The English in Ireland and the Practice of Massacre (3)


Age Of Atrocity notably fails to deal with the Government atrocities during the Desmond Rising of 1579-83. Or rather, it includes a chapter on just one of them, the massacre at Smerwick (though another contributor, Hiram Morgan, maintains that Smerwick was just normal contemporary military practice). 

There are aspects of Smerwick that will always be unclear: it's the word of Lord Deputy Arthur Grey and his secretary Edmund Spenser against the word of others. The Four Masters (1580) say that the garrison at Smerwick were promised their lives, and in violation of this they were afterwards killed. Nothing is more likely: it belonged to the well-established practice of duplicity by English commanders in dealing with the Irish (see e.g. Edwards, Age Of Atrocity p.72, on the killing of O'Tooles and Kavanaghs in 1556; Four Masters (1577) on the massacre at Mullaghmast, etc.). However, there were highly-placed people in England who thought it was going too far to behave like this with Spaniards. Cecil, the Secretary of State, was believed to hold this opinion. (Sir Walter Raleigh In Ireland, p10). The fact that Spenser has to go to such pains to defend Grey is revealing (A View Of The State Of Ireland ed. A. Hadfield and W. Maley, Oxford 1997, pp.104-5). 

Otherwise, the Smerwick massacre is notable for the fact that once again women were among those killed. This was reported matter-of-factly in Holinshed's Chronicles, again without any sense that the fact might be discreditable to Walter Raleigh, who was in charge of the killing (Sir Walter Raleigh In Ireland, p.9).

Apart from Smerwick, there is a litany of Government atrocities from the early 1580s, most of them cheerfully reported by the authors themselves. Sir Nicholas Malby, writing to Walsingham in April 1580: "This day the forces I have entertained took the strong castle of Dwnemene from Shane MacHerbert and put the ward, both men, women and children, to the sword"

Captain Zouche to the Secretary of State on the capture of a castle in Limerick: "The house being entered they yielded, and some sought to swim away, but there escaped not one, neither of man, woman or child." 

Richard Bingham describing a battle in Connacht: "The number of their fighting men slain and drowned that day are estimated and numbered to be fourteen or fifteen hundred, besides boys, women, churls and children, which could not be so few, as so many more and upwards" (Sir Walter Raleigh In Ireland, p.28). 

And we can add a few examples of the same practice and policy recorded by the Four Masters. In the first case (1580) Lord Justice Pelham went to Limerick and southwards towards Kerry. 

"He sent forth loose marauding parties... These, wheresoever they passed, showed mercy neither to the strong nor to the weak. It was not wonderful that they should kill men fit for action, but they killed blind and feeble men, women, boys and girls, sick persons, idiots, and old people." 

"(1581). The captain of Adare slew one hundred and fifty women and children, and of every sort of person that he met with inside and outside of that castle." (The castle was in Ballycalhane, Co. Limerick; the captain was a man called Achin. See Maurice Lenihan, Limerick: Its History And Antiquities, repr. 1991, p.109.) 

"(1582) Captain Zouche, when he could not catch the Mac Maurices he was pursuing, “hanged the hostages of the country, mere children, who were in the custody of his people”…" 

Finally, of course, there's the great Munster famine of the early 1580s, mentioned and justified by Spenser; mentioned also by the Four Masters who, for complicated reasons (they were using annals compiled by the historians of the O' Briens of Thomond, who were rock-solid Government supporters), put the blame on the Earl of Desmond. But the major contribution was made by the forces of Government, as Spenser acknowledges — and he recommends the creation of famine as a general formula when dealing with rebels. (A View p.102). 

The scale of what was happening in Ireland was appreciated in England. According to Froude, in June 1582 Cecil wrote to the War Treasurer of Ireland that "the Flemings had not such cause to rebel against the oppression of the Spaniards as the Irish against the tyranny of England" (Sir Walter Raleigh In Ireland p.26). But Cecil, so far as I know, never punished any of the tyranny's authors. On the contrary, as one of the masterminds of the Plantation of Munster, he was quick to exploit the success of their tyrannical methods. 

Following the pacification of Munster the Four Masters no longer regularly report Government atrocities, though in 1586 in West Connacht the inimitable Bingham and his supporters "killed women, boys, peasants and decrepit persons. They hanged Theobald O'Toole, the supporter of the destitute and the keeper of a house of hospitality". (This, incidentally, is an example of how the English destroyed long-established and effective native Irish institutions, without themselves being inclined to supply institutions which were effective in social maintenance.)