1641: The Massacre Propaganda

by Brendan Clifford,
Church and State; First Quarter, 2011

Almost fifty years ago I spent a month in isolation in a remote and English part of England, called Winchester, with nothing to do and nothing to read except a volume of Edmund Spenser’s Poems that somehow came to hand. I read it because it was there, and nothing else was there. And so I read about the Fairy Queen, who never actually appears in that never-ending poem with her name to it as far as I recall, and about Knights and Ladies and Chivalry and the Blatant Beast and other strange creatures that lurk in the undergrowth of the English mind. And I got to know about Colin Clout’s Homecoming to Buttevant, which had been cleared of the Irish so that Greek Nymphs and Shepherds might play in it, and Greek goddesses along with them, but no gods that I recall. And then I was released from captivity and promptly forgot about Spenser, except to wonder occasionally how that bizarre poem, afflicted with uncoordinated gigantism, remained in print.

For remain in print it did. And Senator Harris has fallen down on the task he has set himself, because I have not heard yet that he has hailed it as the great Irish poem to whose influence we should all submit ourselves in order to be re-created and saved.

It was the reporting by the Irish Times of the 1641 massacre as hot news that turned my mind to Spenser again. I looked him up to see what had been written in recent centuries about him and his North Cork killing-ground that he made his playground, and I came across Spenser In Southern Ireland by Alexander Corbin Judson, published in Bloomington, Indiana (where the Indians were broken around 1812) in 1933:

“On a warm, bright afternoon in June, 1929, I found myself standing on a small knoll, knee-deep in grass and flowers, with the fragment of an ivy-grown castle before me, all that is left today of Kilcolman Castle, once possessed by Edmund Spenser. To me it is the best ‘home of a poet’ that I know. No post card vendors dog your steps, no guide insists on telling you his well-learned tale, indeed not even a path leads to it. You are rejoiced to find yourself alone with your own thoughts and the beauty of the scene…”

I once thought I would take a look at it. It is somewhere near Buttevant, but in Buttevant nobody seemed to know where it was except that it was near. I think we were on the right road, but it was a narrow road with a slow tractor on it so we turned back. I did not get to see it, but I gathered that the interest of natives in it remains just as keen as it was in 1929.

Judson spoke with a farmer who had come from cutting turf close to the ruin: “He knew that Spenser once owned the castle, but admitted that he had never read any of Spenser’s works, as they are not ‘easy to come by’…” I assume that small farmers near Buttevant are as inquisitive about the world as small farmers around Boherbue, in which case that farmer had almost certainly taken a look at The Fairy Queen but was too polite to tell a weird foreigner who admired it what he thought of it.

Judson was enraptured by the site to which Colin Clout Came Home Again, “the most delightful of English pastorals“. He marvelled at its teeming life:

“Cattle and sheep are everywhere… The very crows look like well fed, respectable citizens… I saw them peacefully eating with the chickens and dogging the steps of the farmers in the fields. When I asked one farmer whether the crows weren’t a nuisance, he replied that ‘we mustn’t begrudge the birds of the air their food’. To judge by the absence of waste land and the excellence of the crops, I could not think of man or beast in the region ever lacking food…”

I assume that Judson knew that Spenser had taken part in a great campaign of killing, compounded by deliberate famine, to clear the land of savages and make it an idyllic playground for a make-believe paganism in which he coquetted with his hills and streams, from Buttevant up to Aherlow and founded modern English literature — only for the savages to crawl out of the nooks and crannies in which they had somehow managed to survive, and ruin it all on him. But he was too polite to mention it in his book, just as the farmer was too polite to give his opinion of Spenser’s verse.

In a later fantasy Goldsmith saw a situation in which “every prospect pleases but only man is vile“. That was how Spenser saw North Cork. He thought he had removed the human blot from the landscape. He was mistaken. We crawled back. So what are we to make of this long-winded genocidal aesthete who founded English literature while looking at the Ballyhoura Hills? All I can do is to suggest what made him go tick-tock.

Spenser was of the sanctimoniously sceptical gentry that sprouted from the strong Reformation of Christianity in England, that could only pretend to believe since it invented what it believed in to suit each occasion.

Belief was a function of policy for that gentry. The object of policy for it was to establish England as an absolutely independent state, disentangled from the life of Europe and therefore anti-European. The process of disentangling was antagonistic.

How Reformationist England might have developed if the European Reformation had swept all before it is a question of such remote abstraction that it is hardly possible even to speculate about it idly.

The Reformation in England was not part of the European Reformation. But for the accident that Henry VIII was married to the aunt of the Holy Roman Emperor, who was in conflict with the Pope and in occupation of Rome and would not allow a Papal annulment of Henry’s marriage which Henry required for reasons of State, England might have launched an Anti-Reformation crusade. Its own Reformation was a political event. Henry declared himself head of the Church in England in order to annul his marriage, and then one thing led to another.

