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  • Whose Island? Sovereignty in Late Medieval and Early Modern Ireland
  • Christopher Maginn (bio)

Whether sovereignty is defined in constitutional or in cultural terms, to whom the island of Ireland rightfully “belonged” is a matter central to any understanding of Irish history. Today (and since 1922) the sovereignty of what is now the Republic of Ireland is vested in its people, defined as “every person born in the island of Ireland, which includes its islands and seas,” and as “all persons otherwise qualified in accordance with law to be citizens of Ireland.”1 With whom the sovereignty of the modern state lay was made abundantly clear in the rejection of the Treaty of Lisbon by Ireland on 12 June 2008. Amid the brief but intensive national debate on the treaty, faintly nationalistic rhetoric not seen in Ireland for some time (and for once not directed narrowly at Britain) was evident: Irish fishermen, to take one high-profile group as an example, railed against the use of Irish waters by non-Irish fishermen; and concern was expressed in many quarters that acceptance of the treaty would lead to the creation of a European military establishment and allow European Union law to emerge as superior to Irish law.2 Ultimately, a clear majority of Irish citizens, concerned about [End Page 229] the legal, political, and economic sovereignty of their state in an expanded and reformed European Union, wielded the power of a referendum to halt the implementation of a treaty that was supported by the elected governments of every other EU member state. The Irish government called a second referendum for 2 October 2009 after having secured legal guarantees that the traditional policy of Irish neutrality would not be affected and that Ireland would retain a permanent EU commissioner. Startled by the global economic crisis, and having witnessed the trials of a small economy like that of Iceland outside the EU, Irish citizens once again exercised their sovereignty over the state and, on this occasion, voted to ratify the revised treaty.

Few people in medieval or early modern times could have imagined that the sovereignty of Ireland would one day reside in all adult citizens of the country. Modern students of late medieval and early modern Ireland are confronted with a much more narrow conception of Irish sovereignty. At one level a relatively straightforward (though not a simple) history of Irish sovereignty in these times may be presented. Two decades or so after Pope Adrian IV’s grant of the island of Ireland to King Henry II in 1156 (by right of the so-called Donation of Constantine), there began the rapid military domination of a politically fragmented Gaelic polity by subjects of the king of England. This conquest resulted in the creation of what Englishmen referred to as the “lordship of Ireland,” an ambiguous dominion that became an appendage of the English crown with the succession to the English throne in 1199 of Henry II’s youngest son John, the “lord of Ireland.” The lordship was erected into a kingdom in 1541, when the Irish parliament proclaimed Henry VIII the first English king of Ireland. The kingdom of Ireland later passed, along with England and Wales, from the Tudors to King James VI of Scotland, to form part of a multiple or composite monarchy under the Stuarts (and briefly part of a republican Commonwealth under Oliver Cromwell) in the early and mid-seventeenth century. Yet a serious explanation of the sovereignty of Ireland from [End Page 230] medieval to early modern times would hardly be presented in this manner. To do so would be to ignore the glaring fact that the English crown achieved sovereignty over Ireland only through overwhelming force and against the will of a substantial segment of the native population of the island. Here the question of an English monarch’s “right” to rule over Ireland comes into play. For many Irish nationalists the continued existence of a culture (and later a religion) that was distinctly not English, or British, nullifies the right of English kings and queens to the sovereignty of Ireland. Native assertions of that sovereignty in the early modern period (however unsuccessful) are perhaps the clearest...


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