Please consider registering as a member of the International Spenser Society, the professional organization that supports The Spenser Review. There is no charge for membership; your contact information will be kept strictly confidential and will be used only to conduct the business of the ISS—chiefly to notify members when a new issue of SpR has been posted.

Micheál Ó Siochrú and Jane Ohlmeyer, eds. Ireland: 1641 Contexts and Reactions
by Valerie McGowan-Doyle

Ireland, 1641: Contexts and reactions. Micheál Ó Siochrú and Jane Ohlmeyer, eds. Manchester: Manchester UP, 2015. paperback re-issue. xvii + 286 pp. ISBN 978-0719097263. $43.00 paper.


This paperback re-issue of Ireland, 1641: Contexts and reactions is most welcome. The 1641 Rising and the violence that accompanied it were of supreme importance at the time, in Ireland and further abroad, and would remain central to the subsequent history of Ireland. The Rising itself was of crucial importance, and so too has been its principal archive, the 1641 Depositions, a collection of statements purposefully collected to document and privilege the losses and violence experienced by the Protestant settler community. Described helpfully and succinctly by Ben Kiernan as a “single-purpose” archive (261), this collection of statements bound in 31 volumes is now housed at Trinity College, Dublin. The first two attempts by the Irish Manuscripts Commission to bring these documents into print in the 1930s and again during “The Troubles” failed, victims of historical circumstance during which it was feared the publication of their sectarian and gruesome detail might only aggravate conflict. A third attempt under the direction of Jane Ohlmeyer and Micheál Ó Siochrú, the editors of this collection, has thankfully been successful, and the material is now available for free, public access at as well as in print from the Irish Manuscripts Commission. Though this archive had already received much needed study, this substantial expansion of access has generated the even more detailed and comprehensive study that the 1641 Rising and the depositions warrant. The early fruits of this renewed historical attention are abundantly evident in this collection of thirteen excellent essays by established scholars addressing both the 1641 Rising and the 1641 Depositions.

As the editors note in their introduction, the essays contribute to the larger goal of “enabling new modes of interpretation in which Irish historiography can break free of the legacy of imperialism and civil war and instead relocate the histories of [Ireland] within very different contexts” (12), a goal of ever increasing importance as we approach the centenaries of pivotal historical events in Ireland, including the Easter 1916 Rising, partition, independence, and civil war. While enhancing more critical investigation of Ireland’s history is one of the goals of The 1641 Depositions Project and this collection, the collection also sets out to assess the events of 1641 in wider comparative contexts. And, as the editors also note, “The importance for the contemporary world of understanding why atrocity, massacre and ethnic cleansing occur cannot be overstated” (12). Assessing and understanding violence therefore serve as one of the themes that span the collection’s essays, along with other key considerations such as memory and representation, and most welcome here is the inclusion of theorization of violence that both enhances our understanding of the Rising and has wider application for other sites of conflict.

The collection begins with Ethan Shagan’s “Early Modern Violence From Memory to History: a Historiographical Essay.” Shagan picks up several of the editors’ introductory points to “think conceptually about what it might mean to write about the 1641 massacres and other instances of large-scale early modern violence in the post-sectarian climate of the twenty-first century” (17).  He sensitively addresses the issues of memory and scholarly study, asserting the importance of each in understanding violence within the mentalité that produced both the violence and its representation. Shagan sets out two models of interpretation, the first focusing on understanding the systems in which violence occurred and the second focusing on its consequences, ultimately challenging historians to think carefully before rejecting the roles emotion and memory play in understanding and writing history.

Aidan Clarke’s essay, “The ‘1641 Massacres,’” lays the groundwork for renewed analysis of the depositions by addressing the question of the death toll. He surveys systematically the history of faulty estimates from John Temple’s rhetorically-driven and outrageously exaggerated estimate of over 300,000 to the current general consensus of roughly 4,000. Clarke warns, though, that this number demands re-examination as it “relies on a selective use of the historiography, rests on no evidential base whatsoever” (37). The resumption of the debate over numbers now made possible by the depositions’ ready availability and more rigorous critical standards is likely to alter our understanding of the death toll yet again and thereby reconfigure approaches to the events of 1641.

