Reconciliation in Ireland Part 1

by Michael Patrick O'Leary

Ireland’s Revenge on the Tudors.

I have been watching on DVD the Showtime TV series The Tudors. It strikes me as ironic that the series was filmed in Ireland and has provided gainful employment to innumerable Irish actors (including my Facebook friend Nick Dunning, wonderfully shifty as Thomas Boleyn).  Ironic because many of the troubles Ireland has suffered over the centuries resulted from the policies and actions of Henry VIII (played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers – Sean O’Keefe from County Cork- who first came to fame as the man who shot Michael Collins in Neil Jordan’s film).

Patriotic Irishmen, my father included, like to talk about 800 years of British oppression (see the responses to my essay on Groundviews: True, Strongbow (Richard de Clare, 2nd Earl of Pembroke, Lord of Leinster, Justiciar of Ireland)  invaded Ireland in 1170, but it was not until the Tudors that the real oppression began. Strongbow is described as Cambro-Norman,  a term used for Norman knights who settled in southern Wales after the Norman conquest of England in 1066.

War on Terrorism?

The Normans were not generally too much of a bother to the native Irish and actually helped bring a measure of efficiency to agriculture, commerce and the law. To a great extent the Normans “went native”. Some adopted the Irish language and customs, and intermarried, and the Irish themselves also became “Normanised”. Many Irish people today bear Norman-derived surnames such as Fitzgerald, Burke, Roche and Power. There are many Irish D’Arcy’s, De Laceys and De Burghs. There are several distinct types of Irish face. One of them- thin lips, sharp nose- is distinctively Norman.

Many of Ireland’s problems came from Wales. The  Welshman Henry VII founded the Tudor dynasty in 1485 after killing the reigning King Richard III. In 1536, Henry VIII deposed the Fitzgerald dynasty of Kildare as Lords Deputies of Ireland. The Fitzgeralds had been, in effect, rulers of Ireland since the 15th century but had become a security threat to the Johnny-Come-Lately Tudor dynasty by inviting Burgundian troops into Dublin and crowning  the Yorkist pretender, Lambert Simnel as “King of England” in 1497. In 1536, Silken Thomas Fitzgerald rebelled  against Henry VIII. The rebellion was put down and Henry tried to bring all Ireland under his control to prevent it being used as a base for  a Catholic invasion of England.

Spenser’s Final Solution

Edmund Spenser, considered by many the first English poet of note after Chaucer, could also be regarded as the  Radovan Karadzic of his day. Spenser  wrote most of his masterpiece, The Faery Queene, on his 3,000 acre estate at Kilcolman Castle in County Cork. County Cork is in the province of Munster. He also wrote propaganda advocating genocide. The Munster Plantation of the 1580s was the first mass plantation in Ireland. It was a punishment for the Desmond rebellions.  The Desmond dynasty was annihilated and their estates were confiscated.

In his View of the Present State of Ireland (1596), Spenser outlined his programme for civilizing the wild Gaels. Declan Kiberd has written: “The sheer ferocity of Spenser’s writings on the Irish resistance – a ferocity quite at odds with the gentle charm of his poetry-  can only be explained  as arising from a radical ambivalence.   He wished to convert the Irish to civil ways, but in order to do that found that it might be necessary to exterminate many of them”. The tract was definitely written to influence policy and seriously argued that starvation was the best way to bring the Irish under control. The pamphlet argued that Ireland would never be totally “pacified” (remember the “pacification villages” in Vietnam?)  by the English until its indigenous language and customs had been destroyed, if necessary by violence.

Spenser’s View is seen today as genocidal – a precursor of fellow-poet Radovan Karadzic, perhaps? Spenser did express some praise for the Gaelic poetic tradition, but also used much tendentious and bogus analysis to demonstrate that the Irish were descended from barbarian stock. He fully understood the consequences of what he was advocating and described in graphic detail the effects on a starving Irish population who “consume themselves and devour one another”.

Spenser was a beneficiary of the theft of land from the native Irish. Spenser communicated with his neighbor and fellow poet Sir Walter Raleigh, who had commandeered 40,000 prime Irish acres for himself at Youghal.

Richard Boyle, First Earl of Cork, may have been an ancestor of the writer Richard Boyle, who has long been resident in Sri Lanka. Both were born in Canterbury. The Earl of Cork claimed most of the County and Munster as his own.



English “Undertakers” were wealthy colonists who undertook to import tenants from England, Scotland  and Wales to work their new lands. The plan was for land to be confiscated and redistributed to create concentrations of British settlers around new towns and garrisons. The new landowners were explicitly banned from taking Irish tenants. The Planters were also barred from selling their lands to any Irishman.

The remaining Irish landowners were to be granted one quarter of the land in Ulster and the ordinary Irish population was relocated to live near garrisons and Protestant churches. Up to 80,000 English and Scots Protestants had been settled in the previously Catholic north of Ireland by 1641. The Reformation did not “take” in Ireland. This was because brutal methods were used to pacify the country and exploit its resources, which heightened resentment of English rule.

Settlers with a British and Protestant identity, would form the ruling class of future British administrations in Ireland. Penal laws discriminated against Catholics, who were barred from public office and from serving in the army. Voting for  Parliament was rigged so the Protestants would always have the majority.

There is a familiar imperial pattern here of colonisation, land theft, divide and rule, religious and racial discrimination, and brutality leading to conflict. During the years of the Provisional IRA terrorist campaign the British from a superior height would say : ”Why is it these people can’t just get on with each other?” To Irish people, it is not an Irish problem. Ireland suffered from an English (or possibly Welsh) problem.