Eamon Darcy. The Irish Rebellion of 1641 and the Wars of the Three Kingdoms. Royal Historical Society Studies in History New Series. Woodbridge: Royal Historical Society/Boydell Press, 2013. xiii + 212 pp. $90.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-86193-320-4.
Reviewed by Chris Sailus
Published on H-War (November, 2014)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey
As Eamon Darcy points out in the conclusion of his first book, The Irish Rebellion of 1641 and the Wars of the Three Kingdoms, 1641 is arguably the major turning point in Irish history. It solidified the confessional battle lines for centuries of English and Irish, their monarchs and politicians, and even the period’s historians. Rather than picking a side, Darcy cuts through the arguments to give us a detailed narrative of the debate’s roots. Indeed, the focus of his book is not the events of the rebellion, but how the events (and fictions, which he rightly points out are just as important) were presented to the wider British audience. In this sense, Darcy’s work is in line with the most recent trend of mid-seventeenth-century British history which argues that events in the three British kingdoms were far more intertwined than has been previously supposed. His survey of the early accounts and early histories of the 1641 rebellion, both before and while England was fighting its own religiously charged civil war, adds further weight to this notion. Darcy demonstrates that it is unnecessary to show that events in Armagh had a direct influence over parliamentary debate in England; rather, the information disseminated to the English public merely had to affect English attitudes toward the Irish and Catholicism, which he unequivocally proves it did.
Darcy’s survey trolls the wealth of English-produced writing concerning the rebellion and provides a useful amount of context, elucidating a writer’s motivations for publication and illuminating the backstory and perspective of each account. His subsequent literary analysis is always excellent. Through his careful treatment, he shows how irrelevant it may be to argue over whether or not the 1641 rebellion began as a confessional conflict; retrospectively, in the later accounts and histories of the rebellion, it became such and that is all that has mattered since. For example, Darcy deftly handles the most contentious source of the period—the 1641 depositions—to show how they were picked through by English Protestants to manufacture the massacre narrative that became integral to the story of the rebellion and remains so to this day. He continues by showing that this was no accident. The confessionalization of the conflict was purposefully done by various groups: from Protestant ministers and commentators within Ireland who wished to impose Protestantism upon the island, to the lieutenant deputies John Borlase and William Parsons who were desperately requesting additional funds and troops from London to help suppress the rebellion. Once this confessionalized interpretation of events was solidified in the minds of the English, any hopes of maintaining a Catholic voice in Irish politics were doomed. The fight of future Irish Catholics, according to Darcy, increasingly became a fight against this traditional narrative.
Although Darcy’s intentions are to remain above the fray of the historical debate concerning the nature of the violence, through his discussion of the various publications, his own opinion of the unemotional nature of the violence is on display. According to the author, rebel violence directed against Protestant settlers was purposeful; he routinely describes it as “strategic” or “tactical” violence meant to demonstrate the new authority of the native Irish in Ireland, citing instances where singular Protestants were hanged in culturally important locations like town squares. The few instances of unrestrained violence present during the early stages of the rebellion were an unfortunate side effect of rebel leaders enlisting the lower social orders into the rebellion—after all, rebellions, as Darcy points out, need rebels.
Darcy’s one argument that fails to convince concerns another currently debated topic: Ireland’s place in England’s wider Atlantic empire. He aims to show connections between English views of the native Irish and Native Americans. While he points out the consistently similar depictions of the two ethnic groups and their conformity to traditional English cultural constructions of barbarous peoples, his handling is too sporadic, cropping up only briefly several chapters apart. Although the subject matter is interesting and Darcy may not be wrong in his suppositions, the broad claims that he makes lack an appropriate amount of evidence to be fully believed based on his work alone. The matter feels somewhat out of place in an otherwise excellent study of rebellion-centered literature and the topic may have been better served in its own work where it could be studied at greater length.
Regardless of this minor quibble, Darcy’s work is an excellent survey of the literature surrounding the 1641 Irish rebellion, and should be considered an important addition to our understanding of the wider British context of the conflict.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-war.
Chris Sailus. Review of Darcy, Eamon, The Irish Rebellion of 1641 and the Wars of the Three Kingdoms.
H-War, H-Net Reviews.
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