Old English

Old English

The Old English (Seanghaill) were the descendants of the settlers who came to Ireland from Wales, Normandy and England after the Norman invasion of Ireland in 1169-71. Many of the Old English became assimilated into Irish society over the centuries and their nobility were effectively the ruling class in the land up to the 16th century. Some were dispossessed, however, in the political and religious conflicts during and after the Tudor re-conquest of Ireland in the 16th and 17th centuries, largely due to their continued adherence to the Catholic religion. The so called "New English" Protestant settlers largely replaced them as the governing class and the landowning class of Ireland by 1700.

The name Old English was coined in the late sixteenth century to describe the section of the above community which lived within the heart of English-ruled Ireland, the Pale.

In medieval Ireland

Old English was the term applied from the 1580s to those Irish descended on the patrilineal side from a wave of late medieval Norman, French, Welsh, English, Breton and Flemish settlers who went to Ireland to claim territory and lands in the wake of the Norman conquest of Ireland in 1169-72. London-based Norman-English governments expected the "Old English" to promote English rule in Ireland, through the use of the English language, law, trade, currency, social customs and farming methods. The realisation of this aim was most advanced in the Pale and the walled towns.

The "Old English" community in Ireland was never monolithic. In some areas, especially in the Pale around Dublin, south county Wexford, Kilkenny, Limerick and Cork, the term referred to relatively urbanised communities, who spoke the English language (though sometimes in arcane local dialects like Yola), used English law and lived in a manner similar to that found in England. However, in much of the rest of Ireland, the term referred to a thin layer of landowners and nobility, who ruled over Gaelic Irish freeholders and tenants.

In the provinces, the Old English (known as Gaill - foreigners - in the Irish language), were at times indistinguishable from the surrounding Gaelic lords and chieftains. Dynasties such as the Fitzgeralds, Butlers and Burkes adopted the native language, legal system, and other customs such as fostering and intermarriage with the Gaelic Irish and the patronage of Irish poetry and music. Such people became regarded as more Irish than the Irish themselves as a result of this process. (See also Norman Ireland). The most accurate name for the community throughout the late medieval period was Hiberno-Norman, a name which captures the distinctive blended culture which this community created and operated within. In an effort to halt the "Gaelicization" of the Old English community, the Irish Parliament passed the Statutes of Kilkenny in 1367, which among other things, banned the use of the Irish language, wearing of Irish clothes and banned Gaelic Irish people from living within walled towns.

There was no religious division in medieval Ireland, beyond the requirement that English-born prelates should run the Irish church. However after the 1530s most of the pre-16th century inhabitants continued their allegiance to Roman Catholicism, even after the Protestant Reformation in England.

Tudor re-conquest

In contrast, the New English, the wave of settlers who came to Ireland from the Elizabethan era onwards during the Tudor re-conquest of Ireland, kept their English identity, religious, social and cultural traditions and unlike the Normans and the Old English, remained distinct for the first few generations. The new settlers were more self consciously English and largely (though not entirely) Protestant and most looked on Ireland as a conquered country that needed to be "civilised" and converted to the Protestant religion. The poet Edmund Spenser was one of the chief advocates of this view. He argued in "A View on the Present State of Ireland" (1595), that a failure to fully conquer Ireland had led previous generations of English settlers to become corrupted by the native Irish culture. To the "New English", many of the Old English were "degenerate", having adopted Irish customs and retaining the Catholic religion.

It was their exclusion from the government of Ireland, on the grounds of their religious dissidence, in the course of the 16th century that alienated the Old English from the state and eventually propelled them into a common identity with the Gaelic Irish as Irish Catholics. The first confrontation between the Old English and the English government in Ireland came with the cess crisis of 1556–1583. During this period, the Pale community resisted paying for the English army in Ireland to put down a string of revolts ending with the Desmond Rebellions (1569-73 and 1579-83). The term "Old English" was coined at this time, as the Pale community emphasised their English identity and loyalty to the crown, while at the same time refusing to cooperate with the wishes of the English Lord Deputy of Ireland. Originally, the conflict was a civil issue, as the Palesmen objected to paying new taxes that had not first been approved by them in the Parliament of Ireland.

However, the dispute also took on a religious dimension, especially after 1570, when Elizabeth I of England was excommunicated by the papal bull Regnans in Excelsis. In reply, Elizabeth banned the Jesuits. Rebels such as James Fitzmaurice Fitzgerald (of the Hiberno-Norman Desmond dynasty) portrayed their rebellion as a "Holy War" and indeed received money and troops from the Papacy. In the Second Desmond Rebellion (1579-83), a prominent Pale Lord, James Eustace, Viscount of Baltinglass joined the rebels for religious reasons. Before the rebellion was over, several hundred Old English Palesmen had been hanged, either for rebellion or because they were suspected of rebellion because of their religion. This episode marked an important break between the Pale and the English Government and between the Old and New English.

