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Ireland’s Adventure in Spain

John Minahane

Surviving Kinsale: Irish emigration and identity formation in early modern Spain, 1601-40, by Ciaran O’Scea, Manchester University Press, 280 pp, £70, ISBN: 978-0719088582

During the first few years of the seventeenth century there was a remarkable Irish migration to Spain. The migrants came principally from southwest Cork and south Kerry. Both sexes were well-represented, and all ages, rich and poor, higher classes and low – possibly ten thousand people, by Ciaran O’Scea’s estimate. Their migration was centred on the port town of La Coruña in Galicia, in the far northwest of Spain. A significant Irish community was established in La Coruña, with smaller communities elsewhere in northern Spain and in Madrid.

Furthermore, the emigrant Irish leaders soon got involved in Spanish court politics. In a difficult situation they acquitted themselves remarkably well. Within a generation, when times became more favourable because of Spain’s pressing need for troops, the Irish even managed to break into the top echelon of Spanish society, becoming a recognised part of the high nobility.

This is the core of the story that O’Scea sets out to tell, drawing on the Spanish state papers. He has turned up many fascinating details and I am grateful to him for that, though I cannot agree with his interpretations. Developments which he sees as implying degeneration and weakness in the exile community, to my mind indicate an uncommon cultural strength. A key argument in his book, that the Spanish identified the Irish immigrants with the Moriscos of the south of Spain, seems to me to have no foundation. Finally, something essential is missed in how the migrants thought of themselves (and how their leaders energetically acted).

To begin at the beginning: why did this mass migration occur? How could it happen that whole communities, in effect, uprooted themselves and sought to be transplanted in a strange land across the sea?

Most obviously it’s a story of war, religion and famine. The migration happened at the end of the devastating Nine Years War (1594-1603). The migrants were Catholics and mostly Gaels, with some “Gaelicised” Hiberno-English also. They were going to a country which had involved itself on the Catholic Irish side against Protestant England in the later stages of the war. In parts of their region the Spanish had asserted what amounted to sovereignty, taking over castles which they afterwards surrendered to the English by treaty.

Philip O’Sullivan Beare gives a succinct explanation:

By the time that war was over, Ireland was almost completely devastated and ruined. An immense hunger and famine beset everyone; many were compelled to eat dogs or cats, and many who could not subsist even by such means perished. Famine overtook not only the human beings but even the brute beasts …On account of that slaughter, which was almost universal in Ireland, many of the Irish dispersed among foreign peoples. A huge crowd flooded to France, and in far greater numbers to Spain. The exiles were given a kind and comradely reception, in the cause of the Faith, by Catholics abroad.

What O’Scea has to add to this is something which, I assume, was so obvious to O’Sullivan Beare that it didn’t occur to him to mention it. The mass migration was following in the path of exiled lords – principally the O’Driscolls of Castlehaven and Baltimore, the O’Sullivans of Beara and south Kerry, the MacCarthys of south Kerry, Muskerry and Carbery – who were already settled in Spain. And evidently the migrants hoped that those leaders, even in exile, would be able to offer them protection.

Galicia was a poor region and the port on which the Irish migration was focused, La Coruña, probably had little more than two thousand inhabitants. La Coruña could not possibly cope with the hundreds of Irish who were continually landing there or nearby or coming overland from elsewhere. Considerable numbers were going first to Valladolid, where the Spanish court then was, but soon they were being redirected to La Coruña, increasing the pressure there.

The Spanish were indeed, to begin with, kind and comradely. Galicia’s governor, the Count of Caracena, was consistently supportive. But there were limits. After the arrival of the key figure of the migration, Donal Cam O’Sullivan Beare, in September 1604, matters quickly came to a crisis. “Everybody seeks him out,” Caracena told King Philip III, “and he welcomes everyone.”

What was to be done? One key move that could relieve the pressure would be to establish a Flanders-based Irish regiment, as the exiled lords were urging. The able-bodied men would then go off to Flanders (which was then a Spanish territory), taking with them their relatives and dependents. But King Philip was dragging his heels on this for reasons of high politics. Only a year or two previously Spain had made peace with England, and Philip was loath to send signals which the English might interpret as preparations for renewed war. There was, however, another important factor to be taken into account. The proportion of so-called “useless people”, meaning women, children and old men, was exceptionally high among the migrants. It was far higher than in the ongoing, smaller-scale military migrations from Ireland to Flanders.

Inevitably, the idea of forced repatriation was raised in the Spanish court. That was certainly a possible solution. The problem for the Spanish was that it might well be seen as Spain reneging on those who had fought in its cause. If large numbers of Catholics were forcibly returned to Ireland, where an anti-Catholic persecution was known to be in progress, the Spanish monarchy might suffer a dangerous loss of prestige at home and abroad.

Of course, some excuse might be found for the measure if the exiled lords approved it. Caracena was ordered to meet them and propose repatriation. In due course O’Sullivan Beare and others sent a declaration to Philip III, saying: “It seems profitable to us to send back to Ireland all the people who want to go there from among the useless people such as women, children, old and principally single women, who have not sufficient means to remain, notwithstanding the persecution that we have seen in our time.”

O’Scea comments as follows: “In effect, the Irish nobility and religious abandoned the poorer elements of Gaelic society to their fate, and eased the royal conscience should Philip III decide to proceed with the repatriation.” But this is an unfair and unreasonable judgment. The fuller documentation he himself has provided in another book makes that abundantly clear. O’Sullivan Beare, etc, date their declaration December 30th, 1605. And on that very same day Caracena sent a letter to Philip III also agreeing to voluntary repatriations, but spelling out plainly that “the people that are to be sent are women, children and poor and that these must be people who wish to willingly return without compelling anyone in any case”.

What this indicates is that the Gaelic lords were working in tandem with Caracena to ward off the threat of forced repatriation. By agreeing to voluntary repatriation, if with some marked reluctance (“notwithstanding the persecution that we have seen in our time”) they were showing goodwill and acknowledging the Spanish monarch’s difficulty. But on the issue of principle – no forced repatriation – they were standing firm.

King Philip did eventually take extraordinary financial measures and establish the regiment in Flanders. The “useless people” were distributed more widely in northern Spain, with the local Catholic prelates being responsible for their upkeep. Some people also returned to Ireland, voluntarily. There was no forced repatriation.

