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the British constitution, were fought for, and obtained, by our Popish
ancestors.™• 
But could Ireland™s ˜barbaric™ Gaelic Catholics pass such a test? Would
Ireland™s Protestants be secure if they dismantled the protective rampart
of penal legislation? Were not the superstitious and submissive Catholics
of Ireland addicted to Jacobitism and absolutism? Could the Hanoverian
regime trust the loyalty of their reluctant Irish Catholic subjects? Curry
tackled the recent Irish past, producing a revisionist account of the
rebellion of 1641 which explained away the Protestant mythology of the
massacres.
However, the contested seventeenth-century past continued to smoul-
der as a subject of sectarian bickering. There was limited potential in the

Ó Ibid., pp. 7, 13.
Ô T. Barnard, ˜The uses of 23 October 1641 and Irish Protestant celebrations™, EHR 106
(1991), 889“920.
•» John Temple, The Irish rebellion (London, 1646), pp. 2“3, 5, 8“9; William King, The state
of the Protestants of Ireland (3rd edn, London, 1692), pp. 35“7.
•¦ Connolly, Religion, law, and power, p. 264.
•  John Curry and Charles O™Conor, Observations on the Popery laws (Dublin, 1771),
pp. 14“16, 22“3, 29, 33.
160 The three kingdoms

controversial history of the recent civil wars to build bridges between
Catholic and Protestant, or to show Gaelic Catholics in a peaceable and
civilised light. Hence the main prong of O™Conor™s strategy lay in pressing
into service the myth of ancient Milesian civilisation conjured up by
Keating and Lynch in the seventeenth century, transforming it, in the
words of John Hutchinson, into ˜a philosophe™s dream™.•À O™Conor would
not champion the Milesian ancestors of the Gaelic Irish for their Celtic
particularities, but for their conformity to an enlightened whiggish ideal.
O™Conor answered Protestant slurs about Gaelic Catholic politics by
demonstrating the commitment of Irish Catholics to eighteenth-century
whiggish values. The Catholics of Ireland were heirs of an ancient
Milesian civilisation of commerce, science and sound constitutional gov-
ernment. O™Conor imported into the ancient Milesian constitution the
shibboleths of English whig constitutionalism. He emphasised the triadic
balance found in the orderly triennial meetings of the ancient Irish feis at
Tara, where the Commons had been represented in the estate of artiW-
cers. The ancient Milesians had been governed by a regular constitutional
mechanism. Moreover, O™Conor suggested that in the practices of
tanistry the mixed monarchy of the ancient Milesians had been subject to
processes of election akin to English Revolution principles. Far from
Gaelic Ireland having been a scene of anarchy and barbarity prior to the
arrival of the Old English, its ancient constitution appeared to fore-
shadow the English parliamentary tradition. The modern descendants of
the ancient Milesians could surely be expected to conform to the mores of
Hanoverian Britain.•Ã
Not only were the ancient Milesians promoted as proto-whigs, but also
as a maritime race of merchants. O™Conor™s antiquarian eVorts were
complemented by those of Sylvester O™Halloran (1728“1807), a surgeon
with opthalmic interests,•• whose vision of a polite and commercial
Milesian past embraced the values of Ireland™s emergent Catholic middle
orders.•’ Commerce was now a vital element in the case for Gaelic civility.

•À J. Hutchinson, The dynamics of cultural nationalism: the Gaelic revival and the creation of the
Irish nation state (London, 1987), p. 58.
•Ã Charles O™Conor, Dissertations on the history of Ireland (Dublin, 1766 edn), pp. 45“65;
Sylvester O™Halloran, An introduction to the study of the history and antiquities of Ireland
(London, 1772), pp. 103, 107, 150“1; J. Hill, ˜Popery and Protestantism, civil and
religious liberty: the disputed lessons of Irish history, 1690“1812™, P+P 118 (1988),
104“6; C. Kidd, ˜Gaelic antiquity and national identity in Enlightenment Ireland and
Scotland™, EHR 109 (1994), 1202; Leighton, Catholicism in a Protestant kingdom, pp. 101,
104“5; Comerford, History of Ireland, p. 274.
•• J. B. Lyons, ˜Sylvester O™Halloran, 1728“1807™, ECI 4 (1989), 65“74.
•’ M. Wall, ˜The rise of a Catholic middle class in eighteenth-century Ireland™ and ˜The
position of Catholics in mid-eighteenth-century Ireland™, both in Wall, Catholic Ireland in
the eighteenth century: collected essays of Maureen Wall (ed. G. O™Brien, Dublin, 1989).
The weave of Irish identities, 1600“1790 161

