Ireland has, for most of its history, been an object of English colonial ambitions. Whether that be the Normans, the Tudors or the Stuarts, Ireland has been an object of conquest since the 12th and 13th centuries. This article will examine why the English were so interested in Ireland and its justifications for its brutality in dealing with the civilian population. Ultimately the presentation of the Gaelic Irish population as pagans and later barbarians by Tudor and Stuart propaganda enabled these governments to pursue a brutal campaign, leaving no man, woman or child untouched.
The Tudor century was one of great religious upheaval. Henry VIII’s establishment of the Church of England in the 1530s entailed England’s formal break with the Roman catholic Church and sparked off a two century long battle for Catholic or Protestant supremacy. Ireland was a site of significant fear and anxiety for English Protestants, especially under Queen Elizabeth I, with Ireland being seen as a satellite for Spanish invasion, which it became with the Spanish landing in 1601 or a site of Catholic rebellion, which eventually erupted in 1641 with Sir John Temple’s ‘History of the Irish Rebellion’ alleging some 300,000 Protestants were killed (although in reality the number was closer to 3000.)
Therefore, English ambitions to take control of Ireland largely came from a sense of religious insecurity. Namely, by taking control of Ireland there would no longer be a threat of a backdoor Spanish invasion or a Catholic rebellion that could spread across to England. However, this argument does not satisfactorily explain the level of brutality exercised by the English in dealing with their Irish neighbours. The Normans, for example, who had conquered Ireland in the 12th and 13th centuries, did not deal with the native residents of Ireland in such a manner. They drove off the ruling elite and allowed the Gaelic Irish to remain as tenants with the 1366 statutes of Kilkenny even allowing Irishmen to be granted the same legal status as English subjects. This relative lenience is likely explicable due to the fact there was no religious schism between England and Ireland. The Norman conquest of Ireland did not come from a place of religious security but of expansion and so dealing brutally with its native inhabitants would not have been conducive to Norman England’s expansionist policies.
The Tudor and Stuart governments were motivated by different passions however, namely that of religion. However, Elizabeth I originally directed those leading Irish expeditions, such as the Earl of Essex to not ‘offend any person that is known to be our good subject.’ Thus, the Tudor campaign began at least ostensibly peacefully. However, by the 1570s the mood had considerably shifted, predominantly due to an emphasis in Tudor publications on the barbarity of the native Irish. The 1572 pamphlet ‘On the Disorders of the Irishry’ argued the Gaelic Irish acted in a way ‘contrary to God’ and were ‘repugnant to the Queen Majesties lawes.’ Furthermore, Lord Deputy Mountjoy described one of the Gaelic chieftains of Ulster as ‘tyrannous, unmeasurably covetous, without any knowledge of God, or almost any civility’ and Sir Henry Sidney compared the chieftain Shane O’Neill with Huns, Vandals, Goths and Turks. By associating the Irish with pagan and ‘barbarian’ groups, the Irish were no longer seen as children of God and it was thus justifiable to treat them in such a brutal manner.
Mass killings followed this persuasive propaganda with Essex’s expedition to Rathlin Island in 1574 ending in the murders of the majority of the island’s population. Furthermore, O’Neill and his family were seized by Essex in December 1574 and later executed in Dublin, with 200 of O’Neill’s followers meeting the same fate. Whereas as earlier violence against the Gaelic Irish had been condemned by the monarchy, Elizabeth actually commended Essex’s work in Ulster arguing ‘we do perceive that… you do… bring in that rude and barbarous nation to civility.’
Thus, the Tudor attempt to personify the Irish in propaganda as barbarians who deserved to be treated as such had been successful with even the opinion of the English monarchy being swayed.
Therefore, whilst Ireland has always been an object of England’s colonial ambitions whether that be Norman expansionism or Tudor and Stuart religious security, it was the Tudor propaganda machine’s personifying Ireland as a site of barbarism and paganism that enabled its brutal treatment by English expeditionary forces, in contrast to the leniency of Norman forces in the 12th and 13th centuries.