perrot with his lazy and corrupt successor Sir William FitzWilliam. He then explains the extraordinarily complex dynastic politics and history of the O'Neill family, in the context of a Gaelic society in transition (incidentally disproving the view of many historians that Hugh O'Neill spent any time in England as a child). And finally he looks at the immediate causes of the outbreak of the war, placing O'Neill firmly in the heart of the Gaelic Ulster response to the Dublin administration's attempts to reorganize the judicial system.

I found some very interesting parallels with some of the contemporary conflicts I have dealt with. The Dublin Castle attempt to implement a new judicial system is very reminiscent of the UN's efforts in Kosovo (I helped write a report on this once) - perhaps also of international attempts to upgrade traditional justice mechanisms in some of the African countries I have looked at.

I was also fascinated by the accounts of information flow. Perrot, in his own account, is absolutely clear that he had informants in Spain as well as in the Gaelic areas. O'Neill was even better at it, knowing full well where English troops would be (partly why he was so good at the guerilla raids) and deliberately feeding misleading information via his own secretary who was a double agent. But spies seem to have been fairly respectable; they could expect to get hearings with the most senior officials, and continue dealing with both sides long after their exposure. Perhaps they should be seen more as predecessors to today's constantly open diplomatic channels.

I was very glad (with some sharp intake of breath, for reasons explained below) to find out more about my ancestor, Sir Nicholas White - Morgan's account raised more questions than answers for me, but in a sense that is what I wanted. White was knighted by Perrot on the latter's arrival in Dublin as viceroy, and wrote him an affectionate and laudatory poem on his departure. My reading is that White was in sympathy with Perrot's activist agenda, to the point of shifting away from his own family allegiance to the Earl of Ormond and his personal links with Lord Burghley in support of Perrot. Once Perrot had returned to Wales, he continued to be an activist on Irish issues and was a real pain in the side for his venal successor, FitzWilliam, undermining him for instance by stage-managing a Dublin visit by Burghley's son Sir Thomas Cecil (who had been tutored as a boy by none other than Nicholas White).

FitzWilliam struck back. He arrested one of the many double agents, Sir Denis O'Roughan, with evidence that Perrot was in league with the Spanish (this just a couple of years after 1588 and the Armada). The Dublin Castle establishment, who did not line FitzWilliam, interrogated O'Roughan and reported that his evidence was untrustworthy.

The Queen took a different view (perhaps because she had reliable reports that Perrot had described her as "a base bastard piskitchin", though Morgan omits that last juicy detail). She hauled Perrot off to the Tower of London and also brought in two members of the Irish council for torturing O'Roughan during his interrogation. One of them, a bishop, was released after paying a £2000 fine. The other died in the Tower (as did Perrot); he was Nicholas White.

So, it's a bit disconcerting to discover that the ancestor was a part-time torturer, but I knew he had a vicious streak - he once ordered a dispute between two Gaelic chieftains to be resolved by trial by combat in the yard of Dublin Castle, and was also very keen on executing rebels.

Of course, coercive violence was also a tool of government, at least as much from the Gaelic chiefs towards their own subjects (and especially their prospective subjects). If you actually executed a rival, you could expect to be held to account for it, but you could usually explain it away. Hostage-taking was almost a normal part of neighbourly relations.

A few other points. Morgan is good at flagging up the role of Irish women on the rare occasions when they were allowed to become political players. But one point not well explained is O'Neill's seduction and marriage of Mabel Bagenal, of the main English family in Ulster: just a small detail, but she disappears into the background. My only other gripe is that the family tree if the O'Neills on pages 86-87 is missing most of the horizontal and vertical lines needed to make it comprehensible.

Apart from that, an excellent book if you are interested in the period, and very readable even if you aren't.
Tags: bookblog 2011, people: sir nicholas white, tudor history, world: ireland

  • Post a new comment


    default userpic

    Your reply will be screened

    Your IP address will be recorded 

    When you submit the form an invisible reCAPTCHA check will be performed.
    You must follow the Privacy Policy and Google Terms of use.
  • 1 comment