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Published by the Corcoran Department of History at the Unive

Catastrophic Dimensions

This essay#39;s intent is to assess the relationship between the anti-Catholic legislation passed by the Irish parliament of 1613-1615 and the emergence of a distinct national identity in early modern Ireland. For almost four centuries, the royal administration in Ireland had distinguished between the Gaelic Irish populations in the hinterlands of Leinster, Munster, Connacht, and Ulster, and the English population in the Pale, that relatively urbanized settlement centered on Dublin, and in the outlying towns and earldoms of Leinster and Munster. The parliament of 1613-1615 gave legal force to a new, equally impermeable cleavage between the two components of the Anglo-Irish(1) colonial community: the Old and New English. The New English were recent Protestant transplants, sent from England by the crown during the sixteenth century to operate the Irish government. The Catholic Old English were natives of Ireland. Descendants of the original twelfth-century Anglo-Norman conquerors, the Old English shared an Anglo-Irish heritage and the common interests shaped by that heritage.(2) By securing the rigorous enforcement of the Oath of Supremacy, the implementation of revenue-generating recusancy fines, the expulsion of all Jesuits and seminary priests from Ireland, and the confiscation of Catholic lands during the parliament of 1613-1615, the New English government systematically excluded the Catholic Old English from political and social influence on the grounds of religion.(3) The interpretation of the Irish government#39;s shift from racial to religious discrimination raises profound historiographical questions, for the attempt to locate this shift in a framework of cause and effect requires the historian to confront the problematic concept of Irish nationalism. This task has provoked significant debate among historians of early modern Ireland.

R. F. Foster has interpreted the Irish government#39;s new emphasis on religious discrimination as a primary cause of the emergence of a distinct Old English identity in seventeenth-century Ireland. The anti-Catholic thrust of the 1613-1615 parliament, Foster has suggested, was incidental to the government#39;s more significant attempt to secure English interests in the turmoil wrought by the failed rebellion of Hugh O#39;Neill, the renegade earl of Tyrone. "The real priority of government," Foster has argued, "was to reorganize representation, incorporate new boroughs and Protestantize the personnel of parliament. This produced a decisive, if dependent, Protestant majority in the 1613 parliament, ranged against a largely Old English minority."(4) The Irish government thus pursued strategies of Anglicization and Protestantization not as punitive or exclusionary measures but rather as matters of internal regulation; these strategies, intended to rein in particularistic, myopic, local interests, bore no nationalistic implications.(5)
That "version of Irishness" cultivated by the Protestant New English settlers in the Irish administration most effectively conduced to the governance of Ireland "with English priorities and in English interests."(6) Policies intended to stabilize, however, soon gave rise to instability; the aggrandizement of Protestant New English interests stirred resentment in the Catholic Old English community. "[T]hese developments in politics," Foster has suggested, "coupled with the threat to land titles and the effects of the Counter-Reformation in Ireland, completed the politicization of the Old English, the phrase now applied universally to those #39;English of Irish birth.#39;"(7) The anti-Catholic legislation passed by the 1613-1615 parliament, Foster has argued, responded to no single threat to the interests of the crown in Ireland but rather to a political situation fragmented by local competition and dissent in both the Gaelic and Anglo-Irish communities. Protestantization and Anglicization simply provided the administration with the means to regularize the enforcement of English law and to elevate governance above local rivalries. The consequential exclusion of the Old English from political and social influence, Foster has argued, did not represent a chapter in what Steven G. Ellis calls "the dominant Whig-nationalist tradition of Irish historiography--an independent Irish nation ever emerging but always frustrated by English interference."(8)

While Foster has perceptively escaped the distorting influences of this "whig-Nationalist tradition" of Irish historiography in his interpretation of the policies of the 1613-1615 Irish parliament that denied the political and social legitimacy of the Old English community, he has also neglected the nuances of the Irish national identity that emerged from the turbulent interaction of the Old and New English communities in the Tudor period and motivated those policies. During the sixteenth century, the attempt by the Old English to exercise the rights enjoyed by English subjects to comprehensive and effective local governance ran counter to the crown#39;s impulse to protect royal interests at minimal cost. Both groups demanded the governance of Ireland "with English priorities and in English interests,"(9) but each group understood those concepts differently. Political competition between the Old English community and the royal administration, filled increasingly by Protestant New English officials, gave rise to an ideological conflict over the meaning of Englishness and the relationship of the Old English identity to it. The Old English occupied an ambiguous position in Tudor Anglo-Irish society: Catholic but loyal to the crown, committed to principles of English governance in a distinctly Irish political context, they were neither fully English nor fully Irish but rather an amalgam of the two. The Old English raised legitimate opposition to adverse crown policies on the basis of their membership in an overarching English identity. As the crown administration#39;s frustration with this opposition grew, political conflict quickly assumed nationalistic implications. By emphasizing the growing divergence between the interests of the crown and the demands of the Old English community, New English officials and commentators transformed competition within a national identity into competition between national identities. The shift in emphasis from racial to religious discrimination, ratified by the 1613-1615 parliament but emergent well before then, allowed the New English administration to deny the Old English community its place in an overarching English identity. Race had linked the Old English and the New English, but religion linked the Old English undeniably to the Gaelic Irish. The rift that the Irish government established within the colonial community laid the foundations for the type of militant Irish nationalism that, in its aggressive opposition to English rule, expanded and augmented the tragic, catastrophic dimension of Irish experience. In their political action during the sixteenth century, the Old English shaped an integrated national identity that, though markedly distinct from the English identity cultivated by the royal administration, reconciled English principles with Anglo-Irish priorities. The militant and exclusionary response of the New English community, in turn, opened a chasm between Englishness and Irishness that the Old English had sought to close.

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