The nature of the violence, rather than its death toll, is taken up in excellent essays by William J. Smyth and John Walter. In “Towards a Cultural Geography of the 1641 Rising/Rebellion” Smyth begins with constructive geographical mapping of sites of violence as indicated by the depositions, mapping that reveals three sites of greatest activity in Munster, mid-Leinster and Ulster, focus that can now lay the groundwork for refined analysis of cause. Equally informative is his application of anthropological theory to this data to explore the voice and activities of the “less powerful people … who have much to say” when given the opportunity (71). It is this “second tier of the rising/rebellion—that of the popular level” (72), he argues, that is better represented evidentially in the depositions, hence our opportunity to hear in the depositions the “lives and fears of ordinary people in a time of great upheaval” (71). To that end, Smyth offers identification and analysis of violence by types, including killings, attacks on clergymen, ethnic insults and, importantly, sexual violence (the only essay in the collection to address the critical issue of conflict zone sexual violence in detail). His astute attention to symbolic and ritualistic forms of violence leads him to identify humiliation at the heart of 1641’s causes and unfolding.

Symbolic and ritualistic violence also figure in John Walter’s essay, “Performative Violence and the Politics of Violence in the 1641 Depositions,” in which he brings his considerable expertise on popular politics and popular violence to bear on events in Ireland. Walter builds on the work of David Riches to engage theoretically, like Smyth, with various forms of violence such as beheading, the disposal of bodies, and attacks on the clergy. His conclusions, again like Smyth’s, challenge traditional identification of class involvement in the 1641 Rising, as he argues for a “pressing need to revisit and revise the understanding in the current historiography of the [1641] rising as a two-tier protest” (146). The violence perpetrated here may reflect popular agency rather than popular fury, an expression of agency necessitating further work on the politics and negotiation of authority that lay behind it.

David Edwards also challenges conventional wisdom on the 1641 Rising, focusing now on the period preceding it and thus the context within which it emerged. He argues convincingly that numerous understudied episodes of provincial unrest prove to reveal ongoing security concerns in the period between the Ulster plantation and the Rising, demonstrating that histories of the period must include greater attention to the “military and security measures employed by the crown” (102), attention that will alter assessments of the Rising’s causal factors. It was, he concludes, “the near-constant spark and crackle of localized rebellion,” aggravated by Wentworth’s “indiscriminate military tyranny” (108), that brought Ireland to the brink of the Rising, an assessment that draws into question former identification of the decades preceding the Rising as ones of relative calm after the upheavals of the Tudor conquest.

The collection’s theme of “contexts” is approached innovatively in “1641 in a Colonial Context” by Nicholas Canny, who utilizes this opportunity to revisit the long-standing question of Early Modern Ireland’s status as kingdom or colony. He tackles the question by considering the Rising’s representation in John Temple’s 1646 Irish Rebellion, affording Canny the further opportunity to revisit previous discussions of Elizabethan representations of the Irish, notably D.B. Quinn’s. He concludes concretely that Temple purposefully deployed a colonial context to serve his (mis)representation of events. Canny argues that whereas early seventeenth-century discussions of Ireland attributed its problems to Catholicism and its attachment to larger European threats, Temple revived Elizabethan and indeed medieval representations of the Irish as barbaric in order to justify “a fresh phase of colonization” enacted through “extreme measures … that involved the curtailment of fundamental rights” (66), a conclusion reinforced by comparison to another colonial text addressing North America, Edward Waterhouse’s 1622 A Declaration of the State of the Colony and Affairs in Virginia.

Rhetorically-charged representations of events in Ireland emanating from English writers and presses have dominated studies of the Rising. Hiram Morgan’s essay is thus most welcome in providing a much-needed corollary to those reports in his consideration of Spanish and Portuguese publications. “News from Ireland: Catalan, Portuguese and Castilian Pamphlets on the Confederate War in Ireland” surveys a series of items from presses in Barcelona, Lisbon and Castile, significant in their content and understudied by Irish historians because they survive only in Spanish and Portuguese archives. Although there would have been demand for news from Ireland by exiles in these regions, Morgan finds that interest in Irish events was also internally-driven, a function of commerce and politics, both foreign and domestic, particularly in Castile. Importantly, Morgan closes by calling for greater study of other continental news, which stands to contribute substantially, as these do, to a broader base of information from which to assess more comprehensively the reception, reporting and impact elsewhere of events in Ireland.

