Edmund Spenser Settles the Irish

Ruins of Kilcoman CastleIn 1580, Edmund Spenser, then twenty-eight years old, went to Ireland to serve Lord Grey. Ireland was then engaged in an uprising against the English which was then called The Irish War, now it is named the Desmond Rebellion so to distinguish it from the many other wars fought to bring English rule over Ireland. Grey marched his troops boldly across country against the fort at Smerwick which was held by Spanish troops who were aiding the Irish rebels. Grey induced them to surrender, then executed them all1. This disregard for military convention brought Grey into disrepute, though Spenser defended his master’s actions to the end of his days.

Edmund Spenser

Once the rebels had been put down, Spenser took up a piece of land and (apparently) began speculating in property. Spenser came from a family of modest means but, by 1584, he was wealthy. A neighbor, Sir Walter Raleigh, was in charge of  the Irish plantations in the area and, in 1590, took Spenser with him to London. Spenser there presented Queen Elizabeth with the first three books of The Faerie Queen, dedicated to the sovereign who had created his opportunity in Ireland.

The English first invaded Ireland in the 12th Century, as part of a Norman attempt to conquer the island. The Angevin kings of England wanted to forestall their French cousins from establishing a rival kingdom next door. The kings of Ireland swore fealty to Henry II and the only problem that remained was the festering belief amongst the Irish that they were not, after all, English and should follow their own kings. Sometimes a rebellion or outbreak of lawlessness would occur and sometimes the English sent over some troops but, by and large, things were as peaceable in Ireland as they ever had been. The English were occupied with larger problems — the Hundred Years War, the wars against the Scots, and the Wars of the Roses — and the imported English lords became Anglo-Irish and were absorbed by their new country. Things changed after Henry VIII broke with Rome. English attempts to impose a centralized government on Ireland went awry and by the time of Elizabeth I, the country was in a more or less constant state of war with local lords fighting the English or one another and outlaws fighting all authority. English power was centered on the Pale, an area that included Dublin in the south and extended north to just beyond the Boyne River. Elizabeth wanted to expand English control outside the Pale. One method she used was to create English plantations in the country.

Spenser, having participated in the defeat of the Desmond Rebellion, had a large tract of land in the Munster plantation. And, it seems, began to see Ireland as his own country. That is not to say that he did not serve the Queen nor that he thought Irishmen superior to Englishmen, quite the opposite, yet this was the land that had made his fortune and he was bound to it. Around 1596, Spenser wrote down his prescription for a successful English overlordship of Ireland in a document titled “A View of the Present State of Ireland”. This was received by the Queen’s Stationers (probably in 1598) but not published until 1633, long after Spenser’s death. The reason the work was ignored (it had limited private circulation) was probably that the English government had no real interest in following Spenser’s terrible plan.

Ruins of Kilcoman Castle, from a very good entry on Spenser’s Ireland at <a href=”http://roy25booth.blogspot.ca”> Early Modern Whale</a>

Spenser’s work begins by describing the laws and customs of the Irish. These are, as he says, savage, which is to say un-English. For instance, he states the Gaullish origins of the Irish and remarks:

the Gaules used to drincke ther enymyes blood, and to paynte themselves therewith: soe alsoe they wright, that the ould Irish were wonte, and soe have I sene some of the Irish doe, but not theire enymyes but frendes bloode. As namely at the execution of a notable traytor at Lymbricke, called Murrogh Obrien, I saw an ould woman, which was his foster mother, tooke up his heade, whilst he was quartered, and sucked up all the blood running thereout, saying, that the earth was not worthy to drincke it, and therewith also steeped her face and brest, and tare her heare, crying and shriking out most terribly.

(This is reminiscent of Irish Revival versions of Deirdre of the Sorrows who drank the blood of her slain lover, Naoise, which might be either High Romanticism or Disgusting Gothicism, you be the judge.) Anyway, after Spenser is done discussing the shortcomings of the Irish and the Anglo-Irish who have degenerated and “growne to be almost as lewde as the Irish“, he gets on with his program. The answer to the Irish Problem is smartly-applied violence. The reformation of Ireland must begin

by the sworde; for all those evilles must first be cutt awaye with a stronge hande, before any good cann bee planted; like as the corrupt branches and unwholsome lawes are first to bee pruned, and the fowle mosse clensed or scraped awaye, before the tree cann bringe forth any good fruicte.

