Survival of the lordliest
HISTORY: Making Ireland English: The Irish Aristocracy in the Seventeenth Century By Jane Ohlmeyer Yale University Press, 668pp. £40
JANE OHLMEYER has already contributed enormously to promoting awareness of the interconnections between the histories of Britain, Ireland and continental Europe. In Making Ireland English she draws and expands on her earlier work to provide an arresting, original and richly contextualised appraisal of the fortunes of the “resident nobility” in 17th-century Ireland.
The book breaks new ground in several respects. First, where previous authors have tended to work on either side of the wars and confiscations of the middle decades, Prof Ohlmeyer treats the period 1603-92 as a single unit and seeks evidence of continuity between events in Ireland before the 1641 uprising and what transpired after 1660, when Charles II recovered the throne – left vacant since 1649, when his father was beheaded.
Second, where most previous accounts of 17th-century Ireland have emphasised the coincidence between sociopolitical and confessional divisions in the country, Ohlmeyer demonstrates how respect for rank and familial connections sometimes persuaded those at the apex of the social pyramid to disregard religious differences in the interest of peer solidarity.
Third, where traditional narratives of 17th-century Irish history have dwelt on competition between the diverse ethnic groups – the Gaelic Irish, the old English, new English Protestants and Scottish Protestants – included within Irish society, Ohlmeyer contends that social cleavage in Ireland, as in most other European countries of the 17th century, was determined by rank rather than by religion or ethnic origin. To sustain this proposition she writes about the premier rank: those who had been ennobled by the crown.
Ohlmeyer finds that about 70 such nobles were resident in Ireland at any given time in the 17th century. In so far as she can segment their families into subcategories, it is to distinguish between those who came from “ancient” stock of Gaelic and Anglo-Norman ancestry and those who had been ennobled by James I, Charles I or Charles II and whose initial contact with Ireland had occurred in the context of serving the crown there.
She shows how the need for any such distinction diminished over time because many of the “new” noble families compensated for what might be described as “a pedigree deficit” by forging marriage alliances with their “ancient” counterparts, while the latter strove to dilute any residual “barbarism” in their households by seeking brides for their potential heirs in the noble houses of England.
Nearly all members of the new noble families were ardent Protestants, with but a few lapsing to Catholic heresy through intermarriage, while ancient nobles divided fairly evenly between those who had become Protestant and those who remained Catholic. However, those of the ancients who had conformed in religion continued to cherish Catholic relatives and dependants.
Ohlmeyer also finds that new families frequently constructed ostentatious funeral monuments in Ireland as testaments to their acquired status, while ancient nobles, who had inherited ancestral tombs in Ireland, often aspired to make their final resting place in England, even in Westminster Abbey.