O™Halloran proclaimed that Ireland ˜was very early an extensive commer-
cial country™.•“ Nor had Irish commerce lacked an enabling framework of
suitable laws and institutions. In answer to Davies™s famous charges that
Gaelic Ireland had lacked an adequate framework of laws, O™Halloran
claimed that Irish feudal tenures, far from being a Plantagenet import,
were of Milesian origin.•“ After all, he argued, were not the key terms of
feudal jurisprudence of obvious Gaelic provenance? The parliament at
Tara had also been supplemented by the work of aonachs, auxiliary
assemblies concerned with trade and commerce.•” The maritime Irish
had developed the sciences of navigation and astronomy, their learning
institutionalised in great Druid universities at Tara, and at Emania,
Cruachan and Carman, the royal cities of the provinces of Ulster, Con-
naught and Munster.’»
O™Conor and O™Halloran also massaged the Irish religious inheritance
to meet immediate ecclesiastical needs. They endowed Gaelic Christian-
ity with a mild cisalpine hue. The Christian message had come to Ireland
from Asiatic disciples of John, not directly from St Peter.’¦ O™Conor
argued that the establishment of the ancient Irish church ˜upon the true
principles and Wrm foundation of primitive Christianity™ had involved ˜no
collision with the civil power™.’  O™Halloran took a similar view. Not only
had the ancient Gaels been an enlightened, tolerant people, but they had
also received Christianity as a civil religion which complemented their
reWnement: ˜Our ancestors, humane and polished, admitted of no perse-
cution for conscience sake. The power of judging of the human heart,
they left to the sole judge of it, the Almighty; and [King] Loagaire, though
an idolater, as he found in the new religion no tenets dangerous to the
state, did not oppose it.™’À O™Halloran had few doubts that such an ethical
religion “ indeed, a brand of primitive Christianity resembling rational
stoicism “ had encountered little trouble in winning adherents: ˜Preach-
ing to a learned and polished people a doctrine so elevated and pure as
that of Christ, a doctrine which taught its votaries to rule and govern their
passions, not the passions them . . . needed neither miracles from above,
nor restraining penal laws on earth to support it.™’Ã Thereafter, although
Milesian Christianity had exhibited a moderate Catholic temper in wor-
ship and doctrine, the Irish church had remained beyond the immediate
reach of Rome. Until the middle of the twelfth century the Milesian Irish,
stationed on the far western fringe of Christendom, had enjoyed an
•“ Sylvester O™Halloran, General history, II, p. 145. •“ Ibid., II, pp. 143“7.
•” Ibid., II, p. 34. See O™Conor, Dissertations on the antient history of Ireland (Dublin, 1753),
p. 134. ’» Sylvester O™Halloran, Introduction, p. 172.
’¦ Sylvester O™Halloran, General history, II, pp. 7“8, 14“15, 17, 23.
’  O™Conor, Dissertations (1753), p. 145. ’À Sylvester O™Halloran, Introduction, p. 182.
’Ã Sylvester O™Halloran, General history, II, p. 20.
162 The three kingdoms

autonomous Catholicism, a conformity in faith and discipline unsup-
ported by any institutional connection with Rome.’•


