- Age of Atrocity: Violence and Political Conflict in Early Modern Ireland
In their introduction to Age of Atrocity, the editors write that "From 1534 onwards the reduction of the local [Irish] lords impelled the English Tudor monarchy towards a policy of bloody conquest as well as negotiated settlement" (8). Much has been written in recent years about "negotiated settlement" in early modern Anglo-Irish relations and the role played therein by English reform programs; this excellent collection addresses the understudied bloody conquest elements of that history.
These fourteen essays emerge from two conferences (Dublin, 2002 and Limerick, 2004) on war and violence in early modern Ireland. They cover a broad chronological swathe, 1500–1691, the majority addressing the years 1641–60. With John Morrill's focus on the English Civil War background to Cromwell's actions at Drogheda, and John Young's detailing of the fates and fortunes in Scotland of Protestant refugees of the 1641 Ulster rebellion, the collection offers a truly British perspective. Broad too is the attribution of atrocious behavior: John McGurk and Kenneth Nicholls treat English violence toward the Irish during the Nine Years' War and 1641 rebellion; Hiram Morgan, in his piece on "Hugh O' Neill's murders," considers Irish-on-Irish violence and the role it played in determining English conduct in Ireland; and Brian Mac Cuarta revisits the confessional dimensions of Irish violence towards English settlers in 1641. Nor is the violence examined here purely of the English-Irish and Protestant-Catholic varieties: Morgan and Vincent Carey consider English and Irish killings of Spanish and Italian soldiers, while Mac Cuarta considers symbolic violence against objects and images.
The sources consulted and methodologies employed demonstrate the growing sophistication of the practice of early modern Irish history. Archaeologists Mark Clinton, Linda Fibiger, and Damian Shiels use textual evidence to date a mass grave at Carrickmines to 1642, and historian Vincent Carey uses archaeological research done on skeletal remains from Smerwick to argue the case for war crimes in 1580. Micheál Ó Siochrú plumbs Irish-language poetry and tracks the spread of rumor to demonstrate that Cromwell did not have to wait until the nineteenth century (as argued elsewhere by Toby Barnard) to enter the Gaelic pantheon of colonial villains. Kevin Forkan examines the role of print and propaganda in the construction(s) of Sir Charles Coote as Protestant hero-martyr. A fascinating [End Page 1017] thread running through the collection is the promotion of folklore and popular memory as historical sources, most notably executed in Clodaigh Tait's exploration of the providential spins given the deaths of four Protestant luminaries in Ireland.
To its great credit, this collection offers no consensus on how to read early modern Ireland. To take a specific example, Morrill sees Cromwell's actions at the Drogheda massacre as linked to his in terrorem tactics during the latter days of the English Civil War and not to anti-popery and ethnic hatred. But if Cromwell was lacking in ethnic and religious animus, his men, Ó Siochrú shows, were not. How then to read Drogheda? More generally, the collection is bookended by two very different perspectives on the collection's fundamental question: was Ireland uniquely violent in early modern Europe? David Edwards's opening essay on the sixteenth century —a must-read critique of "reform-centred" histories of Anglo-Irish relations —makes a powerful case for the uniqueness of Ireland's endemic violence in European perspective. John Childs, in the concluding essay on the Jacobite War (1688–91), presents a very different picture. He describes the war as a frequently savage affair for combatants and noncombatants alike. Nevertheless, having placed the conflict in Continental perspective, he states emphatically that its level of atrocity was simply par for the seventeenth-century course of warfare. What happened in between? Was violence in Ireland only unique to Europe in its precociousness, attaining levels of savagery in the sixteenth century that the Continent had...