The Gaelic lords deserve their due measure of credit for this constructive solution to the crisis. O’Scea’s comment to the contrary exemplifies the major fault of his book: an animus against Gaelic Ireland, leading him to make unreasonable judgments based not on evidence but on preconceived theory.

FROM 1609 the exiled Irish faced serious political problems. Maintaining the peace with England, King Philip III now made peace with another long-time enemy, Holland. The Spanish had run out of European Christian enemies, and so there was less need for troops and therefore less need for Irishmen. This was the moment when the Duke of Lerma, the immensely powerful court favourite of Philip III, became hostile. He had previously supported the Irish, but henceforward he was their opponent.

But the Gaelic Irish nobility and clergy at the court of Spain began playing their own hand in the game of Spanish court politics. In 1610 the key Irish court politician, O’Sullivan Beare, went over to the anti-Lerma opposition. And as this opposition gained in strength, so on the whole did the Gaelic Irish court faction. Caracena, reappearing in a powerful position at court, helped his old friends. A major breakthrough came in 1617, when O’Sullivan Beare was received into Spain’s high nobility. He had never been an earl in Ireland, but now a completely new title was created for him: he became Conde de Biraben, the Count or Earl of Beara.

Lerma, of course, hit back hard. Under his influence the official who was called the Protector of the Irish became a terroriser of the Irish around the court. Many of them were arrested without substantial reason and banished from Madrid. Lerma also showed that, if the Irish were going to play Spanish court politics, then he would have a hand in the rivalries of the Irish. He began supporting the Old English court faction of the Irish Catholics, who included the Irish Jesuits, against the rest. The Old English had prejudices against the supposedly “uncivilised” Gaels, and the Irish Jesuits were systematically excluding Gaelic applicants from the colleges in Spain which they controlled.

With Lerma’s support, the Old English scored some successes. But the Count of Berehaven proved a match for them. He took on the Irish Jesuits and defeated them politically. His campaign against the policy of debarring Gaels from the Irish Colleges was spectacularly successful. Rubbing salt in the wound, even the Castilian Province of the Jesuit Order took O’Sullivan Beare’s side.

It would seem that this came as a mighty shock to the Old English. Some of them, for example the Jesuit Richard Conway, who was probably the author of the Brief Relation of the Present Persecution in Ireland which appeared in 1619 in Seville, may have examined and overcome their anti-Gaelic prejudices. The Brief Relation emphasises the long history of civilisation and learning in Ireland, going back at least to Roman times. Words very similar to those used by Hugh O’Neill in his last letters from Rome are employed to denounce the Ulster Plantation (which the Old English Catholic representatives had voted for in the Dublin Parliament of 1615). There was not much in the Brief Relation that the Gaels could have faulted.

However, some others of the Old English may have felt that the only adequate response to O’Sullivan Beare’s achievement was murder. He was fatally stabbed in Madrid in the summer of 1618 by John Bath, a rather talented and able double agent of the English administration of James I.

This was one of two heavy blows to the Gaels in Spain. Shortly before losing their aristocratic champion they had seen their strategist, Archbishop Flaithrí Ó Maolchonaire, distanced from the court. That was because of his dogged opposition to the so-called Spanish Match, the proposal that Philip III’s daughter would marry one of James I’s sons. The idea was that this marriage alliance would consolidate the peace between Spain and England – in the archbishop’s eyes, a most undesirable prospect. His position at court became untenable and he had to move for some years to Flanders. But the Gaelic Irish exile interest survived all this, and after the collapse of the Spanish Match it bounced back with renewed vigour.

What is still more remarkable is that throughout this period, roughly from 1610 to 1625, there was a many-sided adaptation of the Gaelic exile community to Spanish norms. O’Scea gives numerous examples of what this involved. Literacy levels went up dramatically, especially among women. People made wills. Birth registrations almost doubled. An awareness spread, particularly in the leading families, that the Spanish loved documentation and so one must start keeping papers – even if sometimes one had to explain that in Ireland there were poets to confirm one’s pedigree and actually one had never had a family tree on a scroll.

The exiled Irish became more conspicuously religious. They joined confraternities; they had themselves buried in monastic habits. The most distinctive Gaelic names for male children went out of fashion and parents chose more Spanish and recognisably saintly names. Fathers tried to find convents for younger daughters.

A feature of the Irish-Iberian community in its second decade was the relative prominence of women. Sometimes this meant trouble: there were complaints about Irish prostitutes near the Spanish court, and some clergymen thundered that “these Irish women commit many offences against God”. (But not everyone disliked seeing Irish girls of the less affluent sort going around Madrid. The poet Quevedo, for one, found them charming and praised them warmly, according to Micheline Kerney Walsh.)

On the other hand, some Irish women in La Coruña made a determined attempt to acquire, not precisely respectability, but what one might call a footing on the lower levels of Spanish religious politics. They set up a house of “Beatas” or lay nuns, affiliated with the Dominican order. The members of this group, or some of them anyhow, were literate and had mastered Spanish.

Beatas were theoretically under the direction of a confessor, but they were known for being independent and often troublesome. As lay Dominicans they could claim some sort of right to act as religious police. And it may well be that the principal task of a Gaelic Beata was to hassle members of the Irish community in La Coruña, to press them to adapt and blend in better with the irritable Spanish. Or is this to distort their message? Was it more positively framed? Leonor O’Sullivan Beare (who was a serial godmother), Elena MacMahon: what did they actually have to say?

Overall, one would take this to be a story of purposeful, resourceful adaptation – a story of cultural strength. But O’Scea cannot see it like that. His view is that Gaelic society was totally dominated by its agnatic (strictly patrilineal) kinship system. In Madrid or La Coruña, without lands or independent control of resources, the old Gaelic ways could not be kept up. Besides, Spanish law was giving unaccustomed power in the form of money (dead husbands’ military pensions and back pay) to many of the exiled women and thus further undermining the male-centred Gaelic structures. In his concluding chapter, where he goes for broke, O’Scea tells us that “Gaelic Irish kinship structures collapsed … the effects on the Gaelic Irish were catastrophic.” But this catastrophe is what enabled their rapid acculturation.