My first interest in it was in connection with the abolition of theatre in England. Popular theatre had developed in the medium of Catholicism and carried the wrong message. It was not found possible to conjure up on the spur of the moment a popular anti-Catholic theatre, so theatre was suppressed de facto as part of the working out of Henry’s decision to be his own Pope.

An earnest strain of Protestantism developed that was not content to follow the vagaries of state policy in the matter of belief. It tried to formulate a consistent and comprehensive body of Biblical belief. One of its conclusions was that theatre was wrong in principle, and not just de facto because of the Roman content of the traditional theatre. This attempt at earnest Biblical belief, which came to be called Puritanism, concluded that theatre as such was a form of Roman idolatry, and was one of the deadliest of the Roman devices.

About a hundred years after Henry broke with Rome, Puritanism came to power in the state. In 1641 it killed Strafford after a Show Trial, for governing Ireland without sufficient regard for English interests; it precipitated the 1641 rebellion in Ulster; and it abolished the theatre. There was disagreement amongst the Puritans about many things, but they were all agreed on the suppression of theatre. Theatre was put down by what came to be called the English Revolution (1641-1660), and came back with a bang with the Counter-Revolution of the aristocracy.

This central fact of English history is unacceptable to the progressive intellectual tendency, Whig and Marxist, and was sidelined by them. They constructed for themselves an essentially false picture of the English Revolution, in which it was inconceivable that the great humanist John Milton, poet and Cromwell’s Secretary of State, should have taken part in the banning of plays. But he did.

The gentry who took power in the state after 1688 had been developing through zig-zags for a century and a half, beginning with Henry’s privatising of the Monasteries and the destruction of the traditional culture and social welfare system. They had become the economic substance of the state. The King governed by means of them. They met in Parliament and did his bidding.He could not have governed without them, but they acted in subordination to him. For many generations they did not even aspire to do without him. Finally, after a hundred years, the Puritan streak within them got out of hand and abolished the monarchy in 1649—only to find that they could not get on without it.

Life without a King and his Court, and without theatre, which was part of the life of the Court, was bleak. And republicanism was barren—it did not reproduce executive authority biologically, as monarchy did.

Now life without theatre is possible. That is proved by the most thriving religion of recent decades: Islam. It was not possible in England. The English experience suggests that Christianity is a theatrical religion in essence. At any rate, the suppression of theatre so that a Biblical Christianity could be lived in England was a failure. And the suppression of theatre for a generation seemed to produce a recoil in which life became utterly theatrical.

I grew up in a community in which theatre was appreciated as a diversion, but there was an actual life unconnected with theatre which was absorbingly interesting. Today there is a social-realist form of the theatre that is made universal by television, the soap-opera, and it seems to be an integral part of actual life. As far as I have been able to see, there is nothing like it in the country that has Rome as its centre, which repelled the Reformation, or even in the country where the reformation was an organic social development. The social-realist ‘soap opera’—a misnomer, as the US soap opera from which the term derives was extravagant light relief—seems to be the ultimate artifice of the development which began by concocting a religion for reasons of State and destroying the existing culture of life in order to make way for it. (In Britain the major ‘soap opera’ was developed on the television channel where the selling of soap is not allowed.)

The State has been the source of English life for almost half a millennium, and the sacred and secular are blended in it.

Dean Church, a famous Dean of St. Paul’s in late Victorian times, admired Spenser but was unhistorically critical of him for being Elizabethan. The terms of the relationship between gentry and monarchy had undergone a subtle change since Spenser’s time. Then the monarchy governed through the gentry, and now the gentry governed through the monarchy. Spenser’s flattery of the ugly old hag may have been ludicrous, but she demanded it, and her apparatus of government controlled the production of images, so that she never appeared as an ugly old hag and no doubt those who were in her presence saw her through the prism of the mass-produced image. But Church made no allowance for this. He saw it as bad form:

“This was gross, shameless, lying flattery paid to the Queen. There is really nothing like it in history. It is unique as a phenomenon that proud, able, free-spoken men, with all their high instincts of what was noble and true, with all their admiration of the Queen’s high qualities, should have offered it, even as an unmeaning custom; and that a proud and free-spoken people should not, in the very genuineness of their pride in her and their loyalty, have received it with shouts of derision and disgust. The flattery of Roman emperors and Roman Popes, if as extravagant, was not so personal. Even Louis XIV was not celebrated in his dreary old age, as a model of ideal beauty and a paragon of romantic perfection. It was no worship of a secluded and distant object of loyalty: the men who thus flattered knew perfectly well, often by painful experience what Elizabeth was: able, indeed high-spirited, successful, but ungrateful to her servants, capricious, vain, ill-tempered, unjust, and in her old age, ugly. And yet the Gloriana of the Faery Queen, the Empress of all nobleness—Belphoebe, the Princess of all sweetness and Beauty—Britomart, the armed votaress of all purity— Mercilla, the lady of all compassion and grace—were but the reflections of the language in which it was then agreed upon by some of the greatest of Englishmen to speak, and to be supposed to think, of the Queen…” (Spenser).

