Campaign Journals of the Elizabethan Irish Wars, David Edwards (ed) Irish Manuscripts Commission, 310 pp, €40, ISBN: 978-190686551
In 69, of course, we didn’t know about the Irish.
British military general in Northern Ireland, 1972
[W]e had more to do with Ireland than with all the world beside.
James I to Sir Thomas Wilson, the Keeper of Records, 1618
The dissonance between these two statements is startling. The first, voiced by a soldier interviewed as part of a documentary surveying the lie of the land in Ulster before one of the most incendiary events of modern Irish history – the Bloody Sunday massacre in Derry where British troops shot dead fourteen unarmed civilians – professes a collective unfamiliarity between the British armed forces and the native populace. Speaking over three hundred and fifty years earlier, and amidst the Ulster Plantations that saw thousands forced off the land in a process of socio-cultural transformation, the first monarch of a collective British state, King James I, articulates a potent counterpoint.
Yet while the contrast between general and king exemplifies how easily empires forget, their thematic similarities are informative. Both reveal how imperialism is underpinned by an impulse to know and, more importantly, record. The monarch’s words summarise a state archive replete with material on Ireland, while the soldier’s comments are presented in the broader context of a discussion of the burgeoning “intelligence service” which aimed to produce a greater understanding of “how their [the Irish] minds work”. As such, both, verbalised at crucial junctures of colonial intervention, demonstrate how imperialist endeavours are fundamentally paralleled by a necessity to record, chronicle and taxonomise. Thus, while in one regard the colony is a land of amnesia where collective forgetfulness about history and politics can thrive, paradoxically it is also a locus of concerted documentation, cataloguing and archiving.
The lengthy English intervention in Ireland is symbolic of this seemingly paradoxical discourse. Such was its ubiquity in correspondence both official and quasi-official that material concerning the country pervaded the bureaucracy of Whitehall. As John Cooper notes of the monarch’s secretary, spymaster and confidante-in-chief Francis Walsingham, events over the Irish Sea were never far from the mind of the small coterie of advisers surrounding the Tudor monarchs:
When Thomas Lake drew up a catalogue of the state papers in Walsingham’s possession in 1588, the index to the Irish material alone ran to twenty manuscript pages. Instructions sent to the Lord Presidents of Munster and Connaught fought for space with treatises on taxation and the founding of a university in Dublin. A ‘box of Ireland’ in Walsingham’s study at Seething Lane contained ‘a bundle of plots and devices for the reformation of Ireland’ and papers relating to the first Earl of Essex’s plantation schemes in Ulster. A note in a different hand refers to the lending of a book of plots and discourses to Sir Robert Cecil in 1596, revealing that the Walsingham archive continued to inform the government of Ireland years after his death.
In this brief description, we see a glimpse not only of the centrality of Irish affairs in the English political consciousness (“the index to the Irish material alone ran to twenty manuscript pages”) but also – and no less significantly – its variety. Fiscal matters accompany plans for religious reform, while the perpetual issue of the English presence in Ireland – plantation – also held its place.
Such a tradition, as a cursory glance at the literature concerning Anglo-Irish relations since the mid-twelfth century testifies, was long-established, and attracted many diverse texts and writers. Foundational is Gerald of Wales’s Topographica Hibernica (1187) and Expugnatio Hibernica (1189), two tracts whose description of the native Irish as uncivilised and even barbaric proved seminal for generations of English readers contemplating the country and its peoples: according to John Gillingham, “In essence everything that sixteenth-century Englishmen believed about Ireland can be found in the writings of Gerald of Wales.”
Yet emphasising the link between colonialism and the desire to record is the fact that English writing about Ireland reached its most productive just as the English government was intensifying its colonial actions. In the period bookended by Henry VIII’s declaration of overlordship of the country (1541) and the start of the Ulster Plantations (1606), there emerged what Patricia Palmer describes as an “outflow of Views, Discoveries, Images, Platts, Anatomies” regarding Ireland and its populace. A whole milieu of writers emerged as English forces militated, including Edmund Campion (Two Bokes of the Histories of Ireland ), Richard Stanihurst (De Rebus in Hibernia Gestis (1584)) and Raphael Holinshed (Irish Chronicle ), all providing their own descriptions of Ireland, its history and people.
