The Political Landscape of 17th Century Ireland

The years of 1536-1691 bore witness to the erosion of Gaelic Culture as the first full conquest by England of the island of Ireland was undertaken. This was achieved through the colonization by Protestant Settlers from England. The 17th Century bore witness to the emergence of great estates formed from the confiscated lands of the Gaelic Chieftains.

What emerged from this tumultuous time were two pivotal themes within the history of Ireland:

1.) The subordination of Ireland to London-based governments.

2.) Sectarian animosity between Catholics and Protestants.

Under King Henry VIII Ireland was transformed from a Lordship to a full Kingdom. Often cited as a strong reason as to why Henry VIII sought to conquer Ireland completely, the growing influence of the Fitzgerald dynasty in County Kildare is provided as evidence. The Fitzgeralds had become the effective rulers of Ireland in the 15th Century and their allegiance to the Tudor Monarchs became questionable.

Since the forming of a lordship in Ireland in the 12th Century, Ireland had retained its own Parliament. To secure effective control over Ireland as a full Kingdom, Henry VIII pursued a Policy of “surrender and regrant”. Under this policy Gaelic Chiefs, and some autonomous Norman-Irish Lords, were actively encouraged to surrender their lands to the King of England and recognise him as the King of Ireland and then have their lands regranted to them. Those who resisted faced military reprisals. Those who surrendered their lands were expected to; speak English, wear English style-clothing, follow English laws and customs, remain loyal to the crown and convert to Henry VIII’s new church. Ultimately this conquest, which was completed under Elizabeth I and James I, resulted in the assimilation and abolition of lordships which had been independent for several hundred years.

As discussed back in the entry for Chapter 1 Part 1 of ‘The Legend of William Lamport’, Hugh O’Neill and his allies, supported by a Spanish expeditionary force were defeated at ‘The Battle of Kinsale’ in 1601 and forced to surrender to James I in 1603.

From the mid-16th Century to the early 17th Century the English government carried out a policy of colonisation known as ‘Plantations’. These new settlers held a strong British and Protestant identity and would go on to form the ruling class of the British administration in Ireland.

What resulted under this new administration were a series of ‘Penal Laws’ which discriminated against all other Christian Faiths apart from the Church of Ireland formed by Henry VIII. Roman Catholics suffered greatly under these laws. From 1607 they were prevented from taking Public Office. By 1615, it was made law that there would always be a Protestant majority for any vote given in the Irish House of Commons.

Ireland’s political landscape in the 17th Century was further altered by the emergence of the “New English”. This Anglo-Irish class replaced the Gaelic Irish and “Old English” ruling class. The use of “New” and “Old” was to further distinguish them from Hiberno-Norman settlers from medieval times.

The effects of this turbulent political landscape will be explored among the themes of Chapter 2 of ‘The Legend of William Lamport’ as we will see that Lamport himself is prevented from studying in Trinity College in Dublin (founded by Elizabeth I) due to the ‘Oath of Supremacy’ (recognising the king of England as the head of the whole church of Ireland) and this would be a contributing factor in taking young William from Ireland to England. We will also see an example of how tenant farmers and peasant classes suffered under the sectarian governing of Crown rule.

It would not take an immense leap in logic to hypothesise that the experiences of the land displaced Irish Catholics of this time helped focus Lamport’s sympathies towards the land displaced Mexicans he would later encounter.

‘The Legend of William Lamport’, Chapter 2, Page 1- Art Preview, By Cormac Hughes

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