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Episode 117: The English in Ireland

When it comes to the Age of Exploration and Conquest in the 16th century, we often think of the Americas, but there was also a conquest of another sort happening in Ireland.

Book Recommendation: Elizabeth I and Ireland

Rough Transcript: The Tudors in Ireland

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Hello and welcome to the Renaissance English History Podcast, a part of the Agora Podcast Network. I’m your host, Heather Teysko, and I’m a storyteller who makes history accessible because I believe it’s a pathway to understanding who we are, our place in the universe, and being more deeply in touch with our own humanity. This is Episode 117, and it’s an introduction – and I want to stress that it’s only an introduction – to the English colonization of Ireland. There is so much more that needs to be researched and written on this subject, and so much more research I want to do, but I also wanted to get you starting to think about this subject because it’s not one we think about a lot.


Early on in Henry VII’s reign, monarchs in Tudor history were worried that the Yorkists who had been beaten would go to Ireland to stage a resurgence, much the way Henry himself was welcomed in Brittany. If the Tudors were going to successfully rule in England, they felt that they had to subdue Ireland, and so, during the 16th century, they worked to extend the administrative power of the English crown. They also wanted to expand their trading networks, and saw an opportunity in Ireland to try to broaden their commercial horizons.

The English had been involved in Irish affairs on and off since the time of the Norman Conquest. The Anglo Normans first arrived in the 12th century, and were seen as barbarians that needed to be civilized. Anglo Norman influence was fairly strong, especially around Dublin, until the Black Plague – after the mid 1300’s, many left, leaving a power vacuum where the regional clans and kings came back. The area around Dublin was known as the English Pale – much like the Pale of Calais in France – but even that area, which was ostensibly under secure English rule, was unstable. Despite having been bustling with Anglo Normans until the 14th century, the English had just backed off until the end of the 15th century, when two different pretenders to the English throne sailed from Ireland, supported by Irish lords.

This would bring about a concerted attempt in the 16th century to subdue the lords of Ireland, uniting them under the control of the centralized rule of the Tudors. At the edge of the pale was frontier, beyond which was land ruled by the Galeic warlords and their followers. Henry VIII tried to subdue Ireland by making himself Lord of Ireland, eventually making the church Protestant, and sending soldiers. But he also put friends in high places, and tried to rule through the leaders who were already there.

Henry wanted to bring about an administration and central government. He introduced a policy called Surrender and Regrant. The Irish would give up their land to Henry, and in return Henry would give it back provided that they followed English laws, recognized him as the Lord of Ireland, that they would speak English, and follow English customs. Many Irish took him up on the offer at first, but others would agree and then just ignore him as time went on.

It was expensive for the Tudors to try to rule this land. Instead, they invested their time and money into supporting one of the warlords who was friendly towards the English, the Fitzgerald clan of Kildare. The Lord of Kildare was the Lord Deputy of Ireland, despite the fact that he was a political enemy. It was cheaper for the Tudors to use him to rule Ireland for as long as possible, and that was the policy until 1534, when the Fitzgerald’s got fed up with being the King’s deputies, and the rebellion of Silken Thomas happened.

Silken Thomas believed an untrue report that his father had been executed in London rebelled, and took a Kildare stronghold, killing even those who surrendered. This was a turning point as the English struggled to reassert their authority in London. From there on out, the English colonization of Ireland – also called the Conquest at times, depending on whose side you’re on – changed methods back and forth, going from sending armies, which usually ended in disaster for England, to trying to work with local families.

As Henry moved England away from the Catholic church, and imposed the Reformation on even reluctant Englishmen by seizing church lands, and punishing nobles, he didn’t have that infrastructure in Ireland, and so Ireland remained Catholic.

Queen Mary, despite being Catholic, still wanted to rule Ireland. It was Mary who introeduced the first English Plantations in Ireland. She wanted to plant English, and English supporting families in Ireland where, over time, they would grow and increase support for England. She wanted to plant two counties, but very few people went as they were too afraid.

Elizabeth came to the throne determined to subdue Ireland for once and for all.

In 1581 John Derrick wrote The Image of Ireland, dedicated to Sir Philip Sidney’s father, Henry, who had led several victorious armies over the Irish. The book also contained woodcuttings showing the victories, and denigrating traditional Irish culture. The woodcuts showed clans fighting against each other in ways that were seen as backwards and tribal. But in many ways, Ireland was ruled more through the relationships between a lord and his subjects similarly to the way England saw with the Danes and Norse, where you paid tribute to a great lord, and then received protection in return. There were formal relationships like this, but no administrative arm, which the English saw as a lack of progress. There were key families in each province who controlled the system, and the largest were the Fitzgeralds in Kildare and the Butler’s of Ormond. And it’s been said that between these two, with their allies, there was almost a two party government system.

When Henry Sidney was Lord Deputy, he had to leave Dublin to subdue the Irish many times. He would always try diplomacy first, but then he would crush the rebellions militarily, setting up a pattern of rebellion followed by submission.

Humphrey Gilbert was the Queen’s deputy in Ireland during the 1570’s, and he believed in complete submission. If any Irish rebelled against him, he would decapitate an entire village, and supposedly the path to his tent was lined with severed heads. And he used to make the relatives of his victims walk along the path.