In the subsequent Nine Years War (1594–1603) the Pale and the Old English towns remained loyal to the English Crown during another rebellion. It was the re-organisation of the English government in Ireland along Protestant lines in the early 17th century that eventually severed the main political ties between the Old English and England itself, particularly following the Gunpowder Plot in 1605. Firstly, in 1609, Catholics were banned from serving in public office in Ireland. In 1613, the constituencies of the Irish Parliament were changed so that the New English Protestants would be a majority in it. Thirdly, in the 1630s many of the Old English landowning class had to reconfirm their land titles, with some paying fines or losing land in the process (see Plantations of Ireland).

The political response of the Old Community was to appeal directly to the King of England, first James I and then Charles I for a package of reforms, known as The Graces including religious toleration and civil equality to Catholics in return for increased taxes. However, on several occasions in 1620s and 1630s, they agreed to pay the higher taxes, only for the monarch to defer any concessions. Such Old English writers as Geoffrey Keating were by then arguing, for example in the Irish language Foras Feasa ar Éirinn, that the true identity of the Old English was Catholic and Irish, rather than English.

Dispossession and defeat

In 1641, many of the Old English community made a decisive break with their past as loyal subjects by joining the Irish Rebellion of 1641. Many factors influenced the decision of the Old English to join the rebellion, among them fear of the rebels and fear of government reprisals against all Catholics. However, the main long term reason was a desire to reverse the anti-Catholic policies that had been pursued by the English authorities over the previous 40 years in Ireland. Nevertheless, despite their formation of an Irish government in Confederate Ireland, the Old English identity was still an important division within the Irish Catholic community. During the Irish Confederate Wars (1641-53), the Old English were often accused by the Gaelic Irish of being too ready to sign a treaty with Charles I of England at the expense of the interests of Irish landowners and the Catholic religion. The ensuing Cromwellian conquest of Ireland (1649-53), saw the ultimate defeat of the Catholic cause and the dispossession of the Old English nobility. While this cause was briefly revived before the Williamite war in Ireland (1689-91), by 1700, the Protestant descendants of the New English had become the dominant class in the country, along with the Old English families (and men of Gaelic origin such as William Conolly) who chose to comply with the new realities.

In the course of the eighteenth century, the old distinction between Old English and Gaelic Irish Catholics faded away, as more of the country became Anglicized and social divisions were defined, against the backdrop of the Penal Laws (Ireland) almost solely in sectarian terms of Catholic and Protestant, rather than ethnic ones.

However, changing religion was not banned, and many Old English like Edmund Burke were Protestants but with a sympathy and understanding for the unfair position of Catholics in his day. Others in the landed gentry like the viscounts Dillon and the lords Dunsany were Old English families who converted religion to save their lands and titles. The Old English FitzGerald dukes of Leinster held the premier title in the Irish House of Lords when it was abolished in 1800; the republican Lord Edward Fitzgerald was a brother of the second duke.

Collective identity of the Old English

Historians disagree about what to call the Old English community at different times in its existence and how to define this community's sense of collective identity.

Irish historian Edward MacLysaght makes the distinction in his Surnames of Ireland book between 'Hiberno-Norman' and 'Anglo-Norman' surnames. This sums up the fundamental difference between "Queen's English Rebels" and the Loyal Lieges. The Geraldines of Desmond or the Burkes of Connacht, for instance, could not accurately be described as "Old English" as that was not their political and cultural world. The Butlers of Ormond on the other hand could not accurately be described as 'Hiberno-Norman' in their political outlook and alliances, especially after they married into the English royal family.

Some historians now refer to them as "Cambro-Normans", and Seán Duffy of Trinity College, Dublin invariably uses that term rather than the misleading "Anglo-Norman" (most Normans came via Wales, not England), but after many centuries in Ireland and just a century in Wales or England it seems quite odd that their entire history since 1169 is now known by a description, Old English, which only came in the late sixteenth century.

The earliest known reference to the term, "Old English" community is in the 1580s (Nicholas Canny, Ireland, from Reformation to Restoration). The community of Norman descent prior to then used numerous epithets to describe themselves but it was only as a result of the political crisis of the 1580s that the Old English community emerged. Some contend it is ahistorical to trace a single "Old English" community back to 1169 as the real Old English community was a product of the late sixteenth century in the Pale. Until then identity was much more fluid; it was the administration's policies which created an oppositional and clearly defined Old English community.

Brendan Bradshaw, in his study of the poetry of late sixteenth century Tír Chónaill, points out that in the Irish the Normans were not called Seanghaill ("Old Foreigners") there but rather they were called Fionnghaill and Dubhghaill. He argued in a lecture to the Mícheál Ó Cléirigh Institute in University College, Dublin that the poets referred to those of Norman stock who were completely hibernicised thus with the purpose of granting them a longer vintage in Ireland that they had (Fionnghaill- Norwegian Vikings; Dubhghaill= Danish Vikings). This follows on from his earlier arguments that the term Éireannaigh as we currently know it also emerged during this period in the poetry books of the Uí Bhroin of Wicklow as a sign of unity between Gaeil and Gaill; he viewed it as a sign of an emerging Irish nationalism. Breandán Ó Buachalla essentially agreed with him, Tom Dunne and Tom Bartlett were less sure.

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