Old English (Ireland)

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This article is about 12th-century Anglo-Norman settlers of Ireland. For the ca. 5th-century Germanic settlers of England, see Anglo-Saxons.
Ireland in 1450 showing territories recognising English sovereignty in blue and red

The Old English (Irish: Seanghaill, meaning "old foreigners") were the descendants of the settlers who came to Ireland from Wales, Normandy, and England after the Norman invasion of Ireland in 1169–71. The term is generally used by scholars for residents of The Pale and Irish towns after the mid-16th century, who became increasingly opposed to the Protestant "New English" who arrived in Ireland after the Tudor conquest of Ireland in the 16th and 17th centuries.[1] Many of the Old English were dispossessed in the political and religious conflicts of the 16th and 17th centuries, largely due to their continued adherence to the Roman Catholic religion. As a result the distinction between "Old English" and "Native Irish" largely disappeared by 1700, as they were both equally barred from positions of wealth and power by the so-called New English settlers, who became known as the Protestant Ascendancy.

The earliest known reference to the term "Old English" is in the 1580s[2] The community of Norman descent prior to then used numerous epithets to describe themselves (such as "Englishmen born in Ireland" or "English-Irish"), but it was only as a result of the political cess crisis of the 1580s that a group identifying itself as the Old English community actually emerged.

The English in medieval Ireland[edit]

Kilkenny Castle

Traditionally, London-based Anglo-Norman governments expected the English in Ireland to promote English rule through the use of the English language, law, trade, currency, social customs, and farming methods. The English or Hiberno-Norman community in Ireland was, however, never monolithic. In some areas, especially in the Pale around Dublin,and relatively urbanised communities in south county Wexford, Kilkenny, Limerick and Cork, people spoke the English language (though sometimes in arcane local dialects such as Yola), used English law, and, in some respects, lived in a manner similar to that found in England.

However, in the provinces, the English in Ireland (Irish: Gaill meaning "foreigners"), were at times indistinguishable from the surrounding Gaelic lords and chieftains. Dynasties such as the Fitzgeralds, Butlers, and Burkes adopted the native language, legal system, and other customs such as fostering and intermarriage with the Gaelic Irish and the patronage of Irish poetry and music. Such people became regarded as more Irish than the Irish themselves as a result of this process (see also Norman Ireland). The most accurate name for the community throughout the late medieval period was Hiberno-Norman, a name which captures the distinctive blended culture which this community created and operated within. In an effort to halt the ongoing Gaelicisation of the English community, the Irish Parliament passed the Statutes of Kilkenny in 1367, which among other things banned the use of the Irish language, the wearing of Irish clothes, as well as prohibiting the Gaelic Irish from living within walled towns.

The Pale[edit]

Despite these efforts, by 1515, one official lamented, that "all the common people of the said half counties" [of The Pale] "that obeyeth the King's laws, for the most part be of Irish birth, of Irish habit, and of Irish language."[3] English administrators such as Fynes Moryson, writing in the last years of the sixteenth century, shared the latter view of what he termed the English-Irish: "the English Irish and the very citizens (excepting those of Dublin where the lord deputy resides) though they could speak English as well as we, yet commonly speak Irish among themselves, and were hardly induced by our familiar conversation to speak English with us".[4] Moryson's views on the cultural fluidity of the so-called English Pale were echoed by other commentators such as Richard Stanihurst who, while protesting the Englishness of the Palesmen in 1577, opined that Irish was universally gaggled in the English Pale.[5]

The Pale in 1488

Beyond the Pale, the term 'English', if and when it was applied, referred to a thin layer of landowners and nobility, who ruled over Gaelic Irish freeholders and tenants. The division between the Pale and the rest of Ireland was therefore in reality not rigid or impermeable, but rather one of gradual cultural and economic differences across wide areas. Consequently, the English identity expressed by representatives of the Pale when writing in English to the English Crown often contrasted radically with their cultural affinities and kinship ties to the Gaelic world around them, and this difference between their cultural reality and their expressed identity is a central reason for later Old English support of Roman Catholicism.[6]

There was no religious division in medieval Ireland, beyond the requirement that English-born prelates should run the Irish church. After the Henrician Reformation of the 1530s, however, most of the pre-16th century inhabitants of Ireland continued their allegiance to Roman Catholicism, even after the establishment of the Anglican Church in England, and its Irish counterpart, the Church of Ireland.