To me this is incredible. I think that a process of rapid degeneration, amounting in the end to catastrophic breakdown, in a community situated as the exiled Gaelic Irish were, would be more likely to produce ongoing decay, failure and despair. There must have been some other cultural process at work which was not degenerative, which sustained them and spurred them to resourceful and successful efforts.

WHAT was happening in the minds of the exiled Gaels? In an attempt to divert attention from this question, or so it seems to me, O’Scea introduces an optical illusion: the supposed likeness of the Gaels, in Spanish eyes, to the Morisco community of the south of Spain.

The Moriscos were the formally Christian, but allegedly still in large measure Islamic, descendants of the Moors of Granada. Some hundreds of thousands of them were expelled from Spain between 1609 and 1614. To be identified with such people would be an uncomfortable experience indeed. In a variety of formulations O’Scea refers to the “identification of the Irish with the Moriscos by the Spaniards” (cited here from his conclusion). He labours to suggest and imply this as well as asserting it, and he even argues that the wish to cast off the Morisco-type label was the principal motivating factor for the changed practices in the Irish community between 1610 and about 1625. But where is the evidence? In my view, he gives no substantial grounds for believing that the Spanish ever made any such association.

The Moriscos had been forced to turn Christian (in breach of an undertaking in the terms of surrender accepted by the last king of Granada in 1492, that Muslims would not have to change their religion). Afterwards they lived a peculiar double life. Officially they were Christians; privately (as the Spanish elite insisted, and as Julio Caro Baroja largely agrees) on the whole they maintained their Islamic traditions. In countless ways their public existence seemed to reveal their private alienation. They looked, sounded and acted strangely.

Caro Baroja distinguishes four ways in which they were different:

1. Religion, the most important. Since they were baptised Christians, if they practiced Islam the Moriscos were regarded as apostates and renegades. For persistent offenders the punishment could be death.

2. Language. They spoke Arabic and had a distinctive accent when speaking Spanish.

3. Customs. Their women dressed differently; their food and drink was different (no wine, no pork; halal killing). They made much use of public baths. They had different ways of solemnising births, marriages and deaths, and different working practices.

4. Physical and temperamental features.

If we omit religion, on all other points the Irish too were different. They spoke Irish and would have had distinctive accents when speaking Spanish. They dressed distinctively: the Irish mantle was very striking. Irish musical instruments or an Irish wake might not have been to every Spaniard’s taste. Or indeed, Irish red hair.

In fact, though, everything revolved around religion. That was why Morisco difference so inflamed feeling. It may well be that the ordinary Spaniard, as Caro Baroja says, would have disliked hearing non-Spanish languages, whether they were Arabic, Basque, or Irish. But what gave Arabic its peculiar charge was the Christian elite’s belief that it both concealed and promoted Islamic practice. The sense that, in how they looked, sounded and acted, the Moriscos were giving an unending demonstration of their private disloyalty: this was what drove the Spanish Christian elite to paranoia and made many of them feel that the problem could have no constructive solution. After the conquest of Granada, Jaime Bleda says, there were perpetually two opinions in Spain: “that this enemy nation should be preserved in its ancestral places, or completely expelled from the land”.

In the 1520s a law was passed which forbade the use of Arabic and outlawed the whole range of potentially removable Morisco differences. But the abstemious, hard-working and thrifty Moriscos had plenty of money (“they work and they don’t eat; if a sixpence comes into their power they condemn it to perpetual prison and eternal darkness,” one of Cervantes’s characters says), and the Emperor Charles V was needy and they managed to buy him off.

But it was not so easy to buy off Philip II. In 1566, under intense pressure from the Catholic hierarchy, a new conformity law was enacted. Arabic was to be phased out completely within three years. Books in Arabic were to be surrendered and contracts in Arabic annulled. The Moriscos must dress like Castilian Spaniards, stop using their musical instruments, not celebrate Friday and not have Moorish names. They must desist from the use of public baths, and their women must not use henna.

Francisco Nuñez Muley, representing the Moriscos, put forward a case that these cultural differences had no essential connection with Islam and that it was counterproductive to try to suppress them. His argument was presented extremely well. There were many differences of dress, he said, in the different Christian lands, and indeed among Spain’s own regions; in certain countries there were Christian women who dressed like Morisco women. Arabic too was a language that could perfectly well be used by Christians, and indeed it was spoken by Christians in Malta and in the Holy Land. To prohibit the normal language of business in much of the south of Spain, and to annul solemnly concluded contracts, would cause chaos in ordinary working and trading. As for their use of baths, the Moriscos had sound hygienic and health reasons for that, and so on.

Nothing could be more reasonable than the way Muley argues his case. And yet Caro Baroja says that he’s not convincing. The Christian elite understood that Morisco difference remained rooted in a vast international culture which was not theirs. Muley’s appeal was dismissed, the conformity law came into force, and it precipitated a major Morisco rebellion which went on for nearly two and a half years.

Afterwards the Moriscos of Granada, or some of them, were expelled, but only to other regions of Spain. The essential problem remained unresolved. By the early 1600s there were fears that the Moriscos were planning a new rebellion, this time in conjunction with an invasion by the Ottoman Turks and the militant Muslim rulers of north Africa. The two points of view described by Jaime Bleda, pro-assimilation and pro-expulsion, were in sharper conflict. In 1609 there was a landslide shift of opinion in favour of expulsion, which was undertaken. Bernard Vincent says that about 90 per cent of the Moriscos, roughly a quarter of a million people, were expelled in the course of a year, 1609-10. During the following four years the expulsion continued, but more slowly.

I have barely glanced at the huge books which were published between 1612 and 1618, by Pedro Aznar Cardona, Marcos de Guadalajara and Jaime Bleda, justifying the expulsion. But even a glance is sufficient to show that for these writers the Morisco issue carries a massive historical charge. Bound up with it is the history of Christian Spain, from the time of the first Muslim invasions in the early eighth century. That original Muslim irruption is seen as a moment of catastrophe, and there are fears that nine centuries later, because of the sheer power of the Turks, a new catastrophe could soon occur. There is also intense bitterness at what is seen as the Moriscos’ betrayal of Christianity. A hundred years had passed, after all,

since God did them the honour of calling them to the bosom of his Church … and when they were expected to bear fruit worthy of servants of God, these tributaries of Hell appeared with a thousand apostasies, infidelities, sorceries, betrayals, conspiracies, capital offences, and a whole variety of atrocious crimes against the King of Heaven and against our Catholic King Philip, on account of which he has cast them out and expelled them from his kingdoms (Aznar Cardona). 

