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Contested Island: Ireland 1460-1630 - S.J. Connolly

From the fifteenth to the eighteenth centuries, as S. J. Connolly argues in the introduction to this book, Ireland experienced a profound transformation from which the contours of the modern nation emerged.  This transformation, and the adaptation of the Irish people to it is the theme of this work, the first of a two-volume history of early modern Ireland.  In it, he describes Ireland’s evolution over a century and a half from a fractious land of competing cultures to one in which English rule was in the ascendant.


Connolly begins with a nuanced portrait of Ireland in the late 15th century, one that challenges the clichés of declining English rule and political dependency upon the Irish lords.  He argues that the descendants of the medieval English conquest were not as Gaelicized as traditionally thought, as the cultural boundaries between the Gaelic and English lands were blended rather than sharply divided.  Moreover, he sees English rule expanding rather than contracting during this period, with “a mutually acceptable balance of interests” established between the English crown and the leading Irish nobility.  It was during this time that the Kildares emerged as the dominant political power, a position they would hold for the next three generations.  This, Connolly notes, illustrates the paradox of English power in Ireland at that time, that rule on the cheap was only possible by relying upon a powerful local magnate, yet such reliance on these “overmighty subjects” left English rule vulnerable to challenges from these figures.


It is this paradox which helps to explain why the English rulers abandoned a working governing relationship in the early 16th century, as Henry VII and his ministers, particularly Thomas Cromwell, sought to expand English control and the rule of English law.  Their goal was to transform Irish nobles from autonomous lords to magnates who exercised local power on behalf of the crown. Yet Henry and his successors still proved unwilling to invest the resources necessary to achieve control.  Even after the suppression of the Kildare revolt in 1535, Henry’s governors – most notably Anthony St Leger – pursued assimilation on the cheap, using a mixture of bribes and occasional force to Anglicize Ireland gradually.


Yet the Gaelic system persisted, largely because of the failure of the English to provide the resources necessary to establish a central authority necessary to make it obsolete.  By the 1580s, the English government decided to adopt a new policy – colonization.  Beginning with the Munster Revolt, the English confiscated land from the leading rebels and awarded it to “undertakers” – Englishmen who pledged to settle the land in return for their allocation.  Unlike earlier English settlers these new transplants were Protestant, injecting a stable population of recusants into a land which until then had experienced the Reformation only superficially.


It is within this context of the growing extension of English control, coupled with the rapaciousness of English officials in dealing with Gaelic lords, that Connolly sees as critical to understanding the circumstances of Tyrone’s rebellion.  He depicts Tyrone himself as a man of two worlds – Gaelic by birth, yet heavily influenced by English culture in his upbringing.  Tyrone’ nine-year campaign against the English served in retrospect as the last major Gaelic effort to overthrow English rule; its defeat paved the way for its ultimate establishment throughout the island, which Connolly describes in clear yet succinct detail.


Yet the end of Tyrone’s rebellion had even more far reaching consequences.  The final defeat of the Gaelic lords made the role of the Old English as a loyal alternative to the Gaels less important, and their recusancy correspondingly more so.  Connolly concludes by describing the religious changes Ireland underwent in the decades that followed, and their role in shaping and changing Irish identities, with a epilogue that foreshadows the turmoil that lay ahead, turmoil for which the new Protestant ruling class was ill-prepared to face.


Well written and convincingly argued, Connolly’s book is a superb survey of the era.  While particularly strong on the religious and political developments of the period, his examination leave little out, encompassing its economics, society, and culture as well.  I finished the book eager for the second volume, which given that it will cover the years that are the focus of Connolly’s previous research, is likely to be an even more impressive work, creating what is certain to be the standard text on early modern Ireland for decades to come.