One problem is that the Irish employ guerrilla warfare:

it is well knowne that he is a flying enimye, hidynge himself in woodes and bogges, from whence he will not draw forth, but into some straight passage or perilous forde where he knowes the armye most needes passe; there will he lye in wait, and, if hee finde advantage fitt, will dangerouslye hazard the troubled souldier.

Spenser tells the reader that the defeat of the Desmond Rebellion was by a scorched earth strategy: campaigns were conducted in winter and the stores of grain seized, in summer the farmers were harassed away from their fields, by the following winter the enemy could find no food:

the open enymye haveinge all his countrye wasted, what by him, and what by the soldiers, finddeth them succor in noe places. Townes there are none of which he may gett spoile, they are all burnt; Countrye houses and farmers there are none, they be all fleed; breade he hath none, he plowed not in sommer; flesh he hath, but if he kill yt in winter, he shall want milke in sommer, and shortly want life.

And Spenser says that Munster was a prosperous land full of grain and cattle but after a season of destruction, the enemy was defeated:

 Out of everye corner of the woode and glenns they came creepinge forth upon theire handes, for theire legges could not beare them; they looked Anatomies [of] death, they spake like ghostes, crying out of theire graves; they did eate of the carrions, happye wheare they could find them, yea, and one another soone after, in soe much as the verye carcasses they spared not to scrape out of theire graves; and if they found a plott of water-cresses or shamrockes, theyr they flocked as to a feast for the time, yett not able long to contynewe therewithall; that in a shorte space there were none almost left, and a most populous and plentyfull countrye suddenly lefte voyde of man or beast: yett sure in all that warr, there perished not manye by the sworde, but all by the extreamytie of famyne which they themselves hadd wrought.

“They themselves had wrought” — well, Spenser wants his army to accomplish the victory and his enemy to have the blame for its damage. Once devastated, Ireland is to be subjected to stern but fair English justice and slowly weaned from the evils of Popery. Those who have not starved or been killed are to be resettled here and there so as to break up local ties. One man is to be made administrator and he has extreme power over all. Now this is not terribly out of line with contemporary thinking in Elizabethan England: “…firm measures, ruthlessly applied, with gentleness only for completely submissive subject populations”.  Still, there is a difference between firmness and applied starvation and some have brought up Swift’s “Modest Proposal” as another view of the same topic.

In 1598 another rebellion broke out in Ireland and the Munster plantations were soon seized or destroyed by rebels. Spenser’s home castle at Kilcoman was burned and a young daughter died in the blaze. Spenser and his family retreated to another castle at Rennie but soon decamped to England and poverty. In 1599, in a final irony, the man who proposed starvation for others died,  according to Ben Jonson, “for lack of bread”.

Many have considered the topic of subject populations and Sir Francis Bacon said, twenty-five years after Spenser’s “View”, that “I like a plantation in a pure soil; that is, where people are not displanted to the end to plant in others.  For else it is rather an extirpation than a plantation.” Still, it isn’t difficult to find examples in recent history of grand schemes to bring light to the darker places of the earth that wind up with body counts. Those who think themselves civilized when they meet savage peoples often find themselves shouting, “Exterminate the brutes!”

1Canajaan footnote: the Spanish troops were garrisoned at Fort d’Oro named so because Martin Frobisher dumped the load of ore there that he had collected in Canada. Frobisher thought it was gold but it was only pyrites, fool’s gold.


4 comments on “Edmund Spenser Settles the Irish

  1. […] and replacing them with English lords. Such was a policy advocated by many of the English such as Edmund Spenser. Bingham thought Grace the “nurse of all rebellions” and proceeded to her destruction. […]

  2. On another note about Grainne NíMhaonlai, Sir Henry Sidney also had dealings with her and, in his memoir, referred to her as a notorious woman.

  3. […] indeed. The Cogadh gained a new importance as Elizabeth oversaw various adventures in Ireland and the Irish people revolted against their overlords until the English replaced the Norse as the Gaill, the heathen foe, the terrible foreign […]

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