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Representations of Women in Some Early Modern English Tracts on the Colonization of Ireland*

  • Clare Carroll


Since D. B. Quinn's The Elizabethans and the Irish, the history of early modern Ireland has been the subject of a wide range of studies, but only recently has women's role in that history received attention. Similarly, Nicholas Canny's article on “Edmund Spenser and the Development of an Anglo-Irish Identity” initiated a debate about whether sixteenth-century tracts on Ireland express a unified colonialist ideology, but only recently has the construction of sexuality in these texts come under scrutiny. It is not surprising that those who study the history of women in early modern Ireland do not often turn to the English tracts for evidence, except with great caution and reservation. So much related in these documents is indebted to the stereotypes of a colonialist discourse, initiated by Giraldus Cambrensis in the twelfth century, rather than to observation or encounter. Recent work on the history of women in early modern Ireland presents us with a sense of what is not being represented in the English settlers' descriptions. Such aspects of women's lives in Gaelic Ireland as their right to hold and acquire their own land and to keep their own names while married are not referred to in these tracts. These tracts do not yield transparent information about actual Irish women of the period, although there are fascinating references to their activities. Spenser writes that Irish women had “the trust and care of all things both at home and in the fields.” And at least one woman, the foster mother of Murrogh O'Brien, is said to have drunk the blood of her child's head as she grieved when he had been drawn and quartered by the English. The character of these texts as colonialist discourse makes the representation of women as a symbolic category or “gender” the more useful focus rather than some unmediated sense of “women.”



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I would like to thank Betty Travitsky and the members of the Society for the Study of Women in the Renaissance for their responses to a version of this paper that I presented to our seminar at the CUNY Graduate Center.



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1 Quinn, David Beers, The Elizabethans and the Irish (Ithaca, 1966). Among important books on early modern Ireland are: Canny, Nicholas, The Elizabethan Conquest of Ireland: A Pattern Established 1565–76 (New York, 1976); Moody, T. W., Martin, F. X., and Byrne, F. J., A New History of Ireland: Vol 111: Early Modern Ireland 1534–1691 (Oxford, 1976); Edwards, Dudley, Ireland in the Age of the Tudors (New York, 1977); Bradshaw, Brendan, The Irish Constitutional Revolution of the Sixteenth-Century (Cambridge, 1979); Ellis, Steven G., Tudor Ireland (London, 1985). On Irish women of this period, see MacCurtain, Margaret and O'Dowd, Mary, eds., Women in Early Modern Ireland (Dublin, 1991).

2 For the debate, see Canny, Nicholas, “Edmund Spenser and the Development of an Anglo-Irish Identity,” Yearbook of English Studies 13 (1983): 119; idem, “Debate: Spenser's Irish Crisis: Humanism and Experience in the 1590's,” Past and Present 120 (1988): 201–09; Ciaran Brady, “Spenser's Irish Crisis: Humanism and Experience in the 1590's,” ibid. III (1986): 16–49; idem, “Reply to Nicholas Canny,” ibid. 120 (1988): 210–15; Bradshaw, Brendan, “Robe and Sword in the Conquest of Ireland,” in Law and Government under the Tudors, ed. Cross, Claire, et al (Cambridge, 1988); and Coughlan, Patricia, ed., Spenser and Ireland (Cork, 1989). On gender in the tracts: Ann Rosalind Jones and Peter Stallybrass, “Dismantling Irena: The Sexualizing of Ireland in Early Modern England,” in Nationalisms and Sexualities, ed. Andrew Parker, et. al (New York, 1992), pp. 157–71.

3 Cambrensis, Giraldus, Topographia Hibernia in Giraldi Cambrensis Opera, vol. 5, ed. Dimock, J. F. (Rolls Series, 1867). For the effects of these stereotypes on English writing on Ireland see: Laurence, Anne, “The Cradle to the Grave: English Observations of Irish Social Customs in the Seventeenth Century,” Seventeenth Century 3, 1 (1988): 6384.

4 Spenser, Edmund, A View of the Present State of Ireland, ed. Renwick, W. L. (Oxford, 1970), p. 61 (hereafter cited as A View).

5 Spenser, , A View, p. 62.

6 See Greenblatt's, Steven chapter on Spenser in Renaissance Self-Fashioning (Chicago, 1980); and my own The Construction of Gender, Class and the Political Other in Faerie Queene 5 and A View of the Present State of Ireland,” Criticism 32 (Spring 1990): 163–92.

7 Stanyhurst, Richard, “A Treatise Conteining A Plaine and Perfect Description of Ireland,” in Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, 6 vols. (New York, 1976) 6: 169 (hereafer cited as “Description of Ireland”).

8 Other Old English tracts include: SirWalsh, Nicholas, The Office and Duety in Fighting for Our Country (London, 1545); Quinn, D. B., ed., “Conjectures on the State of Ireland, 1552,” Irish Historical Studies 5 (1947): 303–22; White, Rowland, “‘Discourse Touching Ireland’ c. 1569,” ed. Canny, Nicholas, Irish Historical Studies 20 (19761977): 439–63.