Tudor conquest and arrival of New English[edit]

In contrast to previous English settlers, the New English, that wave of settlers who came to Ireland from England during the Elizabethan era onwards as a result of the Tudor conquest of Ireland, were more self-consciously English, and were largely (though not entirely) Protestant. To the New English, many of the Old English were "degenerate",[according to whom?] having adopted Irish customs as well choosing to adhere to Roman Catholicism after the Crown's official split with Rome. The poet Edmund Spenser was one of the chief advocates of this view. He argued in A View on the Present State of Ireland (1595) that a failure to conquer Ireland fully in the past had led previous generations of English settlers to become corrupted by the native Irish culture. In the course of the 16th century, the religious division had the effect of alienating the Old English from the state, and eventually propelled them into making common cause with the Gaelic Irish as Irish Roman Catholics.

Cess crisis[edit]

The first confrontation between the Old English and the English government in Ireland came with the cess crisis of 1556–1583. During that period, the Pale community resisted paying for the English army sent to Ireland to put down a string of revolts which culminated in the Desmond Rebellions (1569–73 and 1579–83). The term "Old English" was coined at this time, as the Pale community emphasised their English identity and loyalty to the Crown, while, at the same time, contradictorily they refused to co-operate with the wishes of the English Crown as represented in Ireland by the Lord Deputy of Ireland.

Originally, the conflict was a civil issue, as the Palesmen objected to paying new taxes that had not first been approved by them in the Parliament of Ireland. The dispute, however, also soon took on a religious dimension, especially after 1570, when Elizabeth I of England was excommunicated by Pope Pius V's papal bull Regnans in Excelsis. In response, Elizabeth banned the Jesuits from her realms as they were seen as being among the Papacy's most radical agents of the Counter Reformation which, among other aims, sought to topple her from her thrones. Rebels such as James Fitzmaurice Fitzgerald portrayed their rebellion as a "Holy War", and indeed received money and troops from the papal coffers. In the Second Desmond Rebellion (1579–83), a prominent Pale lord, James Eustace, Viscount of Baltinglass, joined the rebels from religious motivation. Before the rebellion was over, several hundred Old English Palesmen had been arrested and sentenced to death, either for outright rebellion, or because they were suspected rebels because of their religious views. Most were eventually pardoned after paying fines of up to 100 pounds, a very large sum for the time. However, twenty landed gentlemen from some of the Pale's leading, Old English families were executed – some of them, "died in the manner of" [Roman] "Catholic martyrs, proclaiming they were suffering for their religious beliefs".[7]

This episode marked an important break between the Pale and the English regime in Ireland, and between the Old English and the New English.

In the subsequent Nine Years' War (1594–1603), the Pale and the Old English towns remained loyal[8] in favour of outward loyalty to the English Crown during another rebellion.

Establishment of Protestantism[edit]

In the end, however, it was the re-organisation of the English government's administration in Ireland along Protestant lines in the early 17th century that eventually severed the main political ties between the Old English and England itself, particularly following the Gunpowder Plot in 1605.

First, in 1609, Roman Catholics were banned from holding public office in Ireland. Then, in 1613, the constituencies of the Irish Parliament were changed so that the New English Anglicans would have a slight majority in the Irish House of Commons. Thirdly, in the 1630s, many members of the Old English landowning class were forced to confirm the ancient title to their land-holdings often in the absence of title deeds, which resulted in some having to pay substantial fines to retain their property, while others ended up losing some or all of their land in this complex legal process (see Plantations of Ireland).

