Academic journal article The Historian

Early Modern Irish Exceptionalism Revisited

Academic journal article The Historian

Early Modern Irish Exceptionalism Revisited

Article excerpt

The idea that early modern Ireland was singled out by the English for exceptionally barbaric treatment is of course an old one, and one which remains an article of faith for many. In the sixteenth century alone, several incidents of English violence in Ireland remain especially seared into the Irish historical memory. The first occurred in the aftermath of the Kildare Rebellion of 15345, when "Silken" Thomas Fitzgerald and his five uncles were executed by English officials, despite their surrender on terms. Later episodes include the massacres of women and children by the earl of Essex at Rathlin Island in 1575, of the O'Mores in 1577 after they had been invited to parley at Mullaghmast, and of unarmed papal troops following their surrender at Smerwick in 1580. For many, the meaning of the English presence in Ireland in the early modern period was clear. It was a ruthless and repeated assault against the Irish.

Recently, however, the debate has been revived both by those who agree and those who remain skeptical. On the one hand, from the point of view of those who believe in the exceptional cruel treatment of the Irish, early modern Ireland is now being included in recent studies of comparative genocide, and there is increasing emphasis on the discourse of civility, by which English observers depicted the Irish as nomadic, lawless, and savage, even when confronted by evidence to the contrary. (1) On the other hand, however, there are also interesting new ideas from the point of view of those skeptical of the Irish suffering an exceptionally harsh fate at the hands of the English. In a review article by Rory Rapple appearing in the Historical Journal and in a special issue of History edited by Brendan Kane, new questions have been posed not only about Irish exceptionalism, but about how the issue of violence in the Tudor era should be approached. (2)

While Rapple and Kane have different purposes, they urge similar methodological cautions. Both note that Tudor England and early modern Europe generally were violent, and the violence involved groups other than the Irish. They suggest that simply cataloging English violence in Ireland is not sufficient to prove that Ireland received exceptional treatment. From their point of view the best approach to this issue is through comparative study, with the intention of understanding violence in Ireland in the context of English behavior in other Tudor-ruled peripheral regions, such as in the North of England or Wales, and in the early modern English empire. (3)

The present paper will first offer some general considerations concerning the approach proposed by Rapple, Kane, and several of the other contributors to the History collection. It will then proceed by revisiting several critical components of the earlier historiography on the issue, and conclude by addressing the call for comparative study by comparing English policy in Ireland in the sixteenth century against its policies in the Tudor Far North.

In the History collection, Kane noted several complexities about assessing violence in Ireland, observing that on occasion the victims of English violence in Ireland were not Irish. (4) It is certainly the case that Irish rebellions were often brutally crushed, but without serious examination of rebellions in England, it is not clear whether English violence in the aftermath of Irish rebellions was actually exceptional. Two historians, one of them a contributor to the History collection, have taken a first step toward this analysis by studying the reactions of English officials to two rebellions in England. Of course a large literature already exists on Tudor rebellions. But in his innovative work on the 1549 rebellions in England and his article in the History collection, Andy Wood suggests that, while the precise death tolls of those rebellions will never be known, the violence that followed them was probably far more extensive than previously thought. …

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