Protestant ethnogenesis: the New English, the Old
English constitution and the Old Irish church
The bulk of the Protestant landed class were descended from the six-
teenth- and seventeenth-century settlers, the expropriating colonial caste.
Although in the early part of the eighteenth century numerous represen-
tatives of the Old English gentry conformed to preserve their estates, less
than 40 per cent of Ascendancy families came of Gaelic or Norman“Irish
stock.’’ The New English were never quite secure with their genuine
Tudor and Stuart pedigree as ˜Irishmen™ of recent vintage. Instead, they
felt a compulsion to poach the medieval colonial origins of the Old
English, now digniWed with age. In the ecclesiastical sphere, Irish Protes-
tants, supported moreover in the eighteenth century by their English-
born bishops such as William Nicolson of Derry and Francis Hutchinson
of Down and Connor, delved back even further to appropriate for the
Church of Ireland the ancient and renowned history of the early Celtic
church. This quest for prescriptive legitimacy led to an undervaluing of
the authentic historical identity of the recent waves of New English
colonists. In its place the New English and their Anglo-Irish descendants
of the eighteenth century invented alternative identities which supplied a
historical legitimacy of much greater authority than could be derived
from the genuine history of New English settlement. These largely bogus
identities conferred on the New English community a longer and more
intimate historical association with Ireland than it had in practice enjoy-
ed. As a result the New English and Anglo-Irish nations, without drop-
ping their distinctive Englishness “ which distinguished them from the
other ethnic groups and confessions in Ireland and also provided useful
ideological ammunition in their relations with the motherland “ came to
adopt a more Hibernian identity.
Not only were the historical identities projected by the Protestant Irish
nation largely spurious, New Englishness and Anglo-Irishness were
Janus-faced. The intellectual leaders of the New English community
painted distinct ecclesiastical and political aspects to their ethnic identity.
Thus the logic and coherence of identity construction yielded to political
and ecclesiastical imperatives as New English literati performed the eth-
nohistorical splits. Broadly speaking, the Protestant nation in Ireland
’• Ibid., II, pp. 28“9.
’’ Bartlett, Fall and rise, p. 23; Beckett, Anglo-Irish tradition, pp. 38“40; James, Lords of the
Ascendancy, pp. 52, 99“100; Bence-Jones, Twilight of the Ascendancy, p. 14.
The weave of Irish identities, 1600“1790 163

appropriated its constitutional identity from the history of the Old Eng-
lish settler community of the twelfth century, while its ecclesiastical
identity drew on the history of the Celtic church established in dark-age
Ireland. The ecclesiastical identity of the New English was in this vital
respect congruent neither with the reality of their post-Reformation
settlement and colonisation, nor with their appropriation in the constitu-
tional sphere of the twelfth-century Norman“Irish heritage.
There was no acknowledgement of the obvious problem of ethnic
discontinuity “ that, although religion and ethnicity were incommensur-
able categories, there was very little genuine ancestry linking Gaelic
Christians and modern Irish Protestants. Nevertheless, a further com-
plicating factor “ the association of the New English not only with the
Gothic peoples of medieval England, but also with their more distant
ancient British compatriots “ oVered a way of consolidating the English
identity of Ireland™s original Celtic Christianity. Just as early modern
English identity was polyethnic, resting on both British and Saxon phases
of the English past, so the New English and later the Anglo-Irish Protes-
tant nations drew on both British and Saxon elements of their English
heritage. The aYliation with the ancient Britons reinforced the otherwise
absurd appropriation by the New English and Anglo-Irish of the Gaelic
founding era of the Church of Ireland. Since the ancient British past was
an acknowledged component of English and hence of Anglo-Irish his-
tory, it provided a bridge of sorts between Gaelic ecclesiastical history
and the New English nation which appropriated it.’“ Thus the Protestant
community in Ireland, whose political identity was bound up with the
Gothic heritage of liberty associated with the migration of the Old Eng-
lish in the twelfth century, subscribed to an ecclesiastical identity with
strong Celtic foundations, both in the apostolic purity of the British
church as transmitted to Ireland, and in the non-papal uncorrupted
religion of the ancient Milesians before the Catholicisation of the high
middle ages. New English and Anglo-Irish identities were protean and
fabulous, but also opportunistic and self-serving. Without these largely
spurious and somewhat inconsistent extensions to their shallow roots in
the Irish historical experience, the New English nation would have been
disabled from waging eVective ideological warfare against its political and
religious competitors.
The most exotic and outrageous forms of New English ethnicist appro-
priation occurred initially in the ecclesiastical sphere. Protestantism was
not a natural outgrowth from the native textures of sixteenth-century
Irish church, society or culture. As Alan Ford points out, the Irish

