Edmund Spenser, from A View of the Present State of Ireland

[Click on image to enlarge] The English used the same word, "plantation," for the founding of colonies in the New World and for the establishment of settlements in Ireland. In both instances, they were deaf to the advice of those who, like Sir Francis Bacon, called for "a plantation in a pure soil; that is, where people are not displanted to the end to plant in others. For else it is rather an extirpation than a plantation." (See Bacon's Of Plantations, NAEL 8, 1.1557.) The sense of Bacon's words is made starkly apparent in A View of the Present State of Ireland (1596) by the poet Edmund Spenser.

Spenser spent most of his adult life as an English planter in Ireland, where uprisings against English rule were a regular occurrence. A View, which is written as a dialogue between two Englishmen, examines the reasons why previous attempts to subdue the Irish had failed and proposes strategies by which English rule could be imposed once and for all. In the first half of the work, Irenius, >> note 1 an expert on Irish affairs, describes to Eudoxus the evil customs of the Irish, condemning their nomadic herding practices, their religion, their social and familial organization, their bards, their hair and dress, and so on. He derives the origins of the Irish from the barbarous Scythians and explains the circumstances which led to the degeneration of the Old English. In the second half, he outlines a program for the military pacification of Ireland. The brutality of Spenser's proposals, and his insistence on martial rather than common law as the solution to the Irish problem, may account for the book's failure to appear in print until 1633; on the other hand, it may not have been Spenser's views in particular, but discussion of Ireland in general, that the authorities were anxious to keep out of the public sphere. In the first passage below, Irenius explains to Eudoxus how the Anglo-Norman families who had conquered and settled in Ireland four hundred years earlier had "degenerated," adopting the customs and language of the Irish. In the second passage, Irenius describes the famine in the Irish province of Munster in 1581. Spenser's proposal that famine was the best means to reduce the Irish to permanent submission was brutal even by the standards of English colonial policy. That Spenser could seriously advocate that the English deliberately starve the Irish population makes the bitter irony of Jonathan Swift's Modest Proposal (1729; NAEL 8, 1.2462) even more devastating.


EUDOXUS. You have very well run through such customs as the Irish have derived from the first old nations which inhabited the land; namely, the Scythians, >> note 2 the Spaniards, the Gauls, and the Britons. It now remaineth that you take in hand the customs of the old English which are amongst the Irish; of which I do not think that you shall have much cause to find fault with, considering that by the English most of the old bad Irish customs were abolished, and more civil fashions brought in their stead.

IRENIUS. You think otherwise, Eudoxus, than I do. For the chiefest abuses which are now in that realm are grown from the English, and some of them are now much more lawless and licentious than the very wild Irish. So that as much care as was by them had to reform the Irish, so and much more must now be used to reform them. So much time doth alter the manners of men.

EUDOX. That seemeth very strange which you say, that men should so much degenerate from their first natures as to grow wild.

* * *

EUDOX. Is it possible that any should so far grow out of frame that they should, in so short space, quite forget their country and their own names? That is a most dangerous lethargy, much worse than that of Messala Corvinus, >> note 3 who, being a most learned man, through sickness forgot his own name. But can you count us any of this kind?

IREN. I cannot, but by the report of the Irish themselves, who report that the MacMahons in the north were anciently English; to wit, descended from the Fitz Ursulas, which was a noble family in England; and that the same appeareth by the signification of their Irish names. Likewise that the MacSwynes, >> note 4 now in Ulster, were anciently of the Veres in England, but that they themselves, for hatred of the English, so disguised their names.

EUDOX. Could they ever conceive any such dislike of their own natural countries as that they would be ashamed of their name, and bite at the dug from which they sucked life?

IREN. I wot >> note 5 well there should be none. But proud hearts do oftentimes (like wanton colts) kick at their mothers; as we read Alcibiades and Themistocles >> note 6 did, who, being banished out of Athens, fled unto the kings of Asia, and there stirred them up to war against their country, in which wars they themselves were chieftains. So, they say, did these MacSwynes and MacMahons, or rather Veres and Fitz Ursulas, for private despite, >> note 7 turn themselves against England. * * * And with them, they say, all the people of Munster went out, and many other of them which were mere English thenceforth joined with the Irish against the King, and termed themselves very Irish, taking on them Irish habits and customs, which could never since be clean wiped away, but the contagion hath remained still amongst their posterities. Of which sort, they say, be most of their surnames which end in -an, as Hernan, Shinan, Mungan, etc., the which now account themselves natural Irish. Other great houses there be of the English in Ireland, which, through licentious conversing with the Irish, or marrying, or fostering >> note 8 with them or lack of meet >> note 9 nurture, or other such unhappy occasions, have degenerated from their ancient dignities and are now grown as Irish as O'Hanlon's breech, >> note 10 as the proverb there is.

