- The Courts, Crime and the Criminal Law in Ireland, 1692–1760, and: Lords of the Ascendancy: The Irish House of Lords and Its Members, 1600–1800
Until relatively recently, the traditional view of eighteenth-century Ireland, established in the Victorian and early-twentieth-century scholarship of J. A. Froude, W. E. H. Lecky, and Daniel Corkery went for the most part unchallenged. Eighteenth-century Ireland was portrayed as entirely subordinate to British government interests. Irish society was characterized as bifurcated between the culture and society of a small, rapacious, and newly established Protestant landed elite and that of an impoverished, resentful Gaelic and Catholic peasantry. The prevalent depiction of the early eighteenth century saw Gaelic and Catholic antagonism and opposition to foreign and Protestant rule suppressed by “planter governance,” economic coercion, and religious discrimination as enshrined in the notorious penal laws. Given the relative absence of outward resistance to oppression, this period drew little attention from Irish historians who instead focused their attention on more overt signs of defiance evident in the Whiteboy, Patriot, or United Irish movements of the latter half of the century.
Over the last two decades, the traditional view of eighteenth-century Irish history has come under significant scholarly scrutiny concurrent with the general trend and ongoing debate on “revisionism” within Irish studies. For example, the recent works of Thomas Bartlett, S. J. Connolly, and others challenge traditional conceptions about the uniqueness and stark cultural, political, and social polarities of eighteenth-century Irish life. Although there is no all-embracing revisionist consensus at present among historians of the eighteenth century, the two works reviewed here are representative of the revisionist trend within eighteenth-century Irish studies. Both Lords of the Ascendancy, written by Francis James, and Courts, Crime and the Criminal Law, by Neal Garnham, reflect current historical fashion that favors interpretation of the Irish experience within a comparative context with other eighteenth-century societies (in this case with Britain and the North American colonies). Both works focus their attention to the relatively understudied period between the Treaty of Limerick (1691) and the Whiteboy agitations of the 1760s, avoiding the tendency to focus disproportionately on the more turbulent last decades of the century. Moreover, both authors reject a depiction of Ireland painted in terms of sharp and immutable social contrasts. Instead, both works stress the ambiguities and uncertainties that were characteristic of eighteenth-century Irish society. For example, in describing the Irish Lords of the Ascendancy, James argues that “instead of being sharply divided into natives and colonists” the peerage through intermarriage was “melded” into a composite class from diverse Gaelic, Norman, English, and Scottish stock (104). In terms of the workings of a criminal justice system that was largely English in origin, Garnham notes that the “law was neither enforced by rigid repression, nor upheld by a community unified in the perception of it as an impartial and detached force in society” (270). Given that James is an emeritus scholar in the United States and Garnham is a younger scholar working in Ireland, both works reflect the significant extent and scope of revisionist scholarship in current eighteenth-century Irish studies.
In Lords of the Ascendancy, Francis James has produced the first major study of the Irish House of Lords during the Ascendancy period. Through a systematic (and sometimes quantitative) analysis of the extensive Irish Journals of the House of Lords, much of this study is dedicated to procedural and legislative content. Whereas the Irish House of Lords lost its appellate jurisdiction after Westminster’s passage of the Declaratory Act in 1720, James demonstrates that regulation of the Irish courts and legal procedures still accounted for a third of the chamber’s [End Page 577] business at midcentury. Although the constitutional position of the Lords in the eighteenth century was diminished relative to that of the Irish...