Alongside Campion, Stanihurst and Holinshed was the substantial figure of Edmund Spenser, poet and planter. Among the most vaunted writers in the language, Spenser composed his own work of Irish anthropology, recording the habits (in every sense of that word) of the native Irish in his dialogue A View of the Present State of Ireland (published in 1633 but written in 1596). Spenser, who spent over twenty years as a colonial official in the country, recorded the custom of the “glibbe”, “a thicke curled bushe of haire, hanging down over their eyes, and monstrously disguising them”; while remarking that the “mantle” or cloak utilised by the native Irish represented “a fit house for an outlaw, a meet bed for a rebel and an apt cloak for a thief”.
As this excellent new publication demonstrates, in the sixteenth century extended anthropological and geographical studies were accompanied by a multitude of war journals, letters and diaries. According to the editor, esteemed Irish historian David Edwards, the English presence in the country was meticulously documented by English colonialists:
For anyone with a serious interest in military affairs the journals are essential reading. They provide precise chronologies for major crown expeditions, something not always attainable in other sources. They describe the routes the royal forces took and the terrain through which they passed as they proceeded through friendly or neutral areas into enemy country. They record the sites chosen for field camps and efforts to maintain supply lines over ever-longer distances, the impact of rough weather on combat conditions and communications systems, and the sheer difficulty of making a rendezvous, reaching a destination, or simply locating the enemy in a landscape that often enabled concealment. […] [In addition] [t]hey provide vivid first-hand descriptions of battles and skirmishes on land and sea, […] [and give] unforgettable testimony to the wilful slaughter of non-combatants – women, children, and the elderly – and the deliberate inducement of famine which punctuated the wars.
Among the writers anthologised are figures who played a substantial role in the planning and execution of the military campaigns. These include a number of lords deputy, holders of the highest-ranking administrative position in the English government in Ireland. As English forces expanded beyond the fortified Pale around Dublin in the sixteenth century, the undertaking of the lord deputy developed from a merely governmental one to incorporate a combat role. For example, Henry Sidney, whose two terms of office covered some of the most tumultuous events of the era, including the O’Neill rebellions in Ulster and the Desmond rebellions in Munster, periodically embarked upon campaigns across the country, where he carried out total war against the civilian populace.
While Sidney’s account of his time in Ireland has been helpfully recuperated for modern scholars by Ciaran Brady, Edwards draws attention to other accounts which have until now languished in relative obscurity. Arthur Grey de Wilton’s declaration of service encompassing his period as lord deputy, included in the volume, is instructive. Standing as a fifteen-page defence of his record, it encapsulates, as Edwards notes, two important facets of the journals as historical texts: firstly, their insights into early modern martial campaigning, and secondly the way in which the reports back to Whitehall and Elizabeth I are utilised as a defence of their author’s conduct. Before commencing an abstract of his actions which focuses in particular on the number of enemies slain (nearly 1,500 in a period of less than two years), Wilton writes: “I hope that these services conferred with the total tumult if the land when I received it, and the general quiet thereof […] when I left it, shall not seem so small […] as hitherto I have found them reckoned.” This justification of service is reiterated by others, with the frequent emphasis on the tumultuous Ireland first encountered and the pacified Ireland left behind serving as a revealing motif regarding the overall instability of the colony under Elizabethan rule. Thus, the erstwhile president of Munster, William Drury’s, journal is prefaced with a letter to the privy council stating that “where before there were almost nightly spoils, robberies or murders, there was not one worth of a couve [hen-hatch] taken from then”; while provincial governor Nicholas Malby’s account of his “services and proceedings in the province of Connacht” contains the declaration that “all that country which before was up in actual rebellion was now thoroughly quieted”.
