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August Books 19) Sixteenth Century Ireland

19) Sixteenth Century Ireland, by Colm Lennon

I bought this for a couple of reasons. My namesake and ancestor, Sir Nicholas White, was a senior government official in Ireland in the reign of Elizabeth I, but from the available biographies I have never been able to make any sense of what he actually did, and I hoped that reading this book would give me a bit more context. Also, as a student at Cambridge I got to know one of the great experts in sixteenth-century Irish history, who was at that time locked in bitter ideological battle with those who wanted to rewrite the history books to suggest the the English were not always completely wrong, nor the Irish completely right (I simplify the argument slightly). It's many years since I saw the historian in question, but I hoped this book (published in 1994 and revised in 2005) would at least let me know who won.

I have to say that my confusion about Ireland in the sixteenth century has now been raised to new and unexpected levels of bafflement (and I didn't discover who won the historiographical battle of fifteen years ago). I think - just about - that I grasp the main narrative. Up until 1520, Ireland was ruled (in the name of the English King, who was double-hatted as Lord of Ireland) by a hand-picked local magnate, normally the head of the Fitzgerald family. In 1520 the Fitzgeralds fell out with Henry VIII, and from then on English officials were appointed to head up the Irish administration. This led to more or less serious efforts by London to bring all of Ireland under English law (re-hatting the English King as King of Ireland also), and also coincided with the Reformation. The period closes, in 1603, with the end of a major Irish rebellion (the Nine Years' War) at the former Mellifont Abbey, the Earl of Tyrone surrendering to the Queen Elizabeth's representatives (who knew, but didn't tell him, that she had died a few days before).

There are not enough maps in this book, and those that there are are largely confusing, but the most interesting it the first one, showing the actual extent of the area of Ireland effectively under Dublin rule (though even then substantial chunks would have been more under the control of the Fitzgeralds or the Butlers than of Dublin Castle). It is pretty difficult, knowing the political geography of Ireland over the last two centuries as well as I do, to get my head around the fact that in the sixteenth century, it was Ulster that was more or less homogenously Gaelic in culture, and the other three provinces that had a confusingly mixed picture - so, completely the opposite to what I am used to. I certainly had no idea that most of what is now County Wicklow was a Gaelic enclave.


NB Laois and Offaly were "planted" under Queen Mary, and thus brought more or less into the system.

But a lot of things were not clear to me. Why did neither side win more decisively? That, I guess, is the main question. The Irish chieftains were never quite prepared to declare independence or to put their trust in the Spanish (indeed they quite happily slaughtered the sailors of the Spanish Armada in 1588 who were wrecked on the western coast). But at the same time the English were never quite able to consolidate their occasional military victories with better and more durable governance. It was a bit reminiscent of Thessalonica under Ottoman rule, a territory which was very much able to carve its own political identity while partially - but not completely - detached from the metropolis.

The dynamics of the Reformation in Ireland were a completely new story for me as well (including its precursor, the dissolution of the monasteries, which appears to have been widely popular among all sections of the population apart from the monks). Henry VIII's break with Rome in the 1530s, by Lennon's account, had little real impact in Ireland for decades. Not until 1570, when the Pope attempted to depose Elizabeth I, did it become a live political issue, and even then it wasn't until the Baltinglass rebellion in 1580 that Protestant vs Catholic became a significant cleavage point.

It is tempting to speculate as to how this might have developed differently. On the one hand, if a university (under Dublin and eventually Protestant control) had been established several decades before 1592, Ireland as a whole could have been more tightly linked in with English rather than continental European intellectual currents and vice versa, and might well have ended up as a Protestant country in the Scandinavian mode. (As it was, the only printing press in the seventeenth century producing books in Irish was down the road from where I am writing now, in Leuven.)

On the other hand, if the Pope had not issued his 1570 bull (which he didn't get around to until months after the 1569 rebellion in England had failed), the Elizabethan officials could have found a better accommodation with Catholic and Gaelic Ireland than was possible in our time line. In fact very few Catholics took the Papal command to overthrow Queen Elizabeth seriously, but it added an extra hurdle to the integration of the majority of the population into state structures which had actually made significant progress under Henry VIII.

As for my own ancestor: I was grimly pleased to find confirmation of one piece of family lore. His father, James White, of King's Meadow, Waterford, was the steward of the ninth Earl of Ormond (the head of the Butler family, and so one of the top three Irish magnates); while visiting London in October 1546, they and dozens of other people were poisoned at a banquet at Ely House in Holborn, and 18 of them died, including the Earl and James White. This was surely the most massive political poisoning of British history. I would love to find out more details about it.

His son Sir Nicholas gets one rather confusing mention in Lennon's book as a counsellor of the English envoy Sir John Perrot in the mid-1580s (an association that eventually led to them both dying as prisoners in the Tower of London in the 1590s). It doesn't get me a lot further. I know from other sources that after his father and the Earl were poisoned, he benefited from a legacy in the Earl's will to study law in London, and earned some extra as a tutor to the children of an up-and-coming political lawyer called William Cecil who, as Lord Burghley, more or less ran England for most of the reign of Elizabeth I. Burghley and White remained in correspondence for years, and most of their surviving letters were published in the nineteenth century. White's access to the London establishment certainly helped him get fairly high political office back in Ireland, until it all went wrong for him.

But he was far from unique in having such access to the king or queen of the day. One of the questions most frustratingly unexplored in the book is the close contact between the Irish magnates and the English monarchy. The Irish leaders were at least barons and usually earls; they therefore had far easier access at court in London (if they chose to go there) than the succession of bureaucrats sent to Ireland to actually try and run the administration. Often they had spent their childhood in England as hostages to their parents' good behaviour, in the hope that, when they grew up, they would go back to Ireland and co-operate nicely. (It never worked.) This very signifcant dynamic seems to have operated throughout, and clearly made a difference to the freedom of action of Dublin Castle, but since it happens off-screen - I suppose Lennon is focussing very tightly on Ireland the island - we never really find out much about it.

So, a rather frustrating book. I still want to find out more, but it may take actual library work, some year when I have a few weeks off.

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