If the Gaelic Irish were identified with people so described, it is hard to see why they too were not briskly rounded up and put on boats.

O’Scea tries to strengthen his argument by suggesting that the Gaels were at odds with orthodox Catholicism. On several occasions he refers to them as “heterodox”. Here he is being more inquisitorial than the Inquisition, which never said any such thing.

If one is looking for Gaelic religious culture at its most eccentric, the devotional poems composed roughly from 1200 to 1600 would probably qualify. A long time ago Fr Lambert McKenna SJ, set out to study them, with a firm resolution of judging them by his own Jesuit standards. He found that, “while not implying un-Catholic doctrine”, they betrayed a very artificial religious mentality (Dán Dé, introduction). They were not heterodox, in other words, but they were unsatisfactory, being too superficially religious. The Spanish critics of the 1600s seem to be no harsher than that, and no less discriminating.

The Inquisition, of course, took an interest in the exiled Irish. Anyone who was different was of interest to the Inquisition, which was anxious to establish how far the difference went and what it might imply. But evidently the Irish gave little cause for concern, or O’Scea would be able to find more cases, and more serious ones. Of the few he cites, some are not nationally specific or indeed very heretical: if a priest or a layman says that it isn’t a sin for him to have sex with other men’s wives, the primary motive is not likely to be doctrinal. On the other hand, the Irish were said not to keep the Lenten fast very well. That might well be thought serious if there were no improvement. But the mastermind himself, Archbishop Ó Maolchonaire, gave this matter his attention, and since it is not a continually recurring complaint, presumably in the general adaptation of Irish behaviour there was an improvement in this respect also.

In the concluding chapter we are told that the Gaelic Irish, desperate to escape the tainted association, even tried to pin the Morisco label on others, such as the Old English. Hence there was an

adoption of the political language of the Old Christian-New Christian divide by Gaelic Irish writers and its application to the Gaelic Irish-Old English struggle in order to denigrate the Old English and keep them away from access to royal patronage. This first made its appearance in the struggle over the Irish college in Santiago in 1613.

But that is a misinterpretation. Benjamin Hazard has shown that the essential criticism of the Old English, as Catholics who were compromised by their long-standing attachment to the English crown, was expounded by Flaithrí Ó Maolchonaire at least as early as 1605.

The criticism did become sharper after 1615, when the Old English representatives at the Dublin Parliament voted for the confiscation of O’Neill and O’Donnell’s estates, an issue which is emphasised in Philip O’Sullivan Beare’s History. “Denigration” is not an appropriate term to describe a political case which O’Sullivan Beare and Ó Maolchonaire make with reasoned argument. And the Moriscos have nothing to do with it.

If it really were true that the Gaelic Irish were identified with the Moriscos, one would expect to find this linkage made explicit by members of the Spanish elite. They were articulate men. But in the only instances which I have been able to find where Moriscos and Irish are mentioned in the same breath, far from being identified they are treated as polar opposites.

One of these was published by Kerney Walsh in her admirable Destruction by Peace. The author was Andrés Velázquez, member of the Council of State and head of the Spanish Secret Service, writing to the Duke of Lerma on June 28th, 1615. “The Catholics of [Ireland] fear it is intended to expel them, following the example of what was done with the Moriscos in Spain, for the Irish are no less suspect to the king of England than the Moors were to His Majesty; this is a sign that our decision was good, since it is not only envied but imitated by the enemies.”

The second is by Jaime Bleda, historian and defender of the policy of expulsion. He says that the Moorish invasion in the early eighth century caused many Spanish Christians to flee abroad – to Greece, Germany, France, even to England.

Venerable Bede, seeing the affliction and misery of those who had gone to England and were going about there, lost, with their wives and children, as the poor Irish go about today in Madrid, – Bede wrote, as has been said, exhorting many Christian princes to war against the Moors of Spain: but no one believed him, nor will anyone help the poor English now. In Ireland to the present day many names have survived of Spaniards who fled from this disaster – not from the great Spanish drought, as some think, even if there actually was one, but from their destruction, in the year seven hundred and fourteen or fifteen and afterwards, which were the most terrible and frightful years that Spain experienced since the time of its great drought, if it really happened.

Plainly, for Bleda and Velázquez there can be no question of identifying the Irish with the Moriscos. If Velázquez does see a parallel, it is with the Irish vis-à-vis anti-Catholic England, not Catholic Spain. In both Spain and England the king is concerned about a disloyal and dangerous population within his realm. Possibly the king of England might copy Spanish measures, since they are seen to be effective, in dealing with his internal enemies (who are, however, Spain’s friends: Velázquez is urging Lerma to give serious thought to the option of military aid). As for Bleda, he identifies the poor Irish around Madrid with the Spanish Catholic exiles who fled from the Moriscos’ forbears.

The Moriscos were different, the Gaelic Irish were different, but more than that was required for identification! The Spanish elite was capable of distinguishing one set of different people from another.

SO let’s return to the real issue, the Gaelic Irish. O’Scea, it seems fair to say, detests them. When referring to them and their ways his language often becomes pejorative. His bitterest scorn is reserved for the Gaelic learned class: “apologists for the ruling elite”, “the practitioners of pedigree-making or faking”. This is the language of polemic, which is not applied to other cultural powers or ruling orders. (One would like to give his due to the nineteenth century man who said that the ruling ideas in every age were the ideas of the ruling class. But his insight was not meant to be applied exclusively to strange non-capitalist societies. It’s supposed to raise some questions about the thoughts that we’re thinking ourselves ...)

As an illustration, from the horse’s mouth, of the typical Gaelic way of ruling, O’Scea cites “the reputed words of the Donegal chieftain, Niall Garbh Ó Domhnaill: ‘I care not let 1,000 die, I pass not of a pin; and for the people, they are my subjects. I will punish, exact, cut and hang, if I see occasion, where and whensoever I list’.” (He has omitted to quote an even finer piece of bombast which immediately precedes this: “Were there but one cow in the country, that cow would I take and use as mine own.”)