Another historical fact reinforced by Edwards’s anthology is the complex inter-relations between native Irish and the English military forces. The duality of coloniser and rebel was not always clear-cut. Neither indeed, was it an entirely ethnic conflict, with Irish natives fighting off English oppressors, as a nationalist reading of history might suggest. While there was undoubtedly a prominent and voluble strain of anti-Irish racist and sectarian discourse fuelling the Elizabethan colonisation, the pragmatism necessitated by protracted war often interceded. As Andrew Hadfield notes in his biography of Spenser, “Although soldiers were supposed to be mainly English, and laws and ordinances were passed to allow only limited numbers to join the ranks, a large number of the English army were Irish.” The aforementioned Malby’s account is accurately headlined by Edwards as a description of “Settling the Burkes, Banishing the Scots”, with the journal delineating how the English administration employed diplomatic means against the native Irish Burke clan while moving with aggressive force against their Scottish mercenaries.
The realities of the English colonial enterprise are grimly catalogued. Even in an age encompassing the repressive brutality of the Huguenot Massacre of 1572, the Spanish Inquisition and Martin Luther’s campaigns against the Jews, it is striking how readily the English forces resorted to terroristic war against civilian populaces. For example, having declared the whole army of the Earl of Desmond guilty of “the highest degree of treason” after their rebellion in 1579, Pelham leads his forces in an attack on the Munster settlement of Adare where “the town was consumed […] [a]nd so nothing was spared that either fire or sword could devour”. Perhaps manifest of the effects of long-term attritional warfare on the mindsets of the English military, such tactics highlight the ferocity of the Elizabethan campaign in Ireland. Buttressed by a civility/savagery theoretical binary propagandised by the likes of Spenser and John Derricke, actions such as the massacre at Rathlin Island in 1575 – overseen by ostensible gentlemen of the court Henry Sidney, Francis Drake and John Norris – litter the annals of the period, and punctuate the narratives of Edwards’s book.
As the volume testifies, accompanying overtly martial actions were more oblique forms of colonial administration. Historians of cartography, and in particular those interested in Anglo-Irish history, have enhanced our understanding of the vital role played by maps and mappers in the exercise of colonial power. In a famous passage from Spenser’s A View, the bureaucrat interlocutor Eudoxus invokes cartographic representation in his discussion with the New English colonist Irenius regarding the latter’s plans for a more effective Elizabethan colonial strategy: “[T]hough perhaps I am ignorant of the places, yet I will take the map of Ireland before me and make my eyes in the meanwhile my schoolmasters to guide my understanding to judge of your plot.” Scholars such as William J Smyth, Julia Lupton and Bruce Avery, as well as a new generation of scholars such as Annaleigh Margey, have drawn attention to the extent to which Irenius’s use of the map mirrored the very real functioning of cartography in Elizabethan administration in Ireland. Avery has noted that the gesture towards the map in Spenser’s dialogue “adumbrates […] a movement toward greater use of maps as both tools for the expansion of empire and the fostering of a nationalistic attachment to territory”. Several instances in Edwards’s anthology validate Avery’s claims. One in particular, drawn from the sharp end of colonial endeavour, is indicative. Upon conclusion of his naval campaign around the coast of Cork and Kerry in the summer of 1580, the senior officer, Richard Bingham, filed his report to Walsingham back in Whitehall:
On Monday being the 20th of June the Lord Justice with his force arrive at the Dingle, to whom the Admiral, Mr ‘Gryfell’ [Richard Grenville] and myself with the rest of the gentlemen went to visit and to hear his opinion concerning the fortification that should be at the Dingle and the Ventry, who after he had surveyed all the places judged them to be the most fittest suited in these places which I did assign unto your honour in the little Plat of the very same country which I sent you.
While engaged in what Edwards accurately describes as a “grim policy of attrition and starvation” in Munster, Bingham takes time out to commission a map or “little Plat of the very same country” for Walsingham’s perusal. Such explicit instances indicate how mapping was used as a means of colonial administration. Yet more implicitly, the manifold meanings of “plot” – cartographic delineation, scheme, tract of land and fictional narrative – are invoked to show how central mapping was to a wider understanding of colonial governance. One such example of this is found in one of the longest journals in the collection, William Pelham’s breviate of service as lord justice from October 1579 to September 1580. Here, the scribe includes an entry for July 28th, 1580 stating: “A letter to my Lord Treasurer of England, one to Mr Secretary Walsingham, and a copy of the book or plot for the manner how to reform Munster, sent to Mr Secretary by Mr Markham[.]” In the usage of the multivalent term “plot”, Pelham’s amanuensis reiterates the central role of cartography in the English enterprise in Ireland, and more broadly the impulse to know the colony, its landscape and people that lies at the heart of imperial expansion.
