By Helen Edmundson
Ever since the 12th Century, England made frequent attempts to conquer and rule Ireland, first entering the country in 1170 during the reign of Henry II. Over the ensuing centuries they expanded their foothold by fits and starts, by war and marriage, and by generally adapting to local law and custom. In the 16th century, under Henry VIII, the pace of conquest accelerated — more and more English were settled on Irish land seized by various means. Under his daughter, Elizabeth I, the subtle weapon of English Common Law began to supplant the traditional Irish Brehon Law, which had prevented the imposition of feudal hierarchy on the tribally organized Irish. (It is ironic that the Brehon Laws, which provided more rights to women than any code existing prior to the 20th century, were stamped out by the strongest woman in English history. Madeleine Preston's fierce independence in The Clearing is typical of Irish women of the time, just as Robert Preston's dismay is a typical Englishman's reaction to it.)
By 1640, the political situation in England had become dangerous. The Stuart dynasty was widely believed to desire the return of Roman Catholicism. Parliament was increasingly under the control of the Puritans. In 1642 the English Civil War broke out between Charles I and Parliament. English settlers now joined with Irish rebels in the Irish Confederacy, supporting the king as their best hope of Irish independence and religious freedom. (The character Solomon Winter is one such English settler.)
For nearly a decade, the
war was waged in both England and Ireland. Then Charles I met his fate
and the headsman's axe. This meant that Oliver Cromwell was at last able
to turn his direct attention toward Ireland. He arrived at the head of
a large army in August, 1649. The Irish armies fought hard to defend their
country, but were finally forced to surrender. The surviving 40,000 young
Irish soldiers and their officers were exiled to Europe to seek service
in the Irish Brigades of such countries as France and Spain. By 1652, when
The Clearing opens, Cromwell's conquest of Ireland was complete.
With their armies gone, the Irish found themselves without protection. Irish guerrilla bands were formed and fought back in desperation, personified in the play by the character Pierce Kinsellagh. They came to be known as toiridhe, the Irish word for a pursuer, better known as the Tories (a word we Americans associate only with the American royalists of a century later). But to no avail. Ireland was flooded with English soldiers. Suspected Tories, Catholic priests, and Presbyterian ministers were executed on the spot without trial. Thousands of Irish men, women, and children were arbitrarily seized and transported to the colonies in the Americas, particularly to Barbados. The descendants of former English colonists, who had adopted the Irish language and accepted Irish law and customs, were classified as “mere Irish” by the new English administration, and were treated in a similar manner.
English soldiers were paid for either the head of a wolf (then regarded as one of the great pests in Ireland) or the head of an Irish “rebel.” The soldiers, being lazy, resorted to bringing to their officers just the scalps of the Irish. (The system was so successful that it was introduced into the American colonies, where colonists were paid to bring in the scalps of Indians. The Indians thought this had religious symbolism, and copied it to acquire the white man's medicine. White man's history of America now erroneously claims “scalping” as an exclusively Indian custom.)
The final enactment of legislative genocide against the Irish took place in the House of Commons on September 26, 1653. The Act of Transplantation was breathtaking in its intent. By May 1st of the following year, all members of the Irish nation were to remove themselves west of the River Shannon into the area of County Clare and the province of Connaught, the poorest and most inhospitable region of the island, a wasteland where famine was still raging. If any Irish man, woman, or child was found east of the River Shannon after that date, they could be immediately executed. The choice was “Hell or Connaught!”
All the land east of the Shannon, once the Irish had been removed into their “reservation,” was to be parcelled out to capitalists who had financed the conquest of Ireland, and to soldiers and other settlers who would create a “New England” in Ireland. The Irish nation would no longer exist.
To ensure the Irish were obeying these orders, on March 9, 1655, Charles Fleetwood, Lord Deputy and Commander-in-Chief of the English occupation forces in Ireland, ordered that all the passes over the Shannon were to be closed, so that the area of Connaught and County Clare was blocked off by the military. Then he ordered a general search for all Irish who had remained east of the Shannon, with obvious results. Along every road, hanging bodies could be seen bearing placards: “For Not Transplanting.”
Ireland was reduced to desolation: a third of the population was dead, a third dispossessed and either exiled to Connaught or transported to Barbados. All were disenfranchised. Only the Restoration of the Stuart monarchy in 1660 halted the worst excesses of the Cromwellian conquest.
None of this is considered remote history in Ireland, and the collective memory of these events continues to fuel the conflict that exists in that country to this day. The story goes that an English journalist coming on a gunfight between English soldiers and the IRA on the Falls Road in the early 1970s, asked an old man who was standing nearby: “When did it start?” The old man replied: “When Strongbow invaded Ireland.” Perplexed, the reporter pressed on: “When do you think it will finish?” The old man did not hesitate: “When Cromwell gets out of hell!”
— From an essay by Peter
See the Los Angeles Times Review