O’Scea does not tell us who reported these “reputed words”. They were related during the Nine Years War, about 1600. The source was a representative of the power which, beyond all reasonable doubt, was responsible for the deaths of most of the many thousands of poor Irish who died during those years, partly by indiscriminate massacres (boasted of in the state papers) but mainly by its policies of engineered famine: the English government. Captain Dowcra, commander of the English garrison in Derry, was writing a report which was meant to justify his own proceedings and secure himself politically.

Dowcra was at liberty to put words in Ó Domhnaill’s mouth – there would hardly be any comeback if he did. Or Ó Domhnaill may actually have said those words. In Dowcra’s account there is a moment of moral confrontation between the two men, diamond-cut-diamond, when the Irish lord may have felt obliged to come out with some forceful bluster. What is certain is that, if this bluster fairly depicted the Gaelic way of ruling, the English would have found the Nine Years War an easier enterprise than it actually was.

And then there’s the migration. Those who departed for Spain were not only members of the ruling families and their branches, which we know were multitudinous – by O’Scea’s estimate those accounted only for about 25 per cent of the whole. Now, famine or no famine, for whole communities to uproot themselves from their traditional places so as once again, in a strange country, to be subordinated to lords who had done nothing but bleed them white, who didn’t give a hoot about them, who would cheerfully see thousands of them die if only they themselves were rich – that takes a bit of believing. The migration, in fact, presupposed a powerful sense of community of wellbeing with the lords on the part of those who migrated.

Our author might have learned a few things from the poets, but he knows already what they are and has better things to do than read their apologies for the elite. “A high proportion of the praise poems begin with a long list of the glorious deeds of the chieftain’s ancestors before relating those of the living lord,” he informs us. And in a footnote to this he advises: “See, for example, the fourteenth century poem of sixty stanzas to Diarmaid na gCaisleán Ó Briain, of which the first forty seven stanzas are devoted to the deeds of his ancestors.”

But this is the reverse of the truth, as he would know if he had read the poem with a little attention. The poet, Gofraidh Fionn Ó Dálaigh, gives the first thirty-seven verses strictly to Diarmaid na gCaisleán. Next there are ten verses on his ancestors, from Brian Ború onwards, but in each verse some particular virtue of the given ancestor is said to be embodied in Diarmaid. And then Gofraidh Fionn says, in effect: enough of genealogy, it’s boring! The ancestors have had their day.

Taobh re huaisle gach fola ó dtá
na tabhradh sé;
’s é an neach féin uaislighios a ghnaoi
uaislighios é.

Let no man depend on the noble blood whence he springs; ’tis the man himself who creates the glory which exalts him. (Fr McKenna’s translation).

There are five things that a prince needs, Gofraidh Fionn goes on to say: strength, liberality, good sense, kindred, blood. The order is meant to be noted. And this is not an exceptional attitude for Gofraidh Fionn. In the poem which begins Fa ngníomhradh measdar meic ríogh, “Princes are judged by their deeds”, he is even more emphatic.

What the poets say about Gaelic nobility is complex and context-specific. It’s unwise to dogmatise about it on the basis of simple schemas, as O’Scea does. He has only two boxes, it seems, to put Gaelic nobility in, uaisle and onóir, but he might have found a few others, for example gnaoi, featured in Gofraidh Fionn’s verse above, or oirbheart (in the older language airbert). This latter word has a wide range of meaning, but as used about 1600 it often seems to mean a combination of strength and good sense, coping with whatever confronts one, competence, facing the situation and mastering it. As employed by some of the poets in A Bardic Miscellany it doesn’t seem all that far from what Machiavelli meant by virtù.

Similarly, it’s unwise to judge Gaelic society by extrapolating what one takes to be the meaning of the ancient, enigmatic books of law. O’Scea is firmly convinced that women were peculiarly subjugated in Gaelic Ireland and that they were very much freer in Spain. In exile “the average Gaelic Irish woman at least would have had significantly greater inheritance rights than she would have had in Ireland, a fact that should have helped increase her marital bargaining power, strengthened her position within the family, and maybe made her more reluctant to return to Ireland”. But this is pure theory, which apparently he cannot illustrate.

And here one might mention the extraordinary story of Elena MacCarthy, a challenging subject for a novel if ever there was one. Elena was the only legitimate child of the late sixteenth century MacCarthy Mór, an earl who was also a gifted poet. It had been arranged with her father that she would marry Nicholas Browne, one of the Munster planters, so that the huge lordship of MacCarthy Mór would pass into English hands. But Elena – with the connivance, it was said, of her mother, and just maybe a wink from her father – eloped with Florence MacCarthy Reagh, the leading MacCarthy of Carbery. (He in turn had been engaged to the daughter of O’Sullivan Beare. The jilted Browne promptly married the jilted O’Sullivan and seemingly lived happily ever after. Though he was on the opposite side in the Nine Years War, he is warmly spoken of by Philip O’Sullivan Beare.)

The idea of the huge MacCarthy territories of Carbery and South Kerry being united was an appalling prospect for the English. And this in 1589, the very year after the Armada – and Florence was a man who was known to have mastered the Spanish language. The English authorities promptly kidnapped him and brought him to London, where he was held for years. But then, in the latter stages of the Nine Years War, he was reintroduced to West Cork, where it was hoped that he would act as a pro-English counterweight to Hugh O’Neill.

Florence temporised, disappointing both sides. It may well be that he was waiting for a Spanish landing before committing himself fully to O’Neill’s side. Unwilling to give him so much time, the English seized him again (typically, breaking a safe-conduct ) and brought him back to London, where he was held for the next forty years until his death.

Afterwards, presenting her case to the English, Elena claimed she was alienated from her husband and that she had given information to the English authorities about his activities in West Cork in 1600. One suspects that she probably did engage in some such communications, and one also suspects that she was a double agent. The local English authorities seem to have concluded as much, because they put her in prison in Cork. But she managed to escape and made her way to London, where she put in a claim – not, of course, for her husband’s lands in Carbery, but for the MacCarthy Mór estates, as the late earl’s only legitimate child. Naturally this was not granted, but she did manage to secure a small pension.

