Chapter Two cont’d


In 1649 under Oliver Cromwell, the most radical English Protestants, the Puritans, rose to power in England, beheading King Charles I and establishing the Commonwealth with Cromwell as Lord Protector (a virtual dictatorship). Cromwell himself subsequently invaded Ireland, conducting the brutal siege of Drogheda, in which the entire garrison was put to death, and the siege of Wexford, in which his army killed 2,000 Irish after surrender had begun.  Cromwell then began a series of brutal, ruthless campaigns of suppression of Catholics, seizures of their estates, evictions to the poorest parts of Ireland, outright murder by the thousands, and destruction of their churches. To this day Cromwell is the most reviled figure in the Republic of Ireland, and one cannot go through a section of the country without hearing–still with hatred and outrage–about the destruction he visited on the land 3 ½ centuries ago. Hope for the Irish rested in the descendants of Charles I, particularly his son James II, who was a Catholic. Were James to return to the throne, he would, the Irish hoped, restore Catholic rule or at least toleration to the empire. Thus the Irish threw themselves behind James’s cause.  In 1690-91 the forces of James, consisting of French and Irish troops, landed in Ireland and engaged in a series of battles with the new, Protestant English king, William III. (William had married James’s daughter, Mary, giving him a legitimate claim to the throne.) But when James and his supporters were soundly defeated at the Battle of the Boyne and the Battle of Aughrim, Irish hopes were dashed.

Battle of the Boyne

Battle of the Boyne

A new era of the Penal Laws, terribly harsh laws restricting the Irish Catholics from owning weapons, going abroad for education, practicing law, even owning land in their own country, commenced. Among the restrictions were laws against the recitation of Irish poetry, and many of the wandering bards and poets were arrested, deported, or killed. The effort was to stamp out the Irish language tradition, and it led to a tragic decline of Irish poetry, which had always been a primarily oral tradition.

The effect of these tyrannous laws was captured by the poets themselves.  The devastation wreaked upon Ireland still finds voice in their eloquent laments.  Read  the 17th-century lament, “The Passing of the Poets” in The New Oxford Book of Irish Verse (pp.164-167), and also Aogan O’ Rathaille’s early 18th-century political poem, “Brightness most bright” (p.195).

With the political situation stabilized, the18th century became a relatively peaceful and prosperous time for Ireland. This period is termed the Protestant Ascendancy, for Ireland was ruled by Anglican (not radical Protestant) aristocrats who were determined to sustain their power over Ireland. These were the descendants of some of the oldest Anglo-Irish families who had switched their loyalties to the Protestant Church over the centuries, and now were firmly established as the great land-owning families throughout particularly the eastern half of Ireland. The achievements of this ruling class were in many respects magnificent, and they accomplished much that was good for Ireland: Trinity College was their seat of learning, and it became one of the great universities in western Europe; the Irish Parliament in Dublin–the only independent Parliament in any British colony in the entire empire–was renowned for its great orators and leaders; and Dublin, the center of the Protestant power, became a magnificent city.

View Georgian Dublin