The English

part 3

The early Anglo-Norman settlers in Ireland seemed English to the Irish and Irish to the English: centuries later their predicament remained unresolved and the colonial community continued to grapple with the difficulties of maintaining satisfactory relations with a mother country that went on changing.

Aidan Clarke

The fourteenth century settlers were not cultural imperialists. Far from trying to impose their system upon the Irish, they jealously reserved its benefits for themselves. Successive acts of parliament which were codified as the Statutes of Kilkenny in 1366, which banned intermarriage with the Irish, prohibited land-leasing arrangements with them, curtailed trade and debarred Gaelic clergy from living in the Pale, were measures of containment, anxious rather than arrogant in tone, designed to protect settlers from the Gaelic influences to which many had already succumbed rather than to discriminate against the Irish. The other problem created by their position in the 'middle' was tackled in a less-celebrated law which noted the hostility between Englishmen born in England and Englishmen born in Ireland and made it an offence for them to call one another 'English hobby' or 'Irish dog'. It was already too late to halt hibernicisation beyond the Pale, just as it was also futile to hope that legal sanctions could suppress the sense that the settlers were not the same as the native English. Even the native Irish were careful to make that distinction: to them, the settlers, whether they were hibernicised or not, were the Gall; the English born in England were the Sasanagh. Anglicised Palesmen and townsmen, though contemptuous of the degeneracy of the outlying settlers, never ceased to think of them as part of their own stock.

In important respects, the colony in Ireland was autonomous. That was not, however, a unique position. Medieval governments were not interventionist. Throughout England itself government was in the hands of the leaders of powerful landed families who were expected to make as few calls as possible on central government and who only became accountable when things went seriously wrong. In the same way, Ireland was ruled increasingly from within. The kings discharged their duties by appointing prominent settler magnates to act as viceroys and these men, combining royal authority with their own resources, undertook responsibility for administering and protecting the Pale. That task involved them in what amounted to the management of diplomatic relations with the Irish and colonial lordships, and the discretion they exercised was very wide. By the end of the medieval period this delegated control seemed close to becoming a hereditary perquisite of the earls of Kildare. At the same time, however, it was reaching the end of its usefulness.

Kildare had his supporters, of course, but autonomy was far from having the undivided approval of the Pale community. Many believed that Kildare's ascendancy came between them and their king, and compromised their rights as subjects; many were deeply dissatisfied with the limited scope of government authority in Ireland; they were convinced that their future security and prosperity depended upon its being enlarged, and they suspected that Kildare had a vested interest in the confused and dangerous status quo. Two things gave them hope at the beginning of the sixteenth century. One was the assertive character of the new Tudor kingship; they watched noble power and privilege being brought under restraint in England and hoped that the crown might be persuaded to assert itself in the same way in Ireland. The other was a change in their own way of approaching political problems, one that they learned from Renaissance humanism. Medieval fatalism was replaced by a belief that men might reasonably try to improve their condition, that governments had a duty to take initiatives and tackle problems. The plan of action that the Palesmen now began to urge upon the government was simple, but profound. Ireland should cease to be a feudal fief and become a kingdom; the Irish should be brought within the law, welcomed as the king's subjects and induced to abandon their traditional way of life. Instead, they should till the ground, live in settled communities, adopt English property law, and obey the authority of the state. They should renounce 'barbarism' and embrace 'civility'. The words themselves reveal a new perspective. In the past, the Irish had been seen in a matter-of-fact way as different. Now they were seen in more sophisticated yet more simplistic terms as a primitive people, whose manner of life reflected the fact that they were still at an early age of social evolution. What was proposed was a programme that would help them to jump the evolutionary gap. There was no altruism in this; what the Palesmen aimed at was their own greater security in an Ireland newly 'made English' (as the phrase had it), and ruled by themselves.

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