Book review: A revelatory history lesson about Elizabethan Ireland

"It is amazing to see how he keeps a hold of hundreds of names and personages, and how he weaves together events to provide a coherent, fast-moving, breath-taking tale"
Book review: A revelatory history lesson about Elizabethan Ireland

An 1855 engraving of Queen Elizabeth the First of England reigned from 1558 to 1603. She was also known as The Virgin Queen, Gloriana, or Good Queen Bess. This engraving is based on the famous Rainbow portrait of the Queen painted in 1600.

  • The Elizabethan Conquest of Ireland 
  • James Charles Roy 
  • Pen & Sword, hb: €40 

James Charles Roy sounds like a quintessential English name albeit with connotations of French, in terms of Roy/Roi or King. And the title, The Elizabethan Conquest of Ireland, does not necessarily warm the cockles of the Irish heart. In fact, Roy’s American mother’s forebears boast the names O’Brien and Hennessy and so he is ‘one of our own’: qualified to undergo the test of Irishness. Roy owns Moyode Castle, somewhat of a folly, near Athenry: its peace and quiet recently destroyed by the Dublin to Galway motorway.

Born in 1945, Roy was brought to Ireland by his parents in 1955 and has been in love with the country ever since. He protests that he is disillusioned and no longer ‘wallows in the blarney and Celtic twilight, rebel extravagance’ but he has devoted 50 years to writing about Ireland. According to renowned Irish historian, Roy Foster, The Elizabethan Conquest of Ireland is ‘impressively researched’ and an ‘involving story’. That is some accolade from a professional to an amateur.

A cursory glance at the contents reveals that Roy is approaching his mission via the English upper classes. Once more it is debatable as to whether this might appeal to Irish readers. The book is divided into four sections all named ‘The Queen’. So, sequentially Elizabeth is young, mid-reign, declining and, finally, dead. 

Sub-dividing chapters name other members of the English nobility such as Humphrey Gilbert and Walter Raleigh, Sir Henry Savile and Sir John Harrington, whilst the Irish are represented by the protestant beauty Mabel Bagenal and her womanising husband, Hugh or The O’Neill.

One of the thorns engendering the Irish chip-on-the-shoulder attitude to the Nine Years War in the 1590s, and its contexts, is the idea that to the English the Irish are always ‘other’. And ‘other’ means lesser. Not only did the ‘other’ lose control of their own country but to rub salt in the wound they represented just a series of minor skirmishes faced by Elizabeth 1st whilst she turned her face stubbornly towards mainland Europe and her Catholic enemies. 

Ireland’s threat was as an outpost through whose western seaports the Spanish or other foes might travel. The Queen never visited the island which was regarded by its larger sister, England, as a place of ‘humours’ and quagmires. But it was a place where Elizabeth could maintain an army cheaply – just in case she really needed it.

Further she could get rid of troublesome or incompetent courtiers, exiling them to a hostile environment, starving them of funds and rendering them toothless. Some of those who governed Ireland in her name were extreme Protestants, Puritans almost. They distrusted the indigenous Irish along with the ‘Old’ Anglo-Irish who they regarded as ‘too Catholic, too proud, too rebellious, too stiff-necked, and too obstinate’. The stage was set for dispute: over religion but also land and power.

As is so often the case with history Roy’s ‘dramatis personae’, as he terms them, are mainly men. But he tries to balance the story with studies of Mabel, sometimes known as the ‘Helen of the Elizabethan Wars’, Frances, née Walsingham, Countess of Essex and, of course, the Queen, herself.

For many, one of the alluring characteristics of Roy’s account will be his focus on men of letters, such as Sir Philip Sidney and Edmund Spenser. These two English-born writers, long appropriated into the Irish literary canon, transmute their observations into art, thus giving an insight into indigenous lives and culture in a way that cannot be expected of those dealing only in politics and military matters.

Roy, however, has a dismissive attitude to Sir Philip Sidney, mirroring in a way, that of his queen. He regards Sidney’s work, which he states is mainly unread these days, as uninspiring, quoting T S Eliot who thought that Arcadia was ‘a monument of dullness’. 

Further he joins forces with the monarch in blaming Sidney for his own, untimely, death at 31. This was caused, it could be said, by bravado. The young man removed his armour, to emulate his commander, and received a wound to the leg which gradually, over a period of weeks of agony, killed him. Thus was extinguished an elegant, articulate, promising life.

Sidney’s acquaintance, Edmund Spenser, is altogether a different kettle of fish. He was much admired by W B Yeats who was at pains to separate the vile coloniser from the lyric poet of Ireland. This is not always so easy for a student of The Faerie Queen and A View of the Present State of Ireland. The focalisers, selected by Spenser, are characters and not the man himself. 

His immersion in political life meant that it was imperative that he kept in-with-the-in-crowd, who were in those days, the ‘New’ Anglo-Irish. The ‘Old’, frenchified, long-planted landowners were seen as too intimate with the indigenous Irish, in marital and linguistic ways that were deeply suspicious, for those currently serving as, or with, the Lords Deputy of Ireland.

Spenser was too lowly and impoverished to turn his nose up at the booty offered when castles and houses were pillaged, and properties upcycled to young blades such as himself. As always Ireland provided the backdrop for newly bestowed titles, if of lesser worth than those in the old country. 

It was preferable to have influence among the courts of Cork and Limerick and to process in the halls of Dublin than to struggle penniless in the streets of London. Whether or not Spenser can be considered an Elizabethan conqueror of Ireland is a moot point but he can, at least, be lauded as a superb poet. Undoubtedly his years in Ireland enabled his literary career whatever slings and arrows were flung at him.

The long chapter headed up as ‘Mabel Bagenal’ reveals very little about that person although it is thought that she was pretty. Hugh O’Neill may have seen her in her adolescent years and marked her out as marriageable material – when convenient. Turncoat O’Neill prevaricated, twisting and turning as he made and betrayed allies. One of these, Mabel’s brother, Sir Henry, was equally determined to further his own ambitions for power and money but not by disposing of his sister to the wily O’Neill. 

Realising the danger to Mabel he packed her off to Dublin where she stayed with gullible relatives who soon hosted O’Neill, thus allowing him to elope with the maiden. She was immediately married; to protect her reputation according to the bishop who performed the ceremony. Her beauty and her nuptials constitute the main thrust of Roy’s focus on Mabel. The rest of the chapter is about her brother and her husband as they wheeled their war horses around the country and wheedled their way into receipt of favours. And so it goes.

The epilogue is fascinating: Roy delineates the final years and deaths of the remaining movers and shakers. So, the Great O’Neill is pensioned off by King Philip of Spain, to exist, drunk and angry, in poor lodgings in Rome. Richard Boyle, Earl of Cork, on the other hand considered himself as a ‘model of protestant ingenuity and progress’ and has an ornate tomb in Youghal. 

The Queen died heirless and, according to Francis Bacon, ‘it was a fine thing to have a king on the throne of England, and not a queen’. Among her papers, it was said, there ‘was more ado with Ireland than all the world besides’.

Roy’s book The Elizabethan Conquest of Ireland is a marvellous thing. It is amazing to see how he keeps a hold of hundreds of names and personages and how he weaves together events to provide a coherent, fast-moving, breath-taking tale. The narrative may tread on the sensitivities of some partisan readers but for the unschooled it is revelatory. Although it would be preferable if his favourite synonym for Ireland were not ‘quagmire’.

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