A Short History of Ireland
by John Gibney, Yale, 256pp, £16.99
Irish history does not need much in the way of authorial flourishes in order to exert its grip. John Gibney’s approach is brisk without being hurried, cool without being unfeeling.
The result is a very competent retelling of the old sorry tale. Five centuries are covered in five parts, each concluding with a handy section on “Where historians disagree”.
Things get off to a dismal start, with Elizabeth I resolving to bring the Irish nobles to heel and have them abandon their religion. The enforcers of her will had summary rights of execution, and could claim a third of the goods and possessions of those proscribed.
“It must be fire and sword and the rod of God’s vengeance that must make these stubborn and cankered hearts yield for fear,” bellowed Sir Ralph Rokeby, chief justice of Connaught. This was never going to end well, was it?
It certainly ended horribly for the 600 men, women and children killed by the Earl of Essex on Rathlin Island in 1575. The first famines we read of in Gibney’s book take place in Munster in the 1580s, brought about by the scorched-earth policies implemented by the English authorities following the Desmond rebellion (and many times subsequently).
The results were witnessed by Edmund Spenser, the planter and author of The Faerie Queene, whose distressing descriptions of the grotesque state to which the victims were reduced resemble accounts of the Great Famine of the 19th century.
Further poison was introduced to the Irish political bloodstream by the accounts of atrocities committed by different sides in the tumultuous 1640s. What ensues is years and years of gradual entrenchment along sectarian lines and glimmers of rapprochement; rebellion, retaliation and repression; compromises, pacification and social engineering; land confiscation and plantation; industrial growth in the north-east, and poverty and squalor in much of the west and south (of a kind which deeply disturbed abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass when he visited in 1845); and, eventually, emigration on a vast scale.
There are relative bright spots too, of course, such as the upward trajectory of the Irish economy during much of the 18th century. But even then, despite making up most of the population, Catholics were excluded from participation in the state by the Penal Laws.
Gibney has interesting things to say about the centre of gravity of Catholic Ireland moving to émigré communities on the continent, and indeed about all of the identities and interest groups that made up Irish society.
Moving closer to our own time, there is the high drama of Daniel O’Connell’s “monster meetings on the road to Catholic emancipation”. By the middle of the 18th century Irish Catholics had owned as little as five to ten per cent of the land. Later in the 19th century came the enormous social revolution in land ownership.
The unanswered questions of the Home Rule movement blow across these pages too, and the Easter Rising of 1916 remains a mesmerising event, both in its own right and as a catalyst for that extraordinary sequence of events comprising the war of independence, the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1921 and the subsequent civil war.
Familiar though the overall picture may be, there are still some blow-me-down moments. For example Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone, who led the rebellion condemned to failure by the Battle of Kinsale in 1601, had, in 1588, affirmed his loyalty by overseeing the massacre of survivors of the Spanish Armada in west Ulster. And following the Confederate defeat in 1653, as many as 25,000 Irish civilians were transplanted to English plantations in the Caribbean as indentured servants. Then there’s the fact that in the 18th century Dublin was the world’s second-largest centre for printing in English; and the ratio of Catholic priests to people in 1840 was one per 2,750, but by 1900 it was one per 900. Also surprising is that by 1998, a country that had been so largely agrarian was, seemingly overnight, seeing computers and chemicals account for 40 per cent of its exports.
The Church of the late 19th century and most of the 20th does not come out well – as a drag on progress when not an outright impediment. I felt that Gibney’s objectivity faltered here, with a rather one-dimensional assessment.
His account of the influence of Catholic social thought on the Irish constitution, for example, will press contemporary anti-Catholic buttons, while ignoring provisions that might seem surprisingly enlightened to the same body of opinion.
This is to be expected, so low has the Church’s stock fallen in Ireland relative to its former heights. While not forgetting the disgrace it brought on itself, and the harm done to so many, historians will one day have to take a more rounded look at the record of the Catholic Church in Ireland.
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