The political response of the Old English community was to appeal directly to the King of Ireland in England, over the heads of his representatives in Dublin, effectively meaning that they had to appeal to their sovereign in his role as King of England, a necessity which further disgruntled them.

First from James I, and then from his son and successor, Charles I, they sought a package of reforms, known as The Graces, which included provisions for religious toleration and civil equality for Roman Catholics in return for their payment of increased taxes. On several occasions in the 1620s and 1630s, however, after they had agreed to pay the higher taxes to the Crown, they found that the Monarch or his Irish viceroy chose instead to defer some concessions. This was to prove counterproductive for the cause of the English administration in Ireland as eventually this unsatisfactory situation led some Old English writers, such as Geoffrey Keating to write pieces in which they argued, for example, in the Irish-language Foras Feasa ar Éirinn (1634), that the true identity of the Old English was now Roman Catholic and Irish, rather than any longer English at all. Thus the policy had effectively resulted in the assimilation of the Old English with the native Irish, hitherto their traditional opponents in Ireland.

Dispossession and defeat[edit]

In 1641, many of the Old English community made a decisive break with their past as loyal subjects by joining the Irish Rebellion of 1641. Many factors influenced the decision of the Old English to join in the rebellion, among them fear of the rebels and fear of government reprisals against all Roman Catholics. The main long-term reason was, however, a desire to reverse the anti-Roman Catholic policies that had been pursued by the English authorities over the previous 40 years in carrying out their administration of Ireland. Nevertheless, despite their formation of an Irish government in Confederate Ireland, the Old English identity was still an important division within the Irish Roman Catholic community. During the Irish Confederate Wars (1641–53), the Old English were often accused by the Gaelic Irish of being too ready to sign a treaty with Charles I of England at the expense of the interests of Irish landowners and the Roman Catholic religion. The ensuing Cromwellian conquest of Ireland (1649–53), saw the ultimate defeat of the Roman Catholic cause and the almost wholesale dispossession of the Old English nobility. While this cause was briefly revived before the Williamite war in Ireland (1689–91), by 1700, the Anglican descendants of the New English had become the dominant class in the country, along with the Old English families (and men of Gaelic origin such as William Conolly) who chose to comply with the new realities by conforming to the Established Church.

Protestant Ascendancy[edit]

In the course of the eighteenth century under the Protestant Ascendancy, social divisions were defined almost solely in sectarian terms of Roman Catholic, Anglican and Protestant Nonconformist, rather than ethnic ones. Against the backdrop of the Penal Laws (Ireland) which discriminated against them both, and a country becoming increasingly Anglicized, the old distinction between Old English and Gaelic Irish Roman Catholics gradually faded away,

Changing religion, or rather conforming to the State Church, was always an option for any of the King of Ireland's subjects, and an open avenue to inclusion in the officially recognised "body politic", and, indeed, many Old English such as Edmund Burke were newly-conforming Anglicans who retained a certain sympathy and understanding for the difficult position of Roman Catholics, as Burke did in his parliamentary career. Others in the gentry such as the Viscounts Dillon and the Lords Dunsany belonged to Old English families who had originally undergone a religious conversion from Rome to Canterbury to save their lands and titles. Some members of the Old English who had thus gained membership in the Irish Ascendancy even became adherents of the cause of Irish independence. Whereas the Old English FitzGerald Dukes of Leinster held the premier title in the Irish House of Lords when it was abolished in 1800, a scion of that Ascendancy family, the Irish nationalist Lord Edward Fitzgerald, was a brother of the second duke.

Collective identity of the Old English[edit]

Historians disagree about what to call the Old English community at different times in its existence, and in how to define this community's sense of collective identity.

