The Cambridge History of Ireland: A mammoth, inspiring work

Tom Bartlett’s four-volume edition is a marvellously satisfying 1,500-year survey

The Cambridge History of Ireland
The Cambridge History of Ireland
Author: Edited by Tom Bartlett
ISBN-13: 978-1107167292
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Guideline Price: £350

In the second half of the 17th century, the inhabitants of Rathfarnham Castle in Dublin ate courgettes. Their gardens included plants from the New World and they had coins minted in Spanish Peru. These snippets of elite material culture and Ireland’s global convergences nearly 400 years ago are a reminder of the expansion of historical research in recent years to excavate as many layers as possible to the Irish experience and the broadening of the parameters of what constitutes interesting historical inquiry.

This mammoth four-volume history underlines the extent of such new historical perspectives, while also showcasing a traditional reverence for the primacy of political history. The marriage of the two priorities is marvellously satisfying. One hundred historians of Ireland, working in 38 institutions globally, and their four deft editors, Brendan Smith, James Kelly, Jane Ohlmeyer and Tom Bartlett, have managed to collectively demonstrate efficiency, focus and originality by bringing this project to completion in four years, a reminder that the days of less than sober Irish historians leaving typed manuscripts in taxis or blithely ignoring deadlines is truly over. Technology (including digitised sources) and discipline have won out, but so too has clarity of expression; these contributors were told by the general editor Tom Bartlett to write accessibly and they have delivered the resultant lucidity with aplomb over 2,800 pages covering 1,500 years of history.

Crucially, these volumes are not just about the historical profession talking to itself

The volumes also continue a tradition of historians collectively stocktaking, distilling and pronouncing on the state of their areas of expertise, the most obvious previous example being the New History of Ireland, whose publication history was tortuous, with nine volumes published by Oxford between 1976 and 2006. The New History of Ireland's instigator, TW Moody, had a strong belief that history "achieves its highest fulfilment when it is intelligible to men as such and not merely historians". But there were other agendas; Moody declared "new history" was needed to liberate the public mind "from enslavement to historic myths".

The editors of these volumes make no such self-regarding pronouncements; what they do claim is that such has been the explosion in historical publications in the past few decades (up to 3,000 a year) that a new synthesis is justified, not to offer definitiveness, but to encapsulate the progress and highlight remaining lacunae. In doing so, the historians have collectively interrogated much new source material pertaining to political, social and economic change and high and low culture, and have moved beyond the Hiberno-centric focus of the New History of Ireland. Traditional chronological turning points have been challenged and a new generation of historians have their say; indeed the mix of seasoned and younger historians is one of the attractions of these books; the vitality of early career researchers sits alongside the wryness, authoritativeness and polished contrariness of an older generation.


Crucially, these volumes are not just about the historical profession talking to itself. As Toby Barnard sees it, because of the space available, the contributors “can cover the idiosyncratic as well as the essential”. Subjects once thought beyond the historian’s pale are now in the frame, including “gender, age, gesture, humour, emotion”.

Volume I: 600-1550

In Volume I, key political, artistic, religious, social and economic aspects of the medieval period are delineated under the skilled editorship of Brendan Smith and “at each turn the question is asked: to what extent were these developments unique to Ireland?” Layer upon layer of invasion, foreign settlement, administration, religion and the nature of kingship and lordship are uncovered, as is the fracturing nature of frontiers and the relationship between core and peripheral regions. Alex Woolf cautions against the overuse of the description Viking Ireland (“certainly not an ethnic label”) and false images of homogenous cultural identity. The first English conquerors, Colin Veach reminds, arrived by invitation in 1166 when the exiled King of Leinster Diarmait Mac Murchada approached King Henry II for help in regaining his kingdom.

The most successful conquests involved a degree of accommodation with the Irish and control of the Church. Conquest was not a foregone conclusion and contradictions lay at its heart: intrusive, bureaucratic royal government but in a land “which demanded local lordship exercised with subtlety and adaptability”. In the midst of all this, Beth Hartland points out, “Conflict along simple lines of English versus Irish was a rarity”. Whether or not it is legitimate to view the 14th and 15th centuries through a “British Isles” prism is one key question; another is when does medieval change to early modern? And how did people live? There is, Edel Bhreathnach reminds us, considerable evidence for this, including annalistic records and a canon of early medieval Irish laws.