Spain, of course, figured prominently in early modern English security fears in Ireland and abroad as colonial competition and the confessional divide in Europe escalated. Spain’s place in the 1641 Rising was far more multi-dimensional than supposed, however, as Igor Pérez Tostado demonstrates in “An Irish Black Legend: 1641 and the Iberian Atlantic.”  Incorporating theorization of violence as so many of the other essays do, Pérez Tostado also considers a range of issues including both “real and imagined” Spanish roles (236). One of the more interesting elements of this essay is its analysis of the various ways in which a comparison to Moriscos was used in Ireland, given its obvious references to the problems of integration and/or violent expulsion of undesirable communities. Pérez Tostado finds it used in surprisingly different contexts, applied to the Gaelic Irish both in this period as well as earlier by figures such as Edmund Spenser, but in this period used also by the Catholic Irish to refer to Protestant settlers. The complexity of its use leads Pérez Tostado to consider further additional links between stereotyped ethnicities and violence in the New World and in Ireland. Incorporating the Spanish connections more fully into studies of the 1641 Rising, he argues, “offers a new approach to contextualizing and understanding the stereotypes and discourses at the core of the symbolic and real violence” of the Rising (245) as well as enhancing our understanding of the processes of “integration, subordination and exclusion in the early modern states and empires” (246).

The opportunity to evaluate Ireland’s experience within other comparative contexts is broadened with a set of four essays that consider North American and European examples. In “How to make a successful plantation: colonial experiment in America,” Karen Ordahl Kupperman builds on Canny’s North American contexts by considering British colonists’ reflections on creating successful plantations in North America. She reviews a number of treatises and martial law codes, comparing especially the Virginia and Massachusetts Bay Companies, but it is her closing consideration of the unsuccessful Providence Island Company that allows her to draw helpful connections between developments in the New World and Ireland. Each of the other three essays on Early Modern European sites of violence, Peter Wilson’s “Atrocities in the Thirty Years War,” Erika Kuijpers and Judith Pollmann’s “Why Remember Terror? Memories of Violence in the Dutch Revolt,” and Mark Greengrass’s “Language and Conflict in the French Wars of Religion,” work with pertinent issues such as reporting, violence and memory that bear on assessments of both the 1641 Rising and the depositions. However, while productive avenues for comparison are identified in the editors’ introduction, the essays themselves consider their episodes without drawing connections to Ireland, leaving the reader to develop analysis of their relevance to 1641 independently.

The collection closes with an afterword by Ben Kiernan, who draws on his expertise in genocide to provide not an Early Modern comparative context, but rather later cases of atrocity in southeast Asia. In “Settler colonies, ethno-religious violence and historical documentation:  comparative reflections on Southeast Asia and Ireland,” Kiernan draws out insightful similarities and differences, drawing interestingly on Smyth’s essay to better understand not only Ireland’s experience but to identify as well ways in which studies of 1641 can contribute to deeper  understanding of events in Southeast Asia. Similarly, his work with the documentation of violence in Cambodia in the 1970s adds significantly to instructive approaches to the 1641 depositions.

This highly-recommended collection lays the groundwork for renewed study of the 1641 Rising and the 1641 Depositions. The challenges to former interpretations of the Rising presented in many of the essays and the new directions of inquiry set by others demonstrate how much is yet to be gleaned from the depositions and how much work on the Rising is yet to be done, work that will certainly lead to enhanced, and indeed corrected, understanding. It will be essential reading for those interested in this period, Irish history more generally, and indeed the global history of atrocity and its representation.


Valerie McGowan-Doyle
Lorain County Community College            



  • There are currently no comments

You must log in to comment.


Cite as:

Valerie McGowan-Doyle, "Micheál Ó Siochrú and Jane Ohlmeyer, eds. Ireland: 1641 Contexts and Reactions," Spenser Review 45.3.13 (Winter 2016). Accessed April 14th, 2024.
Not logged in or