The British Empire Library

The Roots of Ireland's Troubles

by Robert Stedall

You cannot help but admire anyone who takes on the formidable challenge of trying to understand and explain the roots of Ireland's troubles! For these are myriad and they stretch and contort into so many contradictory and unexpected directions. You might not think that a book of a mere 396 pages length would be enough to untangle this thickest of Gordian knots, but Robert Stedall takes on that challenge and offers some telling cuts as he attempts to drill down through the centuries to unpick how this single island has produced such turmoil and complexity. He should be applauded for the attempt.

The book predominantly covers the period from the Reformation up until the eve of the First World War, although it should be noted that some sections are far more detailed than others and that the closer he gets to the modern era, the faster the tempo seems to go and the less detail is on offer. And of course by beginning in the middle of the Sixteenth Century, the author has left out much of the origins of Britain's complicated relationship with Ireland from the time of the Norman Invasion in 1171 by Henry II and the establishment of an Anglo-Norman aristocracy that persisted and integrated itself into the existing Gaelic nobility and created an 'Old English' feudal system even before the ruptions of the Reformation detailed in this book. So the book has a core area of concern of the half century since the religious upheavals that spread from England to Ireland in the Sixeenth Century creating a swathe of new problems, issues and opportunities.

I should say that the book is linear and advances with a clear chronological outline. At first, I was a little hesitant and apprehensive about this approach as episodes highlighted by the author seemed to start and finish abruptly before jumping through a few years of relative tranquility to the next upheaval. But it was not too long before I appreciated this bitesize approach. It definitely helped signpost and bookend events, ideas and themes that may well have got lost in a more fluid format or even worse be buried under a superfluous and extraneous detail. The author takes very deliberate steps and writes in a clear manner with little sentimentality. You could say that he is pretty harsh on all the participants at one time or another but in general you do not get the feeling of any favouritism but a fairly distanced analysis of events and actors as they occurred. There is plenty of criticism proffered but in general he presents evidence to explain his thoughts and ideas.

The key themes that do jump out at you through the centuries are security, land, nationalism and religion, although not always in the simplistic ways they are often portrayed. Religion in particular is consistently shown by the author to have been far more nuanced and complicated than any simple Catholic v Protestant narrative. The book explains the highly divergent aims and attitudes of Dissenters from the established church and how they could and did combine with Catholics to push forward their own claims for political and religious progress. Likewise Catholicism was no amorphous and agreed block through the centuries and the author shows that Catholic landowners and nobility on many an occasion sided with the establishment against their fellow but less privileged Catholic countrymen. Class could and did play a role but so did personal choices. For some principle was more important than religion and for others stability and economic security were more important than any political rights.

Likewise the issue of security was often more theoretical than real, but at times this small island on the edge of Europe could and did become an important player in Europe's political, strategic and military struggles. As far back as Henry VIII, the author contends that the English were worried about European nations using it as a springboard to invade England and launch a counter-reformation and reinstall Catholicism in England. There is one slight issue that I would take with the author's analysis on this particular issue. He claims that King Henry wanted to send Protestant preachers into Ireland to demonstrate the shortcomings of Roman Catholicism. Of course, Henry VIII, despite his split with Rome, never regarded himself as a Protestant. He felt that he was defending his rights as a divine king against a corrupted Catholic Church headed by the Pope. Perhaps the author should have said something along the lines that Henry VIII sent English preachers into Ireland to demonstrate the shortcomings of what he regarded as a corrupted Catholic Church. A small but important difference and one that highlights the complexity of motives of all concerned.

