Ian Gentles looks at Ireland as a laboratory for empire

Throughout history, Ireland has provided England’s rulers with a chance to learn from their mistakes. Over the course of centuries and especially in the period 1641-1691 – the focus of current research by Glendon history Professor Ian GentlesIan Gentles – England’s kings and queens (and a lord protector) tried various methods of controlling the fractious Catholic nation. Lessons learned in the conquest of Ireland, Gentles says, informed future efforts by British colonizers and provided a model of what not to do when building an empire.

Right: Ian Gentles

Gentles has received a 2007 Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada award totalling $73,000 towards research for his forthcoming book, “England’s Laboratory for Empire: Ireland in the 16th and 17th Centuries”.

From 1171, notes Gentles, when the Irish chieftains "invited" Henry II to conquer them, English monarchs followed the practice of distributing Irish land as a reward for assistance in putting down rebellions. In the 16th century, Mary Tudor and Elizabeth I accelerated the process with land grants to willing supporters who were by this time Protestants. In the 17th century, James I was inspired by propaganda, particularly Edmund Spencer’s A View of The Present State of Ireland, to promote further occupation of Ireland by English and Scottish settlers. “James was a serious Protestant who believed in evangelizing and settlement,” says Gentles. In doing so, he sowed the seeds of further rebellion and tragedy.

Ireland played a critical role in the English civil wars of the mid-17th century, Gentles’ main area of interest. When dispossessed Catholic gentry mounted a rebellion in 1641 in which thousands of English settlers were slaughtered, it helped trigger the first civil war in 1642. At the close of the second civil war in 1649, Oliver Cromwell, believing reports that more than 100,000 English and Scottish settlers had been killed in the earlier rebellion (it was more likely between 3,000 and 12,000), meted out harsh punishment for Irish involvement in the war and sacked Drogheda and Wexford, killing thousands. Famine, disease and further land confiscation to fund his famous New Model army followed, all but completing the English domination of Ireland.

Decades later, William of Orange confirmed Cromwell’s policies, Gentles says, and defeated a Catholic army led by James II at the Battle of the Boyne (right) in 1690. William completed the land confiscation, establishing the Protestant Ascendancy which was to dominate Ireland’s affairs for the next three centuries. By the 1690s, Protestants controlled more than 80 per cent of Irish lands and English Imperialism, which reached its peak in the 19th century, had begun in earnest.

Although his book will be mainly a historical narrative of the period 1641-1691, Gentles says he plans to reflect in his concluding chapters on how the Irish model for empire informed later British practice in imperial possessions such as Canada and India.

“The English did learn several lessons in what not to do from Ireland,” Gentles says. After conquering Catholic New France, later Quebec, in 1759, for example, they followed a policy of religious toleration Ian Gentles: The English Revolution and the Wars in the Three Kingdoms, 1638-1652 for the first time in their history and allowed the Habitants, as well, to retain French civil law and the seigneurial system of land tenure. In later conquests, Britain looked for ways to mitigate the high cost of occupation that had bankrupted Cromwell’s republic, says Gentles. In India, the British changed tactics and enlisted the support of important segments of the native population through promises of peace, prosperity and the development of infrastructure.

“In a way, the Irish experience taught the English to let people be,” says Gentles, who is nevertheless quick to point out the most basic lesson of the Irish colonial experience: “If one country tries to subjugate another, you’re just storing up trouble,” he says. “In the end empire doesn’t work.”

Gentles is the author of two previous books on the period: The New Model Army in England, Ireland and Scotland, 1645-1653 (Blackwell 1992), and The English Revolution and the Wars in the Three Kingdoms, 1638-1652 (Pearson 2007). He is also co-editor, with James Morrill and Blair Worden, of Soldiers, Writers and Statesmen of the English Revolution (Cambridge University Press 1998).

By David Fuller, York communications officer