Edmund Spenser, View of the Present State of Ireland (1596)


Edmund Spenser is best known as an English poet (author of the Faerie Queen), but was also connected to Elizabeth’s conquest of Ireland.  He first went to Ireland in 1580, as part an English expedition of internal colonization, which intended to eliminate local sources of power and impose English crown authority over the kingdom.  This work was written at the end of his career, as Spenser attempted to sum up the lingering problems within the mission of internal colonization.  This document can also be read as a prospectus on overseas colonization, as Spenser was part of a circle of proponents of overseas colonies, including many of the men involved in the first English colonies in North America.

The text consists of a made up dialogue between two characters named Eudoxus and Irenaeus.  Eudoxus is meant to represent an ordinary Englishman who is not especially well informed about Ireland.  Irenaeus is meant to represent a New English settler from Ireland, who has gained knowledge and common sense about the island through living there.  It is generally agreed that Irenaeus is supposed to represent Spenser’s own opinions.



Irenaeus: [The Irish] keep their Cattle, and live themselves the most part of the year… upon the mountains and waste wild places; and removing still to fresh land, as they have depastured the former days….

Eudoxus: What fault can you find with this custom? For… it is behooveful in this country of Ireland, where there are great mountains, and waste deserts full of grass, that the same should be eaten down, and nourish many thousands of cattle for the good of the whole Realm….

Irenaeus: But by this custom… there grew in the meantime many great enormities unto that commonwealth. For first, if there be any outlaws, or loose people, as they are never without some, which live upon the stealths and spoils, they are evermore succored and find relief only in those… waste places, where else they should be driven shortly to starve, or to come down to the towns to seek relief, where, by one means or another, they would soon be caught…. Moreover, the people that live thus… grow thereby more barbarous, and live more licentiously then they would in towns, using what means they list, and practicing what mischiefs and villainies they will, either against the government there, generally by their combinations, or against private men, whom they malign, by stealing their goods, or murdering [them]. For there they think themselves half exempted from law and obedience…


Irenaeus: They have another custom, that is the wearing of mantles….  The inconveniences that thereby doe arise are much more many: for it is a fit house for an outlaw, a meet bed for a rebel, and apt cloak for a thief.  First the outlaw being for his many crimes and villainies banished from the towns and houses of honest men, and wandering in waste places, far from danger of law, makes his mantle his house, and under it covers himself from the wrath of heaven, from the offense of the earth, and from the sight of men. When it rains it is his penthouse, when it blows it is his tent; when it freezes it is his tabernacle…. Likewise for a rebel it is as serviceable; for [when he]… lurks in the thick woods and straight passages, waiting for advantages, it is his bed, yea, and almost all his household stuff. For the [woods are] his house against all weathers, and his mantle is his cave to sleep in…. Lastly, for a thief it is so handsome, as it may seem it was first invented for him; for under it he can cleanly convey any fit pillage that cometh handsomely in his way, and when he goes abroad in the night in free-booting, it is his best and surest friend… he can in his mantle pass through any town or company, being close hooded over his head… [and] may under his mantle go privily armed without suspicion of any: carry his headpiece, his skene or pistol if he please, to be always in a readiness.


Eudoxus: [Asks about the “Old” English settlers who had come to Ireland in the 13th century with the intention of abolishing Irish customs]  … I do not think that you shall have much to find fault with any, considering that by the English most of the old bad Irish customs were abolished, and more civil fashions brought in their stead.

Irenaeus: You think otherwise, Eudoxus, than I do; for… the English… are now much more lawless and licentious than the very wild Irish….

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

Irenaeus: …the English Lords and Gentlemen, who then had great possessions in Ireland, began thorough pride and insolence, to make private wars one against another, and, when the other parte was weak, they would wage and draw in the Irish to take their part, by which means they both greatly encouraged and enabled the Irish….

Eudoxus: 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…


Irenaeus: At the beginning of these wars, and when the garrisons are well planted and fortified, I would wish a proclamation were made generally to come to their knowledge, that what persons soever would within twenty days absolutely submit themselves, excepting only the very principal and ringleaders, should find grace…. [Those who submit will] be not suffered to remain any longer in those parts, no nor about the garrison, but sent away into the inner parts of the realm, and dispersed in such sort as they shall not come together, nor easily return if they would.  For if they might be suffered to remain about the garrison, and there inhabit, as shall offer to till the ground, and yield a great part of the profit thereof, and of their cattle, to the coronel, wherewith they have heretofore tempted many, they would (as I have by experience known) be ever after such a gall and inconvenience to them, as that their profit should not recompense their hurt; for they will privily relieve their friends that are forth; they will send the enemy secret advertisement of all their purposes and journeys which they mean to make upon them; they will also not stick to draw the enemy upon them, yea and to betray the fort itself, by discovery of all defects and disadvantages if any be, to the cutting of all their throats. For avoiding whereof and many other inconveniences, I wish that they should be carried far from thence into some other parts, so as I said, they come and submit themselves, upon the first summons: but afterwards I would have none received, but left to their fortune and miserable end: my reason is, for that those which afterwards remain without, are stout and obstinate rebels, such as will never be made dutiful and obedient, nor brought to labor or civil conversation, having once tasted the licentious life, and being acquainted with spoil and outrages, will ever after be ready for the like occasions, so as there is no hope of their amendment of recovery, and therefore needful to be cut off.

Eudoxus: Surely of such desperate persons, as will follow the course of their own folly, there is no comparison to be had, and for the others ye have purposed a merciful means, much more then they have deserved: but what shall be the conclusion of this war?  For you have prefixed a short time of their countenance.

Irenaeus: The end I assure me will be very short, and much sooner then can be, in so great trouble (as it seems) hoped for, although there should none of them fall by the sword, nor be slain by the soldier, yet thus being kept from manurance, 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 ensampled in those late wars in Munster; for notwithstanding that the same was a most rich and plentiful country, full of corn and cattle, that you would have thought they could 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 wood and glens they came creeping forth upon their hands, for their legs could not bear them; they looked anatomies [of] death, they spoke like ghosts, crying out of their graves; they did eat of the carrions, happy where they could find them, yea, and one another soon after, in so much as the very carcasses they spared not to scrape out of their graves.  And if they found a plot of water-cresses or shamrocks, there they flocked as to a feast for the time, yet not able long to continue therewithal; that in a short space there were none almost left, and a most populous and plentiful country suddenly left void of man or 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.



Edmund Spenser, A View of the Present State of Ireland (1596)
Original source:  http://pages.uoregon.edu/rbear/veue1.html


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