This puts one in mind of the condemnation by English liberals of the praises heaped on Stalin on his 70th birthday by some of the most able men in Russia who under him had made Russia an industrial power and put it in possession of half of Europe. There are socio-political situations in which it makes sense to able people to say such things and humans do not exist sub speciae eternitatis but in socio-politico conjunctures which determine both their aesthetic taste and their moral sense. And England in Spenser’s time had moved out of such eternity as was available in Europe—the great tract of time covered by Rome—and into the mere present of a rogue state, in which everything was invented or shaped in the service of the current requirements of the State.

What the State required in Ireland was genocide—which it attempted but was unable to perform. I decided, when dealing with Belfast politics in the 1970s, that the Confederation of Kilkenny was as far back in Irish history as I could go while retaining a sense of continuity. But, since the Irish Times and Trinity College have made 1641 an issue of current politics, I must go back to what seems to be the start of the sequence of events leading to it.

Two Lord Greys were active militarily in Munster in the mid-16th century. The first was Leonard Grey of Dorset, who was sent on a military mission to Munster in the 1530s, became Lord Grey of Grange, and was executed. His sister was married to Gerald Fitzgerald, Earl of Kildare. Her stepson, the Fitzgerald heir, was in rebellion when Leonard arrived. Young Fitzgerald offered to surrender to his uncle-in-law on condition of personal safety. The guarantee was given. Grey took his Fitzgerald relative to London, where he was put in the Tower, his rebellion was taken in earnest, and he was sentenced to death. Grey threatened to make a nuisance of himself by pressing for a pardon, until Henry VIII showered him with lands and money and sent him back to Munster with a title. He took his title in the name of the disbanded Convent of Grange, which he had been given.

English government in Ireland was conducted through the great Norman Lords, the chief of which were the Desmonds and the Ormonds—the Fitzgeralds and the Butlers. There was little in the way of an independent English Government apparatus of State in Ireland, and in England itself it was only in the process of construction under the Tudors, after the long disruption of the Wars of the Roses. In these circumstances conflicts between the Norman Lords were frequent. On the supposition that there was a State to which allegiance was owed, those conflicts might be held to be treasonable. But, for the Crown, it was a matter of choosing a side in conflicts which it did not have the power to over-ride and declaring it to be loyal. In this game of tacking between the Norman Lords, Grey came to grief in a 1540 conflict. It seems that the Butlers persuaded Henry that Grey had become the partisan of his Fitzgerald relatives, and he was beheaded for treason in 1541.

Lord Grey de Wilton, who was sent on military mission to Munster about forty years later, was not related to his executed namesake, or to any of those he was sent to punish. He was a New Man—the man of a new era—the era of the English Reformation which suppressed the Renaissance and inaugurated religious war.

The English Reformation was in process, in its early stage, when the first Lord Grey was tacking between the Norman Lords. It was still in process at the time of the second Lord Grey, but it was very much more advanced, on its way towards an end which it never reached. The Reform of religion was never accomplished in England. The old religion was destroyed in the name of Eternal Truth as revealed in the Bible —Truth which had been obscured for about 1,200 years by Roman priestcraft. But the Reform was never accomplished. The attempt to accomplish it resulted in war between the Reformers. More than a century and a half after the English Reformation was set in motion, a settlement was made (1689 or 1715, whichever you fancy) not in the shape of an accomplished Reform but of a fudge under which the different kinds of English Protestants agreed to tolerate each other on the ground of a joint effort to conquer the world by war and trade (chiefly the Slave Trade).

The second Lord Grey was guaranteed against the fate of the first by a fundamentalist religious fanaticism that put him out of reach of human sympathy with the Irish. And Spenser was his Secretary.

I don’t know how many people were slaughtered by Grey (and Spenser). His most famous slaughter was at Smerwick Harbour, but there were many others.

Grey was not a pioneer of Government by slaughter. Sir Humphrey Gilbert conducted a civilising campaign in Munster for a number of years around 1570 before moving on to America. Here is an account of it given by D.B. Quinn in his Introduction to a 1940 reprint of The Voyages and Colonising Enterprises Of Sir Humphrey Gilbert, published in London by the Hakluyt Society. The reader can rely on it not being an exaggeration in favour of the Irish side. Quinn was a History Lecturer at Queen’s University, Belfast, in those good old days of self-confident Unionist misrule:

“During the next three months, with all the enthusiasm of his first independent command, he drove his forces up and down Munster, destroying, or terrorising into submission, Irish and Anglo-Irish alike. Graphic descriptions of his policy and activities are given by Churchyard and in his own letters. His method of waging war to devastate the country, killing every living creature encountered by his troops. If a castle did not yield at the first demand he would accept no later submission, but would take it by storm and kill every person in it. He made the Irish lords, who came to surrender, walk to his tent between two lines of heads cut off from his dead enemies, and forced them, after abject submission, to enter into bonds and put in pledges of good behaviour. He rode rough-shod over the chartered liberties of the Anglo-Irish towns, ‘answering them’, he told Sidney, ‘that the Prince had a Regular and absolute power, and that which might not be done by the one, I would do it by the other in cases of necessity’ —an interesting statement of the doctrine of the prerogative. Churchyard stresses his contempt for the Irish, of whom he said ‘that he thought his Dogs ears to be too good, to hear the speech of the greatest noble man among them’. His considered opinion was ‘that no Conquered nation will yield willingly their obedience for love but rather for fear’. This ruthlessness made him almost a legendary figure in Ireland, and Raleigh in 1581, pleading that Gilbert should be sent back to Munster, said that no man had been more feared there. His views on the treatment of subject peoples, from a man who might well have formed the first English settlement among the North American Indians, are of some interest” (p16-17; Gilbert was knighted at Drogheda in 1570. Thomas Churchyard, aptly named, was an industrious writer and soldier of the new Henry the Eighthist order. The Sidneys were an influential family of gentry from Elizabeth’s time to William of Orange’s and Algernon Sidney wrote the Manifesto for the 1688 affair— and was executed for it a few years before that event).

The Elizabethan wars of religion in Ireland were not part of the great European war of religion, the 30 Years War, which Cardinal Mazarin brought to a liberal conclusion with the Treat of Westphalia in 1638. The authentic Reformation — the one in Germany— was being coped with more or less peacefully when Elizabeth was making war on Catholicism in Ireland.

It is an open question whether Elizabethan sectarianism set out to destroy an actually existing Catholicism in Ireland, or whether Ireland was driven towards Catholicism by Elizabeth and her successors. The fact that the English Reformation was coherent and purposeful only as anti-Romanism suggests that the latter was the case. The eternal truth of Christianity as revealed in the Bible was never formulated in England as it was in Zurich and Geneva and parts of Germany—rival eternal truths it is true but each adequately formulated, certain of itself and capable of being lived in. And, if England could not establish a stable Christian framework for itself to live in, how could it draw the Irish into it?

Carrying on about the Pope being the Whore of Babylon surrounded by idolaters was unlikely to make Protestants of the Irish, whose own marriage customs were usually described by Protestants as a kind of whoredom and who were happy idolaters.

(The word “protest” reversed its meaning through being used in the name of the English break with Rome. To Protest, taken etymologically, means to affirm or to assert. In usage it came to mean to reject of dispute. Lutherans, Calvinists, Zwinglians affirmed doctrines and those affirmations became ways of life. Henry the Eighthism protested that the Pope was the Whore of Babylon. Its religious essence was a rejection of Rome in the service of a political project. And now, when some-body says “I protest” he is understood to mean “I disagree”. The Irish, not being engaged in the political project, were not enraptured by the bad-tempered, problematical religion of disagreeability.) The form of religion operated by the State did not believe in itself: what it believed in was the State. The believing form of the English Reformation religion proved in its moment of truth to be apolitical. It achieved ephemeral political power in 1649 but was unable to make itself a State, even though its doctrine— its way of reading the Bible after the Romanist division of public life into Church and State was rejected—told it that it must be the State as well as the Church.

In practice it was a protest movement, in the sense of a dissenting movement, but it was committed de jure to doing what it was incapable of doing. It was what we now call ‘fundamentalist’ or ‘radical’. The regime of sceptical gentry (including Bishops) made space for it after 1688, and believers and sceptics collaborated throughout the 18th century in plundering the world.

Both of these tendencies are evident in the English Reformation from the start. Neither was attractive to the Irish — either to the Norman Irish (or Old English) who remained attached to the Roman Church, or the other Irish who bore their religion very lightly. I would guess that English Christianity was too wild and opportunistic for the one and too earnest, or fanatical, for the other. (The Norman Irish were Normans who came to Ireland on a mandate from Rome to regularise Irish Christianity within the Roman mode.) Here is an account of 16th century Ireland, given by Standish O’Grady in his Introduction to an 1896 reprint of Pacata Hibernia: Ireland Appeased And Reduced, written in the early 16th century by a soldier in the Army of Sir George Carew (President of Munster) in his work of peace. (Standish O’Grady was well-known when I was young, in the place where I was young. There were two Standish O’Gradys. I cannot recall which of them this was. Both seem to have been forgotten.):

