My very brief overview of Irish history to 1685

Mon 25 Jul 2022 13:02

My very Brief Overview of Irish History to 1685

Prior to the early onset of English interest in Ireland, society in sixteenth-century Ulster, the northern head of Ireland, was complex and sophisticated with a small number of prominent families wielding their power through numerous sometimes fragile allegiances.

Throughout the Medieval Period from the 5th century to the early 17th century Ireland was subject to Brehon laws, one of the most detailed systems in Europe at the time.

Under Brehon Law everyone held an ‘honour-price’ dictated by their rank in society. This ‘price’ related to the amount of compensation a family or individual could expect if a crime was committed against them.

Culturally, and what must have been amongst the hardest aspect of society to give up, was the importance of poetry and storytelling, as a medium through which history and literature were preserved. A master poet held the same standing in law as a lord. Ruling families were generous patrons of the arts and sponsored poets, musicians and historians to compose works that set them in a good light, just as in Europe at the same time.

From Henry VIII’s accession to the English throne in 1541 England started to assert its control over Ireland with the early planters arriving into the south and west of Ireland in the 1550’s. This passive control was designed to create trade and as a kind of buffer state to protect England from attack by France and Spain.

In 1598, during Elizabeth I’s reign, one of the Earls who finally fled from Lough Swilly in 1607, Hugh O’Neill, defeated the English army at the Battle of Yellow Ford. This initial success motivated Elizabeth to send 16,000 troops to Ireland where they defeated the Irish and Spanish forces at Kinsale in 1601, a major historical and psychological defeat for the Irish.

From 1610 ‘The Irish Society’, under an agreement on terms with James I, set to building the base for employment and industry within Derry and over the land around Ulster. These land allocations favoured the British (a brand-new word to include English, Scottish, Welsh and Manxians, not Irish) charging higher rents to the Irish for inferior land that they were moved to and so were unfamiliar with.

Another prejudicial act happened when Catholic Sir Turlough O’Neill, a relative of Hugh O’Neill, was refused an attempt to stand for election in the Irish parliament in 1613. Two British Protestant representatives were nominated instead.

Everyone was discontented. The Irish for the obvious loss of land and culture, prohibitive taxes and the persecution of their priests by the foreign church and the British because the surveys of 1619 and 1622 showed that the Irish still outnumbered the British on nearly all the Plantation estates.

The Irish hoped for the return of The Earls but by 1614 this looked unlikely so some of the remaining Gaelic nobility planned an uprising. Early on in the process their plot was revealed and the leaders were taken for trial in Derry where five were hanged, drawn and quartered to set an example, but it simply fed the flames of discontent which erupted to an extreme scale in the 1640’s.

The spread of the English language was another erosive factor in the decline of Irish culture and upwardly mobile Irish made sure they learned the new language to ensure their status in society.

James I died in 1625 and his son Charles I was crowned. He believed in the divine right of kings, to do and act as he pleased without the consent of parliament. He needed money and taxed the London Companies who had been setting up business from London through the Irish Society.

Charles I was executed in 1649 for using his power for personal gain after an unfair trial and Oliver Cromwell became Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Ireland after his victory in the Civil War.

While he did play an important part in establishing parliament as supreme, and lay the foundation of the armed forces, his vice like grip on Ireland materialised when his New Model Army invaded Ireland in 1649.

Cromwell hated the Irish for their religion and for their few victories over the English, he was a Puritan so Catholicism was anathema to him. His army massacred 600,000 Irish wherever they could find them. “The curse of Cromwell on you” became an Irish oath.

In 1652 the Act for the Settlement of Ireland imposed death penalties and land confiscation against the participants of the Irish rebellion of 1641 and the later unrest. The act was repealed in 1662 when it was thought its job was done.

Ireland exacted its own revenge on Cromwell when he died, possibly, of malaria in 1658. It is thought he contracted the disease during the few months he was rampaging in Ireland ten years before and ironically many of the followers of the Flight of the Earls died of the same disease in Italy. None returned to Ireland.

When Charles II was crowned in 1660, he sought revenge on the two-year dead Cromwell, had the body exhumed and then hanged and quartered and the head hung on a spike above Westminster Hall. It was blown down in a storm 25 years later. A barbaric kind of closure I guess.

The reign of Charles II until 1685, when he died of a stroke brought on by kidney failure, was a comparatively quiet time in Ireland, he wasn’t nicknamed the Merry Monarch for nothing. His younger brother James II succeeded him and within three years Derry was under siege…..

 More about that in the next blog xx

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