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Making Empire: Incisive study of Ireland’s complex role in the British empire

TCD historian skilfully traces a history of conquest, assimilation and defiance that came to shape not just Ireland but Britain and its global empire

Making Empire: Ireland, Imperialism, and the Early Modern World
Author: Jane Ohlmeyer
ISBN-13: 978-0192867681
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Guideline Price: £30

“The negros in our plantation have a saying,” claimed the philosopher George Berkeley in 1749: “if Negro was not Negro, Irishman would be Negro.” There was some truth in the words, Berkeley continued, because most people in Ireland were “more destitute than… the very savages of America”, and “more abject” than that continent’s millions of enslaved black people. The only remedy to Irish “indolence” and “sloth”, he argued in a pamphlet addressed to the Irish Catholic clergy entitled “A word to the wise”, was to make Ireland more like the “industrious land” of England.

Berkeley came from Kilkenny and studied and lectured at Trinity College, where earlier this year his name was removed from the library after student protests about his use (and defence) of slavery on his Rhode Island plantation. His writings and legacy reflect Ireland’s complex place in England’s early modern empire. This island was the target of a massive English imperial project, while Irish people themselves simultaneously participated in English and European empires from America to Africa to India. In a landmark new book, Jane Ohlmeyer shows how those two truths were intertwined, and how they have both often been underestimated.

Ohlmeyer is one of the most influential Irish historians of this century, having led Trinity’s humanities school and Long Room research hub, as well as directing the Irish Research Council. This book comes from her 2021 Ford Lectures at Oxford University, the first time the series was delivered by someone at an Irish university for over 40 years. It is an unmistakably academic book – the research is reflected in nearly 100 pages of notes for 200 of text – but Ohlmeyer skilfully guides her readers through the debates of both the early modern world and modern historians.

Ohlmeyer uses Brian Friel’s 1988 play, Making History, to frame her book, using both its exploration of the complex colonial identities of early modern Ireland, and its discussions of how history is written and remembered. “People think that they just want to know the ‘facts’”, says Hugh O’Neill’s biographer Archbishop Lombard in the play, “but what they really want is a story.” Our story of Ireland’s relationship with empire has often focused on the English state’s campaign to “conquer, colonise, cultivate, and ‘civilise’” this island, but Ohlmeyer’s survey of “anglicisation” shows how its sheer scale can still be difficult to grasp.


The English scorched earth tactics during the Nine Years War led to mass starvation through famine, while the Cromwellian wars were characterised by horrendous massacres

From the 1530s to the 1690s Ireland was radically transformed. English legislation targeted everything from the country’s language to its hairstyles. The goal, wrote surveyor general William Parsons, was to change “government, apparel, manner of holding land, language and habits of life”, to bring about “obedience to the laws and the English empire”.

“Extreme violence,” Ohlmeyer writes, “underpinned anglicisation.” The population loss of Ireland’s colonial wars was among the worst in all of early modern Europe’s period of religious conflicts. The English scorched-earth tactics during the Nine Years War led to mass starvation through famine, while the Cromwellian wars were characterised by horrendous massacres. The cost was also enormous: the Nine Years War almost bankrupted the English state, while “the investment in the war machine deployed against Ireland by the Cromwellians was unprecedented”.

That violence was accompanied by “sectarianism, cultural stereotyping, dehumanisation, and expropriation”. In the 1640s and 1650s alone, over eight million acres changed hands in Ireland, “more than anywhere else in early modern Europe”, and in from the 1640s to the 1670s alone Catholic landholding fell from over half to under a quarter of the island. Even the landscape itself was upturned, through mass deforestation and “improvement”. Ohlmeyer writes that “land, rather than control over people, became the basis for political power”.

Such a transformation provoked repeated resistance. Ohlmeyer was a leader of the influential 1641 Depositions project that has recently digitised the (mostly Protestant) witness testimonies from the Irish Catholic elite’s 1641 rebellion against plantations and the English parliamentarians. While what became a decade of sprawling Civil Wars had many causes, a primary one was certainly “a desire to reverse the processes, policies, and trappings associated with anglicisation”.

In a fascinating and powerful chapter on ‘assimilation’, Ohlmeyer persuasively argues that ‘women’s agency and their lived experience provide an alternative lens through which to interrogate the history of colonial Ireland’

Alongside horrifying sectarian massacres, the rebels attacked anything associated with colonisation: Ohlmeyer recounts how in Co Mayo they even held a mock trial (and real execution) of “the English breed of cattle”. Gaelic poets described the planters as “English-speaking bastards”, while the O’Neills’ poet, Fear Flatha Ó Gnímh, had previously warned that the country was being turned into “a new England called Ireland”.

As Friel showed in Making History, however, Hugh O’Neill – like early modern Ireland itself – had been a much more complex man than such a binary implied. English-educated, married to an Englishwoman and at home with English ideas and politics, it was the great Gaelic lord’s “hybridity” that made him uniquely powerful and threatening to “anglicisation”.

In a fascinating and powerful chapter on “assimilation”, Ohlmeyer persuasively argues that “women’s agency and their lived experience provide an alternative lens through which to interrogate the history of colonial Ireland and to better understand the complex operation of imperialism”. As people navigated the process of colonisation, they often blended, blurred, or straddled the division between “Irish” and “English”: “ethnic categories were complex and unstable”.

