3

NATURE OBSERVED

Robert Boyle, William Molyneux, and the New Learning

By the time we pause again to consider the work of a significant Irish-born thinker great and lasting changes have taken place in Irish political and cultural life. While the Middle Ages in Ireland had witnessed the Anglo-Norman invasion and the establishment of an Anglo-Norman colony, the native Irish lords, even when submitting formally to Anglo-Norman or English kings, had not been comprehensively conquered or subjugated. Rather than developing apace, the colony eventually found itself in an increasingly defensive position. By the 1450s, the Dublin administration was 'concentrating almost exclusively on the defence of the English districts nearest to the centre of government, and the “land of peace” of the fourteenth century had shrunk to the English Pale' (Ellis 1985:28). By the sixteenth century, however, and in the context of radical changes taking place in European cultural and political life, the conquest of Ireland was prosecuted in earnest under the Protestant sovereigns of the house of Tudor. Under Elizabeth in particular, and under the aegis of the Protestant reformation, there began a phase of intensive and centrally planned colonization that would continue deep into the next century, culminating in the Cromwellian land settlement of the 1650s. Moreover, plantation and settlement in the name of reformation would profoundly and permanently reconfigure the Irish political and cultural landscape, mainly by sectarianizing politics and government allegiance. The Gaelic Irish would remain defensively Catholic, identifying Protestant

-45-

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