“…at the commencement of the 16th century the Crown had hardly any power in Ireland. The country was governed by eight or ten great lords, under whom were from 60 to 80 minor lords; dependent to some extent on the great ones, but practically independent within their own domains. Ireland was a nation of nations—the seat of nearly a hundred distinct governments. Even in the Pale the Crown only maintained itself by committing the Government to the head of one of the great families; usually the representative of the House of Kildare. This was a state of things which could not last. So the Crown almost inevitably came into collision with the dynasts. The history of the century is the history of the wars between the Crown and the great lords… though the great issue was complicated by many minor issues, and religion too, and patriotism possibly helped to embroil the situation. The House of Kildare precipitated the controversy by seeking to wrest from Henry VIII the government of the Pale, the only portion of Ireland which he even pretended to govern. In the collision that great house fell… and the noise of its great and quite unexpected downfalling shook Ireland. The chieftains perceiving that a new power had arisen in Ireland, a power too to which they were aware, traditionally, that their allegiance was due. Rejoicing, they hastened to welcome it. In solemn parliament assembled they proclaimed their Lord Henry no longer Dominus Hiberniae, but Rex, converting his shadowy lordship into an actual sovereignty. They swore themselves the king’s men, accepted State titles at his hands, undertook to pay royal rents to keep his peace and follow his war…

“From the consequences of that solemn act neither they nor their successors, however they may have repented it, were ever able to shake themselves free. Thenceforward Ireland looked to the Crown as the lawful centre of order and authority and the fountain of honour. As for the chieftains, they still remained virtually kings, each man governing his own people, and with a gallows on his lawn to enforce observance of his will. “Now, obviously, this state of things, so highly obnoxious to the genius of the century, could only be temporary and transitional. In one way or another it was necessary that this host of petty kings should be converted into ruled subjects and, no other centre of authority showing itself, all those converging forces which were compelling the race towards unity, internal peace, and all those institutions, good and bad, which we collectively sum up under the term ‘civilization’, rallied round the power which the chieftans themselves had so solemnly acknowledged. A masterful king like Henry, endowed with a certain degree of common sense and a certain manly sympathy with men, might have guided the country bloodlessly through the great social and political revolution which was now inevitable, and the outcome of which could have been no other, in any event, than a chieftanry converted into a noblesse.

“From Henry’s death we seem to see the State not steered or sailed, but drifting, labouring through seas of blood, not guided to its destination by a human understanding, but blindly reeling thither, driven by purblind elemental influences which, for want of a better name, we may call the genius of the age. From wars and rumours of wars thenceforward the island was never free, fratricidal wars, and such wars! murderous, devastitive, sparing neither the poor unarmed peasant, nor the bald head of the ancient, nor the bald head of the infant, nor the women heavy with child. The Shane O’Neill wars and the Desmond wars are somewhat familiar to all readers, but to what extent the State embroiled itself with the chieftains and the chieftains resisted the State will be realised when I mention the fact that, in the time of which our text treats [i.e. 1600-1603], there was no chieftain or considerable lord in the island who had not been at some time in his career out in action of rebellion. For the chieftains often gave as much as they got, and many of them had beaten the State and wrung their own terms from the Government by sword and fire, and oftentimes the Government shrank from the challenge and permitted the stripped and indignant chieftain to have his own way.

“Of the many insurrections and wars which the conduct of this great controversy made inevitable, the most formidable and successful by far was that which was raised in 1593 by Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone, and the great lords of the North. Tyrone worsted many times the Queen’s armies in the North… His ally, the celebrated Red Hugh O’Donnell, repeated those victories in the West. In short the State was found quite unable to suppress Tyrone… Fitzwilliam, Lord Russell, Lord Burrowes, and the Earl of Essex, successive Viceroys, all failed. Then the Queen appointed Mountjoy as Lord Deputy of Ireland, and the President of Munster [Sir Thomas Norris] having been recently slain in battle by the southern insurgents, nominated Sir George Carew to the Presidency of Munster, the province being at the time in full rebellion. It is at this point that the writer of Pacata Hibernia begins his very singular tale…”

O’Grady is circumspect in his reference to “the genius of the age” as making it inevitable that the country should be reduced to a system and the chiefs reduced to a nobility of State. As far as I recall he was Jacobite in sentiment and therefore not an ideologue of progress.

The inevitability of what happened in Ireland followed from the fact that an effective structure of State was being established in England by the Tudor monarchy, after the long period of civil war, and it set about reducing Ireland to order along with England.

The English Government in Ireland was one of the parties to the Irish disorder. The idea of Ireland being in disorder hangs on the teleological notion that the country was predestined to be forged into a unitary state. Professor Foster ridiculed this teleological notion of Irish destiny as a delusion of Republican ignorance, and was widely applauded by our important people. But Foster’s own approach was no less teleological. He only differed from Republicans in being a propagator of British teleology. British ideologists are in the happy position of not seeing themselves when they criticise others. They have a very serviceable blind spot.

Ireland was destined to be comprehensively remade in furtherance of the destiny that the English State conceived for itself when it was renovated after the Wars of the Roses.