’“ See above, ch. 4.
164 The three kingdoms

Reformation was ˜conceived in England and imposed upon Ireland as an
exercise in dynastic politics™.’“ The main threat to the Irish Protestant
nation came from the assault of Roman Catholic polemicists both on
Protestantism in general and on the particular legitimacy of the reformed
Church of Ireland. How were Irish Protestants to respond to the likes of
the Jesuit controversialist Henry Fitzsimon (1566“1643) who claimed
Roman Catholicism as the original expression of Christianity in Ireland?’”
Obviously, the Church of Ireland required a myth of indigenous founda-
tions.
The importation of clergy from England and the establishment in 1591
of Trinity College, Dublin, fostered an Irish Protestant intelligentsia
capable of inventing and sustaining an Irish Protestant apologetic which
would not only defend the general principles of the European Reforma-
tion but would also secure the Church of Ireland in particular against the
various arguments put forward by Irish Catholic polemicists.“» A lively
cohort of Protestant propagandists emerged to counter Catholic charges
of Protestant illegitimacy. The Church of Ireland™s team of controversial-
ists included John Rider (1562“1632), George Synge (1594“1653) and
Joshua Hoyle (d. 1654).“¦ However, the foremost champion of the
Church of Ireland was Ussher, who would eventually become its pri-
mate.
Although the crucial theatres of ecclesiastical pamphlet warfare were
Scripture and patristics, Ussher recognised that the early history of Irish
Christianity in its foundational era had the potential to confer a particular
aura of legitimacy on the Church of Ireland. Ussher began a public epistle
to Sir Christopher Sibthorp (d. 1632), a judge and active lay supporter of
the Irish Protestant cause, with a persuasive case for an Irish historical
apologetic:
I confess, I somewhat incline to be of your mind, that if unto the authorities drawn
out of scriptures and fathers (which are common to us with others) a true
discovery were added of that religion which anciently was professed in this
kingdom, it might prove a special motive to induce my poor countrymen to
consider a little better of the old and true way from whence they have hitherto
been misled.“ 

Why was the ˜ancient™ profession of Irish Christianity so important?
Tradition was the watchword of both Roman Catholic and Protestant

’“ A. Ford, The Protestant Reformation in Ireland, 1590“1641 (Frankfurt, 1985), p. 9.
’” Henry Fitzsimon, A Catholike confutation of M. Iohn Riders clayme of antiquitie (Roan
[Douai], 1608). “» Ford, Protestant Reformation, pp. 218“19. “¦ Ibid.
“  James Ussher, A discourse of the religion anciently professed by the Irish and British, ˜Epistle to
Sir Christopher Sibthorp™, in Ussher, Whole works (ed. C. Elrington and J. Todd, Dublin,
17 vols., 1847“64), IV, p. 237.
The weave of Irish identities, 1600“1790 165

controversialists. Supporters of Catholicism argued that their form of
Christianity had the sanction of tradition. It was necessary to refute the
Catholic position ˜that their religion of Popery, is of great and long
continuance in the world™, and to answer Catholic slurs that Protestant-
ism was a novel heresy of the sixteenth century.“À In an age where so much
ideological energy was invested in legitimation by tradition, it is scarcely
surprising that there was considerable theorising about the distinguishing
characteristics of the essential core of authentic Christian tradition.“Ã
Synge, who privileged the doctrinal core of Christianity over Catholic
tradition, maintained that genuine tradition had to be apostolic and
grounded in Scripture. ˜The succession of true doctrine in the church™
culminated in Protestantism; on the other hand, as ˜for Popish traditions
we respect them not, because they were never delivered by the apostles.
They are of a later invention.™“•
Local ecclesiastical antiquities constituted a vital adjunct of the debate
over Christian tradition. The importance attached to the history of the
foundational eras of national churches was also linked to the crucial role
played by primitive Christian antiquity within the overall scheme of
Protestant apologetic. Protestants laid claim to the best and purest an-
tiquity in their battles with Catholic apologists. This meant the history of
Christian missions in the early Christian centuries. Protestant antiquar-

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