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Ireland The struggle for Power by Jeffrey James

The quest for Catholic emancipation during the reign of James II resulted in Ireland becoming a proxy battleground between competing European powers, the legacy of which has blighted modern times. Two Irelands evolved: an impoverished Gaeldom and a more prosperous class which lived well on incomes gleaned from confiscated land. It was an uncompromising system which between the years 1728 and 1845 produced almost thirty artificial famines.

SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERA The Wolfe Tone Statue at Bantry

The outbreak of war in the American colonies provided Irish patriots with an ideological platform for protest. Revolutionary upheavals there and on the Continent were ushering in a new age of Republicanism, a system at odds with the British model of liberal, constitutional monarchy. In 1798, rebellion flared in Ireland. With French assistance, United Irishmen sought to overthrow British rule and declare Ireland a republic. The man most closely identified with them, Theodore Wolfe Tone, was descended from a Cromwellian planter. An avant-garde Presbyterian, Wolfe-Tone brought together dissident Protestants and Catholics under a common banner, asserting the ‘rights of man’, separatism from Britain, and Catholic emancipation. The rising failed and in tragic circumstances Wolfe Tone lost his life.

Not all emerging rebel groups nurtured Republican agendas. The aims of some were economic and protectionist. These were bands like the Whiteboys and Defenders; loose Catholic factions who targeted debt-collectors and landlords and who were opposed not just by the state but also by rival Protestant gangs like the Peep O’ Day boys and the Orange boys. The latter erected notices warning Catholics that unless they left Armagh – then Ireland’s most populated county – they would have their souls blown ‘to the low hills of Hell’. This was a politically loaded reference to abuses suffered by Ireland’s Catholics in Cromwellian times. The root of such violent rhetoric was competition for land and Catholic penetration of the linen industry at a time when mechanisation was putting downward pressure on wages. The 1790s was perhaps the decade in Ireland when ‘troubles’ first draped themselves in a discernibly modern form.

Ireland The struggle for Power 3 Whiteboy memorial co Cork The memorial stones at Keimaneigh, laid in 1999 (Ireland The Struggle for Power, Amberley Publishing)

My new book Ireland the struggle for power tracks through time from Dark-Age Ireland to the Jacobite wars, then on to the emergence of groups like the United Irishmen, Whiteboys and Orange Boys. There are warring high-kings, soldiers of Christ, Vikings, Cambro-Normans adventurers, Anglo-Irish lords, marauding Scots and land-hungry English and Scottish colonists. Under Angevin kings, Dublin and its environs became the western outpost of Empire, but by the turn of the fourteenth-century, military defeats at the hands of a resurgent Gaeldom turned the city’s hinterland into a simmering war-zone. Even more challenging for the occupying English was a Scottish invasion after the Battle of Bannockburn. From Ulster, Edward Bruce’s Scots and a contingent of Irish bravehearts formed a second front against the English, leaving Ireland’s economy in ruins and the legitimacy of English rule in tatters.

Home rule for Ireland may first have been mooted during the Wars of the Roses in the mid fifteenth-century – the result perhaps of a weakened English state under Henry VI and later Yorkist opportunism. A distrusted Ireland then groaned under the weight and scrutiny of Henry VIII. His daughters continued his containment policies. The first of several new towns outside the Pale, at places like Philipstown (now Daingean) and Maryborough (now Port Laoise), were settled by what the Irish called planters. Territories in modern-day Counties Offaly and Laois were split up and re-named the King’s and Queen’s Counties, after Philip of Spain and Mary of England. These powerful, married monarchs were keen to see Ireland become a more vibrant and integrated part of their joint Catholic domain. Colonising the north, however, proved a more problematic proposition. Northerner Shane O’Neill was described by Elizabeth I as ‘our most cankrid rebel’. Military disasters in the mid seventeenth-century culminated in the infamous Cromwellian settlement, military occupation and the twin horrors for Catholics of ‘Hell or Connaught’ – the catalyst for future violence.


Jeffrey James' new book Ireland The struggle for Power: From the Dark Ages to the Jacobites is available for purchase now.