EUDOX. In truth, this which you tell is a most shameful hearing, and to be reformed with most sharp censures in so great personages, to the terror of the meaner. For if the lords and chief men degenerate, what shall be hoped of the peasants and baser people? And thereby sure you have made a fair way unto yourself to lay open the abuses of their evil customs, which you have now next to declare. The which no doubt but are very bad, being borrowed from the Irish, as their apparel, their language, their riding, and many other the like.

IREN. You cannot but hold them sure to be very uncivil. For were they at the best that they were of old, when they were brought in, they should in so long an alteration of time seem very uncouth and strange. For it is to be thought that the use of all England was in the reign of Henry the Second, when Ireland was planted with English, very rude and barbarous; so as, if the same should be now used in England by any, it would seem worthy of sharp correction and of new laws for reformation, for it is but even the other day since England grew civil. Therefore, in counting the evil customs of the English there, I will not have regard whether the beginning thereof were English or Irish but will have respect only to the inconvenience thereof. And first I have to find fault with the abuse of language; that is, for the speaking of Irish among the English, which as it is unnatural that any people should love another's language more than their own, so it is very inconvenient and the cause of many other evils.

EUDOX. It seemeth strange to me that the English should take more delight to speak that language than their own, whereas they should, methinks, rather take scorn to acquaint their tongues thereto. For it hath ever been the use of the conqueror to despise the language of the conquered and to force him by all means to learn his. So did the Romans always use, insomuch that there is almost no nation in the world but is sprinkled with their language. It were good therefore, meseems, to search out the original cause of this evil, for the same being discovered, a redress thereof will the more easily be provided. For I think it very strange that, the English being so many and the Irish so few as they then were left, the fewer should draw the more unto their use.

IREN. I suppose that the chief cause of bringing in the Irish language amongst them was specially their fostering and marrying with the Irish, the which are two most dangerous infections. For, first, the child that sucketh the milk of the nurse must of necessity learn his first speech of her, the which being the first inured >> note 11 to his tongue, is ever after most pleasing unto him, insomuch as, though he afterwards be taught English, yet the smack of the first will always abide with him; and not only of the speech, but also of the manners and conditions. For, besides that young children be like apes, which will affect and imitate what they see done before them, especially by their nurses whom they love so well, they moreover draw into themselves together with their suck even the nature and disposition of their nurses. For the mind followeth much the temperature >> note 12 of the body, and also the words are the image of the mind; so as they proceeding from the mind, the mind must needs be affected with the words; so that, the speech being Irish, the heart must needs be Irish, for out of the abundance of the heart the tongue speaketh. The next is the marrying with the Irish, which how dangerous a thing it is in all commonwealths appeareth to every simplest sense. And though some great ones have perhaps used such matches with their vassals, and have of them nevertheless raised worthy issue, as Telamon >> note 13 did with Tecmessa, Alexander the Great with Roxana, and Julius Caesar with Cleopatra, yet the example is so perilous as it is not to be adventured. For instead of those few good I could count unto them infinite many evil. And, indeed, how can such matching succeed well, seeing that commonly the child taketh most of his nature of the mother, besides speech, manners, and inclination, which are (for the most part) agreeable to the conditions of their mothers? For by them they are first framed and fashioned, so as what they receive once from them they will hardly ever after forego. Therefore are those evil customs of fostering and marrying with Irish most carefully to be restrained, for of those two the third evil, that is, the custom of language, which I spake of, chiefly proceedeth.

* * *

IREN. The end will, I assure me, be very short, and much sooner than can be in so great a trouble, as it seemeth, hoped for. Although there should none of them fall by the sword nor be slain by the soldier, yet thus being kept from manurance >> note 14 and their cattle from running abroad, by this hard restraint they would quickly consume themselves and devour one another. The proof whereof I saw sufficiently exampled in these late wars of Munster, for, notwithstanding that the same was a most rich and plentiful country, full of corn and cattle, that you would have thought they should have been able to stand long, yet ere one year and a half they were brought to such wretchedness as that any stony heart would have rued the same. Out of every corner of the woods and glens they came creeping forth upon their hands, for their legs could not bear them. They looked like anatomies of death; >> note 15 they spake like ghosts crying out of their graves; they did eat the dead carrions, happy where they could find them; yea, and one another soon after, insomuch as the very carcasses they spared not to scrape out of their graves. And if they found a plot of watercresses or shamrocks, there they flocked as to a feast for the time, yet not able long to continue there withal; that in short space there were none almost left, and a most populous and plentiful country suddenly left void of man and beast. Yet sure, in all that war there perished not many by the sword, but all by the extremity of famine which they themselves had wrought.

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