How the English Settlers in Ireland Became Irishmen

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Celtic World

By Jennifer Paxton, Ph.D., The Catholic University of America

When the English conquered parts of Ireland with the help of the Welsh and a papal bull, called Laudabiliter, some Englishmen settled there. There were always clashes between the Anglo-Norman and Irish residents, and Henry II’s efforts did not suffice. Thus, English kings somehow abandoned Ireland until they realized the English settlers in Ireland were no longer English. They had to take action to remind these people who they used to be.

A map showing the locations of Bannow, Baginbun Head, Hook Head, Wexford, and Waterford.
English settlers in Ireland first entered the area from four locations and invaded the land. (Image: AFBorchert/CC BY-SA 4.0/public domain)

English settlers in Ireland did not enjoy their time that much. Thus, Henry II tried to impose English rule on Ireland, but he failed. His son, John, withdrew from Ireland and left the Anglo-Norman settlers on their own.

English Settlers’ Provisions

English settlers in Ireland had to protect their lands from Irish attacks. They built a network of castles wherever they could – many along the east coast. The initially-modest castles grew impressively in size, and new English and Welsh settlers came in to create lordships similar to England.

Irish politics was too weak and fluid to fight that back, and all the hopes of a unified Ireland vanished. Ireland had local chiefs who ruled based on networks of relationships and were extremely unreliable. Ireland was fluid enough for the Vikings to blend in, and the English newcomers did the same. The Irish were actively allying with them against other Irish leaders.

Irish Local Politics

Why didn’t the Irish ally together to push out the English settlers? Because they were too afraid that their Irish rivals would ally with the English before they did. Another fundamental misunderstanding between the Irish and English concepts led the Irish to let Englishmen into their lands to build their castles.

The Irish allies thought they were preparing the ground to use English rulers at their favor, but they actually made them dominant players in local politics. The English rulers eventually replaced the Irish over-kings. To live in Ireland, the English settlers decided to adapt. However, before they succeeded in becoming Irish enough to rule in Ireland, a mishap helped the native Irish in hurting the English colonists: The Black Death.

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The Black Death

The portrait of Edward III, as he was depicted in the late 16th century.
King Edward III tried to control Ireland by ordering his son to marry an Irish heiress. (Image: National Portrait Gallery/public domain)

The Black Death spread throughout Europe and reached Ireland in 1348, first in the southeast and then spreading to the north and west. The rate of infection was extremely high in the towns, where the English settlers chose to live. The death rate got so high that some English settlers started to move back to England.

At the end of the 14th century, England had to pass new rules to stop Englishmen from coming back and force the recently-moved ones to go back to Ireland. Otherwise, the colonies would get empty of English blood.

In 1361, King Edward III of England tried to solve the problem by marrying his son, Lionel, to the heiress to the earldom of Ulster. Lionel was supposed to rule Ireland on his father’s behalf, but he got terrified by how Irish the Englishmen had become. He consulted a parliament in Kilkenny to address the problem, and they passed the notorious Statutes of Kilkenny in 1366.

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The Statutes of Kilkenny

These statutes were not aimed at the Irish, as mistakenly believed, but at the English settlers in Ireland. England was trying to keep the English settlers as English as the ones still residing in England.

First, they ordered the Anglo-Irish to treat the long-residing and newcomer Englishmen equally. The Anglo-Irish were calling the newcomers “English hobbe”, and the English would, in return, call the Irish “Irish dog”. The English community was clearly divided.

Next, the statutes forbade many Irish things for the English. They were ordered to speak English all the time unless they were facing the Irish and wanted to communicate. Irish names or surnames, riding horses Irish-style, i.e., bareback with no stirrups, and Irish haircuts were all banned for the English settlers.

They were not allowed to have Irish musicians and storytellers perform in their halls because they had strong Irish impacts. Despite all these restrictions, some Englishmen were so fond of everything Irish that they even composed poetry in Irish.

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The 16th Century Solution

The statutes tried to solve problems with extremely inefficient solutions. They tried to force people to remember their roots and English blood. For example, in 1371-1372 they sent John, son of William le Poer, to jail because he knew no English, and released him upon the promise of an older family member that he would learn.

The abandoned English settlers began to feel at home in Ireland, and it was too late to try to change that. They did remember their roots, but they looked and acted too Irish. Nothing changed until the Tudor government in the 16th century decided to resolve the Irish question once and for all.

Common Questions about English Settlers in Ireland

Q: What did the Black Death do in Ireland?

The Black Death spread throughout Europe and reached Ireland in 1348, specifically to the towns where the English settlers in Ireland were residing. Thus, many English settlers were killed by it.

Q: What did King Edward III do to make Ireland a profit again?

In 1361, King Edward III had his son, Lionel, marry the heiress to the earldom of Ulster, and he sent Lionel to Ireland to rule on his behalf and control the English settlers in Ireland as well as the Irish themselves.

Q: Were the statutes passed in 1366 aimed at the Irish?

No. the misconception is that they were, but in fact, they were aimed at the English settlers in Ireland to try to get them to stay English and not go completely native.

Q: What did the statutes in 1366 do?

They banned Irish haircuts and saddles for English settlers in Ireland and even sent one person to jail for not knowing English. He was released when an older family member promised he would learn.

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