The Old English in Early Modern Ireland

The Irish Catholic Confederates nearly toppled the English administration of Ireland during the Nine Years’ War (1594-1603). For much of the war, the Irish had the upper-hand and defeating them cost England more men and money than any other Tudor conflict. In fact, the hardness of Irish service had become so infamous in England that it was commonly heard at the port in Chester that it was “better [to] be hanged at home than die like dogs in Ireland’. Criminals and vagrants were rounded up and shipped to fight in Ireland where they proved to be ineffective and cowardly soldiers.

As a result, the English administration was compelled to rely on the services of the Old English descendants of Ireland’s twelfth-century Anglo-Norman settlers. Throughout the war English officials constantly denigrated the loyalty and efforts of Old English individuals, yet contemporary records show that their labours were a decisive factor in the English crown’s eventual victory.

Sir Ralph Lane

Amongst the many skirmishes during which Old English servitors demonstrated their mettle was an ambush at Clontibret on 27 May 1595, an event which marked the first major showdown of the war. Led by the enigmatic Hugh O’Neill, earl of Tyrone, the Irish Catholic Confederacy inflicted an embarrassing ‘moral’ defeat on the queen’s army.  The fact that crown forces were not entirely decimated was due to the actions of one man, James Sedgrave, ‘a gentleman Cornett’ and ‘an Irish Meath-man of great size and courage’. Upon hearing that O’Neill was visible at the head of a rebel company, Sedgrave assembled ‘a troop of picked Irish and English horse’ to confront the rebel earl’s company.

According to crown muster master Sir Ralph Lane, Sedgrave ‘chardged the greate troupe of Therle … and there incounter was soe rude, that they booth were vnhorsed’. Once on the ground, the two men engaged in hand-to-hand combat.  Initially, Sedgrave had the upper hand, ‘having Therle about the neck’ but, blindly stabbing at O’Neill’s body, ‘could not perce him nether with his stafe nor sworde’. O’Neill’s men rushed to their leader’s aid and one of them managed to lunge at Sedgrave and strike off his arm. O’Neill then stabbed his assailant with a short sword; ‘and so [Sedgrave] died’.  Though Sedgrave lost the fight, the confusion caused by this fracas allowed the crown army to regroup and escape. Had Sedgrave lived in a twentieth-century fascist state he would have been hailed as the heroic poster-boy of state-sponsored propaganda; but, in sixteenth-century Ireland the value of Sedgrave’s propagandist gallantry was tarnished by his membership in the doubtful Old English community. 

James Sedgrave was only one of many Old Englishmen whose services to the crown were undervalued and even dismissed by English authorities. For instance, Christopher Nugent, baron of Delvin, served the crown valiantly by providing military leadership, defending the Pale borders, offering advice, and, by his own personal account, executing or apprehending at least 246 rebels. Yet, in 1602 Delvin was committed to prison where he died while awaiting a trial on trumped-up changes of treason. Similarly, Sir Patrick Barnewall passed valuable intelligences about foreign invasion plans to the Dublin administration; but, being a notorious recusant meant that the loyalist gentleman was overlooked for promotion to office and his house was searched for priests. Without the help of Old English individuals like these, the English enterprise in Ireland would have been doomed to failure; however, their contribution, as well as the crown’s treatment of them, has never been addressed. 

The Pale, or the English Pale, according to the Statute of 1488. A map of that area of Ireland commonly known as the Pale which, by the 15th century, was under effective English colonial rule. Taken from ‘The Neighbourhood of Dublin’, Weston St. John Joyce, 1921. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Concentrating on the English administrative centre of the Pale – a region encompassing much of Dublin, Kildare, Meath, Westmeath, and Louth – my new book represents the first historical study of Ireland’s Old English population at a crucial juncture in that community’s identity formation: the Nine Years’ War. This ethnic minority had long been torn between an ancestral duty to support the policies of a distant English monarch and their own ambitions for power and wealth in what had become their Irish homeland. Having preserved the administrative and military legitimacy of English authority in Ireland for centuries, over the course of the 1500s the Old English were increasingly demoted within the political establishment in favour of newly-arriving Protestant Englishmen. Their displacement was justified on the grounds that generations of Irish birth had led to cultural degeneration, and that a continuing attachment to Catholicism complicated political allegiances to an English Protestant monarch. 

Consequently, many frustrated Palesmen began contemplating their future prospects in an English Ireland, yet very few were willing to reject crown policies or endorse any alternative to English rule. This was true for much of the century. But, by pitting the forces of Catholic Ireland against those of Protestant England on a scale never previously witnessed, the Nine Years’ War tested Old English concepts of loyalty and identity like never before. Led by the charismatic earl of Tyrone, the Irish Catholic Confederacy propagated patriotic ideologies, religious justifications, and political promises which challenged how the Palesmen regarded themselves and their future role in Ireland.  The human and economic burden of supporting the crown’s enormous military enterprise served to further strain relations between this traditionally loyal community and their distant ruler.

But, were all these pressures enough to convince the Old English to throw off the English yoke and embrace a new Irish Catholic identity? My book investigates….


This guest article was written by Ruth Canning, a Lecturer in Early Modern History at Liverpool Hope University.

The Old English in Early Modern Ireland
The Palesmen and the Nine Years’ War, 1594-1603
by Ruth A. Canning
Hardback / 9781783273270 / £56.25 or $90

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