Germany, on the other hand, was destined to live as a hundred kingdoms big and small until the late 19th century because English destiny required that it should be so, as did French destiny. Almost three centuries after Mountjoy was appointed Lord Deputy to do his thing in Ireland, Bismarck united Germany by means of two small purposeful wars and a successful defence against a French invasion. And Nicholas Mansergh, a busy administrator in the service of the British Empire at war, made time to come to Queen Alexandra College in Dublin in 1944 to lecture about the origins of the 1914 War and to tut-tut about Bismarck’s two little wars.

I don’t know how many British wars of Irish unification there were. Somebody should count them. There were certainly a lot more than two. And not one of them was put to such good use in State construction as Bismarck’s two little wars were. The reason for this was that England, while conducting genocidal campaigns for the purpose of reducing Ireland to a state of order— civilising it—remained itself uncivilised.

England was itself the major source of disorder in Ireland. That is why its conquests, instead of being civilising, were barbaric. (I use the word in its popular, pejorative, sense, though it is perhaps inaccurate.) It conquered, wasted the conquest for reasons of its own inadequacy, and since it would not let go, it had to conquer again, and again, and again, and again.

The genocidal conquest in which Spenser did his bit was one of many. It gained him his estate between Buttevant and the Ballyhoura Hills: an English estate in an ethnically cleansed part of Ireland—he would have had no hope of becoming an estate owner if he had stayed in England. He strutted his stuff on his estate for about sixteen years, writing his English pastorales and glorifying the conquest allegorically in scores of turgid verses in the Faery Queen. Then, when the end was nigh, though he did not know it was nigh, he became Sheriff of Cork. That was in September 1598. In October the Irish crawled out of their holes and wrecked his Castle and he fled to Cork City— where he wrote his Brief Note for the Queen, urging that a really thorough job should be done on the Irish this time round.

Sir Thomas Norris and Sir George Carew did their best: but yet again England’s best was not good enough for sorting out Ireland. It could not sort out Ireland because it had still not sorted itself out. It was unstable within itself because of antagonisms resulting from its spurious, half-baked Reformation.

Pacata Hibernia tells the story of the workman-like suppression of the Irish carried out by Carew, Mountjoy and Chichester during the five years after Spenser fled from Kilcolman. An almost functional British regime in Ireland was based on that suppression—British because the monarchy passed to the Stuarts when the Virgin Queen died in 1603. The Ulster Plantation, the only effective Plantation, was carried out. The lands of the Irish chiefs in Ulster were confiscated and conferred on British undertakers on the condition of colonising the region with English and Scottish Protestants. A renovated Irish Parliament, weighted heavily in favour of the colony by the borough system but not excluding the Irish, was established. It was of course entirely corrupt—as we say nowadays. But in the 1630s an administration that was not corrupt, and that did not subordinate Irish affairs to English interests at every turn, was conducted by Thomas Wentworth (Lord Strafford).

England was affronted by Strafford’s rule in Ireland. When an English Parliament was called in 1640, it arrested Strafford, subjected him to a Show Trial, passed a Bill to kill him when the Trial proved contentious, went into rebellion against the Crown as soon as Strafford was disposed of, and threw Ireland back into the melting pot.

The Parliament escapade ended in futility twenty years later. The restored monarchy reversed some of Cromwell’s Irish confiscations but upheld most of them. Twenty-five years of indecisive government followed, during which the Irish were neither adequately suppressed nor sufficiently free. Then the monarchy enraged England by introducing freedom of religion—freedom for both Catholicism and for Protestant Dissent. But, since English Protestantism was mere anti-Catholicism, the official recognition of Catholicism as an authentic Christian religion, whose practice should be allowed, was experienced in England as religious oppression. The King was overthrown in England in 1688, but not in Ireland. Yet another conquest of Ireland was then undertaken, “Derry, Aughrim, Enniskillen and the Boyne”, concluding with the Treaty of Limerick in 1691, under which the last Irish Army moved to the Continent (the Wild Geese) on the understanding that there was to be a degree of freedom of religion in Ireland.

‘Religious Freedom’ took the form of the system of Anti-Catholic Penal Laws, comparable with the Anti-Jewish Nuremberg Laws in Germany from 1933 to 1940. Under the Penal Law system Catholics were presumed in law not to  exist in Ireland. That lasted until 1760, when a Catholic body was allowed to present a Loyal Address to the King. In 1760 Catholics acquired the status of subjects without rights. In the 1780s they were accorded the right to own land and to own a horse, but continued to be excluded from politics and the professions. In 1793 they were admitted to the professions and to University (Trinity College). It was not until 1829 that, under O’Connell’s threat of rebellion, they were admitted to Parliament.

