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The English in Ireland and the Practice of Massacre (1)


In his article The Staggered End Of Western Civilisation (Church and State No. 109) Desmond Fennell argues that a fundamental change in West European and American attitudes to massacre occurred in 1945. 

"Massacre was forbidden by Western morality and law. When massacres had previously been committed by Westerners, they had been retrospectively condemned by the prevalent public judgement, and the ban on such action vigorously reasserted. The official American declaration that the Hiroshima and Nagasaki massacres were legitimate had ... important consequences ... It declared indiscriminate massacre to be an optional element of American warfare." 

I acknowledge the grim significance of the atomic bombings and their acceptance by mainstream opinion in the West. However, I cannot agree that previously there had been an unqualified ban on massacre. The history of Ireland tells a different story. Throughout most of the 16th century, English Government forces conducted increasingly frequent massacres of non-combatants (women, children, old people, farm workers etc.) in rebellious areas of Ireland. The practice of massacre became systematic during the two Geraldine rebellions: in 1569, and above all in 1579-83. Between 1600 and 1603 the massacres by English forces in Ulster reached such an intensity that, according to a recent historian of the period (John McGurk in Age Of Atrocity, p128), they approached the reality of what is now called "ethnic cleansing" and "genocide"

These practices were not retrospectively condemned, nor did the prevailing political culture proclaim that they were impermissible. Quite the contrary. The agents of massacre boasted of their doings to colleagues and superiors in official state correspondence, and their boasts may be read today in the published State Papers. Such practices were even recorded, as examples of praiseworthy diligence and thorough-ness, in contemporary published books. Furthermore, the agents of massacre were not despised, or fastidiously kept at a distance, by their monarchs. They were promoted and enriched, or given means of enriching themselves. An example is Arthur Chichester, the primary agent of massacre in Ulster, who subsequently became viceroy of Ireland and held that position for over a decade. 

Without even bothering to come down as far as the Cromwellian period, it is clear from the evidence that, in 16th and early 17th century England, in the official military and governing culture, indiscriminate massacre was considered an optional element in warfare against Irish rebels. 

Most of the facts on which these statements are based can be found conveniently in two books published in recent years: Age Of Atrocity ed. David Edwards, Pádraig Linehan and Clodagh Tait (Dublin 2007), and Sir Walter Raleigh In Ireland by James Pope- Hennessy (Dublin 2009; first published in 1883, and at last reprinted). The introduction to Age Of Atrocity records how the leading Irish history journal, Irish Historical Studies, for the first half-century and more of its existence, systematically avoided the theme of violence, killing and atrocity during the 16th and 17th centuries. In the relevant volume of Oxford's New History Of Ireland, which the IHS editors dominated, "it was the soft-focus view that prevailed, with the main narrative remaining studiously evasive about killing and atrocity" (p.15). 

T.W. Moody and R. Dudley Edwards, the guardians of IHS, felt that in Ireland history had to be soft-focus, otherwise it could be dangerous. Or to put it more neutrally, history should be an ideology of stability. Or to put it very kindly: 

"Their determination to avoid the trap of writing history that might lend weight to either Catholic nationalism or Protestant unionism meant that scholars avoided the study of key aspects of the country's past, in particular political and colonial violence and religious discord ... A special effort was made to decouple early modern history from current affairs by minimising or passing over the political and religious violence of the period" (pp.16-17). 

Unfortunately, they went a bit too far, and what they were doing was noticed. "Far from saving Irish history from abuse, therefore, by their persistent evasion of disturbing events historians risked being identified among its abusers" (p.17). 

And so, after all these years, a handful of Irish historians has been rediscovering what historians in the late 19th century could scarcely avoid mentioning. Even Froude mentions English atrocities, though of course he puts the blame on the Irish: they dragged the well-meaning English down to their own level. Lecky, at the beginning of his History Of Ireland In The Eighteenth Century, gives a summary review of what the State Papers in particular had revealed, and comments as follows on the English practice of warfare in 16th and 17th century Ireland: "The war, as conducted by Carew, by Pelham, by Gilbert, by Mountjoy, was literally a war of extermination. The slaughter of Irishmen was looked upon literally as the slaughter of wild beasts" (Vol. 1 p.5).