Ruins, relics and a patchwork of legend

Through his numerous writings, Nicholas Canny has helped place early modern Ireland firmly in the North Atlantic world. He has debated trenchantly whether it is better seen as a kingdom or a colony; he has considered Ireland as an element in the emerging British Empire; he has traced the Irish among the other Europeans moving to new territories. Now, in Imagining Ireland’s Pastshe turns his attention to the historian predecessors who strove either to make sense of the Ireland of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries or to annexe the turmoil to topical uses.

Many of his chosen texts only acquired influence long after they had been composed. Thanks to Canny’s compendious survey, histories which made a limited impact when first they appeared will now gain more. His material includes disquisitions by partisans, published to influence government policy, and handwritten briefs that were soon pigeonholed, left to be exhumed later from the archives by assiduous researchers. Those who reflected on the mayhem sought to fit it into patterns already provided by humanist, classical, providential or apocalyptic templates. All this Canny traces methodically. Whereas earlier periods yielded the reassuring characterization of the island as one of saints and scholars, in early modern Ireland such exemplars were overshadowed by murderers, freebooters and thugs. Faced with this gory story, many historians shied away. Those who did tackle it gradually shifted attention forwards from Henry VIII’s reign, with its jurisdiction and religious changes, to that of Elizabeth, and then to the uprising of 1641, the Cromwellian reconquest and eventually to the victories of William III. More than Cromwell’s savagery, the ingratitude and treachery of the Stuarts and then the bad faith and vindictiveness of Irish Protestant parliaments after 1692 attracted chroniclers’ opprobrium.

The grievances of forfeited land and legal continuing discrimination against Catholics were running sores. Only when the worst of these injustices had been right did a few bold writers seek to find common ground between Catholics and Protestants and edifying examples of past harmony. Perhaps the greatest novelty in Canny’s surprisingly traditional account is his close scrutiny of four local historians of the later nineteenth century. Yet the attempts of the quartet – James Frost in Clare, Mary Hickson in Kerry, William Wood-Martin of Sligo and George Hill in Ulster – to sketch more positive attributes among the newcomers were bitterly contested by priestly zealots.

For the most part, Canny proceeds chronologically through his chosen texts. The structure is nevertheless loose and the treatment discursive, so some themes are submerged for long stretches. The vital matters of the reception and reverberations from the treatises are addressed at best intermittently. Frequently Canny assumes, perhaps too readily, that their contentions can be heard echoing through later writings and, more importantly, through actions in and towards Ireland, whether of the British government or its opponents. More systematic discussion of the languages ​​– Latin, Irish (rarely) or English – in which they were written would help. Canny could also address more explicitly the seemingly abstruse preoccupations of book historians about size and cost of editions, format, typography, sales, ownership, annotation and (most elusive of all) reading. As he fully acknowledges, there is a good example of such an approach in Bernadette Cunningham’s evaluation of the known manuscript copies of, and direct citation from Geoffrey Keating’s initially unpublished Irish-language Foras Feasa en Éirinn (Compendium of Knowledge about Ireland) of the mid-seventeenth century (The World of Geoffrey Keating, 2000). Similarly, the numerous recensions of Hugh Reily’s Impartial History, first appearing in 1695 and substantially rejigged as late as 1833, can be closely scrutinized for additions and changed emphases to suit altered times. Very different markets and responses greeted the massive folio sarcophagus in which Thomas Carte entombed the first duke of Ormond (1735-6), or the three quartos of the suave Dublin University don Thomas Leland’s History of Ireland (1773), in comparison with the pithy and quirky summaries of Irish events included in James Hoey’s cheap Complete Pocket Companion (1738) or John Trusler’s popular Historian’s guide (1773).

Authors aimed variously at the different linguistic and confessional communities within Ireland, policymakers and paymasters in Britain, and exiles and sympathizers scattered through Europe and eventually in Australasia and America. Before the nineteenth century, when cheaper print proliferated, literacy and spending power increased for some, writers and publishers had lamented the lack of interest in histories of Ireland and notably in the sanguinary early-modern stretch. How widely the interpretations offered in many of the publications disseminated an imagined Ireland must be questioned. The upheavals in Ireland – rebellion, alleged massacres, seemingly endemic restlessness – were reported immediately and not just in flimsy pamphlets, but in the letters sent by eyewitnesses and through the lurid stories told by refugees who arrived regularly in Britain and continental Europe. Within Ireland, the events were remembered and misremembered, to be repeated in talk, song and verse. From this patchwork of legend, lamentation and the surviving landscape rich in ruins and relics, both a tangible and an imagined past were constructed. Maybe in wry resignation to the persistence of memorable stereotypes, Nicholas Canny concludes his ambitious and stimulating survey with Hugh O’Neill, driven from Ireland to die in Rome in 1616. The vivid portrayal of him in The Great O’Neill by the novelist Seán Ó Faoláin, “as the only big man in Irish history”, has outlasted more nuanced studies. Tales of imagination are often preferred to laborious scholarship.

Toby Barnard is Emeritus Fellow and Tutor in History, Hertford College, University of Oxford. His most recent book is Brought to Book: Print in Ireland, 1680–17842017

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