At the time of his death in 1303, one unfree tenant possessed four cows with their calves, three work horses, thirty sheep, one pig and stacks of oats, wheat, barley and turf

Aristocratic violence was endemic and there was a complex Irish belief system. Mendicant friars had considerable success in Ireland (between 1426 and 1540, 49 communities of Franciscan Tertiaries were established) which brought them into conflict with older monastic orders and secular clergy, while Gaelic society’s ready access to divorce incurred the wrath of clerics. John Carey outlines the engagement with indigenous tradition on the part of the ecclesiastical intelligentsia but from the earliest stages there was “voracious enthusiasm for the learning of the wider world”. Art, as Jane Hawkes underlines, was also consistently sophisticated and intellectually complex. While there was an increase in urbanisation in the 11th century, only one-fifth of the island had regular access to town life in the late 13th century. In relation to the economy, it is striking, observes Margaret Murphy, that at the time of his death in 1303, one unfree tenant possessed four cows with their calves, three work horses, thirty sheep, one pig and stacks of oats, wheat, barley and turf.

There is an abundance of sources for the 14th and early 15th centuries as Ireland became more thoroughly integrated into larger worlds. Gaelic clerks, many the sons of priests, studied at Oxford while economic developments of the late 15th century “turned Ireland inside out” and provided a stimulus to maritime trade. There is also a welcome focus on material culture by Rachel Moss, who suggests the idea that the Norman invasion marked a decisive act of cultural oppression has been exaggerated; instead it was a catalyst for changes already in train, which are traced through tapestries, buildings and manuscripts.

How was Ireland different from elsewhere? According to Peter Crooks, when other states were beginning to coalesce with conceptions of nationhood, Ireland’s status as a lordship separate from but dependent on the English crown and the division of the island into two peoples “sat awkwardly in the evolving thought world of late-medieval Europe”. Robin Frame’s afterword stresses the need to understand Ireland in wider settings; there is an overemphasis on “Gaelicisation” as an explanation for change; cultural influences did not flow in one direction only and “to seek some aboriginal Ireland or people of Ireland, with quintessential characteristics that can be traced down the centuries would be to pursue a will o’ the wisp”.

Volume II: 1550-1730

Volume II, edited by Jane Ohlmeyer, underlines transition. Ireland in the 1550s with its “patchwork of lordships, its pastoral economy and its fighting and feasting culture” was seeming medieval, but there was a parallel process of Irish people being involved in global expansionism, and as David Edwards sees it, the country was only barely under royal control in the early 17th century. Historians have previously estimated population loss during the Cromwellian conquest at anything from one tenth to one quarter: John J Cronin and Pádraig Lennon endorse a higher estimate, suggesting up to 30 per cent of Ireland’s population may have perished during the conquest. Plantation resulted in the seizure from natives of 3.6 million acres in Ulster and there were perilously divisive policies and the emergence of a new type of powerbroker: “the entrepreneurial administrator, driving and manipulating events as much for private property as public service”. The social order crumbled with the 1641 rebellion (“a complex and unplanned scenario”) and its associated massacres; the now digitised 1641 Depositions (witness testimonies) underline the scale of the onslaughts on Protestants.

But as the key questions of who should govern Ireland and how its land could be divided were answered, the decisive winners were Protestants. By the 1690s, writes Ted McCormick, Ireland had a harsher, more self-conscious colonial regime. There was a failure of “fitful attempts” to balance opposed interests, efforts corroded by the internal politics of resentment “and then made obsolete by the invasion of foreign armies”. In subsequent decades, politics was dominated by money, religion and security. Catholics owned 14 per cent of Irish land in 1703 and Penal Laws, though varied in effect, provided formidable restrictions on them. Tadhg O hAnnracháin points out that in the 1540s the first Jesuit mission to Ireland “had formed a distinctly negative impression of the long-term prospects for Catholicism” but there were obstacles to the inculcation of popular adherence to Protestantism, including the counterproductive suppression of Catholic clergy. Notwithstanding Catholic suppression, the Protestant Ascendancy remained “neither united nor comfortable” and crucially, rarely saw itself as a colonial class; resistance to the centralising state could also shape self-awareness of Protestants. By the second half of the 17th century Ireland sustained three capacious communities of faith: Catholic, Established Church and Presbyterian.

One publication in 1699 complained of the unfairness of rules that permitted men to commit adultery while condemning the same act in women

In terms of societal development, Clodagh Tait points out that a much more nuanced picture of social structures and interpersonal relationships is beginning to emerge; there was a wide social diversity among tenants of Irish lords. Skilled artisans were a crucial part of local economies and a professional “middling sort” existed, including lawyers, administrators and the clergy. The housing of labourers was not “one mass” and with the Cavan plantation in the 1610s the acreage leased by “cottagers” varied widely from a few to as many as 30 acres. Plantation studies have become more dynamic in recent decades as historians have combined with literary scholars, geographers and archaeologists to use digitised sources to maximum effect. In relation to the family, Mary O’Dowd highlights that it was not a simple case of replacing Gaelic customs and law with English practices: “men and women in Gaelic society exploited English legal structures to maintain traditional family practices”, while one publication in 1699 complained of the “unfairness” of rules that permitted men to commit adultery while condemning the same act in women.