But it wasn’t just the English – even Irish lords would kill fellow Irish to prove their loyalty to the Queen. Thomas Butler was the 10th earl of Ormonde, and he supported the Queen. He built his house in the English style, added on to an existing castle. Thomas Butler had been brought up at the English court, and was cousins with Elizabeth. He had butchered thousands of fellow Irish in an effort to show her how loyal he was – you can still see the lists of names he sent to the Queen in the archives.

Elizabeth was Protestant, and branded as a heretic. The great fear was that a Catholic monarch from the Continent would support the Irish rebels.  In 1580 James Fitzgerald Fitzmorris of the House of Desmond landed in southwest Ireland accompanied by a combined Italian and Spanish force of 600 men, and a  papal nuncio. They asked all Catholic Irish men to join them in a crusade for Christian/Catholic rule. Edmund Spencer the poet, and Walter Raleigh were among the troops sent to intercept them. The forces were trapped and besieged, faced with an English artillery barrage. They put down their arms, and surrendered, and all 600 were executed.

This was the pattern – the Spanish would support the rebels because they supported the religious part, and saw it as a religious crusade against Protestantism. They saw Ireland as the backdoor to England. The Desmond Rebellion lasted for several years, and is remembered in English literature because of the writings of Edmund Spenser.

Spenser was in favor of a scorched earth policy against Ireland, writing about the Irish in ways similar to the way the English would write about the Native Americans – they were barbarians, incapable of being governed. He thought their language should be eradicated, believing that if children learned Irish before English their hearts would be Irish, and then there would be no saving them. He writes that during the Desmond rebellion,

“‘Out of everye corner of the woode and glenns they came creepinge forth upon theire handes, for theire legges could not beare them; they looked Anatomies [of] death, they spoke like ghostes, crying out of theire graves; they did eate of the carrions, happye wheare they could find them, yea, and one another soone after, in soe much as the verye carcasses they spared not to scrape out of theire graves; and if they found a plott of water-cresses or shamrockes, theyr they flocked as to a feast… in a shorte space there were none almost left, and a most populous and plentyfull countrye suddenly lefte voyde of man or beast: yett sure in all that warr, there perished not manye by the sworde, but all by the extreamytie of famine … they themselves had wrought'”

The Desmond lands were confiscated by the English, and the land was opened up for plantations for English. Raleigh and other adventurers bought large estates. The first potatoes to be grown in Ireland were grown here, having been brought from the Americas. Raleigh then sold his estates, and concentrated more on America.

The province of Ulster was the last part of ireland to be captured by the English. It was dominated by the O’Neill clan. Their chief during Elizabeth’s time was Hugh O’Neill, who had been educated in England as a nobleman, and the Queen thought so well of him that he was allowed to keep a standing army of 600 men. He had fought with the English adventurers like Raleigh, but then as it came to threaten his own territory, he turned. He had no choice but to rebel against their encroachment. In 1593 he began training his army for war. He had been clever and had rotated that 600 in and out through the years so that when he decided to rebel, he had a much larger army available to him right away. At one stage he had close to 30,000 men under arms in Ulster, many of which were Scots.

The front line was along the Black Water River, where English built forts on the south side to threaten the ONeill’s in Ulster. But the forts had to be constantly refortified, and became a drain on the resources of England. On Ausuts 14, 1588, 4000 men went to relieve one of the forts that had been under attack. The column was ambushed, and nearly half the men were killed with the rest retreating and abandoning their weapons. The Battle of Yellow Ford was the most decisive victory over the English in Ireland.

O’Neill grew to have almost all of Ireland, but he couldn’t get Dublin. Whoever held Dublin held Ireland, but he couldn’t attack because he didn’t have the siege equipment. The Port of Dublin would always be the line of communication to England.

He decided to become blatently pious in a way to appeal to the pope. He linked Catholocism with Irish patriotism. The English saw this as a cynical ploy for foreign aid, and when the Earl of Essex met O’Neill during a peace negotiation, he made a comment about how O’Neill likely cared for his horse more than religion. Pope Clement VIII named him the Captain General of the Catholic Army in Ireland. O’Neill hoped that the Spanish would come to his aid, and appealed to Phillip II to send aid to him in Northern Ireland. But in 1601 the Spanish came to Southern Ireland, in Kinsale, County Cork, rather than the North. The English response was to lay seige to the town, which the Spanish were fortifying. During the winter, O’Neill moved South towards Kinsale. Mountjoy, the Lord Deputy, found that he was surrounded. On Christmas Eve 1601 the Irish moved towards the English lines, hoping to take them by surprise. There were several tactical errors and issues, and the whole thing became a military fiasco.  Mountjoy used cavalry to break up the Irish, and shortly after, the Spanish surrendered.

The English conquest of Ireland over the Gaelic tribes was complete. Mountjoy laid waste to O’Neill’s land in Ulster. They shattered the stone upon which generations of O’Neill’s had been crowned. Hugh O’Neill surrendered, and was allowed to keep some of his land, though it was obvious his power had been destroyed. They eventually left Ulster for Europe, and Hugh O’Neill died nine years later, an exile in Rome.