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Reversing The Conquest

Pádraig Lenihan

An Argument Defending the Right of the Kingdom of Ireland (1645), by Conor O’Mahony, edited by John Minahane, Aubane Historical Society, €25, ISBN: 978-1903497630

Could a Catholic subject give allegiance to a Protestant monarch? Conor O’Mahony, a Jesuit teacher of scholastic theology at the Irish College in Lisbon, answered: “No.” His “sustained and intellectually rigorous” response was the Disputatio apologetica de iure regni Hiberniae1. It was purportedly published in Frankfurt (actually in Lisbon) in 1645 and comprises two parts.

The Disputatio proper outlines the arguments that might be offered to bolster English claims to rule Ireland, only to reject them one by one. Thus, O’Mahony denies that the English crown might have acquired prescriptive rights (in layman’s language a sort of squatter’s title) during the centuries since the Anglo-Norman conquest because the Papal Bull Laudabiliter which conferred the lordship of Ireland on Henry II back in the twelfth century was fraudulent: “what was invalid from the beginning does not come into force with the passage of time”. He then switches from legal and scholastic argument to a radical and subversive idea propounded on both sides of the Reformation’s confessional divide: subjects need not, indeed sometimes must not, obey their monarch. So, even if one grants that “... the kings of England once were true and legitimate lords of Ireland ...”, that is no longer so since Henry VIII and his successors became “heretics and tyrants”. The Exhortatio urged the Hiberni or Irish to “choose for themselves a Catholic king”, a native-born “brother”. He justifies this by using opaque mystical symbolism to compare the Irish to the Israelites revolting against Naas, King of the Ammonites, who would pluck the right eye out of every Hebrew.

John Minahane has translated both Disputatio and Exhortatio and embedded them in extensive commentary and notes. I will consider the translation first.

He generously acknowledges that his work is congruent with other projects reclaiming and disseminating neo-Latin histories, polemics (lots of those) and theological works written in the 1640s, 1650s and 1660s by other exiled Irish Catholics like John Lynch and John Callaghan. One such project is headed by Jason Harris in University College Cork. Another is the massive undertaking to translate the six volumes of O’Connell’s and O’Farrell’s Commentarius Rinuccianus. The latter project is led by Billy Kelly of the University of Ulster, Micheál Ó Siochrú of Trinity College Dublin and James Maguire of the Irish Manuscript Commission. The Commentarius provides a continuous and quite detailed narrative of campaigns, battles and backroom intrigues in the 1640s and 1650s. Cumulatively, these projects will redress an imbalance in surviving and accessible historical evidence of conflicting Protestant and Catholic perceptions of the 1640s. Temple’s Irish Rebellion (1646) was grounded in the apparently unimpeachable legal testimony of sworn depositions (recently made available online by Trinity College) and written in a language (English) and style that could be widely understood. Temple fixed collective responsibility on the Catholic community for “barbarous cruelties and bloody massacres” in the winter of 1641-42. This long stood unchallenged because no comparable Catholic rejoinder was published.

Minahane believes that the translator must do “all or nothing” and so has translated O’Mahony’s entire work, even the many passages that he personally found dull. The translation is accurate, in so far as this reviewer is competent to judge. My only reservation ‑ and this is very much a personal opinion ‑would be that the translation of Disputatio apologetica de iure regni Hiberniae as An Argument Defending the Right of the Kingdom of Ireland is stilted, albeit literally accurate. The key word here is iure, which is the ablative (the form of the noun activated when it follows by, with, to, or from) of the noun ius, meaning law or right. The reader will no doubt be familiar with the phrase from the terms de facto or “in fact” or “in practice” and de iure or “in law” or “in theory”. To find out what O’Mahony actually means by de iure demands that one scrutinise his use of the word elsewhere. From glancing over the first page or two of the Disputatio one can spot that he uses the word in two subtly different ways. He speaks of the verum Regni nostril ius which, I think, could be best translated as “the true status of our kingdom”, not “true right”, though O’Mahony uses it in that second sense also. For instance, O’Mahony describes himself as “ ...ego Catholicus Hibernicus pro iure Catholicorum Hibernorum contra iniuriam haereticorum Anglorum pugnem.” The sub-clause in bold has not been translated by Minahane but on the whole the sentence might best read “I, an Irish Catholic, fight for the rights of Irish Catholics against oppression by English heretics.”

