- Kingdom or Colony? English or British?Early modern Ireland and the colonialism question
Plenty happened in the century between Henry VIII's rise to the position of "King of Ireland" in 1541 and the countrywide protests against Crown plantation policy in the fateful Uprising of 1641. The "Gaelic Irish" (or "Native Irish," those native to Ireland and predominantly Catholic), and the "Old English" (those descended from twelfth-century Anglo-Norman migrants, mostly Catholic and largely assimilated within Irish society) were met with increasing numbers of new settlers (Protestant "New English" and Presbyterian Scots) who sought to displace existing landowners and take up plots in accordance with late-feudal tenure arrangements recently introduced to Ireland. Tensions over land and custom heightened, and divisions of class and faith sharpened. Ireland descended into conflict, albeit of a kind that came in fits and spurts, differing from county to county. Eventually, the entire island's status as subordinate to the rule of English monarchy was confirmed (if it wasn't already) following developments after the Uprising. Despite a succession of ambivalent yet occasionally heavy-handed monarchs who watched on as events unfolded during this problematic hundred-year window—failing in their successive attempts to develop a coherent policy for the region—"independence" eventually gave way to "occupation."1
For all the depth and richness of the historical literature on Ireland under English rule during the Tudor and Stuart period, significant inconsistency prevails as to how one best conceptualises the complex relationship between Irish society and imperial England. This relationship has become a source of considerable debate for historians; today the burning "colonialism question" remains as inescapable as it was when David B. Quinn first showed in the 1960s how expansion into Ireland and expansion into Virginia were parallel processes.2 Was Ireland merely one section, alongside Wales and Scotland, of the so-called "Celtic fringe," a "kingdom united" with England, ideologically configured alongside Scotland into "the empire of Great Britain" rather than the English empire proper?3 Or was Ireland just a colony, albeit an exceptional one, imagined as part of a great "western enterprise" that spread outward into an "Atlantic world" of colonies that came in all shapes and sizes?4 To be fair to its participants, this debate is not so cleanly divided as I depict it, for the tendency among historians of early modern Ireland is not to cluster on either side of it but rather to adopt worthwhile arguments from both, or otherwise insist that the situation is "ambiguous"—as, for instance, the editors of the aptly entitled collection Natives and Newcomers put it in 1986, Ireland was "distinctive," neither kingdom nor colony but instead "a constitutional anomaly" that was a bit of both.5
Despite its blurred edges, this polarity still pervades scholarship on Ireland today, though the field has pacified somewhat since the 1980s (if anything, because a turn to "the local" has made many nervous about generalising on a grand scale). It is significant that when the Oxford History of the British Empire was published in the late 1990s with Wm. Roger Louis presiding as editor-in-chief, each of the five volumes came with a chapter on Ireland.6 Following the success of the original series, Oxford University Press (OUP) released a Companion Series. Ireland did not miss out: Ireland and the British Empire was released in 2004, edited by Kevin Kenny, according to whom the collection was meant to "move beyond two conceptions that stand at opposite extremes in much popular and academic discourse":
The first of these holds that Ireland was never, properly speaking, a British "colony", or that it was at best unique, bafflingly anomalous, or, more vaguely, "semi-colonial". The contrary position asserts that Ireland was always and self-evidently nothing...