Competing Powers: Conor O’Mahony, Spain and England

John Minahane has an interesting response (‘The Self-Confidence of the Gaels’) in the current issue of Church and State to Pat Muldowney’s review (which I posted here) of his new book on An Argument Defending the Right of the Kingdom of Ireland — authored by the Lisbon-based Jesuit theologian Conor O’Mahony in 1645. He states that O’Mahony would be more accurately described as an Irish Ilya Ehrenburg than Ireland’s Himmler. While Minahane acknowledges Muldowney’s praise of the Jesuit Reductions of Paraguay as an “example of the contrast between the expansive cultures of Europe and other cultures” he also points out that the Paraguayan Jesuit Reductions presupposed an acknowledged cultural ascendancy which the Irish did not accord to their English conquerors: “They weren’t worthy of it. And they were never going to be worthy of it, no matter what they might do.”

Though already inclined to apologize politely for their community’s failings (even Hugh O’Neill did so on occasion!), the Irish had a tenacious feeling of being on an equal if not better level. I think that much can be gathered from O’Mahony’s book. Or from Philip O’Sullivan Beare’s book published a quarter of a century earlier. Or from the Remonstrance of the Irish Princes which was sent to the Pope in 1317, with its tremendous denunciation of the Anglo-Normans as wreckers of Irish civilization. Or even from Gerald of Wales’s accounts of his interchanges with Gaelic Irish prelates like the Archbishop of Cashel, right at the beginning of the conquest.

The Irish thought pretty highly of themselves. By the same token, the English feeling of cultural superiority was still undeveloped, though Francis Bacon and John Davies were working hard at it. One can feel the insecurity in someone like the writer of Pacata Hibernia, who is so obsessed with the personality and career of that great blighted talent, Florence McCarthy (whom the English twice kidnapped, for want of a better way of dealing with him), hating him like poison and yet fascinated by him.

Even the crushing material superiority of the English was only finally proved by Cromwell. Before that one might fancy the chances of the Irish side, as O’Mahony does. Actually, one major reason for this is unmentionable for O’Mahony because of his Portuguese attachments: the power of Spain. Spain was the greatest Catholic State and one could easily imagine that Spanish power would be able to establish and sustain its supporters in possession of Ireland against the English.

Supposing you were the ally of Philip II (then ruler of an empire on which the sun never set, whereas English imperial activity had hardly begun), why should you be overawed by the English? Or even supposing you were the potential ally of Philip III or Philip IV? It seems that the hope of being rescued by the power of Spain was still important in the 1640s. I cannot fill in all the details, but I think the Pope did not consider re-donating Ireland to Spain in 1647 without somebody in Ireland pressing for him to do so.

But it wasn’t only the real or intended allies of the Philips who felt no sense of inferiority. The land was full of people for whom Ireland was the measure of Ireland. It’s hard to get a feeling of that now, but in many ways it shaped all that happened.

Minahane’s aim has been to “try to restore a sense of Irish perspectives and Irish concerns, distinct from English concerns, in the 1640s and 17th century Irish history generally”.

No one has such a burden of hindsight as the historians of Ireland. How much they know, in their smug wisdom, that no one knew in 1645! With my book on O’Mahony I hoped to provoke some vestige of the sense of ignorance — that feeling of not knowing everything, of suffering some sort of lack of clear understanding, which makes us want to check all our bearings again.

Minahane’s book, which contains an introduction, explanation and translation of O’Mahony’s treatise, can be purchased from Athol Books here (scroll down to the bottom of the page) for €20. It is very well worth reading and gives a sad but exciting insight into the prospects facing the remnants of a rich and ancient civilization, just on the eve of its demise.