9 Montrose, Louis, “The Work of Gender in the Discourse of Discovery,” Representations 33 (Winter 1991): 1. Scott, Joan, Gender and the Politics of History (New York, 1988), p. 42.

10 Scott, , Gender and the Politics of History, pp. 4344.

11 Spenser, A View, p. 66.

12 Riche, Barnabe, A New Description of Ireland (London, 1610), p. 34.

13 O'Dowd, Mary, “Gaelic Economy and Society,” in Natives and Newcomers, ed. Brady, C. and Gillespie, R. (Dublin, 1986), p. 129.

14 For Stanyhurst's life see, Lennon, Colm, Richard Stanyhurst, the Dubliner, 1547–1618 (Dublin, 1981).

15 Stanyhurst, , “Description of Ireland,” p. 4.

16 Ibid., pp. 4–5.

17 Ibid., p. 67; A View, pp. 67–68.

18 Riche, , A New Description of Ireland, pp. 3334.

19 Ibid., p. 34.

20 Ibid., p. 90.

21 Ibid., p. 15.

22 Spenser, , A View, pp. 8485.

23 Riche, , A New Description of Ireland, p. 31.

24 Ibid., pp. 45–46.

25 Riche, Barnabe, The Irish Hubbub, or The English Hue and Crie (London, 1617), p. 51.

26 Ibid., pp. 51–52.

27 Riche, , A New Description of Ireland, p. 71.

28 Riche, Barnabe, A True and Kinde Excuse, written in Defence of that Booke, intituled A New Description of Irelande (London, 1612), p. 6 (sig. C 1).

29 Riche, Barnabe, My Ladies Looking Glasse (London, 1615). Barbara Bowen and Susan Gushee O'Malley introduced me to this text, which will appear in their forthcoming edition of tracts on women.

30 Riche, , My Ladies Looking Glass, p. 16; Description of Ireland, pp. 90–91.

31 Riche, , My Ladies Looking Glasse, p. 52.

32 Spenser, , A View, p. 53.

33 Moryson, Fynes, An Itinerary, 4 vols. (London, 1617; Glasgow, 1907–08), 4: 237–38, 197.

34 Riche, , A New Description of Ireland, p. 40.

35 Moryson, , “Description of Ireland,” p. 430.

36 de Certeau, Michel, The Writing of History, trans. Conley, Tom (New York, 1988), p. 233.

37 Beacon, Richard, Solon His Follie, or A Politique Discourse, Touching the Reformation of common-weales conquered, declined or corrupted (Oxford, 1594); “The Epistle Dedicatorie,” 3r. Vincent Carey and I are editing this text for Medieval and Renaissance Texts & Studies.

38 Beacon, Solon His Follie, “The booke vnto the Reader,” jv.

39 SirDavies, John, “A Discovery of the True Causes Why Ireland Was Never Entirely Subdued,” in Ireland Under Elizabeth and James the First, ed. Morley, Henry (London, 1890), p. 247 (hereafter cited as “A Discovery”).

40 Ibid., p. 249.

41 Spenser, , A View, pp. 9596.

42 Dr. [Leonel] Sharp to the Duke of Buckingham,” printed in Cabala, Mysteries of State, in Letters of the great Ministers of K. James and K. Charles (London, 1656), p. 259.

43 Spenser, , A View, p. 104.

44 Ibid., p. 105.

45 Ibid., p. 106.

46 Beacon, Solon, “The booke vnto the Reader,” jv. SirHerbert, William, Croftus Sive de Hibernia Liber, ed. Keaveney, Arthur and Madden, John A. (Dublin, 1992). For comparison of Beacon with Spenser, see note 2 above. See also McCarthy-Morrogh, Michael, The Munster Plantation (Oxford, 1986).

47 Acts of the Privy Council, n.s. vol. 22 (London, 1901), p. 94.

48 “The booke unto the Reader,” jv.

49 Stanyhurst, , “Description of Ireland,” p. 69.

50 Davies, , “A Discovery,” p. 297.

51 Beacon, , Solon, pp. 34.

52 Spenser, Edmund, The Faerie Queene, ed. Roche, Thomas P. Jr. with O'Donnell, C. Patrick Jr. (New Haven, 1978), p. 16.

53 See Strong, Roy, The Cult of Elizabeth (Berkeley, 1977), pp. 4650, for description of Elizabeth as a type of Diana-Venus.

54 King, John, Tudor Royal Iconography: Literature and Art in an Age of Religious Crisis (Princeton, 1989), pl. 11a, pp. 182267.

55 Beacon, , Solon, p. 4.

* I would like to thank Betty Travitsky and the members of the Society for the Study of Women in the Renaissance for their responses to a version of this paper that I presented to our seminar at the CUNY Graduate Center.


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