Subjugating Ireland

Selected from: Delancey Place

In today’s excerpt – subjugating Ireland in the early 1600s. England, having recently broken away from the Catholic Church, feared that Catholic Spain would use still-Catholic Ireland as a stronghold for invading England, and therefore had incentive to subjugate and “colonize” Ireland. England could look to the new European experiences in the New World for examples of how to colonize and subjugate. And the colonizing mission required colonists to wear civilized clothes and inhabit civilized housing – however impractical that might be:

“Ironically and perhaps fatefully, early English conceptions of Indian life and character became intertwined with the justification of another colonizing venture. Ireland was nominally under English rule, but effective control did not extend beyond the small district known as ‘the Pale,’ centered on Dublin. The rest of the island was home to ‘the wild Irish,’ who were divided into loose collections of warlike people with a common interest in defying the English. With the Spanish seemingly set on ruling the world, England awakened to the danger that Catholic Spain might take over Catholic Ireland as a stronghold for invading England. Subjugating the Irish became a way of forestalling Spain. Elizabeth began by parceling out the country to her favorites, [Sir Walter] Ralegh among them. These English overlords could either tame their wild Irish tenants or supplant them with a more productive and tractable population. It was the same problem that Ralegh faced at Roanoke and the Virginia Company would face at Jamestown, not to say the problem the United States would face in its long march across North America.

“[To the English,] the Irish shared with American Indians a profound deficiency that required correction if they were to make proper subjects: they were not civil. That word carried hidden meanings and connotations that would reverberate throughout American history. Civility was a way of life not easily defined, but its results were visible: substantial housing and ample clothing. Uncivil peoples were naked and nomadic. Civility required of those who deserved the name a sustained effort, physical and intellectual. It did not require belief in Christianity, for the ancient Greeks and Romans had it; but Christianity, or at least Protestant Christianity, was impossible without it. The Irish Catholics and those Indians converted by Spanish or French missionaries were not, in the English view, either civil or Christian. The objective of colonization was to bring civility and Christianity to the uncivil, in that order.

“The objective was threatened, indeed civility itself was threatened, if lazy colonists, coveting the unfettered life of the uncivil, went native, or, it might be said, went naked. ‘Clothes were of tremendous importance, … because one’s whole identity was bound up in the self-presentation of dress. The Scots and Irish – and soon the American Indians – could not be civil unless they dressed in English clothes, like civilized people, and cut their long hair,’ signs of a capacity to submit to the enlightened government of their superiors.

“England’s preferred way of civilizing the Irish was through force of arms, but after ruthless military expeditions failed to bring widespread peace, and with it civility, the new solution was to plant the country with people who already rejoiced in that condition. Refractory natives would learn by example, or simply give way, left to a wretched existence on the margins of a profoundly transformed Ireland. Not long before the Virginia Company began supplying people to Jamestown for much the same purpose, the English authorities began settling far larger numbers across the Irish Sea, an estimated 100,000 by 1641.”

Edmund S. Morgan and Marie Morgan, “Our Shaky Beginnings,” The New York Review of Books, April 26, 2007, pp. 21-22.

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Published in: on November 17, 2009 at 1:25 pm  Leave a Comment  
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