One of the most noteworthy accounts anthologised by Edwards is that composed by Humphrey Gilbert, a significant figure in the Elizabethan campaigns. Educated at Eton College and Oxford, Gilbert was initially employed in the ill-fated Newhaven expedition of 1562-3, distinguishing himself to his superior officers for his service. In 1566, after a brief interim, he was sent to Ireland under the command of the lord deputy, Henry Sidney, in a campaign to pursue the rebel chieftain Shane O’Neill. After O’Neill’s assassination in 1567, Gilbert became engaged in plans for plantation, and was responsible for clearing Munster of purported rebels in little over six weeks. This “notorious association with Ireland”, as one biographer has described it, has seen Gilbert emerge as the epitome of English colonial brutality in Ireland in the sixteenth century. His half-brother and fellow colonial soldier Walter Ralegh declared of Gilbert that he “never heard nor read of any man more feared […] amonge the Irish nation”.
Such a reputation is understandable – Gilbert’s practice during the 1569 Kerry campaigns of lining the entrance to his tent with the recently severed heads of native people, detailed in Thomas Churchyard’s A generall rehearsall of warres (1579), is an oft-repeated though nonetheless historically important tableau of Anglo-Irish historiography. As this volume shows, such recordings were not without substance. Gilbert, especially towards the end of his term of service, was wedded to the idea not only of terroristic war, but terroristic rule – “being for my part”, he writes, “constantly of that opinion that no conquered nation will ever yield willingly their obedience for love but rather for fear”. This mind-set is borne out not only by secondary sources such as Churchyard, but also by Gilbert’s own testimony. Two of his epistles, both addressed to Sidney, are included in Edwards’s volume. The first, from December 1st, 1569, is a perambulatory narrative of the captain’s journeyinto Kerry which describes both the travels and the travails of war ad terrorem, including the slaying of “40 persons in Aherlow” and the “burn[ing] of a castle and all them that were within it”. While similar atrocious deeds litter the pages of Edwards’s anthology, the second letter, dated five days later, affords an intriguing insight into the rationale behind Gilbert’s conduct. He writes:
And for that right honourable it may the better appear to your lordship what courses I have held in these parts I thought it good to advertise your honour particularly thereof to the end I might by your honour’s favourable advice and instructions take such order hereafter therein as may seem best for the well governing of myself and the country, and the furthering of the Queen’s majesty’s service, being hitherunto enforced for want of assistance in counsel and experience in politique government to follow mine own opinion.
Gilbert complains of “want of assistance of counsel”, “being utterly unaccompanied of any lawyers or other for the advising of me” and being “overladen and utterly tried […] [and] spoil[ed] by intolerable expenses every way”, suggesting an underfunded and undermanned army bureaucracy within the colonial project. Furthermore, and perhaps more strikingly, the countless “disseverations”, burnings and depredations committed by Gilbert and his men were fuelled, he claims, by “want of […] experience in politique government”. The discomfiting dissonance between euphemistic words and deadly deeds is thrown into stark contrast by what follows: Gilbert relates how he “refused to parley or to take peace with any rebels”, “put[…] also all those from time to time to the sword that did belong, feed, accompany, or maintain any outlaws or traitors” and, finally, “after my first summoning of any castle or fort, if they would not presently yield it I would not afterwards take it of their gift, but win it perforce, how many men’s lives soever it cost, putting man, woman and child of them to the sword”.
