Colonial Theory from 1500 to 1690

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Colonial Theory from 1500 to 1690

Although Ireland had been invaded in the twelfth century and came to be dominated by the "Normans," its status as a colony largely disappeared in the later middle ages. The distinction between ruler and ruled—the essential component defining a colony—had withered. With the exception of those areas around Dublin and the other seaports, widespread integration between the newcomers and the original inhabitants occurred. During the early modern period, however, the expanding Tudor state proceeded to establish direct control over the whole of Ireland. This entailed a reconquest of the island, which was completed by 1603, and subsequent English expeditions in the 1650s and 1690s to reassert central authority. To assist the process, about 100,000 people from England and Scotland settled in Ireland over these years, forming a new breed of colonists, almost all Protestants, who occupied confiscated land. Their arrival could be regarded as the application of colonial theory.

This theory had developed out of the need to rule. Conquest had come to be seen an endless process and expense: Irish lords could be defeated, but their successors continued to resist. Moreover, the local people refused to reform and assume English customs. If the Irish declined to become English in their manners, actions, and speech, then new thinking recommended their replacement with genuine Englishmen, not merely English landowners, but tenants and artisans, with their families. In short, English society would be transplanted to Ireland.

Renaissance thinkers had little difficulty in finding precedents for such colonization—they were well acquainted with classical history and with Greek and Roman colonization. It became fashionable to appeal to the ancients when advocating colonization; the more daring Elizabethans cited Machiavelli as well. There has been much study on the most glamorous of them, Edmund Spenser (1552–1599), the poet and author of A View of the Present State of Ireland, but his actual impact on English immigration is hard to determine.

There was also little difficulty in justifying their actions. Any uneasiness came from the proposed treatment of the local inhabitants and their reaction. Were they to be allowed to remain to serve their new landlords (and perhaps contaminate them with Irish ways); or were they to be removed to adjacent areas; or even transplanted far away?

The first early modern colonies in Ireland, or plantations as they became known, were those of soldier-farmers in Leix and Offaly during Queen Mary's reign (1553–1558). They were on a small scale, however, and involved comparatively little settlement. More ambitious were the various schemes (projects or "plats") applied in the years after 1565 for settlements in Ulster and Munster. The inspiration for many of these "adventures" came from Queen Elizabeth's secretary of state Sir Thomas Smith. The colonies in Ulster failed to prosper, but the government did have some success with its official plantation in Munster, founded in the 1580s after the crushing of the Desmond rebellion. Various literate gentlemen involved with this plantation, produced erudite treatises on the nature of colonization, packed with classical allusions—among them not only Spenser but also William Herbert and Richard Beacon.

Other theorists are mainly associated with the American colonization experience of the 1580s. Sir Walter Raleigh, Sir Richard Grenville, and Sir Humphrey Gilbert all moved between settlements in Munster and exploration in America. For these men, all from southwest England and related to each other, there existed a connection between their Irish and American ventures, and this was the beginning of an Irish-American interchange that continued throughout the seventeenth century, principally with the southern American colonies and the Carribean.

In the early seventeenth century, colonization in Ireland accelerated with the large-scale Ulster plantation. This time not only English settlers were involved, but Scottish families, symbolizing the union of crowns under James VI and I. The lowland Scots who came were further armed with Presbyterianism, an ideal persuasion for an embattled people. The Ulster plantation entailed the confiscation of six entire counties with its settlers segregated from the Irish, who were given a lesser share of the land in distinct areas. The idea was not to repeat the Munster plantation, a piecemeal affair in which the local inhabitants were mixed with the settlers.

Although there were to be more so-called plantations in the first half of the seventeenth century, they attracted little emigration. And the massive land confiscations of the 1650s and 1690s led to relatively few British settlers crossing the Irish sea. The Cromwellian settlement of 1650 envisaged a small number of investors and a larger number of soldiers becoming the new landowners of much of Ireland, with the dispossessed inhabitants transplanted to Connacht. The land transfer did take place but its popular impact was limited, and the Irish remained among the new landlords with their regained possession in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century.

SEE ALSO Desmond Rebellions; English Writing in Ireland before 1800; Land Settlements from 1500 to 1690; Legal Change in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries; Spenser, Edmund; Wild Geese—The Irish Abroad from 1600 to the French Revolution; Primary Documents: From "Notes of His Report" (1576); From Solon His Follie (1594); From A View of the Present State of Ireland (1596); From A Direction for the Plantation of Ulster (1610); From A Discovery of the True Causes Why Ireland Was Never Entirely Subdued (1612)


Bottigheimer, Karl. English Money and Irish Land. 1971.

Canny, Nicholas. Making Ireland British, 1580–1650. 2001.

Quinn, David Beers. Raleigh and the British Empire. 1947.

Quinn, David Beers. The Elizabethans and the Irish. 1966.

Michael MacCarthy Morrogh