Dissatisfied with this, she decided to try for better in the Spanish territories. She turned up in Flanders in 1613, and Micheline Kerney Walsh has traced some of her story thereafter. Inquiries were made about her; the Spanish ambassador reported from London that her husband, Florence, was displeased with her and wanted her put in a Flemish convent.

But she managed to escape this fate. By the following year she had settled in Madrid and was complaining that her allowance was insufficient for her to live as the grand lady that she was. She made her point, it would seem, because three years later there was a very striking testimony to her rank and importance: she was one of the sponsors of Donal Cam O’Sullivan Beare for admission to the Order of Santiago. Irish and Spanish alike accepted her as a countess, a rank which strictly speaking was self-conferred. Obviously she had won the trust of the Irish community’s leaders. She had also mastered Spanish, since she did not require the services of an interpreter.

In short, this was a woman who had shown ability in complex and difficult dealings in three countries – and in three different language communities, come to that. But it is clear that her capacities were developed within Gaelic Ireland. Sociological theory may say, if it likes, that she cannot have been what she was. Maybe, just maybe, the real social relations in Gaelic Ireland were looser, and had a wider range of possibilities, than theory presupposes?

It is understandable, I grant, that one mightn’t have time for Gofraidh Fionn Ó Dálaigh. But if one wants to engage with Gaelic Ireland about the year 1600, then one ought to have time for Breandán Ó Buachalla. Ó Buachalla’s work, and especially Aisling Ghéar, is the great gaping hole in O’Scea’s bibliography and text. I have disagreements with Aisling Ghéar, but I would never recommend anyone not to read it.

When Nicholas Canny produced Making Ireland British about fifteen years ago, he tried to take Aisling Ghéar on board. I think he felt that if he didn’t, he might be suspected of not having the tools for the job. In his introduction, Canny claimed to have given “bardic poetry” an equivalent status to the state papers. He did not really do so, but he felt obliged to pay this much tribute to the virtue of attending, when writing about the country, to the country’s principal language. But in academic writing of late one observes a policy of sustained silence about Aisling Ghéar, quietly burying the bulky long book. It makes things a lot easier.

In Aisling Ghéar, however, one might make acquaintance with Eoghan Ruadh Mac an Bhaird, the trusted secretary of Hugh O’Neill and the matchless poet of the exiled O’Neills and O’Donnells. Some ideas which had obvious importance in the exile culture (and turn up also in exile writings in Spanish, Latin and Irish prose) are vividly expressed in his poems. The Irish are seen, like the Hebrews of the Bible, to have had some responsibility for their own misfortunes. A moral reform is required. One needs to take a more earnest attitude to life, and to the Irish politico-military enterprise above all:

Glacuidh croidhe nuaidhe a-nois,
leaguidh síos seol an díomais;
ná codlaigh ar cneidh mBanbha,
gaibh obair fa th’athardha.
Furtacht Teamhra, má tá a-ndán,
do réir fáistine Ulltán,
muna thairbhire Dia dheit,
don tairrngeire cia creidmid?

Receive a new heart now,
take down the sail of arrogance;
do not sleep on Ireland’s wound,
take up the work of the fatherland.
To rescue Tara, if it’s destined,
as Ulltán foretold –
If God does not grant you that,
who can believe in prophecy?

Ó Buachalla has written well about the importance of prophecy, which was not confined to the culture of Ireland. (Here, in fact, there’s a likeness to the Moriscos. “For over a hundred years the Moriscos, like many other persecuted communities, lived from the illusion that prophecies could supply,” is how Julio Caro Baroja puts it. However, while the persecuted communities gave most prominence to the culture of prophecy, they had no monopoly.)

Furthermore, Aisling Ghéar might save one from the temptation to make reckless statements about the exiles’ identity. Our author cites a petition by Captain Richard de Burg, addressed to Philip III in 1619 and complaining bitterly of neglect:

No one could return to his already lost country. Those who having become old serving your Majesty [and thus] not suitable to serve another Prince, have died of hunger. Those who had the intelligence to travel the world had not the wherewithal because they had not been paid their backpay in months and so remained expecting the compassion of Your Majesty’s which never arrived [so that] in the end when they consumed little by little what was owed to them, the desperate ones, most of whom died of hunger and ill luck, cursing too late their madness and credulity, should have left wherever fortune led them.

O’Scea’s comment on this is:

Clearly, then, for the rank and file, it would be mistaken to speak of any form of identity other than that related to economic survival. At most they possessed a family, community, or ethnic language identity, though owing to their position as foreigners they may have acquired a burgeoning Irish identity, based on country of origin.

The second of these sentences flatly, and repeatedly, contradicts the first. But what is striking is how the first sentence contradicts the opening statement by Captain Richard de Burg: “No one could return to his already lost country”. – !!  Supposing someone has lost his country (which is to say, there was a time when he had a country to lose), isn’t it a little rash to assume he no longer has any identity except that of the economically surviving creature – for whom apparently, as for Mrs Thatcher, there is no such thing as society?

Isin bhFraingc im dhúsgadh damh,
i n-Éirinn Chuinn im chodladh;
beag ar ngrádh uaidh don fhaire,
do thál suan ar síorfhaire.

When I wake I am in France,
but I’m in Ireland when I sleep.
Little I love being open-eyed,
ever on watch for what sleep brings.

This quatrain, composed in France in the early 1630s, seems to distil a generation’s experience. How many Irish exiles felt like that, at least some of the time? Could Richard de Burg have been one? I would bet that he was, though of course he had no reason to reveal such thoughts in a petition to the King of Spain.

But here one comes to the most extraordinary thematic omission in O’Scea’s book, the great fact which he cannot avoid bumping into now and then but never actually highlights: the migrants didn’t want to stay in Spain forever. They wanted to go home with honour. Spain with its great military power was to be the agent of their restoration, and thereafter Philip III would be their benevolent and protecting High King. Hugh O’Neill, writing to Lerma in May 1615, put it succinctly: “the liberation of Ireland and its happy union to the crown of Spain”. King Philip would acquire that right of high kingship which the English kings had never truly possessed and could not acquire because of continual Irish resistance and their own bad behaviour, as explained by Philip O’Sullivan Beare in his Compendium of the History of Catholic Ireland (1621) and later by Conor O’Mahony in his Argument Defending the Right of the Kingdom of Ireland (1645) .