As with O’Neill, it was Irishwomen’s ability to combine assimilation and defiance that made them a source of anxiety for the colonial project, their domestic and family authority a way to keep Irish customs, language, and religion alive. Indeed the growing presence of the Irish language in English colonies led to decrees that Irishwomen emigrating across the Atlantic had to “speak only the pure English tongue”.

Ohlmeyer emphasises how the expansion of those colonies was made possible in large part because of the colonisation of Ireland itself. Expropriation and plantation meant that “an influential oligarchy” acquired huge amounts of Irish land, and used their Irish estates to fund imperial endeavours. “In short,” Ohlmeyer writes, “Irish land underpinned English expansionism around the early modern world.” Ireland became “embedded in an economic structure that was oppressive and one that came to characterise the later British Empire and emerging capitalist structures of power”. “Ireland,” commented Donough O’Brien the Protestant earl of Thomond made president of Munster in 1605, “is another India for the English”.

Ohlmeyer argues that not only did Ireland serve as a “laboratory” for imperialism, but that we can understand colonial expansion better through an Irish perspective, not least because of the direct personal and practical links between empire in Ireland and abroad. William Penn founded Pennsylvania after encountering Quakerism when living on his family’s colonial estates in Co Cork, while Dublin-born Gerald Aungier established the first English colony at Bombay.

The philosopher John Locke, secretary of the Council of Trade and Plantations, recommended in 1674 that the government of Caribbean plantations be modelled on “that which has been always observed in Ireland”. William Petty’s 1656 Down Survey of all Irish property (to enable the reallocation of land seized from rebel lords) became the “prototype” for the whole empire.

In those colonies, and those of the other European powers, Ohlmeyer shows how Irish people used “imperial intersections” to their own benefit. The Irish may have been the subjects of colonisation, “a people without an empire”, but they very successfully “piggybacked on the empires of others”. In the 1600s, Irish men and women could be found working as “agents of empire” in European imperial projects everywhere from “New England” to India. They were sailors, pirates, administrators, slave traders, soldiers, priests, nuns, servants, and indentured labourers.

There were Galway men on the ships of Christopher Columbus and Ferdinand Magellan, Louth families running slave plantations in the Caribbean, Clare men trying to found an Irish colony in the Amazon, and even a Wexford man claiming the throne of “New Spain” before being burned alive by the Inquisition.

These people, Ohlmeyer emphasises, were certainly not all Protestant or “Anglo-Irish”. “The real empire-makers”, O’Neill comments in Friel’s Making History, “are the plodding Henrys”, “the menials in the middle”, and Ohlmeyer writes that the “Irish plodding Henrys were male and female and came from diverse faiths, ethnic groups, and social backgrounds”.

By the 1860s one third of the men running British India were Irish. It would be Tipperary Catholic Michael Dywer governing Punjab at the time of the Amritsar Massacre, insisting that Midleton’s Reginald Dyer was correct to open fire on the Indian protesters

The Kildare Catholic Thomas Dongan served as governor of both Tangier and New York in the late 17th century. Many of the Catholic noble families who fled colonial Ireland for France and Spain became key participants in those powers’ growing empires: streets and squares in the Canaries, Cuba, Jamaica and more still bear the Irish surnames of colonial officials, merchants, and plantation owners.

While some Protestant Irish elites at times described themselves as “English”, many self-identified as Irish or were described as such. “What glory for Ireland,” librarian Thomas Stack wrote of his Co Down employer Hans Sloane’s extraordinary collection of objects and books, the foundation for the British Museum. Irish people across the imperial world, Ohlmeyer notes, either emphasised or rejected their Irishness “when it suited”.

In her final reflections Ohlmeyer notes that the presence of Irish people in colonial administration continued into the 19th century, not least in India, which perhaps most starkly reflects Ireland’s paradoxical relationship with empire. By the 1860s one third of the men running British India were Irish. It would be Tipperary Catholic Michael Dywer governing Punjab at the time of the Amritsar Massacre, insisting that Midleton’s Reginald Dyer was correct to open fire on the Indian protesters.

Yet India also shows how “Irish resistance to empire had global consequences”. From ideology to tactics, “the Irish taught the Indians their ABC of freedom fighting”, a phenomenon that would be repeated across the colonial world. Ireland unmade empire just as it had helped make it, and just as it had itself been made by it.

That is a complex history that we are still unravelling, and Ohlmeyer’s important work will hopefully force us to ask questions we have perhaps too long avoided. In an age of Brexit, decolonisation and renewed debates about Irish unity, such reflection is vital. Ohlmeyer recalls the words of the late Ian Paisley at the launch of the 1641 project’s exhibition at Trinity: to learn our complicated history “is to know who we are”.

Christopher Kissane is a historian and writer, and host of Ireland’s Edge.

Recent Other Reading

Imagining Ireland’s Pasts: Early Modern Ireland Through the Centuries, by Nicholas Canny, Oxford University Press, 2021: Canny’s exploration of shifting historical views on early modern Ireland shows how important historical narratives have been to Ireland’s history itself.

Ireland, Slavery and the Caribbean: Interdisciplinary Perspectives, 1620-1830, edited by Finola O’Kane and Ciaran O’Neill, Manchester University Press, 2023: a pioneering collection exploring the too-long-neglected history of Irish people’s roles in the Caribbean and its slave economy.

The Devil from Over the Sea: Remembering and Forgetting Oliver Cromwell in Ireland, by Sarah Covington Oxford University Press, 2022: Covington explores why and how Cromwell’s reputation has echoed through centuries of Irish history.