Irish historian Edward MacLysaght makes the distinction in his book, Surnames of Ireland, between Hiberno-Norman and Anglo-Norman surnames. This sums up the fundamental difference between "Queen's English Rebels" and the Loyal Lieges. The Geraldines of Desmond or the Burkes of Connacht, for instance, could not accurately be described as Old English as that was not their political and cultural world. The Butlers of Ormond, on the other hand, could not accurately be described as Hiberno-Norman in their political outlook and alliances, especially after they married into the Royal Family.

Some historians now refer to them as Cambro-Normans, and Seán Duffy of Trinity College, Dublin invariably uses that term rather than the misleading Anglo-Norman (most Normans came via Wales, not England), but after many centuries in Ireland and just a century in Wales or England it appears odd that their entire history since 1169 is known by the description Old English, which only came into use in the late sixteenth century. Some contend it is ahistorical to trace a single Old English community back to 1169 as the real Old English community was a product of the late sixteenth century in the Pale. Up to that time, the identity of such people had been much more fluid; it was the administration's policies which created an oppositional and clearly defined Old English community.

Brendan Bradshaw, in his study of the poetry of late sixteenth century Tír Chónaill, points out that in Irish the Normans were not called Seanghaill ("Old Foreigners") there but rather they were called Fionnghaill and Dubhghaill. He argued in a lecture to the Mícheál Ó Cléirigh Institute in University College, Dublin that the poets referred to those of Norman stock who were completely hibernicised thus with the purpose of granting them a longer vintage in Ireland that they had (Fionnghaill meaning "fair-haired Foreigners", i.e. Norwegian Vikings; Dubhghaill meaning "black-haired Foreigners", i.e. Danish Vikings). This follows on from his earlier arguments that the term Éireannaigh as we currently know it also emerged during this period in the poetry books of the Uí Bhroin of Wicklow as a sign of unity between Gaeil and Gaill; he viewed it as a sign of an emerging Irish nationalism. Breandán Ó Buachalla essentially agreed with him, Tom Dunne and Tom Bartlett were less sure.

It was noted in 2011 that Irish nationalist politicians elected between 1918 and 2011 could often be distinguished by surname. Fine Gael parliamentarians were more likely to bear surnames of Norman origin than those from Fianna Fáil, who had a higher concentration of Gaelic surnames.[9]

See also[edit]

Footnotes[edit]

  1. ^ Oxford Companion to Irish History online
  2. ^ Canny, Nicholas, From Reformation to Restoration : Ireland 1534–1660 (Dublin 1987); the third volume in the Helicon history of Ireland paperback series.
  3. ^ 'State of Ireland & plan for its reformation' in State Papers Ireland, Henry VIII, ii, 8
  4. ^ Cited in Graham Kew (ed.), The Irish Sections of Fynes Moryson's unpublished itinerary (IMC, Dublin, 1998), p. 50.
  5. ^ Cited in S. J. Connolly, Contested Island: Ireland 1460–1630 (Oxford, 2007), p. 29.
  6. ^ See Vincent Carey, 'Bi-lingualism and identity formation in sixteenth-century Ireland' in Hiram Morgan (ed.), Political Ideology in Ireland, 1541–1641 (Dublin, 1999) for a study of this aspect of Old English culture and identity.
  7. ^ Colm Lennon, Sixteenth Century Ireland, The Incomplete Conquest,204–205
  8. ^ Colm Lennon, Sixteenth Century Ireland, The Incomplete Conquest, p 322, "Despite the proclamations of O'Neill... there is little evidence that the townsfolk and Pale gentry were in sympathy with the Ulster chieftain's war, and in this they had the backing of leading Jesuits such as Father Richard Field SJ. Whatever their common Catholicism, any links with the Spanish monarchy were strongly eschewed by the vast majority of those of 'Old English' origin in Ireland."
  9. ^ Irish Times, 27 June 2011. "FF and FG tribal split traced back to 12th century", based on research by Drs. Byrne and O'Malley