When they entered Parliament they found that Irish national rights, which existed at least as an official notion until 1800, were held to have been extinguished when the unrepresentative and bribed Irish Parliament voted to unite with the British Parliament in 1800. When the Irish voted to establish independent Government (1918 and 1921), the British Prime Minister, said he could not concede this Irish demand because the Irish had bound themselves into a Union with Britain that was of a kind with the Union of the North American States, and that he was constitutionally obliged to put down the separatist movement by whatever means were necessary. That meant that yet another reconquest would have to be undertaken, and was apparently being prepared for. But Britain had emerged from its Great War as the de facto subordinate of the United States, and was compelled by US pressure to do things it did not want to do. In 1921 it ended its alliance with Japan on American insistence, thereby undermining its Asian Empire. After a couple of years of Irish military resistance, it arranged a Truce with the “murder gang” in Ireland, from which it only partially recovered by the ‘Treaty’ chicanery. And in 1922 it betrayed the Greeks whom it had impelled into a war of conquest on Turkey.

What Britain did to itself, and to Ireland, by launching the Great War, established the conditions under which a degree of Irish independence became possible.

About 25 years ago in Belfast I noticed the word MOPE being bandied about by superior people in the University, and by Lord Bew in particular. I found that it meant Most Oppressed People Ever. As applied to the ologonings [ie. wailings, lamentings] of constitutional nationalism, I thought it was a fair enough piece of ridicule, especially those who denounced the Provos for doing something other than ologoning. I have never had much patience with ologoning. At the same time, the Irish must be seriously in contention for that title if somebody is awarding it.

Trinity College (a Plantation land-owner at the time) and the Irish Times have recently made a current issue of a minor act of retaliation against the New Order in Ulster in the Autumn of 1641— taking it as an isolated event, unconnected even with the English politics of the preceding year.

A Crown Government in Ireland, conducting an impartial administration in accordance with established laws, was overthrown. Powerful interests which had been subjected to law were encouraged to feel oppressed and to free themselves as a special people, as English Protestants in Ireland. Strafford had established a regime based on prior conquest, genocide and colonisation, but sought to bring all the social elements, old and new, into conjunction under a form of law. The terms of that regime were broken by the English Parliament, and the social elements were precipitated into antagonism.

I can understand why much about that period is sacred to English history and must be protected from factual treatment. But why should it be sacred to Irish historians? I can only suppose that it is because academic history in Ireland has been subjected to English mesmeric myth by Nicholas Mansergh, T.D. Williams etc.


A Military History Of Ireland, edited by Thomas Bartlett and British military historian, Keith Jeffrey, was published by Cambridge University in 1996. An editorial Introduction remarks that “The Easter rising appears to be outside the recognised Irish military tradition” (p22). What does that mean but that it was not fought by the British Army but against it. Irish military tradition after Limerick survived on the Continent. In Ireland there was British militarism— until 1916.

It complains that:

“A recent history of the Irish army [Duggan’s]… traces its history no further back than the setting up of the Irish Volunteers in November 1913, even though substantial numbers of this force in fact joined the British army in 1914” (p25).

I suppose Duggan did make a mistake there. The 1913 Volunteers were ambiguous. They might in one aspect be seen as a kind of British Militia, a complement of the Ulster Volunteers within the British Home Rule conflict. Organised Irish military activity, for a purpose which was neither to hold Ireland in subjugation nor make war for the British Empire, dates from the Volunteer split of September 1914, when Redmond directed his Volunteers to make war on Germany, and they found themselves making war on Turkey. The section of the Volunteers who refused that call can be said to have originated the Irish military tradition. To find an Irish military tradition beyond that— something that is not a form of British Imperial Jingoism—one has to go to France, Spain, and Austria, where strains of the Wild Geese were to be found up to the Great War.

In Ireland since 1921 military tradition worthy of the name has existed in the IRA, the only army that has actually fought a war. The Editors almost concede that, and deal with it by saying that “the paramilitary tradition… merits a separate volume on its own”,. There’s always a way out of an awkward corner, on paper, with the Oxbridge academic wind behind you.

There is a chapter curiously entitled The Tudors And the Origins Of The Modern Irish States: A Standing Army by Steven G. Ellis. It is now 41 years since Jack Lynch, and the Irish Establishment, academic and secular, rejected and denounced the ‘two-nations’ view of the conflict in the North. They still reject it as far as I know, but they now peddle the absurd notion of two Irish ‘States’.

Northern Ireland is not, and never has been, anything but a segment of the British state, given an unusual political arrangement in furtherance of British policy in Ireland.

There is nothing in Ellis’s article to warrant putting “the origins of the modern Irish states” in its title. There must be a Politburo directive that the words “Irish states” must be scattered around regardless of relevance.

