Sample Textual Analysis: Coursepack on Plantations and Penal Laws

Violence in Early Modern English Writings on Ireland

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In John Derricke’s Image of Ireland (1581), the author asserts that the 16th century population of Ireland engaged in indiscriminate acts of violence, delighting in destruction for the sake of destruction. In the second woodcut in the text, for example, Derricke’s caption reads:

derricke detailThey spoil, and burn, and bear away, as fit occasions serve,
And think the greater ill they do, the greater praise deserve:
They pass not for the poor man’s cry, nor yet respect his tears,
But rather joy to see the fire, to flash about his ears.
To see both flame, and smoldering smoke, to dark the crystal skies,
Next to their prey, therein I say, their second glory lies. [1]


Edmund Spenser echoed the point in the View of the Present State of Ireland (1596). In a passage that was not included in the excerpts we read for class, Irenaeus (speaking for Spenser) asserted that Ireland:

…is a nation ever acquainted with wars, though but amongst themselves, and in their own kind of military discipline, trained up from their youths: which they have never yet been taught to lay aside, nor made to learn obedience unto the law, scarcely to know the name of law… [2]

In both passages, indiscriminate violence is presented as something integral to Irish culture. The above quote from Spenser makes this explicit, asserting that civil customs, discipline, and obedience must be taught at an early age. The civility of the Irish, both suggest, can be judged by their willingness to subordinate themselves before the dual authority of the English crown and English laws. Thus, Derricke concludes, the mark of the Great O’Neill’s loyalty could be found in his oath to Elizabeth, “to maintain the sacred right, of such a Virgin Queen”. [1]

Both Derricke and Spenser assert that indiscriminate violence carried out by the Irish must be met with violence carried out by English soldiers. Because the rebellious Irish operated outside the boundaries of law, they suggest, English soldiers could carry out acts that might otherwise seem excessively brutal or in violation of early modern codes of warfare. Derricke thus expresses delight in the dismembering of Irish rebels in the field:  “To see a soldier toze a kern, O Lord it is a wonder/And eke what care he taketh to part, the head from neck a sunder”. Spenser strikes out in a slightly different direction, suggesting that direct violence against Irish rebels might not be necessary. Instead, in one of the most famous passages from the View, he imagines the successful conclusion of a scorched earth strategy that would have the effect of starving out the recalcitrant population. Recalling similar strategies used by English soldiers during the Desmond Rebellions, Irenaeus describes the endgame of this approach:

Out of every corner of the wood and glens they came creeping forth upon their hands, for their legs could not bear them; they looked anatomies [of] death, they spoke like ghosts, crying out of their graves; they did eat of the carrions, happy where they could find them, yea, and one another soon after, in so much as the very carcasses they spared not to scrape out of their graves.  And if they found a plot of water-cresses or shamrocks, there they flocked as to a feast for the time, yet not able long to continue therewithal; that in a short space there were none almost left, and a most populous and plentiful country suddenly left void of man or beast. [1]

Looking ahead almost a half century to the 1641 Rising, similar themes can be discerned in English writing on the conflict. The images below, sampled from James Cranford’s The Tears of Ireland, a 1642 work published in Ireland, presents horrific scenes of violence carried out by Irish rebels against English settlers [3]:


It should be noted that much of this violence was exaggerated in the London press, which tended to publish sensationalized accounts and reflected England’s political context in the early 1640s, particularly the emerging conflict between Charles I and the Long Parliament. Recent scholarship, which draws heavily on the 1641 Depositions at Trinity College Dublin, assess the ways that these assertions were exaggerated and demonstrates some of the more complicated motives for the violence that did occur in 1641 [4].

The presentation of the relationship between Roman Catholicism and violence is an important difference between the late 16th century writings of Derricke and Spenser and the accounts of the 1641 Rising. Derricke and Spenser had little to say about Irish religion. For example, Derricke’s “Friar Smellfeast” (“Who plays in Romish toys the ape, by counterfeiting Paul”) can be seen as a generically gluttonous and duplicitous figure, but hardly harmful [1]. By contrast, in the image below, Cranford presents the Irish rebels of 1641 as inherently anti-religious in specifically attacking and dismembering Protestant ministers.


The next image from Cranford identifies the source of this brutality. Cranford does not present violence as a symptom of disorder and incivility, but rather as something encouraged by active involvement of Roman Catholic clergy who “anoint the rebels with their sacrament of unction before they go to murder and rob, assuring them that for their meritorious service if they be killed [they] shall escape Purgatory and go to Heaven immediately”.


This view of the 1641 Rising extends into contemporary times. In the 1970s and 1980s, Ian Paisley invoked the 1641 Rising in his polemical speeches on the Troubles, comparing the Provisional IRA to the rebels of 1641 [5]. Likewise, during the tense standoffs surrounding Orange Order routes in the late 1990s, marchers carried banners depicting the alleged drowning of Protestants at Portadown in 1641 [6] and the website, which is affiliated with the European Institute of Protestant Studies, includes an essay by Dr. Clive Gillis, entitled “The Irish Rebellion of 1641: A Vicious, Unprovoked Bloodbath Engineered by Rome against Protestants” [7].

One of the important themes that we discussed throughout our class was historical memory and how community identities often reference stories of past events as part of a collective and usable past. This material from 1641 seems important to our discussions of Northern Ireland and Unionist commemoration. King Billy obviously takes center stage in Unionist iconography and collective memory – we saw the triumphant arches in several towns and the King William mural in the Fountain neighborhood of Derry – but 1641 seems equally important. William of Orange is a symbol of Protestant victory and suppression of Roman Catholicism. This suppression only makes sense if Catholics were perceived as a threat. The 1641 Rising provided accounts of extreme violence targeting Protestants and encouraged by the Roman Catholic Church. Understanding that view of the Rising, although it is badly distorted and problematic, does help make sense of some of the anxieties expressed by Unionist elements over the years.



[1] July 18 Coursepack on Plantation and Penal Laws (

[2] Renascence Edition of Edmund Spenser, View of the Present State of Ireland (

[3] Irish Comics Wiki: The Teares of Ireland (

[4] Examples can be found in Raymond Gillespie, “The Murder of Arthur Champion and the 1641 Rising in Fermanagh”, Clogher Record 14 (1993), pp. 52-66 and Hilary Simms, “Violence in County Armahg”, in Brian Mac Cuarta (ed.), Ulster 1641: Aspects of the Rising (Belfast: 1997), pp. 123-138.

[5] R. Davis, “The Manufacturing of Propagandist History by Northern Ireland Loyalists and Republicans”, in Yonah Alexander and Alan O’Day (eds.), Ireland’s Terrorist Dillema (Dordrecht: 1986), p. 166.

[6] Susan McKay, Northern Protestants: An Unsettled People (Belfast: 2000), p. 143.

[7] Clive Gillis, “Days of Deliverance, Part 7: The Irish Rebellion of 1641: A Vicious, Unprovoked Bloodbath Engineered by Rome against Protestants” (

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