New methodological approaches to the history of objects and a framework for changes in consumption are outlined by Susan Flavin, including those reflected in early modern recipe books. From 1692-5, 280,000 pieces of earthenware and glass were imported to Ireland and houses with richly textured interiors highlighted the new premium attached to urban living. As to those on the move, William O’Reilly maintains it is “misleading and simply wrong” to represent the Irish in the Atlantic world as a diasporic community. Migration was an “activated option for the majority involved” who joined international labour markets and by the 16th century Ireland’s contacts with the Iberian peninsula were flourishing and there was also Irish involvement in the slave trade. By the end of the 1600s some 100,000 Irish migrants had made their way to North American and Caribbean colonies. There is also a welcome focus on environmental history by Francis Ludlow and Arlene Crampsie; this is now a thriving discipline internationally but only recently studied in a concerted way in Ireland, which is an ideal country for such research because of deep and varied historical and natural archives. Between 1550 and 1730 there was profound climatic volatility and change and the degree to which we should recognise nature as a protagonist in human history is convincingly traced.

Volume III: 1730-1880

James Kelly’s introduction to Volume III is masterful because he goes in an unexpected and original direction by underlining the need to “read against the grain and transcend confessional, ideological and linguistic barriers”. It is simply insufficient to subordinate numerous themes, as was traditionally done, into one interpretative theme such as the “Protestant Ascendancy” and a number of visitors found much evidence of contentment in places you might not expect. For most of the 1770s and early 1780s, however, commercial and constitutional crises witnessed the “middling sort” getting agitated.

Against the backdrop of international revolution and Napoleonic wars, the twin ideologies of republican separatism and unionism emerged, a period Tom Bartlett characterises as the “crucible of modern Ireland”; around the same time, one-third of the British army became Irish. Maura Cronin argues that localism or “the republic in the village”, sectarianism and increasing awareness of the other as the enemy were pronounced but not “universal or continuous” and popular politics was essentially economic in its motivation. Another reminder of the impact of climate was that, as David Dickson notes, the “great frost famine” of 1740-1 was “in many ways the defining event in the social history of 18th-century Ireland”. There were opportunities for poorer people to earn cash through wool, flax and linen production and canals, trunk roads and high-speed mail coaches facilitated mobility. There has been a consistent revision of the dynamics of agricultural trade, demography and living standards during this era and one statistic that stands out is that the vast army of cottiers and labourers lived off less than 13 per cent of all available land.

By the end of the 19th century, two out of every five Irish-born people were living overseas; Irish emigration was thus a global phenomenon

According to Ian McBride, “no constituent of 18th-century society was more dynamic than its Presbyterian population”. They had no access to the system of privilege of the Protestant Ascendancy and were also prone to fragmentation but embraced demands for land reform. There are no reliable figures on the number of Irish speakers before 1851 but it is possible, as Aidan Doyle outlines, to paint a nuanced picture of linguistic reality in the 19th century. There was a whole range of abilities in the two languages; in 1851, 23 per cent spoke Irish and less than a third of them spoke Irish only. The proportion of Irish speakers probably halved from 1800 to 1850 and it was not Daniel O’Connell, the clergy or the national schools who bore responsibility; the trends were already in place before their extensive influence. By 1881, 59 per cent of the population was able to read and write, compared to 33 per cent in 1851.

Regarding class stratification, Ciaran O’Neill contends that what constituted bourgeois was quite elastic: “a junior clerk in Dublin Castle in the 1870s could fairly be considered within the same broad bourgeois class as the doctor who treated his illness”. A centralising state also became more interventionist and this process propelled Ireland towards modernity; as Virginia Crossman notes “that was not the intention but it was ultimately the effect”. Many in the service of the empire “viewed themselves as being both part of, yet separate from, the British imperial system”.

Peter Gray reflects on the “intensity of polarisation” over responsibility for the Great Famine and argues that what happened was not the result of genocidal intent, but a mixture of “a providentialist theodicy, a moralist obsession with self-help, liberal political economy and the ascendancy of British middle-class pressures for budgetary restraint and transferring the fiscal and moral responsibility for the famine back to the Irish countryside”. The relief system augmented rather than contained excess mortality and the official head count of those on public works was 714,390 by March 1847. Between 1841 and 1900, four million emigrated to the US, 600,000 to Canada and 300,000 to Australia and New Zealand as well as 1 million to Britain. By the end of the 19th century, two out of every five Irish-born people were living overseas; Irish emigration was thus a global phenomenon; nor, emphasises Kevin Kenny, was it all gloom given the evidence of upward social mobility.

