I am so at home in Dublin, more than any other city, that I feel it has always been familiar to me. It took me years to see through its soft charm to its bitter prickly kernel - which I quite like too.

Find the Author


Hiram Morgan writes: Manuscripts are the principal key to studying the history of England’s conquest and colonisation of Ireland in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. These include the Irish State Papers held in the UK National Archives at Kew in London as well as several other collections in public and private archives. One of the issues with these papers is that there are a lot of important documents such as policy proposals, known as reform treatises, and intelligence reports where there is a question of authorship. Some documents have only initials; many more have no known author and there are doubts over others. For instance, until the recent discovery of new evidence from 1599, questions were raised over Edmund Spenser’s authorship of A View of the Present State of Ireland (1596). This was because, of the several contemporary manuscripts of A View, only one had his initials on it and another his name attached to it.

It has been claimed that individual authorship mattered less before the modern period. I frankly doubt this. People readily enough put their names to the letters and petitions they wrote. More likely the documents which are now anonymous were not so at the time. Simply, they circulated within groups of contemporaries who knew who had written them, but the authors’ names were since lost to history either because the documents were handed over in person in the first place or the covering letters sent with them were lost or became detached.

I found the latter to be the case when I studied Sir Francis Bacon’s views on Ireland. Once all the Bacon or supposed Bacon material relating to Ireland had been compiled, it became possible to reattach policy papers to the covering letters not only confirming authorship but also dating them, thereby contextualising and better understanding this important stateman’s developing opinions on Ireland between 1594 and 1619. The results of that study are available in my article in The Proceedings of Royal Irish Academy (2019). Indeed there is no reason why reform treatises relating to policy matters should be anonymous because, unless their purpose was somehow subversive, the parties involved needed the recognition, since they wished to benefit by making the proposals. Even secretive authors of intelligence reports – spies and informers in the provinces, known as intelligencers – would have been known at the time to their handlers and contacts in the Dublin administration, otherwise they would not have been deemed trustworthy.

In forty years of studying early modern Ireland, I have dealt with numerous anonymous documents. In the instances where I have been able to identify their authors from internal references or from the archival context, it has given more depth and nuance to my work. In some cases having the documents attributed to individuals has enabled their publication – in this way my detective work has seen hitherto neglected works by Captain Nicholas Dawtrey from 1597, Sir John Davies from 1609 and Sir James Perrot from c1622 being published for the first time in Analecta Hibernica (1995), Irish Jurist (1996) and again in Analecta Hibernica (2020). As regards Davies’s Lawes of Irelande tract, my view was confirmed when I subsequently came across its covering letter. I have since reunited both – Davies’s covering letter from the State Papers in London and the tract from Ellesmere Papers in Huntington Library, California – in an online update to the original article (//research.ucc.ie/celt/document/E610001).

Yet not all anonymous documents have sufficient internal evidence to make satisfactory judgements. Sometimes an individual’s handwriting can give extra help but the ‘secretary’ hand of the period is generally pretty standard and in any case many documents were copied by scribes. Inks and watermarks can also be investigated, but again writers themselves were not especially discriminating and used what materials they had to hand.

Title page of The Supplication of the Blood of the English tract,
British Library, Additional MS, 34,313 f.84r-f.121v. An edition was published in Analecta Hibernica by Willy Maley in 1995.

One thing though that gives potential additional heft to the identification process is the development of stylometry. This is the use of computer programs to make textual comparisons between documents. These have undergone considerable refinement since they were used on Shakespeare’s plays a generation ago. Their application to anonymous texts relating to Tudor and Stuart Ireland has been slow to take place but nevertheless offers real potential. There are challenges to be overcome in order to make this possible – the texts have first to be modernised in spelling and to be of sufficient length. Then they need to be compared against writings by known authors whose work must also be modernised and be long enough.

Hoping to ascertain the identity of the author of the 1598 Spenser-related The Supplication of the Blood of the English text, I turned to Dr James O’Sullivan in Digital Humanities at University College Cork to help me run a series of tests. James has had considerable success with eighteenth and nineteenth century text comparisons, so I was optimistic that his expertise might help solve the conundrum of one of the most anti-Irish treatises of the whole conquest period. In the stylometric tests The Supplication was compared to other texts from the period. In the event the results were not conclusive and more work was required. However, quite by accident, another anonymous text in the survey matched with one by a known author – bits of text from the late 1590s entitled Portions of a manuscript history by the Victorian-era State Paper editors had ended up aligning with The Chronicle of Ireland by conservative Welsh-born churchman Dr Meredith Hanmer (1544/5-1604). The process had therefore revealed Hanmer to have been working on a follow-up to his chronicle of pre-Norman Ireland with a more contemporary history that would have lauded his patron the Earl of Ormond while at the same time dishing the dirt on the Munster Plantation. This addition to our knowledge of the end of Elizabethan Ireland is both granular and expansive in significance and now is posted on UCC’s Irish Studies website @//research.ucc.ie/celt/document/E590002.

This serendipitous result calls for a wider literary and historical project, for which research funding will be needed. There are several important documents with no known or clearly-established author worth delving into further. Did the elusive Midlands intelligencer Hugh Collier write not only the 1599 Dialogue of Silvynne and Peregrynne by H.C. but also various other anonymous tracts of the period? Likewise it would be useful to find out more about unattributed plantation discourses both from the early days in the mid-Tudor period as well as from the Ulster Plantation under James I. After all it is not just famous influencers such as Edmund Spenser and Francis Bacon we need to find out about.

Another manuscript, whose author would be worth discovering is the State of Ireland, and Plan for its Reformation from 1515. It is the opening document of the Irish State Papers and in a sense the big daddy of all the so-called reform treatises that follow. Colleagues from history and literature will doubtless provide impetus with suggestions of other anonymous tracts needing explored. If a more extensive, systematic study can be launched, it will surely be a variegated journey of discovery with cul-de-sacs, fresh avenues and even connecting highways. The authors of some documents won’t be found at all, some will be the expected ones, and some will, like Hanmer, be quite unexpected. In the meantime the initial target document, The Supplication of the Blood of the English, has been tested against a far more extensive range of comparable texts; the results appear with my new edition of that same 1598 diatribe soon to be published by Manchester University Press under the title Spenserian Tracts.


Hiram Morgan lectures in history at University College Cork and is director of CELT (Corpus of Electronic Texts of Ireland), the world’s largest Irish Studies website.

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