Ellis’s thesis asserts an obvious fact that was described much more interestingly by Standish O’Grady long ago: that the Tudor State, with superior resources, stuck at the task of subordinating the great lords and chiefs in Ireland to the authority of the English State. His conclusion runs as follows:

“It is a fallacy to see the assimilation of Gaelic Ireland into the Tudor state as an inevitable consequence of these changes [new military arrangements]. Yet in retrospect the transformation of Tudor rule in Ireland which accompanied the 1534-5 campaign did make a major step towards an ending of Ireland’s mediaeval partition and the establishment of Dublin Castle as the headquarters of a united Ireland within the United Kingdom…”

That’s one way of describing the subjugation of Ireland to English rule. And I suppose it is put that way as a gesture against the Provos. (Many academics now admit to falsifying history as an Anti-Provo gesture, which they had to do as they lacked the courage to find out what it was that made the Provos possible—and indeed as inevitable as anything ever is in socio-political affairs. But if anything more is meant by “a united Ireland” than an Ireland subordinated to English rule by means of ample provision for coercion—well, it never happened: and it was never intended to happen.

Then there is a Chapter on The Wars Of Religion 1603-1660 by Jane Ohlmeyer, then of Aberdeen University and now of Trinity College, who recently stirred up the 1641 affair by putting Planter depositions about massacres on the Internet so that they might be meditated upon without a political context and so induce feelings of horror.

She devotes two pages to the years 1603-1640 and 19 pages to the years 1640-1660. The Chapter, then, is about the period of the English Civil War which was caused by the Rebellion of the English Parliament against the King’s Government, and its subsequent failure to establish a functional Government without the King.

The English Civil War was certainly a war of religion, but that is not what she means by her title.

Ireland was embroiled in the English war of religion by the refusal of English fundamentalism to tolerate the degree of religious tolerance maintained in Ireland in the 1630s by the King’s Minister, Strafford.

In her two pages on 1603-1640 Ohlmeyer says that there was almost a war between England and Spain in the mid 1670s, and “Spain seriously considered invading Ireland” (p161).

But there wasn’t an Anglo-Spanish War, and there was no Spanish intervention in Ireland in the context of that war. So she makes a great leap forward:

“The conclusion of peace in 1629- 30 ended this emergency, but within a decade the king was faced with yet another, more sinister national crisis: rebellion in Scotland…”

What happened in Ireland as a consequence is skirted around. The English Parliament, after 11 years in retirement, was called in 1640 to vote money for the war with the Scots. The war was bungled. Another Parliament was called late in 1640. The fundamentalist Protestant interest was prepared for this election. It dominated the new Parliament and set about subverting the Government. Ireland, well-governed by Strafford by means of the Irish Parliament, was at peace, and was loyal, and was willing to support the King with money and arms in his hour of need. That was sufficient reason for the English Parliament to set about wrecking the Irish Government. When Strafford went to London he was arrested, subjected to a sort of Nuremberg Trial, and eventually killed by Parliamentary Bill. All of this was done with great publicity over a period of ten months. Strafford was executed publicly in the midst of a great Carnival. The absurd English Revolution began—the Revolution which abandoned itself because it did not know what to do next, and voluntarily submitted itself to the son of the King it had killed.

With the Government, to which the various social elements in Ireland had been adapting themselves destroyed, and the English Parliament to prepare radically (as it is put nowadays), there was a slight revulsion against the recent Plantation. Ohlmeyer says: “The 1641 rebellion is a central military event in Irish history” (p163). She does not explain its circumstances or its consequences. It was the result of the destruction of the Government, which created a situation in which social elements which had consented to be governed were obliged to take their fate into their own hands, rather than a purposeful rebellion against the Government. Even in Ulster it was half-hearted and lacking in adequate ambition. And overall it scarcely deserves notice as a military event.

A final word about Spenser, the genocidal founder of English literature on his ethnically-cleansed estate near Buttevant. I found that he poses a problem for recent English ‘humanism’, which has gone soft-centred and no longer understands what humanism is. Not all humanists are like that. Christopher Hitchens, the doyen of English humanism just now, still relishes the work of Enlightenment as it is being done in Iraq and Afghanistan. But others are squeamish.

It seems to be agreed among the Spenserists that Book 5 of the FQ is an allegorical defence of Lord Grey and his massacres. The hero of the Book is a successor to Herculus, who—

“…monstrous tyrants with his club subdewed:
The club of Justice dread with kingly powre endewed.
And such a one was he of whom I have to tell,
The Champion of true Justice, Artegall…”

Artegall was—

“Appointed by that mightie Faerie Prince.
Great Gloriana, that Tyrant to for doo…”

Artegall has a successor in our time: the comic-book hero, Judge Dredd.

Artegall dedicates himself—through 500 verses— to the avenging of wrongs:

“Nought is more honourable to a knight
Ne better doth beseeme brave chivalry,
Than to defend the feeble in their right
And wrong redresse in such as wend awry…”

The Irish had “wended awry” and Grey/Artegall redressed their wrong turn by slaughtering them. It might be interesting to look at the problem this causes for some admirers of Spenser.

Posted on May 20, 2011, in Anglicanism, Ecumenism, Irish Church-State Relations, Irish History, Irish Rebellion of 1641, Media Archives, Persecution. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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