Modern Ireland

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

“Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone/ It’s with O’Leary in the grave.” The words are by William Butler Yeats, and like much of his poetry they are memorable but not quite accurate. Romantic Ireland, the Ireland of myth and imagination, whether literary, sentimental, or political, is far from dead or in its grave: Indeed, it seems to be the only Ireland with real substance. The enduring fact of Irish history is the supremacy of perception over reality, the stubborn persistence of desire over mundane fact. From the late Elizabethan rebellions of the 1600’s through the sectarian troubles of the 1970’s and 1980’s, this discrepancy between perception and reality has been the major cause of confusion, turmoil, and violence.

Although never explicitly stated, this gap between perception and reality is the central theme of R. E Foster’s work, Modern Ireland: J6004972. Foster has written a study that is neither a survey, nor a chronological review, nor an in- depth investigation of any particular topic in Irish history. Instead, he had produced what is essentially a meditation on that history, studying how the fateful decisions were made, and why. As he follows the often turbulent course of Irish history from late Elizabethan times onward, Foster introduces and refines concepts which have been key to Ireland and its people: the displacement of the Catholic population from land ownership; the uneasy nature of the English occupation; the growing sense of “Irishness” as a special quality that meant more than geography; the long decline in population during the nineteenth century; and the mythology and iconography of the Republic. All of these—and other themes, expertly handled by Foster—are key to an understanding of why Irish history pursued the course it did.

Irish history was romantic from the very start, and Foster’s volume opens with the last great Gaelic revolt against the English, Hugh O’Neill’s uprising in the north. For a while, the Earl of Tyrone seemed to have it in his power to sweep the countryside free of English settlers and their few supporters. Ironically and typically, O’Neill’s rebellion was defeated less by English power than Irish confusion, as his supporters dissolved in a welter of misapprehensions, arguments over goals and methods, and a baffling but passionate debate over what “Ireland” and the “Irish” really meant. It was both a prototype and a paradigm for future English-Irish relationships, and one which, in many facets, endures to this day.

O’Neill’s revolt exposed the tenuous grasp England held on Ireland, and raised the permanent hope in Irish minds that one more push—one more rebellion, one more political movement, one more charismatic leader—would rid the island of the English and set Ireland “free.” Exactly what that freedom constituted and where an independent Ireland would go were vexing problems conveniently shelved until oppression could be lifted. “Our version of history,” an Irish bishop once remarked, “has tended to make us think of freedom as an end in itself and of independent government—like marriage in a fairy story—as the solution of all ills.”

The same fixation on an independent Ireland took firm hold in the English mind as well, except that the prospect came to be seen as not only a political catastrophe, but a religious disaster as well. English occupation of the island, never fully comprehended by anyone, it would seem, became something of a crusade: Ireland needed to be liberated, but from the Irish. English perceptions cast the Irish as savage but cunning, superstitious and vicious, and when Ireland rose in revolt again during the confused turmoils of the English Civil War, parliamentary and Protestant forces in England reacted promptly and decisively.

Oliver Cromwell arrived in 1649; on September 11 he supervised the massacre of Drogheda and on October 11, the equally brutal mass murders at Wexford. Even hardened Cromwell expressed some unease over the killings, but there was a growing conviction on the part of the English that such methods were justified and, indeed, inevitable. The native Irish were dismissed as being unworthy even of conversion; they were simply to be displaced, and the Cromwellian massacres were only the most open expression of this policy.

Less bloody, but longer lasting, were the effects of the 1652 “Act for Settling of Ireland,” which carved the island into parcels set aside for English and Scottish settlers. The result, over a period of two centuries, was the almost total removal of the Irish as landowners. Foster’s figures are sobering. By 1703, Irish Catholics owned only 14 percent of the land; by 1750, the figure was even lower: a mere 5 percent of Irish land was owned by the Irish.

The systematic. destruction of Irish culture and religious life was perhaps best symbolized by the Battle of the Boyne, fought on July 1, 1690. The conflict, the decisive...

(The entire section is 2040 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

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