British Museum blog

English perspectives on Ireland

Shakespeare’s Restless World is currently being broadcast on BBC Radio 4. Today’s episode Ireland: Failures in the Present looks at the great military crisis of the Elizabethan regime.

The woodcut Rorie Oge in the Forest from Derricke's Image of Ireland, 1581. © Edinburgh University Library, Special Collections Department

Andrew Hadfield, University of Sussex

The situation in Ireland represented two things; one is positive, as the English see it, a great opportunity to govern a nation and to make huge amounts of money through people going over and winning land confiscated from the Irish who have rebelled.

But the other side of this situation is England’s worst nightmare. The Irish are predominately Catholic, they are always threatening to unite with the Spanish and that is really what people are particularly afraid of; the fear of Irish savagery uniting with Spanish Catholicism to overthrow all civilised Protestant English values.

If Ireland was lost, there was a genuine fear that England, as an isolated Protestant country in predominantly Catholic Europe, would be destroyed and the Reformation would be still born. English independence would be engulfed by foreign powers. It is a terrifying prospect that is apocalyptic in the way that it is represented by many people.

A modern day comparison might be Cuba and the Cuban Missile Crisis. During the crisis you had the fear that there would actually be a destructive war that would engulf civilisation and you had the idea of Russian forces on America’s shores. I think that is exactly how the English felt about Ireland and the Spanish, that this was a back door into England that could result in the destruction of everything they had tried to build up over the years.

I think the comparison also holds because the Cuban crisis recedes relatively quickly. What’s so strange about history in this period is that after 1601 and the defeat of the Irish forces, Spanish power seems to collapse at the same time. By the time you get to 1607, 1608, things look very, very different and even the gunpowder plot doesn’t make the impact that it would have done a few years earlier.

Shakespeare’s Restless World is on BBC Radio 4
from 16 April to 11 May, at 13.45 and 19.45 weekdays.

Listen to today’s programme Ireland: Failures in the Present

Filed under: Shakespeare's Restless World, What's on, ,

2 Responses - Comments are closed.

  1. Helen Hales says:

    Nice entry – your comparisons with Cuba make the scenario much more comprehensible and encourage us not to just look back with the advantage of historical hindsight at what DIDN’T happen (the Irish and the Spanish? What nonsense!), but instead to imagine ourselves in their shoes and appreciate the political and religious tensions of the time.


  2. Flora Greenan says:

    How nice and clear, especially for an American.


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