The most telling point of Edwards’s anthology is its chronological and biographical extent. Containing a litany of works that spans nearly half a century and more than ten lord deputies, ruined political careers and massacres by the score, it serves as a notable testament to the validity of Hiram Morgan’s claim that the Elizabethan “conquest” of Ireland was anything but. Even in the early stages of Arthur Chichester’s intended war of annihilation, the complex native systems of Irish society continued to hold against planting forces. Much like the observation of the English general which opens this essay, phrases in the journals stand out for their historical irony. This is most powerfully apparent in a moment towards the end of Arthur Grey de Wilton’s account of his service as lord deputy in the early 1580s where is articulated one of the most unintentionally ominous sentences ever written in the long and fraught history of Anglo-Irish affairs. Wilton’s description lists sequentially his various actions intended to bring to an end the Munster rebellion, an uprising led by the querulous Gerald FitzGerald, fifteenth earl of Desmond, against the colonising English forces, and also to bring quell any further revolt in the province. Wilton employs various tactics, including the mass execution of “notable malefactors”, the slaying of hundreds of native clansmen, political negotiation between native aristocracy, the pressing to death of a “notorious traitor” and mass decapitation, the spoils of which are used to festoon the castellated seat of English colonial government in Dublin. In addition, Wilton embarks upon a “famishing” to the point of surrender of one O’Rourke, a rebel nobleman who is brought to a state of subjugation by “spoil of his country”. Having catalogued such actions, Wilton sums up his service accordingly: “Ulster [was] by this means thus quieted.”
Patrick J Murray is a researcher at the University of Glasgow. He has published on a range of topics including early modern Irish history and the poetry of Margaret Atwood.
Space to Think, an anthology bringing together more than fifty of the best pieces to have appeared in the Dublin Review of Books since its foundation ten years ago, will be published in October. Selling in the shops at €25, it is available now for pre-order at a special price of €20 (to collect in Dublin) or €20 + post and packing charges as appropriate for shipping to addresses in Ireland and internationally. To buy online, follow the steps from the home page of our website.
One piece featured in Space to Think is Fergus O’Ferrall’s essay from 2015 on Charles O’Conor of Ballinagare, a collector of Gaelic manuscripts and enthusiast for the European Enlightenment, “Scholar and Gentleman”. Here is an extract:
Charles O’Conor was realistic about the Stuarts’ failure after the defeat of the Boyne and he saw that the only practical way forward for Catholics lay in achieving constitutional change through reasoned argument and professions of loyalty to the Hanoverian monarchs. The long saga of the struggle for Catholic Emancipation began in 1756 when, together with Dr John Curry of Dublin and Thomas Wyse of Waterford, O’Conor founded the Catholic Association – the first organised attempt to obtain legal acknowledgement of Catholic civil and property rights. It took over seventy years for emancipation to be achieved, when Daniel O’Connell, helped by another Thomas Wyse, and indeed supported by Charles O’Conor’s grandson Owen O’Conor, gave birth to Irish democracy in the 1820s, a struggle I have described in Catholic Emancipation: Daniel O’Connell and the Birth of Irish Democracy 1820-1830. O’Conor was a key progenitor of our constitutional democratic tradition, and of the liberal Catholic tradition, which O’Connell supremely represents. Like O’Connell, he was determined to situate Ireland within the European Enlightenment. As [Luke] Gibbons and [Kieran] O’Conor note, Charles O’Conor wished to place the Irish past within the domain of philosophical history and the Irish present into “a tolerant and culturally diverse republic of letters”. He had, for example, the first English translation of Montesquieu’s 1751 De l’esprit des loix (The Spirit of Laws) at his disposal; he annotated his copy in Irish. In the 1750s he wrote a number of notable pamphlets, such as The Case of the Roman Catholics (1755), highlighting the grievous disabilities under which his co-religionists suffered.
John Wrynn shows O’Conor rescuing the Irish past from antiquarianism and seeking to place it rather in the domain of philosophical (or developmental) history as he saw that this was central to the inclusion of Ireland in “the moral histories of human progress hitherto confined to Judeo-Christian antiquity and the glories of classical Greece and Rome”. He thus combated a long line of colonial detractors from Giraldus Cambrensis in the twelfth century to Spenser, Davies, Ware and Temple in the early modern period, and to near contemporaries such as Sir Richard Cox – these had sought to deprive the Irish past of any claims to civilisation in order to justify conquest and domination. He also took David Hume to task for his anti-Irish prejudices in his historical work in the Gentleman’s Magazine in 1763.