Monday, 6 May 2019

the Tudor conquest of Ireland, few survivors

Theme: unsuspected bad news about the homicidal effects of the Tudor and Cromwellian conquest of Ireland.

The Melvyn Bragg radio programme last week was about the Irish famine in the 1840s and one of the distinguished contributors mentioned a famine in 1740-1 which 'proportionally' killed as many as the events in the 1840s. So just a glimpse and then they whisked on. This and the one in the 1690s were famines I hadn’t even heard of until recently. Obviously there are complexities, and the question is why you have 40 good years between famines, but the link between taking 90% of the land away from the Catholics, so that you have a concentration of land in a small number of families, going with a large number of people having no land at all and living on very low incomes which left them with no wealth reserves as well as no rights, and enormous numbers of people being simply destitute after one bad harvest, seems cast in bronze. But the landholding structure comes directly from the British connection and was the result of legislation.

I don't get why there is so little emphasis on these events (and on the
late Elizabethan famines). It's not clear to me why historians pass them over (although there is a new big-scale series of volumes out so maybe they get more into it). The mentions I saw were incredibly brief.

I was looking at Irish history as an ancillary to studying the language; the question of what exactly you are learning, with the standard language as reformed in the 1930s, is not straightforward. Sources on Irish society prior to “an Concas” (the Tudor conquest and colonisation) are utterly frustrating. It's as if sociological information only emerges from contracts, law-courts, and (by extension) politics. There are no cases recorded for Gaelic law
and it's been suggested that judges didn't actually use the law-codes when making decisions. There is a link between anglicisation and Catholicism, quite simply, in that Henry VIII grabbing all the land of the monasteries in England was intimately related to him asserting
feudal suzerainty in Ireland and claiming the ability to take land away from unruly vassals and re-grant it to (English) vassals. More specifically, the Gaelic lords had sequestered all the land once held by Irish monasteries and an inquiry under Henry got into this because he wanted to repeat the grab of monastic land over the water, in Ireland. The assertion of royal power over this (basically stolen) land destabilised the legacy relationship between the Crown and the Gaelic lords. Wars followed. Over a century or so, they were the losers in a way analogous to the Catholic Church in England. The 1530s are the pivotal moment.

So the cycle of famines predates the introduction of the potato? (from a correspondent)
cite: “The famine of 1740–41 was due to extremely cold and then rainy weather in successive years, resulting in food losses in three categories: a series of poor grain harvests, a shortage of milk, and frost damage to potatoes.[4] At this time, grains, particularly oats, were more important than potatoes as staples in the diet of most workers.”

OK, but it wasn't colder in Ireland than in, say, Yorkshire (or Germany). The difference is in poverty and in links of "vertical solidarity" between the higher orders and the low. So the question of land distribution is still basic.
One type of famine is related to rules of warfare in a pastoral society. You start by driving off your herds to hidden or remote pastures so that the enemy, thought of as a field army trying to occupy territory, can't get at them. But over say five or six years the "hideout" pastures get bitten down and your herds perish. Then the people perish for want of milk and so on. This happened in Libya, several times, and in Ireland certainly in the 1590s (Mountjoy) and the 1650s (Cromwell's lieutenants). The field army doesn't massacre people, they die of hunger.
This wasn't true either in the 1690s or 1740. (The 1690s saw a cold shock in Northern Europe and a famine in Scotland too.) The 1690s famine followed a war (Williamite, the “war of the Two Kings”) and was probably made worse by it.
Two points. One, were there famines in Ireland before An concas. I don’t know. Two, obviously Ireland was never all-pastoral and grew lots of oats. However, standing crops can't be hidden from organised armies who have cannon and so on. (I am guessing that the “refuge pastures” were in open woodland, in hill country, perhaps in dry patches of swamps. They were secret, obviously.)

There were two separate famines under Elizabeth – in the 1580s in Munster and around 1600 in Ulster. The second was not directly due to land grabs by English settlers, but to the effects of war. However, the scale of the revolt in the Nine Years’ War was due to a new national awareness, brought about by the sight of English settlers, since the 1530s, backed by the Crown taking large amounts of land (in Munster) and destroying the Gaelic way of life. This was the only thing that could unite the Irish lords. It is also true that Mountjoy, the English army commander, recognised that he could not crush guerrilla forces except by starvation, and that he destroyed standing crops and so forth as a means of warfare. The famine at the end of the Nine Years’ War was partly due to his concept of economic warfare. That famine was directly related to English aggression. The famine in Munster was due both to land grabs and to warfare.

The feudal theory of homage stipulated that all land was held from the monarch, and that an individual tenant-in-chief could lose the land for acts of disloyalty to the Crown. I think this applied throughout Europe, anyway there was no body of law which held that Henry VIII couldn’t seize land from vassals who defied him. That would apply to all the Gaelic lords of Ireland – they didn’t pay tax or accept the verdicts of royal courts. It was like another world. But, there was a terrifying growth factor in this situation – the more Irish land the Crown seized as “suzerain”, the more disaffected Gaelic lords there were, and the more likely other Irish lords, allied to them, were to rise against the crown to protect the status quo. But, the more these land-owners fought against the crown and defied the courts, the more reason the Crown had to seize the lands of all of them – to bestow them on vassals who were, most probably, English. The new settlers were likely to be people with cash, so that the Crown could defray the costs of war by taking fees from them. This process escalated and was incredibly hard to halt until the whole Gaelic realm had been seized, dispossessed, redistributed to foreign but cash-rich lords.
My problem with reading about this is “disembodiment”. I can’t go back into Irish history without being present, but that presence is unavoidably Anglo-Scottish and this destroys my ability to justify being present at all. I read a little history to back up studying the Irish language (which I began in 2016, I think). What the historians show is just appalling.
It shouldn’t be so difficult – Irish is just one more European language and shouldn’t be less international than, say, Russian or Greek. It is part of the European cultural legacy. I did a degree (or, part II of a degree) in Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic back in 1977-8, so I have been involved in Celtic studies for all this time, mostly on the back burner while I studied other things. I found that degree course almost completely frustrating and it left me with numerous questions, a few of which I have found answers to over the last 40 years. It is difficult to get into Gaelic and Welsh literature, even at the level of asking what kind of language a text is written in and what audience it was directed at, without slipping into questions about social history – and so, with hardly any delay, into the history of imperialism.

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