The English in Ireland and the Practice of Massacre (2)


In his own article in Age Of Atrocity, 'The escalation of violence in sixteenth-century Ireland', David Edwards observes that Ireland could not be called peaceful even before the English took it in hand. The Annals of the Four Masters record considerable numbers of military incursions by Irish forces. 95 in all are mentioned for the first half of the 16th century. But many of these raids were sudden raids for plunder and most of them did not involve battles. Combat mortality was low (Age of Atrocity, p.43). 

Some of the raids involved the burning of crops, and in extreme cases this could lead to famine. But there is no reason to think that, as a general rule, non-combatants were deliberately targeted. "As a rule, native armies did not look to slaughter the common people" (p.46). Violent death and brutal treatment of one's peers was certainly common among the Gaelic elite, but this did not tend to spill over into large-scale violence (p.48). 

But then the Tudor viceroys began to raise the stakes. In the 1530s the English forces began a practice of massacring Irish rebel combatants who had surrendered, often on the promise of mercy. The third of these massacres was conducted by the Viceroy, Lord Lionel Grey, in Carrickogunnell Castle, Co. Limerick, in 1536. 

"The killings went beyond usual practice in Ireland; as Grey noted in his own account, there were women and children among those he had killed. It is the very fact that he included this information in his report to London, deeming it a piece of service fit to be recorded, that pinpoints his significance in the military history of sixteenth-century Ireland. Traditionally, Irish warlords only rejoiced in the killing of soldiers, and passed over the killing of non-combatants in silence. Grey (and other English officers of the time) saw all killing as virtuous, an achievement worthy of commemoration" (p.59). 

This was only the first of a series of massacres which Grey's forces committed. In time, Edwards says, some of the rebels began to imitate the Government style: "Some of the rebel actions betrayed their desperation, others their growing resolve to match the crown raid for raid" (p.70). Edwards does not have much clear evidence for this: the clearest case seems to be the Anglo-Irish warlord Edmund Butler, who appears to have committed two spectacular massacres in 1568 and 1569. 

"But while the Irish resorted to atrocities to an extent not previously recorded, their inclination in this regard was not matched by their capability. Accordingly, as in the 1530s, the scales of atrocity appear to have weighed heaviest on the government's side" (ibid). 

An increasingly prominent aspect of Government practice was the killing of civilians. 

"One of the grimmer aspects of government activity during this period was the formal extension of military severity over large sections of the ordinary populace ... Threatening the peasantry was a guaranteed way to sever the ties binding the broad mass of ordinary people to their traditional local rulers ... In the course of the crown campaigns the killing of the low-born became widespread. It was even considered unremarkable. Returning from one of his outings Lord Deputy Sidney joked in a letter to Whitehall that he had killed so many Irish 'varlets', he had lost count" (p.74). 

The Government forces also began burning: not occasionally and briefly, as had been the Irish style, but systematically and thoroughly. 

"Far from being reluctant to employ scorched earth tactics because of the high civilian mortality that it wrought (as has been claimed elsewhere), the government forces resorted to land and crop-burning repeatedly during the mid-Tudor and early Elizabethan years, and did so precisely because it promised to wreak the most havoc, and kill the most people ... (Sussex tried not to burn too much near the Pale, but ...) Once in Ulster's Gaelic heartland Sussex's army moved freely about, burning at will. Presumably because he could not linger in the province for as long as he would have liked, the earl prioritised the fastest route to a lasting impact: famine. Hence his ordering the slaughter of 4,000 captured cows in Tyrone ... As early as 1558 large parts of the country were destroyed by war, whole areas depopulated. According to Archbishop Dowdall, it was possible to ride 30 miles across much of central and southern Ulster without seeing any sign of life. Famine stalked the province ..." (pp.74-75,76). 

Still only the 1550s, and already we have the first planned, Government-organised famine in Ireland! And that's before we even get to the remarkable Humphrey Gilbert. This individual is mentioned in Age Of Atrocity, but he's scarcely given his due. Gilbert was the half-brother of Walter Raleigh, and like Raleigh he became an American colonial entrepreneur. In 1569 he was made Military Governor of Munster, authorised to put down the rebellion led by James FitzMaurice. 

One of his old subordinates later tried to ensure that Gilbert's meritorious service in Ireland was not forgotten. A Generall Rehearsall Of Warres by Thomas Churchyard, an experienced mercenary soldier and also an experienced writer, was published in London in 1579. Churchyard explains that Gilbert first of all used to send messages to the rebels guaranteeing them their lives, their lands, and pardon, if they would submit. But, if they spurned this offer, he literally took no prisoners: 

"Whensover he made any ... inroads into the enemies country, he killed man, woman and child and spoiled, wasted and burned, by the ground all that he might leaving nothing of the enemies in safety, which he could possibly waste or consume ..." 

Each night Gilbert created a kind of artwork, guaranteed to impress its viewers, which he would recreate from entirely new materials the following night. 

"His manner was the heads of all those (of what sort soever they were), which were killed in the day, should be cut off from their bodies, and brought to the place where he encamped at night, and should there be laid on the ground, by each side of the way leading to his own tent, so that none would come with his tent for any cause, but commonly he must pass through a lane of heads, which he used ad terrorem, the dead feeling nothing the more pains thereby, and yet did it bring great terror to the people, when they saw the heads of their dead fathers, brothers, children, kinsfolk, and friends, lie on the ground before their faces, as they come to speak with the said colonel." 

Gilbert specifically justified the killing of women: 

"The men of war could not be maintained without their churls and calliackes, old women and those women who milked their Creaghts (cows) and provided their victuals and other necessaries. So that the killing of them by the sword was the way to kill the men of war by famine" (Cited by D.B. Quinn, The Elizabethans And the Irish, p.127; see also his introduction to Voyages And Colonising Enterprises Of Sir Humphrey Gilbert, London 1940. I have not been able to check Churchyard's own book.)