Reviewed by Thomas O'Connor (National University of Ireland, Maynooth)
Published on H-Albion (September, 2010)
Commissioned by Brendan Kane
The Irish in the Spanish Empire
Óscar Recio Morales’s Ireland and the Spanish Empire opens with a broad-ranging historiographical chapter whose main aim, and virtue, is the robust affirmation that Spain, even at the height of its early seventeenth-century engagement with Ireland, at least tacitly accepted two fundamental realities: Ireland’s inclusion in the English sphere and the imperative of achieving and maintaining free trade. Any apparent ambiguity in regard to either was strategic, even before 1627. In explanation, the author ponders the (non-Spanish) use of the term “empire” to describe the early modern monarquía; he then outlines the concept of “non-territorial interest,” which he proceeds to apply aptly to Spain’s Irish policy, including the 1603 Kinsale expedition, which, as he sees it, had as much Dutch as Ulster Irish motivation. These affirmations and conceptual salvos are supported by copious archival evidence as well as a fascinating overview of Ireland in the Spanish imagination in chapter 1. The latter is beautifully calibrated to include not only Francoist fantasies of Hugh O’Neill as the caudillo of an early modern alzamiento but also the highly selective use of Irish history by Galician, Basque, and Catalan nationalists. Morales emerges from this complex interpretational whirlwind to insist that Spain’s self interest never faltered. He hammers his point home with what is the conceptual foundation of the book and its most significant historiographical contribution: what differentiated Spanish-Irish relations over time was neither Spanish policy nor Irish special pleading but rather Irish activism in Spain and its overseas possessions.
To a great extent then this book is the story of Irish activism in the Spanish world, understood in terms of clientship and correspondencia (mutual support and joint responsibility) and with particular reference to its military and mercantile dimensions. The decision to concentrate on the activities of the Irish in the Spanish sphere is justifiable, but Morales could have incorporated more conceptual argument especially here in the key first chapter, which sets the agenda not only for the rest of the book but also, one hopes, for future work in this field. Further, it could be said that the concentration on Irish activism in the Spanish sphere, however justified, jars somewhat with the rather more old-fashioned title of the book, a title that invites one to return to the traditional and still important questions regarding Habsburg motivation and Spanish influence on Irish émigré elites. An important contemporary dimension of the latter is Mícheál Mac Craith’s and Nollaig Ó Muraile’s current discussion of the intellectual debt owed by the originators of the náisiún Éireannach (Irish nation) to the exponents of the nación española. That the author himself is perhaps not entirely convinced by the methodological shift from traditional high politics to the Annales-inspired examination of military, commercial, and political activism is hinted at on page 22 where he claims that the defense of Catholicism was actually Spain’s primary motivation for engagement with Ireland and the Irish. This is a perfectly tenable but rather conservative position which sits a little strangely at this particular stage in the argument. Does the fact that the rest of the book largely overlooks Irish religious activism in the Spanish sphere (the colleges, military chaplaincies, vagrant clergy, personal piety, etc. are given short shrift) and ignores Spanish-supported religious activism in Ireland betray a certain conceptual timidity? While there is no doubt that work has already been done in this field, some of the best of it by the author himself, and although one understands that he cannot do everything and must respect division of labor protocols with fellow researchers in the area, a treatment of the question of religious activism and its integration with its military and commercial bedfellows, at least conceptually and historiographically, would not have been out of place in this key first chapter.
In the remaining chapters, the author displays a staggeringly detailed knowledge of the vast archival base on which historians of the Irish in Spain can draw. While he uses the archives in Simancas and the Archivo Histórico Nacional extensively, he has also delved into numerous provincial and municipal archives, especially in Cádiz, bringing swathes of new notarial material to light. Nor has he been remiss with regard to overseas repositories. Altogether these permit a detailed examination of some of the minutiae of Irish activism, which is dense enough to permit generalization. This is particularly the case with regard to the Irish regiments (whose longish presentation on pages 127 to 166 disrupts an already established and comforting narrative structure). It also facilitates a look at changing Spanish attitudes to the Irish as they ascended to real power in the state on the coattails of Richard Wall. The author is enlightening on Irish lobbying throughout the period but especially in the seventeenth century with petitioners stressing, ad nauseam, their service to Spain, their alleged Spanish descent, and, of course, their Catholicism. The eagerness of the Irish to buy into the limpieza de sangre (purity of blood) mentality, one used so effectively to exclude many from Spanish society and institutions, is an object lesson in adaptability, morally unedifying and impressive in almost equal measure. Morales devotes considerable attention to the matter of Irish identity in Spain and its sphere, usefully describing the complex maneuvering required to milk their distinctiveness from other foreigners without exciting rejection by Spanish hosts. However, the better the Irish did (short of complete integration) the more inclined were their Spanish hosts, particularly the old nobility, to replace their customary condescension in their regard with a jealousy that managed to be at once xenophobic, self-regarding, and peevish. Wall and Alexander O’Reilly knew this better than most as the author’s archival trawl reveals. In dealing with the Irish regiments in Spanish service, the author notices the same broad recruitment patterns already established by Colm Ó Conaill, Nathalie Genet Rouffiac, Patrick Clarke de Dromantin, and David Murphy for their French counterparts: by the second half of the eighteenth century, the officer class remained Irish and indeed hermetically sealed against other nationalities; the rank and file, however, was overwhelmingly non-Irish and in these circumstances, non-Irish sergeants had no hope of promotion. This created significant problems for the Spanish command. The decline in Irish rank and file also illustrates the beginning of the slow drain of the Catholic Irish from Europe to the Americas and the British army. Morales also looks at the intriguing and significant role of Irish reformers, innovators, and thinkers in the Ilustración (Spanish Enlightenment). On page 256, he refers to Thomas Connolly OP, the author of a Spanish-English dictionary (1798). Incidentally, a selection of his letters appears in the current (2010) issue of Archivium Hibernicum. The reviewer could find no mention of the Cádiz-born poet María Gertrude Hore or Hoare (1742-1801). Morales stays with the Ilustración theme to discuss how ambient Spanish culture, in the years before the Guerra de la Independencia became less tolerant of foreigners, as the old multinational enlightenment mutated into a unitary, nation-state absolutism (imported, of course, from France!). One would like a more detailed treatment of this important topic. Morales extends his treatment to include Irish activism in Spanish America. His call for a reexamination and reassessment of the role of the Irish in the independence movements of Peru, Chile, Argentina, and elsewhere is especially apt though one fears a little late for the imminent spate of bicentenaries. In his epilogue, Morales opines that the Irish were lucky to arrive in Spain when they did. From this one can conclude that if they enjoyed a special status in the Spain sphere it was largely of the accidental variety and, given the exiguity of opportunity back home one can hardly fault them for taking full advantage.
This is an important book, first because of its conceptual richness (especially in the first chapter) and also because of its archival wealth, its author’s evenhandedness, and his attention to detail. One hopes that his methodological concerns will become standard in the field as treatment of Irish migration is contextualized and normalized within the larger European and global migrant phenomenon. The translation is lucid and accessible and the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs, sponsors of the English-language version, can congratulate itself on well spent grant-in-aid.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-albion.
Thomas O'Connor. Review of Recio Morales, Óscar, Ireland and the Spanish Empire, 1600-1815.
H-Albion, H-Net Reviews.
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