Volume IV: 1880 to the present

The final volume covers 1880 to the present. Gearóid Ó Tuathaigh provides a magisterial survey of the whole period in the context of negotiating sovereignty and freedom and the extent to which the latter was subordinated to the former. While acknowledging many failures, there is a plea for broader context to be considered: given the fate of European minorities during this period “it is reasonable to ask whether the fate of the Irish minorities under partition was the worst that could have befallen them”, and a southern state managed to maintain peace, parliamentary democracy and the rule of law. Many Irish land questions remained after the land war of the 1880s; under land acts of 1881-96, the Irish Land Commission advanced £23 million to 73,000 tenants to purchase farms comprising 2.45 million acres, but that was not enough and the last land act was not passed until 1965. As Catríona Clear outlines there were also dramatic changes in social conditions and consumerism (198,000 general shopkeepers in 1911) and a rural diet that, for many, was “excellent”.

David Fitzpatrick brings verve and precision to his analysis of Ireland and the Great War; the deployment of more than 200,000 men in the “British” wartime forces “dwarfed all other military enterprises in Irish history”. He offers this biting conclusion: “among politicians and historians the long-standing inability to speak or write about the war (‘aphasia’ never amnesia) has been superseded by a surfeit of worthy if often empty utterances and publications”. Feargal McGarry focuses on the revolutionary period and its politics of exaltation and intimate brutal violence propelled by a variety of social factors and notes that “Crown forces killed more civilians (42 per cent) than the IRA (31 per cent) but historiographical controversy has tended to focus on IRA violence”.

Anne Dolan chides those who have narrated the history of the Free State between 1922 and 1939 as “the history of disappointment” and a culture that “saw and decried the devil at every turn”. Dolan does not wish to replace this with a “blindly buoyant view”, but “poverty is relative to its own time” and more attention needs to be given to what Irish people actually did as opposed to what they were forbidden to do. Paul and John Bew dissect war and peace in Northern Ireland, tackle contentious issues head on and do not shirk from apportioning blame, including to the “partisan outsiders in Dublin, London, and the USA who were unconcerned about local emotional realities and happily encouraged the tribalism of the locals”. While this chapter is absorbingly opinionated that arguably comes at the expense of balance; such is the nature of history writing laced with current affairs.

By the 1950s the Catholic Church had become a lazy monopoly, the legacy of which is proving to be its greatest burden

Emigration also looms large in this volume, both as a force for change and a mobilisation that reinforced conservatism. Lindsey Earner Byrne identifies “pessimism about the Irish family” as a constant theme along with a cultural tendency to “see the family as a site of inviolate privacy about which no tales could be told”. That priority was also relevant to reliance on institutions and confinement and as Catherine Cox notes, “currently, academics seem to be as captivated by institutions as the contemporary advocates once were”.

Robert Savage traces a century of broadcasting and the politics governing it. BBC Belfast stopped reporting results of GAA games at the request of NI prime minister James Craig as they were “hurting the feelings of the large majority of people in NI”, but as Paul Rouse points out, in his dexterous overview of popular culture, many nationalists “did not consider their Irishness necessarily compromised by their cultural choices”, including “people who skated on rinks in Dublin to the tunes of British army bands and then fought in rebellion against that same army”.

There was a pragmatic selfishness to much foreign policy, notes Michael Kennedy; while there was principled action on occasion, he casts a cold eye on the idea of 20th-century Ireland punching above its weight internationally: “Ireland survived, Ireland looked after itself”. The Catholic Church did likewise and Daithi O Corráin rises to the challenge of looking at its ascendancy and retreat. By the 1950s it had become a “lazy monopoly, the legacy of which is proving to be its greatest burden”. Eunan O’Halpin finishes this volume by blasting numerous Irish pretensions, and decries that from the early 1980s, many Irish people wanted “to denounce American imperialist interventions across the developing world, to demand that the US intervene in the affairs of the UK on NI and to expect preferential treatment for Irish immigrants to the US”. That might seem a sour end to four volumes and nearly 3,000 pages of text, but then why not? Contributors were given free rein to bring their various researches and informed opinions alive and such is the dynamism of Irish historical research that these individual essays will generate debate.

Given the scale of this project, many critical questions can be asked about priorities and omissions: should there be Irish language chapters? Why are there not specific chapters on newspapers given their preponderance? Is there enough on the Great Famine? What constitutes the right balance is, of course, subjective, but what is irrefutable is the scale of the achievement and the quality on display, which is inspiring. Nicholas Canny offers a fine summary of what characterises these volumes and where the future lies for Irish history; with “practitioners who search ceaselessly after fresh knowledge and employ sophisticated methods and new perspectives that will aid the understanding of how and why people acted as they did”.

Diarmaid Ferriter is an Irish Times columnist and professor of modern Irish history at University College Dublin. His new book, On the Edge, will be published in October by Profile Books

Diarmaid Ferriter

Diarmaid Ferriter

Diarmaid Ferriter, a contributor to The Irish Times, is professor of modern Irish history at University College Dublin. He writes a weekly opinion column