I think the strongest part of the book is the section on the Stuarts unhappy connection to Ireland and how the Civil Wars swirled in and out of the island of Ireland with surprising ferocity and complexity. Once again the diversity of religious motives is explained. For example the role of the London Livery Companies and the Scots-Irish Dissenters settling the lands in Ulster and their clashes with King Charles I (who of course was technically Protestant even if not Protestant enough for many Dissenters) became seriously complicating factors in the forthcoming Civil War. The author is undoubtedly right to pick out the role of the Irish Great Rebellion in muddying the political and religious waters in Ireland whilst King Charles was embroiled with political problems back in England and Scotland. Within this chaos, unscrupulous and economically threatened Gaelic leaders like Sir Phelim weaponised religion in order to foment rebellion. Indeed he went so far as to forge documents from King Charles encouraging Catholics to rise up and seize the lands and goods of all English Protestants - hoping to divide the Protestant communities. The resultant atrocities were truly appalling and many Scots discovered that the attacking Irish found it difficult to differentiate victims. The level of brutality would indeed enrage fellow Protestants back in England and would have savage consequences a few years later after those same English Protestants ultimately prevailed over the King and made their way to Ireland for delayed revenge. In the meantime though the complexity of the English Civil War was nowhere more keenly felt than in Ireland itself. I should say that it is a little curious that the author sticks with this term, English Civil War, when the more widely used British Civil Wars (plural) is probably far more apt to the author's viewpoints. Regardless, the uprisings resulted in Protestants scurrying behind fortified walls in the major ports and cities and gave English protestants yet more reason to hate their King who could not protect them. Scottish Covenanters sent an army to try and release their fellow religious countrymen whilst the Irish rebels set up a Catholic Confederation in Kilkenny. Anglo-Irish nobles had to make decisions to support a king barely in control of his own kingdom or join with their fellow Catholics in rebellion. Showing the complexity of loyalties the Duke of Ormonde remained loyal to the Crown and held Dublin whilst his own cousin led the Confederates trying to seize this key port and symbol of authority amongst other locations. Ormonde's problems were only just beginning though as his King's troubles mounted and he was told to treat with the Confederates. Add in Papal support for the Catholic cause and Roundhead victories over in England and the complexity starts to spiral out of control... the author does a great job at holding all of these disparate groups and their desires and actions together. It is no mean feat and even if you have to reread some of the sections a few times to get all the various changes of sides together, it is worth the journey. Interesting - yes! Straightforward - no!

More so than the Tudors, it was the Stuarts who lit various long lasting grievances which have travelled down the centuries. The author explains that Cromwell's arrival in Ireland was just as much to get him and his more rebellious and uppity troops out of England and away from a Parliament who were not sure they could trust to control them. Obviously putting well motivated, highly trained Protestants with grievances towards the Catholics who they held responsible for the massacre of their fellow religionists was not likely to end well. The efficient English army had relatively little trouble in imposing control throughout Ireland even if the human cost was high. It should be said though that the author does explain that this was also due to the ravages of war and rebellion for nearly a decade. Famine and plague certainly played their part in the unfolding horror. The infamy of Cromwell is disputed a little by the author who explains that Cromwell's reputation was not particularly harsh by contemporary standards. Indeed he treated any who surrendered fairly. In fact probably even more fairly than most contemporary armies did as he had such good control over his troops. However, if anyone resisted then no mercy was shown and the consequences for the defenders would indeed be dire. Another interesting side effect of this conflict is the beginnings of serious Irish emigration. This would become a familiar theme over the coming centuries, although most of these emigrants were forced overseas through defeat and land confiscations but took their culture and many of their grievances with them. The era of Protestant Ascendancy was truly turbocharged during this period and the complex balance between Catholics, Dissenters and the Established Church started to shift once more especially with the return of the Livery Companies, Scottish immigration and at least some of Cromwell's soldiers settling down in newly won lands.

Ireland barely had a generation to recover before the Stuarts were once more turning Ireland into a battleground. This time it was the openly Catholic James who fled the ever more Protestant England and attempted to regain his Crown with French and Irish support. The Battle of the Boyne is usually regarded as the turning point, but the author contends that it is actually the far larger Battle of Aughrim Hill that was the really decisive battle. In fact, the Jacobites came close to winning this battle and had their commander not been decapitated by a cannonball, may well have changed the course of Irish history once more. However, this was not to be, and the Williamite victory only strengthened the Protestant cause both in England and inevitably in Ireland.

The Eighteenth Century may have seemed like a lull in the violent history of Ireland, but there were many important undercurrents that the author explains and expands upon. The struggles may have focussed more on the politically connected in and around Dublin and the key ports, but even so, issues over identity and religion were as important as ever. The rising spectre of an absentee Protestant landowning class would have consequences further down the decades, but was really established during this critical period. Feeling confident of their political power and position, they felt little need to live amongst the people whose lives they influenced so much. This disconnect would have consequences that were only amplified down the centuries. It did not help that the ruling classes in England did not appreciate cheap food coming from Ireland and kept high tariffs in place. Likewise when the Industrial Revolution got underway, there was little thought to allowing goods made cheaply in Ireland to compete with goods made in Britain. To make matters worse, the Catholic families who had retained some semblance of economic and political power were conscious of the ingrained barriers to Catholic participation in political, economic and military spheres. Likewise Dissenters were unhappy at the continued privileged position of the Established Church of Ireland. These provided yet more long running causes of grievances. Revolutions in the United States and France would later provide inspiration for unhappy Irishmen to consider their own position but also provided new opportunities - both to escape through emigration but also ideas of rebellion and revolutions of their own.

