The histories of the islands and communities of the British Isles have always been closely intertwined. However, the arrival from England into Ireland of the Normans in 1167 marked the commencement of a new incursion and settlement that, although piecemeal, localized, and with a fluctuating frontier between Gaelic Irish and Norman areas, created the basis for a more comprehensive conquest of Ireland and a reconfiguration of its settlement in the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.
The English presence in Ireland at the end of the fifteenth century was centered in a small number of areas, focused upon the eastern and southern seaboards and parts of the southwest and southeast. These areas, governed from Dublin at the heart of the Pale in the east, bore allegiance to the reigning English monarch as lord of Ireland. This English lordship did not extend to the majority of the country, which remained under the control of the Gaelic lordships. Political instability in England during the Hundred Years’ War and the Wars of the Roses ensured that a coherent policy toward Ireland had to await the advent of the Tudor Dynasty under Henry VII in 1485. A more focused and sustained policy began to emerge in response to support given in Ireland to a number of pretenders to the English throne in the 1490s. The appointment of an Englishman, Sir Edward Poynings, as chief governor in Ireland in 1494 represented the first Tudor attempt at establishing a more permanent English presence in Ireland by means of military conquest and constitutional reform. Poynings’s endeavors failed militarily, though the enactment in the Irish Parliament in 1494 to 1495 of an Act known as Poynings’s Law, which defined the relationship between the Irish legislature and the Irish and English executive arms of government, was to serve as the cornerstone of the Irish constitutional framework until the late eighteenth century.
In the reign of Henry VIII (1509-1547), fitful engagement with reform gave way to purposeful action under the guidance of Thomas Cromwell. Although early endeavors were interrupted in 1534 by the Kildare rebellion, that uprising’s successful suppression created the opportunity for further reform, first within the areas of the English lordship, and then eventually throughout the country. However, the lack of a single, coherent policy for this undertaking resulted in the pursuit at different times of contrasting strategies of coercion and conciliation. Thus haphazard punitive raids into Gaelic areas were followed by systematic diplomatic missions aimed at a gradual establishment of English government through peaceful methods. Two key aspects of this latter strategy were the Act for the Kingly Title of 1541 and the concurrent program of Surrender and Re-Grant. The Act for the Kingly Title made all inhabitants of Ireland subjects of the English monarch, though as a sovereign entity distinct from that of the kingdom of England. Surrender and Re-Grant required that the leaders of these new Gaelic Irish subjects agree to participate in this new polity and to recognize the supremacy of the English monarch in church and state, in return for receiving English titles and re-grants of their lands under English law.
Concurrent with the creation of the kingdom of Ireland, a new church came into being following the Henrician break with Rome. The resultant confiscations of religious lands facilitated a further incursion from England and new settlements. However, the Protestant Reformation failed to take hold in Ireland, and this led in time to the creation of a new divide within Ireland between Catholics and Protestants. The pre-Reformation settlers who remained Catholic became known as the Old English, while the newer Protestant arrivals became known as the New English. Thus, the latter stages of the establishment of English rule throughout Ireland became entangled with the religious divisions and power struggles of the New and Old English, while the majority of the Gaelic Irish, who also continued to adhere to Catholicism, became marginalized and alienated.
Central to this next phase was a policy of plantation aimed at introducing English settlements into Gaelic areas as a means of establishing English law and control. The first substantive attempt at plantation was undertaken in the eastern province of Leinster in the 1550s in Counties Laois and Offaly. By the 1580s the policy had been extended into the southern province of Munster following the suppression of the Desmond rebellion. The first attempts at plantation in Ulster in the early 1590s helped to provoke a violent backlash that resulted in the Nine Years’ War, which eventually spread throughout Ireland. However, the end of the war in 1603 marked the successful conclusion of the Tudor conquest of Ireland and the establishment of English rule throughout the country.
The ”flight of the earls” in 1607 and the revolt of Sir Cahir O’Dogherty in 1608 facilitated the undertaking of the most comprehensive plantation yet, implemented in six of the nine counties of Ulster. Thereafter, the unresolved power struggle between the Old and New English was played out in a series of crises that were defined ultimately by religious allegiance, with the rewards to the victors being signified in political power and a monopoly on landownership. A lengthy battle was fought and lost by the Old English and the Gaelic Irish, with the Cromwellian land confiscation and transplantation of the 1650s and the Williamite confiscation of the 1690s completing the transference of land on confessional lines. By the early eighteenth century, Ireland was both a sister kingdom of England populated by a Protestant elite and a colonized country populated by a predominantly landless and powerless Catholic majority.
”English Soldier Raised for Service in Ireland.” This satirical drawing, published circa 1540, depicts the typical English soldier in Ireland as an unabashed plunderer.
The English incursion, settlement, and conquest in Ireland had created a hybrid polity, which bore the trappings of both a kingdom and a colony. This hybrid polity has led to ongoing debate and controversy, exemplified by the arguments put forward in 1698 by the Protestant MP for Trinity College, William Molyneux, in The Case of Ireland’s being bound by Acts of Parliament in England, stated. Debate has revolved around issues such as whether the spread of English government and law throughout Ireland was achieved primarily through coercion or conciliation; the importance of institutional forms and patterns of government; the interaction of communities and their sense of identity and separateness; the extent to which religious divisions distorted or altered the nature of incursion, settlement, and conquest; and the place and role of Ireland in the British Empire.
Tyrone’s False Submission. In 1603 the Irish national hero and rebel leader Hugh O’Neill (ca. 1540—1616), the Earl of Tyrone, was forced to surrender to the English after the suppression of his Irish rebellion, an event pictured in this seventeenth-century engraving.
Debate also continues with regard to the extent to which English colonization and plantation in Ireland influenced English activity in North America and the West Indies. Though there was clearly some degree of transfer of ideas and practices from one arena of colonization to the next, it is also the case that English and, in particular, Scottish involvement in Ireland retarded aspects of British colonial activity in America. Likewise, while the Irish plantations of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries evidently provided Englishmen with at least a term—that of plantation instead of colony—that they initially used to describe their settlements in North America and the West Indies, the original models for English colonial expansion in Ireland and beyond were ultimately the classical and medieval colonies within Europe, including those established in England itself.