"Martyrs in Flames": Sir John Temple and the Conception of the Irish in English Martyrologies*

By Noonan, Kathleen M. | Albion, Summer 2004 | Go to article overview

"Martyrs in Flames": Sir John Temple and the Conception of the Irish in English Martyrologies*


Noonan, Kathleen M., Albion


In the violence over Protestant marches in Northern Ireland in the late 1990s much of the debate centered on two towns, Portadown and Drumcree. Students of seventeenth-century Irish history will note that those towns were sites of some of the most infamous stories of rebel atrocities in the 1641 uprising. The continuity of such images reinforces the notion that ethnic and religious conflicts are immutable and perhaps inevitable. A certain fatalism surrounds the acrimony of Arab and Jew, Muslim and Christian, English and Irish arising from the conviction that such conflicts have raged, as if unchanging, over centuries. However, when viewed over time, the struggles between such groups are dynamic rather than static and have helped construct how each group sees the other and how it identifies itself. (1) In the dynamism surrounding Anglo-Irish relations a number of important turning points can be identified. One of the most important is of course the seventeenth century, particularly the 1641 uprising. More than thirty years ago W. D. Love noted how for three centuries Irish historiography and Anglo-Irish intercourse had been molded by the events of the mid-seventeenth century and had compelled historians to support or deny the charges made by each side about the events of the 1640s. (2) In trying to understand the searing nature of those events, and how they came to frame political as well as historical debates from the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries, a number of historians have noted the importance of Sir John Temple and his propagandistic piece, The Irish Rebellion. (3) Temple's work offered not just an interpretation of the 1641 uprising but a portrait of the two peoples, English and Irish, as basically and permanently incompatible--a thesis that has had remarkable staying power. Published in 1646, Temple's work was a departure from the Tudor and early Stuart canon on Ireland. While Temple borrowed much from earlier commentators such as Edmund Spenser and Sir John Davies, his analysis differed from them and set out in a new direction by defining the Irish as ethnically distinct. Spenser and Davies suggested that the problem of Ireland arose not from the land, or even its people (although Spenser devoted considerable discussion to the ways Irish customs undermined English success), but from foolhardy or poorly executed English policy. Even though the late Tudor and early Stuart commentators saw the Irish as barbaric, the Irish were thought to be amenable to the benefits of English culture and rule, although their reformation might require draconian measures. Even the divisive issue of religion was not thought insurmountable. Davies and Spenser argued that a religious reformation begun after peace and stability had been secured in Ireland would succeed. In contrast, Temple viewed the 1641 revolt as conclusive evidence that the Irish were irredeemable and posed a deadly threat to England and its people. In Temple's analysis, the failure of England to subdue Ireland was not the fault of a rapacious and selfish gentry who refused to be agents of good government in Ireland, but resulted from the natural treachery of the Irish rooted in their racial (i.e. ethnic) identity. (4) Temple's work seems to have played a particularly powerful role in fixing a negative image of the Irish in the minds of the English, one that overcame the more ameliorative views offered by such commentators as Edmund Spenser and Sir John Davies.

Temple's work was helped initially by his political connections and over the long term by threats to state security. His close connections to the Lisle circle and Independency in London probably enhanced the notoriety of the book. (5) With the way prepared by the pamphlets concerning Ireland circulating in London in 1641-42 and the continued absence of state censorship, The Irish Rebellion found an enthusiastic audience in London. The book went through more than ten editions between its first appearance in 1646 and the last version in 1812, with editions serving as a bellwether of British concerns about invasion and rebellion.

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