The aforementioned “Philip O’Sullivan Beare’s book published a quarter of a century earlier” is a reference to Hiberni vindiciae Hibernicae contra Giraldum Cambrensem (published in Lisbon in 1625) — and more commonly known as Zoilomastix. (The Latin text is reposted in full by Fr Aubrey Gwynn SJ in the Irish Manuscript Commission’s Analecta Hibernica of November, 1934). It also gives a fascinating insight into Gaelic Irish self-conception and how Irish nobles positioned themselves within a wider continental context. Far from being insular and isolated, Irish Gaels had close and long-established commercial, fishing and even scholarly links with Spain. In the popular self-conception of Gaelic Ireland the Irish race was descended from Miles Hispaniae. (Interestingly, recent studies in genetics by Prof. Brian Sykes of Oxford University have found a high level of genetic similarity between northern Iberia and Ireland, and suggests that these myths are at least partially derived from oral tradition of actual historical events).

Exiled Irish nobles in Spain put strong emphasis on what they claimed were the Spanish origins and identity of Ireland. O’Sullivan Beare is no exception. He is keen to assert the constant loyalty of the Irish to Catholicism since the time of St. Patrick, the fused ethno-religious relationship of the Irish to the Spanish and the suffering of the Irish at the hands of the English. This sense of fellow-feeling is reciprocated by their hosts (nuestros hermanos irlandeses, los españoles del norte as the Conde de Caracena, Governor of Galicia, wrote to King Philip III, after receiving O’Donnell with the most extravagant hospitality — the local archbishop even offered him his palace!) and Irish pretences to Iberian blood purity are simply accepted at face value (The Origins of Sectarianism in Early Modern Ireland, ed. Ford and McCafferty. [Cambridge University Press, 2005; p. 225.]) Unlike English law, Gaelic titles and social structures were upheld by the Spanish Crown; this is noteworthy given Spain’s contemporary concern with limpieza de sangre. (Incidentally, after O’Donnell died, his remains were interred with full regal honours in Valladolid Cathedral, where a monument was erected in his honour by the King of Spain.) Irish exiles were accorded a unique and privileged position in Spanish society — not without provoking resentment from some other European immigrants. This is because the Irish were viewed in Spain not as foreigners but as a northerly variant of the Spanish race — as ‘Northern Spaniards’.

This sets the context for ‘the self-confidence of the Gaels’. The destruction of Ireland was not an inevitable prospect and there is no reason why the Irish should have thought it was. Far from being isolated and militarily impotent to resist, as has often been thought, the Irish were intimate allies of what was then the most powerful country in the world – Spain.

Nothing makes for friendship like a common enemy. The political undertone and agenda of Irish appeals is easily discernible in a 1618 report on Ireland presented by the exiled Archbishop of Tuam, Florence Conry, to King Philip III. The report offers a valuable insight into the conditions of early 17th century Ireland, and relations between the Irish and English nations. Particularly strong is the emphasis on the distinctions between the Irish and English and in his suggestions that the King should undertake an invasion of Ireland, which would be in the interests of Spain: “And the Ancient Irish, as these are descended from the Spanish, desire always to be governed by the Kings of Spain and their successors, and bear affection and love to the Spanish nation. Likewise great hate and enmity to their enemies and are sharp of wit and valiant in war, altogether like the Spaniard.” This is also seen a year later in the report of a Salamanca-educated Irish priest to the King lamenting the Stuart Plantation of Ulster, with the enterprise characterised as an attempt to undo the Milesian invasion of Ireland (the Milesian invasion is seen by the author as having been holy and beneficial) and native evictees described as ‘Catholic and Spanish Irish’. Whether factually accurate or not, the intent in both cases is not mere flattery but to convince the King of his obligation to help brethren in distress. When you’re faced with an indefinite period of persecution, the spoliation of all your property and the destruction of your entire society, it usually helps to have friends in high places. But, ultimately, not in this instance.

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Posted on August 26, 2011, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. What a very interesting post! The book in question will be put on my list of books to get. 🙂

    I find 17th century Irish history fascinating, though I know far too little about it. Do you have a list of books you would recommend on the subject?

  2. Catholic of Thule, thanks! As for recommended books on 17th century Irish history, I’ll have to make out a list.

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