What of the commentary and notes? James I, “wisest fool in Christendom” and last intellectual to sit on the throne of England, insisted that kingship derived directly from God. Franciso Suarez’s Defence of the Catholic and Apostolic Faith... (Coimbra,1613) was a direct rebuttal of this claim and Minahane shows how quickly Suarez’s claim that authority was given by the people or their ancestors to the king percolated into Irish thinking by, for instance, quoting Flaithrí Ó Maolchonaire’s Desiderius (Louvain, 1616): “... gurab iad an pobal tug do na ríoghuibh, nó dá shinnsearuibh, a bhfuil do chumhachtoibh aca”. He also shows how Philip O’Sullivan Beare’s Historiae Catholicae Hiberniae Compendium (Lisbon, 1621) articulated the view that the Irish owed no allegiance to a heretical monarch. In doing so, Minahane includes previously untranslated extracts from the Compendium. To his credit, he captures nuances in attitudes. For example, Suarez was far from calling for James’s deposition, let alone killing. Rome never quite gave up on the Stuarts. Another nuance: exiles could afford to be hard-liners but those living in Ireland or hoping to return could not afford to be. Peter Lombard resiled from supporting Hugh O’Neill after his submission at Mellifont and introduced a subtle distinction between objective and subjective heresy whereby Catholics could, in good conscience, render allegiance to James I, while Hugh McCaghwell (Lombard’s successor as absentee archbishop of Armagh) demonstrated to his own satisfaction that James was in fact a Roman Catholic!2

This careful scholarship is marred by an “us” (or “I”) versus “them” combativeness. The querulous introduction makes clear that Minahane sees his little book as another shot in the war of the Aubane Historical Society against “Oxford” (usually incarnated by Roy Foster) and anti-Irish nationalist revisionism.3 The alert historian can find recurrent ideas and themes that (s)he can certainly fit, if required, into some “revisionist” historiography. Post-Good Friday Agreement rhetoric about the historic “symbiotic bond”4 between Ireland and England presupposes that both parties were equal beneficiaries of this supposed symbiosis and can lead imperceptibly to a blurring of the conflict, violence, trauma and catastrophe involved in this long relationship.5 For instance, settlers become “newcomers” and plantation shrinks to a small component of the impersonal, irresistible and victimless forces of economic modernisation sweeping away a dysfunctional and maladaptive native society. But all this is just too big a context for a little book.

Minahane’s specific gripe, as I read it, flows from his suspicion that revisionist fudging of conflict between groups can proceed to denial that there were contending groups at all. “Oxford-approved” historians have “ignored” records of how Irish insurgents justified or explained their actions in the 1640s. This leads historians to understate the strength of the desire to reverse the plantations and restore a pre-conquest society: the author’s quote from Gofraidh Óg Mac an Bhaird; his “...biaidh gach duine na dhileas” or “everybody will be in his own” expresses this aspiration quite succinctly. Such revolutionary hopes necessarily imply separatist aspirations. Consequently, O’Mahony may have spoken to quite a wide audience whose existence has been ignored.

I would be more impressed by this line of argument if the author, instead of carping about the title of Nicholas Canny’s (Oxford-published) Making Ireland British, had noticed that Canny deftly uses 1641 depositions to give us the reported speech of insurgents. This reportage often supports Minahane’s thesis: insurgents variously claim to want to reverse the plantations, insist they are the “Queen’s soldiers’ (Charles I’s wife, Henrietta Maria, was a Catholic) or even that “they cared not a fart for the king and his laws”.6 Let us take a second example of how Minihane could have drawn support for his thesis from more extensive reading of the literature. Catholics had, and would, seek foreign protectors like Archduke Albert, nephew of Philip II, Charles IV Duke of Lorraine, or indeed Louis XIV, and implicitly offer them the kingship of Ireland.7 When O’Mahony talks of the “kingdom” of Ireland he does not mean the kingdom proclaimed by Tudor fiat in 1541 but a shadowy Gaelic high-kingship. Deponents often reported that plebeian insurgents frequently uttered similar aspirations, with candidates for high king including John O’Neill, son of the Great O’Neill, or Phelim Rua O’Neill, the leader of the insurgency in Ulster.8 Finally, Minihane may very well be correct in his criticism that historians tend to downplay the radicalism of Gaelic poetry, but his objections here and elsewhere would be more compelling if he read more widely in the secondary literature.9

