17th Century Ireland – the Dynamics of Myth and Fact

Introduction • Modern Popular Perceptions of 17th Century Ireland • 17th Century Ireland : Prelude • Stuart ReformPlantationsGraces and Covenanters1641 InsurrectionConclusion • Works Cited • Additional Bibliography


17th Century Ireland

What is necessary to clarify from the beginning, however, when relating of the events and changes in Ireland during the first half of the 17th century, is that Irish society at the time was not divided into two opposing cultural and religious populations. Historians make the demographical distinction between at least three groups in Ireland during the 17th century, namely the Gaelic Irish, being the original Celtic inhabitants of the isle and Catholic by faith; the so-called Old English, who were English by descent and primarily Catholic by faith, many of which could trace their ancestry back to the Anglo-Normans who took part in the initial conquest of Ireland; and finally the so-called New English, being Protestant newcomers from England and Scotland. In addition, some make the further distinction of dividing the New English into Anglican Protestants and Protestant non-conformists, or Dissenters, principally represented by Scots settlers of varying Protestant denominations of Calvin extraction, notably Presbyterianism.

The English crown first set on its course to annex Ireland in 1169, but it was not until the reign of Henry VIII that complete conquest was seriously undertaken. Until Henry VIII’s reign, the British had held a number of strategic coastal ports and areas, notably The Pale, a narrow strip of rich coastal land which included Dublin. This was the main base of the Old English who, despite their long presence in Ireland and increasing intermarriage with the local Gaelic Irish gentry, looked to England as home and perceived themselves as English. That Ireland must come under British control was a security issue; strained relations with Catholic continental regimes, notably Spain, following Henry VIII’s break with the Roman Catholic Church, made the overwhelmingly Catholic Ireland a security risk and a potential back-door to England for her enemies.

The influx of the New English began in the latter half of the 16th century, but did not make its mark on Ireland until the time of the plantations in the early 17th century. Indeed, the bulk of the migration of Protestants to Ireland did not pick up speed until after the 17th century. The first wave comprised undertakers, i.e. soldiers decommissioned from the English army who had been granted land in Ireland, and adventurers looking to explore financial opportunities on the new frontier that was Ireland, including trading companies, but these were later joined by English and Scotsmen of lesser means who were looking to improve their fortunes. Although the New English had their Protestant faith in common, they adhered to different Protestant schools of thought, ranging from liberal Anglicanism to devout Calvinism. The diversity within the New English would soon branch out into divisions within the Protestants in Ireland, as I will explain later.

Initially it would be the Gaelic Irish who would feel the seriousness of the Tudors’ intent to bring all of Ireland under their rule. One by one, the Gaelic lords were made to submit to the English Crown. However, with the introduction of a new state religion, Anglicanism, and a new Church of England and Ireland with the British monarch at its head, religion became a political issue; a man’s professed religion became a statement of loyalty to not only his faith, but to king and country also, and as such could be called into question. The crucial question that would matter for many Irish, as well as English, was how a Roman Catholic residing in the British Kingdoms could be loyal to both monarch and to the Roman Catholic Church at the same time. This was a point of interest and a means of exploitation for the New English, whose own loyalty could not be questioned on religious grounds, and many Gaelic Irish were dispossessed of their lands, titles and even freedoms as their loyalties were challenged. The Old English did not feel the burden of suspicion and threat of dispossession until the 17th century; they enjoyed a privileged position, despite their adherence to Roman Catholicism, not only due to their English antecedents, which they made certain to stress, but also their familiarity with English government, law and culture.

For, as Brendan Fitzpatrick puts it, although the conquest of Ireland began as a military venture, ‘it was, more than anything else, legal’ (1). As the Gaelic chiefs submitted to the English Crown, they were faced with terms, contracts and legal details of which few had understanding. The Old English were able to defend themselves in the courts and to understand and articulate their rights, whereas the Gaelic Irish, unaccustomed to British law, were targets for speculators with an eye on their lands. The British legal and political system was simply quite alien to the majority of the Gaelic Irish; the Gaelic Irish culture had existed on the fringe of Europe in relative cultural and political isolation and had as a consequence not assimilated those legal structures which had become a matter of course elsewhere in Europe.

The frustration of the Gaelic Irish broke out in a number of localised revolts, as resorting to arms was the only means by which the Gaelic lords could raise their voice against the exploitation of which they were the victim. It is to be noted that although Gaelic lords took up the sword repeatedly during this time, their main grievance was not against the English or the English monarch as such, but against the speculators who sought to dispossess them.

Although the Gaelic Irish and the Old English had Catholicism and geography in common, they did not share common cause or solidarity at this time. Few Old English extended help or legal advice to the Gaelic Irish – some Old English, like the New English, did not shy away either from taking advantage of the Gaelic Irish, and many supported the dispossession of the Gaelic lords. The Earl of Tyrone, who led the last revolt against the English during the reign of Elisabeth I, publicly chastised the Old English for their lack of support of their brothers in the faith and more or less blamed their neutrality for his failure to repel the English. However, the general English perception of the Gaelic Irish as an uncivilised and barbarous people was shared by many Old English who saw no reason to sympathise with the Gaelic Irish nor risk their own privileged position. The nature of the Catholicism as practised by the Gaelic Irish and the Old English respectively were not identical either; although both saw to the Pope as their religion’s supreme authority on earth and observed similar service, the Catholicism of the Gaelic Irish was more fundamental and more akin to the Roman Catholicism as practised in Spain than to that of the more modern and moderate Catholicism, as practised in Northern Europe, by the Old English. The Old English had a much more practical approach to religious politics; as long as they could practice their faith undisturbed, they saw no need to make a fuss. That the Old English enjoyed such religious freedom as practising Catholics was to many in England a source of indignation (Canny 172). Indeed, few classes in the British Kingdoms enjoyed as much freedom as the Old English; they were truly privileged and considered themselves, and were, the elite of Ireland.


© 2006, 2010, 2015, 2018, 2019 Kirstin Sørensen

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.