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History Professor Finds Links Between Great Britain and Ireland


Christopher Maginn, Ph.D., is working on a book about the relationship between Queen Elizabeth I and her longest-serving minister, William Cecil.
Photo by Patrick Verel

The Northern Ireland peace process has done more than transform life in Ulster over the past decade. The Good Friday Agreement, which established a power-sharing government between formerly warring sections of the population, has opened up new areas of scholarly inquiry for historians like Christopher Maginn, Ph.D.

“I look at the intermingling of peoples, the clash of peoples, the destruction of peoples, the destruction of languages and the rise of languages—all of that within what we call the Atlantic Archipelago,” said Maginn, assistant professor of history at Fordham College at Lincoln Center.

Because strife between Irish republicans and British loyalists was so intense in much of 20th-century Northern Ireland, Maginn, director of Irish studies at Fordham, said that historians tended to stick to their own countries: English scholars studied England; Irish scholars studied Ireland, and so forth.

Maginn, however, researches Ireland and Great Britain from an integrated perspective. Such scholarly thought falls under the rubric of “New British History.” In fact, he recently returned from a 16-month sabbatical at the National University of Ireland in Galway, where he co-wrote The Making of the British Isles: The State of Britain and Ireland, 1450-1660 (Pearson Longman, 2007).

Now that relative peace has come to Northern Ireland, scholars who do research within the paradigm of New British history now feel more comfortable in applying their talents to the history of Ireland and Britain.

His book, Civilizing Gaelic Leinster: The Extension of Tudor Rule in the O’Byrne and O’Toole Lordships (Four Courts Press, 2005), the winner of the National University of Ireland’s historical research prize in 2005, is an example of research that would have been difficult to conduct in the past.

“Throughout the Tudor period, the English attempted—as they called it—to civilize Gaelic regions of Ireland. They would try to destroy the native culture, and Gaelic clansman fought bitter, bitter wars that they always lost,” he said.

“In 1975, at the height of the Troubles, an Irish Republican Army soldier in Belfast might say, ‘What’s the difference between me killing a British soldier now, in 1975, and Fiach Mac Hugh O’Byrne doing it in 1580?’” he explained.

Although conducting research on the history of Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales without rooting it in one particular nation still upsets some people, Maginn said it is easy to find concrete examples of how the countries’ pasts are entwined.

“A lot of people from Ireland are very proud of their county. But counties were introduced into Ireland by English people. A county is an English administrative unit. There was no such thing as a county in Gaelic Ireland,” said Maginn, who specializes in the period when the Tudors ruled the region.

The Tudor period, which starts in 1485 with Henry VII (known as Henry Tudor before his accession to the crown) and ends in 1609 with the death of Queen Elizabeth I, is filled with major changes, from the split between England and the Catholic Church to the colonization of North America.

During his sabbatical, Maginn convened an international conference on nobility in early modern Ireland and did research and writing for his next book, tentatively titled William Cecil and Ireland: Ministering a Tudor Kingdom. Cecil, who lived from 1520 to 1598, was the longest-serving minister for Queen Elizabeth I. As such, his name became very familiar to Maginn.

“I found these letters that were written to Cecil. Everyone would write to Cecil, and people would occasionally get a response. So I began looking at the secondary literature, and in every index I found William Cecil. I thought, ‘Has anyone tried to look at where this man stood on the Irish situation in the 16th century?’” he said.

“I found one bit of secondary literature that dismissed him entirely; it indicated that he was just a secretary. I found that not to be the case. So my book is really to disprove the idea that he was a simple automaton, that he got letters, signed them and passed them along to someone else.”

Although Queen Elizabeth had absolute power, Cecil was the best at influencing her opinion; Maginn compares their relationship to that of Karl Rove and former President George W. Bush.

“His representatives in Ireland would come up with policy, and he would take that policy and frame it, organize it and then go to the queen. On occasion, he would lie to the queen. Often he would dissemble in front of the queen. Often he would use someone else to talk to the queen to see if she was in good humor,” he said. “He would chivvy the queen into doing something. So it’s often hard to know where Cecil ends and Elizabeth begins.”

On Irish matters, Maginn said Cecil was on board with a Tudor policy of trying to educate the Irish to be more English. But unlike those who came after him, he did not advocate eradication of the Irish. In a letter written in the 1560s, he admonished the lord deputy of Ireland for saying: “I am with all the Wilde Irish, at the same point I am with bears and dogs when I see them fight, so that they fight earnestly and tug each other: I care not who have the worse.”

“It’s really kind of interesting, that split personality,” Maginn said. “I wish I could say Cecil was sympathetic to the Irish. It’s not quite the case, but he didn’t want to destroy them either. Again, when you begin to look at history, it’s never so neat.”


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