Logically, the political and especially religious objectives of the insurgents in 1641-2 and of the Confederate Catholics, the insurgent successor regime that lasted until 1649, led towards separatism. Given time, many Confederate Catholic leaders would probably have accepted the logical consequences of their demands. Others refused to face what is blindingly obvious in retrospect: Charles I would, if pushed, make fine promises but no king of England and Scotland who hoped to keep his throne could grant Irish Catholic demands. Many of them doubtless acted from particularistic motives. This is especially true of the members of the Supreme Council who were connected to the king’s man in Ireland, James Butler, Earl of Ormond (he was the only Protestant member of a powerful and ramifying Catholic family) by kinship, affinity and clientage. But many were sincere, if naive and even deluded, in pledging loyalty to God, king, and country simultaneously: “Pro Deo, Rege, et Patria Hiberni Unanimes”.

O’Mahony’s Disputatio came during a power struggle between “Ormondists” (those who would significantly moderate their demands for religious freedom lest they embarrass the King) and “Clericalists” (those who would not). Minahane’s account of how the Disputatio was received in Ireland is perfectly adequate but would have been enriched by wider contextual reading of, for instance, Ó Siochrú’s Confederate Ireland. The Disputatio served not as a rallying call but as a handy stick with which the Ormondists could beat their opponents and accuse them of wanting to crown the Ulster Catholic general Eoghan Rua O’Neill. There was a second reason why O’Mahony was so embarrassing. One deponent, Robert Maxwell, claimed that the Irish had massacred 154,000 people in Ulster and this guess gained canonical status in Temple’s Irish Rebellion, published a year after the Disputatio. Evidently, O’Mahony had seen this figure somewhere because he notes approvingly that the Irish had already killed 150,000 “of the enemy” and encourages them to “kill” or “expel” the rest. Such genocidal fantasising helped (or would have if enough people had read O’Mahony) discredit Irish Catholics because it accepted the inflated figures of Protestant black propaganda and accepted blood guilt for the massacres that had, in fact, taken place.10

It is striking how Irish Catholics could act or write with unusual radicalism in the first year of insurrection. This is true of individuals who had been all for an accommodation with the Stuarts, and would be again. Writing just three years later, O’Mahony no longer reflected that uncompromising spirit of backs-to-the-wall desperation. His moment had passed. In just a few years so too would Irish self-government.

  1. Tadhg Ó hAnnracháin ‘ “Though Hereticks and Politicians should misinterpret their goode zeal”: political ideology and Catholicism in early modern Ireland’, in Jane H Ohlmeyer (ed) Political Thought in Seventeenth-Century Ireland (Cambridge, 2000) p159.
  2. Micheál Mac Craith ‘The Gaelic Reaction to the Reformation’ in S Ellis and S Barber (eds,) Conquest & Union: Fashioning a British State 1485-1725 (Longman, 1995) pp.150-152.
  3. Jack Lane (ed) Aubane versus Oxford (Aubane Historical Society, 2002)
  4. John-Paul McCarthy ‘The symbiotic bond that ties two nations’ Sunday Independent, December 26th, 2010.
  5. Brendan Bradshaw ‘Nationalism and historical Scholarship in Modern Ireland’ in C Brady (ed), Interpreting Irish History (Dublin, 1994) pp 202-203.
  6. Nicholas Canny, Making Ireland British 1580-1650 (Oxford, 2001) pp 486-87, 497, 517, 540.
  7. Christopher Maginn, ‘Contesting the Sovereignty of Early Modern Ireland’ History Ireland vol. 15 No. 6 (2007) p 24.
  8. Raymond Gillespie ‘Destabilizing Ulster, 1641-2’ in Brian Mac Cuarta (ed) Ulster 1641, Aspects of the Rising, p 115.
  9. Michelle O’Riordan ‘Political poems in the Mid-Seventeenth Century Crisis’ in J Ohlmeyer (ed), Ireland from Independence to Occupation 1641-1660 (Cambridge, 2002), p115.
  10. Tadhg Ó hAnnracháin ‘ “Though Hereticks and Politicians should misinterpret their goode zeal”: p165.

Read John Minahane's Response:



Pádraig Lenihan lectures in history at the National University of Ireland, Galway. His research interests include the Confederate Catholic regime of the 1640s.