Power and Peerage: Author article by ‘Making Ireland English’ author Jane Ohlmeyer

Richard Boyle

Richard Boyle, the ‘upstart’ earl of Cork (1566–1643). The son of a Kentish squire, Cork arrived in Ireland in 1588 virtually penniless but went on to acquire a vast territorial empire in Munster. By 1641 he was reputed to be the richest man in the Stuart kingdoms.

Making Ireland English by Jane Ohlmeyer explores the remaking of Ireland’s aristocracy during the tumultuous seventeenth century and offers a major new interpretation of the role of aristocrats in establishing English control over Ireland. Here the author explains why she chose to devote nearly 20 years to studying of these ‘agents of empire’, and why she hopes her book will encourage new research into early modern Ireland and other similarly governed territories.

Article by Jane Ohlmeyer

I’ve been working on this book on and off for nearly 20 years.  I began it just after I finished my political biography of Randal MacDonnell, marquis of Antrim, a leading catholic lord who was very much a man of  the three Stuart kingdoms. I wondered how typical Antrim’s experiences were. Making Ireland English: The Irish Aristocracy in the seventeenth-century answers this question.  It also analyses how a new aristocracy was created in the early 17th century and how these men – native and newcomer, protestant and catholic, those of ancient lineage and the upstarts – then charted their way through a particularly transitional and tumultuous period during time the face of modern Irish history was shaped.

The aristocrats who feature in this book comprised Ireland’s leading landlords, politicians, military leaders, property developers, entrepreneurs and philanthropists. They exercised power and influence locally, nationally and across the Stuart kingdoms and were key agents in making Ireland English. Land underpinned their status as cultural, economic and political brokers and provided the wealth needed to sustain their status.

What emerges is a series of complex and, at times contradictory, stories of ruthless self aggrandisement, of pragmatic assimilation and mutation, and of a dogged determination to pursue agendas – in themselves often ambiguous – that preserved or, where possible, enhanced prestige, social standing, material wealth and political power. Families exploited the favourable circumstances created by the wider political situation to consolidate landed power and in the instances of dynasties like the Boyles of Cork or the Butlers of Ormond used their family networks to assemble vast territorial empires and to engage in orgies of conspicuous consumption.  As we reflect back on Ireland’s ‘Celtic Tiger’ years of the late 20th century, it all sounds very familiar.

At the heart of this book is the argument that during the course of the seventeenth century a composite parliamentary peerage played a key role in making Ireland English.  It shows how the resident peerage served as key agents in the imperial policies and ‘civilizing’ processes that underpinned English control over Ireland.  These political, economic, religious, social and cultural anglicizing initiatives began in the 1540s with a series of surrender and regrant agreements and really took off in the early decades of the seventeenth century as the peerage became increasingly protestant and adopted English legal, administrative, political and economic structures, together with the English language and English culture.

Cork Tomb

Lady Cork’s tomb in St Patrick’s cathedral, Dublin. Her grandfather and parents are at the top of the monument, the middle section depicts the countess and her sons, and in the bottom tier her daughters kneel in prayer. This, like the other Boyle tombs, was a work of propaganda that stressed the virtues of the family and its alliances.

Out of this period of profound transition emerged the protestant ascendancy associated with the eighteenth century and, eventually, the modern Irish state.  This was not a linear progression, nor was the outcome predestined. On the contrary, what this study highlights is the haphazard, messy and clumsy nature of the processes surrounding state formation and the very real limitations on central power.  Random accidents of longevity, fertility and death, along with political geography, determined aristocratic fortunes as much as royal influence or public policy.  Self interest often overrode imperial imperatives. The power of a personality, leadership qualities, the strength of kin or courtly connections, access to cash and credit networks, together with human attributes like fecundity, ambition, determination, greed and snobbery and simple good fortune, all played their role in determining the (in)effectiveness of Stuart rule in Ireland.

In writing this book I wanted to do for Ireland what Lawrence Stone did, back in the 1960s, for England in his magisterial and controversial Crisis of the Aristocracy.  Writing in 1966 Hugh Kearney, in a review for Irish Historical Studies, suggested that Stone’s book ‘is certain to have reverberations in the field of Anglo-Irish history, though what form re-interpretation will take is difficult to foresee at the moment’.

What reverberations did Stone’s magisterial study have on the study of the aristocracy in Ireland? Remarkably little is the simple answer.

First, the unevenness of the archives and the absence of papers, especially for the lesser catholic houses, has proved a major and understandable deterrent. Second, the focus of much research on early modern Ireland has, until relatively recently, been on political and military history at the expense of social, economic and cultural history. Third, the association of the aristocracy in Ireland (albeit of a later vintage than most of the peers discussed in this book) with English imperialism made it an unpopular subject of study amongst Irish historians. During the Irish civil war of the twentieth century the ‘big house’, which stood as an uncomfortable reminder of a colonial past, became a military target; writing the histories of their titled occupants (‘Sir Humphrey history’) did not sit well with a tradition that was republican and nationalist.  This book addresses this gap in the historiography.

In addition to encouraging further research into various aspects of the history of early modern Ireland, I hope that the publication of this book might encourage a new generation of scholars to engage in genuinely comparative history across the three Stuart kingdoms and early modern Europe.  Thanks to the scholarship of Keith Brown, author of an impressive two-volume study of the Scottish nobility, and Hamish Scott, whose work on European nobilities is exemplary, we can begin to examine the many commonalities and analyse the very real differences across the peoples of these islands. Ireland’s status as England’s first ‘colony’ and the fact that the nobles acted as agents of empire also allows for comparisons with the territories governed by other early modern expansionist states.

Finally, for those of you who are curious to know whether Antrim’s experiences were ‘typical’, the answer is simple. They were.

Making Ireland English

Making Ireland English

Jane Ohlmeyer is Erasmus Smith’s Professor of Modern History and Vice-Provost for Global Relations, Trinity College, Dublin. She is the author of Civil War and Restoration in the Three Stuart Kingdoms and Ireland from Independence to Occupation. She lives in Dublin.

Making Ireland English: The Irish Aristocracy in the Seventeenth Century is available now from Yale

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