Strangers to Citizens: The Irish in Europe 1600-1800

People left Ireland for a bewildering number of reasons. Like migrants through time and the world over, they had to call on all their resources to survive and prosper in alien environments.
Their achievement was considerable, permitting an ‘outsider’ people to achieve ‘insider’ status on the Continent and in the Spanish, French and Dutch colonies by the mid-eighteenth century. Their example indicates that migration, far from being an exceptional, temporary phenomenon is actually a permanent part of the human condition. Migration is ceaseless and continues today as foreign migrants, pushed and pulled by a variety of forces, make the return journey to Ireland.
It is the Conclusion of an exhibition on Strangers to Citizens: The Irish in Europe 1600-1800, currently at The National Library of Ireland. It tells their story through commentaries and explanations with a number of panels on major facets about Ireland, Journeys, Colleges, Military, Merchants, Professionals, and a detailed visitors’ brochure with map layout. The exhibition displays a selection of books containing historical source material and provides computer access to Irish Heraldry and Irish in Europe data bases.
Ulster Earls
Extracted from O Cianain’s narrative of the journey into exile of the Ulster earls, 1607-08, Translation from ‘The Flight of the Earls’ edited by Rev Paul Walsh in Archivium Hibernicum (1913-14) reads:
‘They proceeded out into the sea to make for Spain straight forward if they could. After that they were at sea for thirteen days with excessive storm and dangerous bad weather. A cross of gold which O’Neill had and which contained a portion of the cross of the Crucifixion and many other relics, being put by them in the sea trailing after the ship, gave them great relief. At the end of that time, much to their surprise, they met in the middle of the sea two small hawks, merlins, which alighted on the ship. The hawks were caught and were fed afterwards.’
The 400th anniversary of ‘The Flight of the Earls’ has been widely commemorated in Ireland and abroad in 2007-2008. A watershed in Irish history it ushered in the end of the old Gaelic power system and the thorough British conquest of the island.
Strangers to Citizens
Europe in the sixteenth century was a continent in turmoil. Religious wars divided communities; the exploitation of the New World turned the economy on its head; jealous states fought over scarce resources.
Despite its geographically peripheral position, Ireland was at the heart of this upheaval. Under Elizabeth I (r.1558-1603) aggressive state centralisation, enforced religious conformity and stiffening economic competition caused bitter discontent in Ireland.
By the 1590s, however, most of the country was under royal control, with the exception of Ulster, whose Gaelic lords remained belligerently independent. In an effort to halt the advance of crown authority, Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone and Red Hugh O’Donnell, Earl of Tyrconnell formed a Confederacy. They sought support from their Munster and Leinster peers and solicited aid from Elizabeth’s great enemy, the king of Spain. As declared defenders of Catholicism, they also sought Papal approval.
With the beginning of open warfare, Ireland’s fate hung in the balance. The Confederacy’s defeat at Kinsale in early 1602 put paid to the Ulster lords’ independence. Like the vanquished elsewhere, the Confederates faced a bleak future at home. Stripped of their authority and later of their property, many of them found life in Ireland intolerable. Some set out on what they believed to be a temporary strategic exile in Europe. The parting, however, proved permanent.
Between the 1603 Kinsale debacle and the flight of the Ulster earls in September 1607, boatloads of Irish aristocrats with hundreds of redundant soldiers and dependents left for England, Wales and the Continent. Ships were often over-laden with cargo and passengers and sickness and hardship were commonplace. The human traffic over land and sea, took well established trade routes to the Continent. In tiny craft unemployed military and dispossessed aristocracy jostled for space with itinerant academics, dislocated clergy and droves of vagrants.
Amongst these was Donal Cam O’Sullivan Beare who lost virtually everything after Kinsale. In 1605 he sailed for La Coruna in northern Spain, accompanied by several hundred followers. In Santiago de Compostela he helped found a college for Irish students. He became a Spanish courtier and was admitted to the prestigious Order of Santiago in 1607. Ten years later he was created Count of Bearehaven.
The earls’ defeat at the Battle of Kinsale, Co. Cork, and their departure overseas in 1607 unleashed the first wave of Irish migration, mostly of soldiers and their dependents to Europe. Many rose to high office in the armies of Europe while several of the seventeenth and eighteenth century Irish migrants left their mark on their host societies. The exhibition Strangers to Citizens tells their story with much detail and illustrated texts.
Vagrants and beggars
After 1602 the numbers of Irish emigrants multiplied dramatically as hundreds fled war and want. The vagrants and beggars were met with a cold reception.
As part of the exodus English, Breton, Spanish and Flemish ports witnessed the arrival of droves of Irish vagrants who converged on the streets of London, Bristol, Paris, Nantes, Rouen and Madrid ‘like crickets to the crevice of a brew-house’. Regarded as violent, lazy, disease-ridden thieves, these Irish were despised by city authorities who attempted, without much success, to expel and repatriate them.
They formed communities and over time integrated into the societies in which they lived.
Ita Marguet, August 2008
Note: Acknowledgement is given to the exhibition and brochure on Strangers to Citizens: The Irish in Europe 1600-1800. This text follows published titles Flight of the Earls: Ireland and Switzerland (1607-1608), Flight of the Earls: A Bridge Between Ireland and Europe, Tombs of the Irish Earls: Burials in Rome (Ita Marguet, 2007-2008).