Survival of the lordliest

Sat, Sep 15, 2012, 01:00

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.

The principal responsibilities of every noble were to serve the crown, to uphold and advance the honour and estates of their families and dependants, and to produce at least one surviving male heir to perpetuate their lineage. Most of the nobles into whom Ohlmeyer breathes fresh life dedicated themselves to meeting these responsibilities. In doing so, she finds, Catholic nobles who were usually denied the right to serve their king in a civilian or military capacity sometimes made good the deficit by attending in England upon the Catholic queens of Charles I and Charles II, or on the Continent in the service of Catholic monarchs.

After the execution of King Charles I, many Catholic nobles took advantage of the opportunity to attend on the uncrowned Charles II, his mother, Henrietta Maria, and his younger brother James, duke of York, when the Stuarts and their prime supporters languished in exile on the Continent after their three kingdoms had been transformed into a unitary republican commonwealth with Oliver Cromwell as its lord protector.

General readers will derive most enjoyment from the chapters detailing how these heads of houses raised money to sustain the ever more lavish lifestyle expected of people of their rank; how they educated their children to ensure that all – daughters and younger sons as well as potential heirs – would contribute to upholding the honour of the house, and would avoid the ignominy they might bring on it through gambling, debauchery or cowardice; how they strove to overcome financial adversity with support from moneylenders; and how the unlucky ones, and their houses, shrank into obscurity when their debts overwhelmed them. Professional historians are more likely to dwell on the political chapters, most particularly that addressing the Restoration land settlement on which the book’s argument hinges.

Received wisdom holds that no real Restoration occurred in Ireland analogous to what happened in England and Scotland, because parliamentary adventurers and Cromwell’s officers who had been compensated in Irish acres for their services to the commonwealth were permitted, under the Restoration settlement, to retain most of what they had acquired in the Cromwellian plantation. According to this version, it was only Protestant royalists and Catholics who enjoyed the support of James Butler, duke of Ormond, who recovered all, or some, of what they had lost to the supporters of Cromwell.

Ohlmeyer’s account of the Restoration settlement appears different because she asks how noble families, rather than denominational or ethnic groups, fared under it. Her conclusion is that while the traditional “resident aristocracy” were the principal losers from the Cromwellian confiscation, they became the principal winners from the Restoration settlement, after which they held 26 per cent of the land surface of Ireland as opposed to the 18 per cent they had possessed in 1641.

Some of the beneficiaries, notably Ormond and Roger Boyle, Baron Broghill (earl of Orrery after the Restoration), were Protestant, but she finds that Catholic magnates, such as Antrim, Clancarthy, Clanricard and Inchiquin, also became part of what she describes as a “powerful territorial aristocracy” that, with a few exceptions, endured to the close of the 19th century.

Ohlmeyer, like all previous authors on the subject, acknowledges the role of Ormond in shaping the Restoration settlement. However, she finds that the principal factors influencing the outcome of the nobles’ claims to compensation were access to members of the royal family; contact with, and the means to bribe, senior figures at court; and the willingness of peers in Ireland, with whom claimants had frequently forged kinship connections, to vouch for their loyalty to the Stuarts at critical junctures.

As she tabulates “the rise of the nobility”, Ohlmeyer is acknowledging “the fall of the gentry” who were plundered to enable 17th-century assignments of landed property. Most Catholic gentry families were reduced to becoming tenants on the estates they had once owned, but one’s heart bleeds also for the many Cromwellian officers who, having endured the hazards of war to make Ireland safe for Protestantism, saw their just reward being snatched from them, frequently to satisfy the demands of arrant papist aristocrats who happened to be well connected at court.

The novelty and freshness of Ohlmeyer’s approach to her subject will force traditionalists (myself included) to rethink their positions. However, many will find aspects of her argument more persuasive than convincing, not least because it rests more on the experience of those great families that endured and left records of their achievements than it does on the fate of those that faded into obscurity. Those receiving the least attention are the once-influential lords of the Pale, and Ohlmeyer’s accounting for them by what she describes as “the westward shift in Catholic landholding” is a euphemism for “to hell or Connacht”.

Also, the strong case she makes for the persistence within Irish society of deference towards persons of noble rank, even to the point where dependants and traditional followers would follow their local lords into battle regardless of what political or religious positions they championed, ignores the confessional character of many of the armies that fought each other to the death in 17th-century Ireland. Protestant armies were frequently bound together by oaths, and Catholic forces were motivated by papal decree or by the excommunication of their opponents. Here Ohlmeyer might have cited the difficulty experienced by Morrough, Lord Inchiquin, in retaining his native followers within the ranks during the Protestant phase of his career.

Such points will indicate that reading this book can prove as provocative as it is enjoyable and informative. Above all, it establishes how the partiality shown by the Stuart monarchs, (three of whom had Catholic wives and one of whom became a Catholic) towards Irish Catholic nobles subverted the cherished English project of making Ireland English.


Nicholas Canny is established professor of history, emeritus, at NUI Galway. His most recent book, The Oxford Handbook of the Atlantic World, 1450-1850, which he coedited with Philip Morgan, was published in 2011

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