The period of Fitzwilliam's Lord Lieutenancy is detailed clearly by the author. It is one of those sad, missed opportunities that seems to have occurred every now and then and may have brought communities closer together. Fitzwilliam was hoping to bind the Irish Catholic hierarchy closer to Britain through Catholic Emancipation for at least the privileged. He understood that far from welcoming a French Revolution, the Catholic landowners were deeply concerned at what had happened to the Catholic Church in France. He felt it was a golden opportunity to bring this community to support the British government and help guard Ireland from any revolutionary French interest. Unfortunately for Fitzwilliam, the British government was otherwise distracted and concerned at the war and failed to take up his fig leaf. In missing this opportunity it was to be a mixture of disgruntled Dissenters and poor Catholics who received some encouragement to rise up and seize rights and power by force. They did gain some support from Revolutionary France; not enough to succeed but more than enough to worry the authorities and to encourage them to come down on any potential revolutionaries like a tonne of bricks. The author explains the reasons for the failure of the rebellion but goes on to say that it was a strategic mistake that actually played very much into the British political establishment's hands by stampeding support for the 1801 Act of Union from concerned Protestant landowners more worried about Revolution than signing away political rights to Westminster. The 1803 uprising by Robert Emmett only seemed to confirm the wisdom of their decision in the febrile international situation. The Act of Union bound Ireland even closer to the British polity, it had become a part of Britain proper rather than just under heavy influence from rulers with strong connections to Britain.

The Nineteenth Century is yet another unhappy period for much of Ireland, although the small steps made forwards were at least as a result of constitutional engagement rather than force of arms. The likes of Daniel O'Connell and later Charles Parnell both revealed that even when the political scales were stacked against them, they could make important advances. After Catholic Emancipation was won, land became the principle object of focus. The absentee landlords seemed as remote and unfeeling as ever only content to collect rents at almost any price. The plight of Catholics with their lack of security contrasted starkly with Ulster where Protestants with access to capital and rights of tenure became far more efficient producers of food. The population pressures only exacerbated the issue and the appalling potato famine was a desperately sad indictment of the institutional biases and failings of the absentee landlords. Fortunately, the Nationalists increasing political astuteness delivered more and more seats in Westminster and repeatedly found themselves holding the balance of power in the latter half of the Century. Gladstone tried hard to incorporate their demands but found himself fighting not only the Tory opposition but also opposition within his own party and particularly a hostile House of Lords. Time and again he failed to deliver the crucial Home Rule bill that might have brought an arrangement of sorts. He did deliver a Land Bill in 1870 and weakened the role of the Church of Ireland but essentially the Irish Nationalists were becoming impatient with what was being offered politically and only grew in strength in Catholic Ireland whilst Protestant Ireland found its own interests threatened by the rise of these Nationalists. They were concerned that any return to a government in Dublin would see themselves in a permanent minority. Finally the Dissenters began to draw closer to the other Protestants and styled themselves as Unionists under the leadership of Edward Carson. The book does speed up rapidly through the later stages of the 19th and early 20th century but finished with the tantalising prospect of Asquith's Home Rule Bill in 1914 - delayed fatally by the First World War... yet another missed opportunity for reconciliation and distributing of power.

It does feel like the book finishes on a cliff hanger, and one that most readers will be very well aware will result in a fall of huge proportions and a sad return to bloodshed. However, the journey to this vantage point has been an intriguing one with much to see en route. There is a hurried postscript at the end which pulls the themes together once more, but perhaps could have done with a little more elaboration. I did feel that it was a shame that the last sentence decided to bring in the issue of Brexit - not because of what it did or did not say - but because it instantly dates the book and ties it to whatever unfolds politically. It is much better for history books to be left floating generally and not moored to a solid event that may well be resolved in a manner not foreseen by the author.

In general though, this is an ambitious book that comes close to realising its ambitions. I feel that I have far more sympathy for the various communities in Ireland and their sometimes competing and sometimes cooperative concerns. If nothing else, it illustrates the complexity of the events that have both buffeted it from the outside and which have been generated from within. It places Ireland into a much wider context and takes it beyond the simplistic Catholic v Protestant dichotomy. It is making me want to learn even more about Irish history, both exploring more deeply what happened next and to go back and visit some of the interesting side roads that were sign posted through the book for areas that could benefit from further investigation. Surely if a book engenders further interest and research into its subject matter then it has achieved a noble aim.

British Empire Book
Robert Stedall
Pen and Sword


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