To the end of his life Hugh O’Neill was continually campaigning for a Spanish expedition to support a new Irish uprising, sending memorials to Philip III, pressuring Lerma, Velázquez, or whoever else might have influence. And so was O’Sullivan Beare, as Kerney Walsh has demonstrated. At the time of his death an agent of his was in Ireland, sounding out prospects for a rising. This man, identified as Fr Tadeo Huolano (Tadhg Ó hÓláin?), made his dangerous journeys both in Munster and in Connacht. Everywhere he found goodwill, “but none of them will stir until they see yourself in person or your letters, but above all they expect yourself with good succour” (thus the priest reported in a letter, not knowing that the intended recipient was dead).

O’Sullivan Beare, the key figure in the migration, wanted a future in Ireland. And without clear evidence to the contrary one should assume that the vast majority of the migrants, including the vast majority of women, wanted the same thing. (It is notable that for generations those who had had lands in Ireland formally bequeathed them by will to their heirs, though the lands had long been confiscated. Furthermore, they showed no inclination to acquire lands in Spain, though for people with even a claim to minor nobility this was not impossible – some Scottish Catholic lords became Spanish landholders, for example.)

The continuing contacts O’Sullivan Beare had with his homeland are of great interest. One important, even though enigmatic source is the elegy composed for him in 1618, at some time after his murder in July. The poet, Domhnall Mac Eoghain Uí Dhálaigh, was certainly resident in Ireland and probably lived near Dunboy.

His elegy is less passionate than, say, Eoghan Ruadh Mac an Bhaird’s for Ruaidhrí Ó Domhnaill, composed a decade previously. That is to be expected: the poet in this instance would not have been a close companion. Nonetheless he produced a fine piece of work, and it was included in one of the most important poetic manuscripts of the seventeenth century, compiled less than forty years later in the Netherlands. His opening line frames the event: San Sbáinn do toirneadh Teamhair, “Tara has been laid low in Spain,” that is to say, Ireland has been overthrown. The murder has occurred in distant Spain, but it is a disaster of all-Irish significance.

Uí Dhálaigh will be the despair of information-gatherers, since it isn’t his purpose to supply their needs or indeed to show how much he knows. But obviously he does know a good deal. He knows that O’Sullivan Beare now has the rank of Conde, iarla, and is proud of that. When he calls him aoincheann uidhe na n-aoighidh, “the journey’s end for every guest”, that would seem to be a poetic way of saying what the governor of Galicia said: “Everybody seeks him out and he welcomes everyone.” And he knows that O’Sullivan Beare was murdered in Madrid by a single foul blow.

Ní caoine mar caoine cháigh
do-niad uime san Easbáin;
ní hí an Mhumha a gcló chaoine,
mó cumha na Casdaoile.
Riú bheanas an teidhm tinn-si
cinn ghaisgidh na Gaillinsi;
seal caoine ar mhnáibh san Mhumhain,
dáibh ní saoire a Saghsanaibh.

It is no common mourning
that they make for him in Spain:
they do not copy Munster’s grief,
greater is the sorrow of Castile.
This sore affliction strikes
the commanders of Galicia;
Munsterwomen will weep for quite a while:
they’ll have no freedom from the Englishmen.

The poet, then, is aware of Galicia both as a centre of the Irish-Iberian community and as the starting-point of any Spanish military expedition to Ireland. He is also aware of O’Sullivan Beare’s stature at the court of Castile. (The editor of the published version of this poem, RB Breatnach, unfortunately committed a key blunder which made the poet seem confused and silly. He took the word Gaillinsi as Gaill-inse, “foreign island” – to mean England. Accordingly, Uí Dhálaigh was saying that the heads of the English armed forces were mourning O’Sullivan Beare! Breatnach observed that this contradicted statements in some later verses, where it is said that the English are now full of confidence and see their way to complete control of Ireland. He then compounded confusion with a learned explanation of the contradiction. If he had checked Dinneen’s dictionary he would have found the true meaning of Gaillinse: “Galicia (in Spain)”.)

The poet elegantly compares O’Sullivan Beare to Hector, who defended Troy against the Greeks for as long as he lived, but with his death – similarly, from a single blow – the city’s downfall was imminent.

Re Galluibh go nuaidhe a-niogh
aoinfhear do ghasruidh Ghaoidhiol
a gcaoi imreasuin ní fhuil
fá fhinnleasuibh Chraoi Cobhthuigh.
In all Ireland’s fine dwellings
there’s no man of the Gaels
fit to renew the contest
with the English today.

Last year, the poet says, it was a different story. And he follows with the intriguing lines: “Seóid riamh dhá dtigeadh tar tuinn, / ní thigid ar ndul Domhnuill.” Breatnach translates: “The gifts that ever used to come over the sea do not come now that Domhnall is dead”. The gifts ... or maybe, the treasures ... Or is there some other meaning? At any rate, this couplet surely must refer to a web of real and expected communication between O’Sullivan Beare abroad and his followers at home. Kerney Walsh has found valuable evidence of this. It would be good to have more, because O’Sullivan Beare is a fascinating character. Will a biography worthy of him ever be written? O’Scea, I assume, has encountered this poem but considers it beneath his notice: I find no reference to it in his text or bibliography.

Though he provides much interesting information, O’Scea’s work falls short of the standards set by Kerney Walsh and Hazard. Unlike those writers, he seems to be less interested in the story than in the theory that can be imposed on the story. There are moments in his later chapters (before his doctrinaire conclusion) when it seems that his rich material may be about to sweep him away – that he might fly the coop of theory. It’s a pity that he didn’t take the risk.

Note on sources
In the first two sections information is taken mainly from O’Scea and from Benjamin Hazard, Faith and Patronage. The Political Career of Flaithrí Ó Maolchonaire, c. 1560-1629 (Dublin 2010); in the third section I depend mainly on Julio Caro Baroja, Los moriscos del reino de Granada (Madrid 1957).

