Reconciliation in Ireland Part 2

by Michael Patrick O'Leary

This article appeared in The Nation on Sunday August 22 2012.
Plantations and Genocide
In October 1641, Phelim O’Neill launched a rebellion, hoping to rectify grievances of Irish Catholic landowners. The resentment of the native Irish in Ulster boiled over into indiscriminate attacks on settlers, 4,000 of whom were killed; and 12,000 perished after being expelled from their homes. The atrocities committed by both sides further poisoned the relationship between the settler and native communities.


Cromwell Scourge of God
Cromwell with the New Model Army by 1652 had effectively re-conquered Ireland. Cromwell held all Irish Catholics responsible for the rebellion of 1641. The Irish Catholic land-owning class was utterly destroyed and Cromwell achieved the logical conclusion of the plantation process. Over 12,000 New Model Army veterans were given Irish land instead of wages. They were required to keep their weapons to act as a reserve militia in case of future rebellions.


Cromwell has his defenders among modern historians but a recent book, God’s Executioner by Mícheál Ó Siochrú, is a forceful restatement of the prosecution case. The 1649-53 campaign lingers in the Irish psyche for the huge death toll (possibly 40% of the population).There was wholesale burning of crops, forced population movement and slaughter of civilians. The post-war Cromwellian settlement of Ireland has been characterised as “genocidal”.
The 50 years from 1641 to 1691 saw two catastrophic periods of civil war in Ireland which killed hundred thousands of people and left others in permanent exile. The wars, which pitted Irish Catholics against British forces and Protestant settlers, ended in the almost complete dispossession of the Catholic landed elite. The Plantations had a profound impact on Ireland in several ways. The native ruling classes were destroyed and replaced by the Protestant Ascendancy.
Sir William Petty
William Petty (1623-87) – mathematician, mechanic, physician, cartographer and statistician – devised a public-private partnership for “fusing science and policy”. Petty is best known through his connection with the Cromwellian settlement of Ireland. Arriving in Ireland in 1652 as physician-general to the army, he set about making himself useful by surveying the boundaries of holdings and assessing relative values. This became known as the Down Survey, which commodified Irish land. It standardised the measure of estates, in size and in value, and, as, Petty himself was a major holder of these debentures, became very rich. When he arrived in Ireland, he had maybe £500 in assets, but he came to own 50,000 acres in County Kerry alone. John Aubrey estimated Petty’s rental income at its height at £18,000 a year – perhaps £27 million in today’s money. Petty anticipated Henry Ford’s methods (Ford’s father was from County Cork) of division of labour and economies of scale. He divided complicated tasks into bits that could be handled by men “not of the nimblest witts”, that is, by the soldiers themselves, who were also tough enough to deal with angry landowners and “with the severall rude persons in the country, from whome they might expect to be often crossed and opposed”.
One way of preventing Ireland from being a haven for terrorists was to transform it by social engineering into a peaceful and productive land. Ireland could be seen as a laboratory in which a new, rational and virtuous society might be developed. Petty wrote: “Some furious Spirits have wished, that the Irish would rebel again, that they might be put to the Sword.” He had some scruples: “I declare, that motion to be not only impious and inhumane, but withal frivolous and pernicious even to them who have rashly wish’d for those occasions.”
Eugenics and Ethnic Cleansing
Petty explored the idea of breeding the “meer Irish” out of existence by deporting 10,000 Irishwomen of marriageable age to England every year and replacing them with a like number of Englishwomen? “The whole Work of natural Transmutation and Union would in four or five years be accomplished. The Englishwomen would run Irish households on much more civilised lines: “The Language of the Children shall be English, and the whole Oeconomy of the Family English, viz. Diet, Apparel, etc., and the Transmutation will be very easy and quick”.

Cromwell’s genocidal campaign had been financed through promises of confiscated Irish land. Rebels were executed and others were sent as slaves to the West Indies. Irish soldiers were given the opportunity of going abroad to fight in foreign armies and became known as the Wild Geese.
All land east of the River Shannon was claimed by the Crown. About 8,400,000 acres were reassigned from Catholic to Protestant owners. The former Irish owners could either accept transportation to poorer land reserved for them in Connaught or be tenants of the new Protestant owners. Catholic ownership plummeted from 60% of the land before the Rebellion to less than 10% after 1652. It was a great experiment in the movement of populations and transference of social power.
Petty may have provided some useful ideas to Hitler and Mengele. How well his experiment worked out we will see in future articles. While I deplore the activities of conflict junkies who are only happy when the fires of hatred are constantly stoked, one cannot understand contemporary Ireland without knowing where the divisions in Irish society originated.
More genocidal horrors next week.
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