“By the time that war...”: Philip O’Sullivan Beare, Compendium Historiae Catholicae Hiberniae (Dublin 1850), pp. 261-2. ‒ “Everybody seeks him out...”: Surviving, p. 44. ‒ “It seems profitable...”: Ciaran O’Scea, ‘Irish emigration to Castile in the opening years of the seventeenth century’. In: To and from Ireland: Planned Migration Schemes c. 1600-2000, ed. PJ Duffy and G Moran (Dublin 2004), p. 34; also Surviving, p. 48. ‒ “In effect, the Irish nobility...”: Surviving, p. 48. ‒ “The people that are to be sent...”: O’Scea, ‘Irish emigration’, p. 35.

Brief Relation: Breve relación de la presente persecucción en Irlanda (Seville 1619); on Irish civilisation and learning, pp. 5-8; on Ulster Plantation, p. 36. ‒ Gaelic strategist Ó Maolchonaire: Benjamin Hazard, op. cit. ‒ “These Irish women commit...”: Surviving, p. 165. ‒ Quevedo on Irish girls: Micheline Kerney Walsh, ‘Some Notes towards a History of the Womenfolk of the Wild Geese’, The Irish Sword 1961-2, p. 102. ‒ “Gaelic Irish kinship structures... ”: Surviving, p. 241.

“Identification of the Irish...”: ibid., p. 233. ‒ Moriscos’ four differences: Julio Caro Baroja, op. cit., p. 18. ‒ “That this enemy nation...”: Jaime Bleda, Coronica de los Moros en España (Valencia 1618), p. 869. ‒ “They work and they don’t eat...”: cited Caro Baroja, p. 221. ‒ Nuñez Muley’s arguments: Francisco Nuñez Muley, A Memorandum for the President of the Royal Audiencia and the Chancery Court of the City and Kingdom of Granada, tr. Vincent Barletta (Chicago 2007). ‒ Muley not convincing: Caro Baroja, pp. 108-9. ‒ Moriscos expelled 1609-10: The Expulsion of the Moriscos from Spain: A Mediterranean Diaspora ed. M. García-Arenal and G. Wieger (Brill 2014), pp. 27-28. (Bernard Vincent)

Cardona, Guadalajara, Bleda: Pedro Aznar Cardona, Expulsión iustificada de los moriscos españoles (Huesca 1612); Fray Marcos de Guadalajara, Memorable expulsión y iustissimo destierro de los Moriscos de España (Pamplona 1613); Jaime Bleda, op. cit. (all three are now on the internet). ‒ “...since God did them the honour”: Aznar Cardona, op. cit., End of First Part, pp. 202r - 202v. ‒ ‘Heterodox’ Gaelic Irish: e.g. Surviving, pp. 110, 217. ‒ “... adoption of the political language”: Surviving, p. 235. ‒ Ó Maolchonaire on Old English, 1605: Hazard, op. cit., pp. 51-2. ‒ O’Sullivan Beare on confiscation vote: See my edition of Conor O’Mahony, An Argument Defending the Right of the Kingdom of Ireland (Aubane 2010), pp. 31-4. ‒ “The Catholics of that kingdom...” Micheline Kerney Walsh, “Destruction by Peace”. Hugh O’Neill After Kinsale (Ard Mhacha 2015), p. 352. ‒ “Venerable Bede...”: Jaime Bleda, op. cit., p. 170.

“apologists to the ruling elite”: Surviving, p. 24. ‒ “the practitioners of pedigree...”: ibid. ‒ “the reputed words...”: ibid., p. 22. ‒ “Were there but one cow...”: See the fuller version in Katharine Simms, From Kings to Warlords (Woodbridge, Suffolk, 2000), p. 146.

Indiscriminate massacres... engineered famine: See my article, ‘The English in Ireland and the Practice of Massacre’, published in Church and State No 110, online at Peter Brooke’s ‘British values website’:

“A high proportion of the praisepoems...”:Surviving, p. 143. ‒ “See, for example, the 14th century...”: ibid., p. 157, fn. 13. ‒ Taobh re huaisle...: ‘A Poem by Gofraidh Fionn Ó Dálaigh’, Ériu 16 (1952), p. 134 (v. 50). ‒ Five princely qualities: ibid., v. 55. ‒ “the average Gaelic Irish woman...”: Surviving, p. 81. ‒ Elena MacCarthy: cf. Kerney Walsh, ‘Some Notes’, op. cit.; Surviving, pp. 93, 148; and Daniel MacCarthy, Life and Letters of Florence MacCarthy Reagh (London 1867).

Glacuidh croidhe...: Duanta Eoghain Ruaidh Mhic an Bhaird eag. Tomás Ó Raghallaigh (Gaillimh 1930), p. 216. ‒ “For over a hundred years...”: Caro Baroja, p. 114. ‒ “No one could return...”: Surviving, p. 240. ‒ “Clearly then, for the rank and file...”: ibid., p. 241. ‒ Isin bhFraingc...: Filíocht Phádraigín Haicéad, eag. Máire Ní Cheallacháin (Baile Átha Cliath 2003), p. 10. ‒ “the liberation of Ireland...”: Destruction by Peace, p. 350.

O’Sullivan Beare’s plans: Micheline Kerney Walsh ed., ‘O’Sullivan Beare in Spain: some unpublished documents’, Archivium Hibernicum 45 (1990). ‒ “but none of them will stir...”: Destruction by Peace, p. 114. ‒ San Sbáinn ..: ‘Elegy on Donal O’Sullivan Beare (†1618)’, ed. R. B. Breatnach, Éigse 7 (1954), p. 166 (v. I). ‒ aoincheann uidhe ..: ibid., p. 176 (v. XXXIX). ‒ Ní caoine...: ibid., p. 170 (vv. XVII-XVIII). ‒ Re Gallaibh...: ibid., p. 174 (v. XXXI). ‒ Seóid riamh...: ibid., p. 178 (v. XLV).


John Minahane has produced translations of literature in Irish and essays on Irish history and literature. His books include The Christian Druids: on the filidh or philosopher-poets of Ireland (repr. Howth Free Press, Dublin 2008); (ed. and tr.) The poems of Geoffrey O'Donoghue / Dánta Shéafraidh Uí Dhonnchadha an Ghleanna (Aubane Historical Society, Aubane 2008); and (t.) Conor O’Mahony, An Argument Defending the Right of the Kingdom of Ireland (Aubane Historical Society, Aubane 2010).