In his mature career (1580-98), Spenser lived in Ireland as a secretary and administrator and, beginning in the late 1580s, he was an “undertaker,“ or major grantee, of over three thousand acres at Kilcolman Castle, County Cork (Spenser Biography) (Map). Spenser’s grant at Kilcolman and other lands that he owned nearby were part of the vast colonial project known as the “Munster Plantation“ (Munster Plantation).
The Munster Plantation colonized the Irish so as to “reform“ or replace them and their culture. The Plantation was neither the first nor last English colonial project in Ireland. It occurred in the wake of the widespread and disastrous rebellion (1579-83) of the fifteenth earl of Desmond (Desmond Rebellion). The Plantation helped to supplant, exploit and, in some cases, destroy many of the inhabitants who occupied the lands before the New English arrived.
The famous soldier, explorer, courtier, and writer, Sir Walter Raleigh, was also a Munster planter and visited Spenser at Kilcolman. This website explores Spenser’s connection to Raleigh as it involves Ireland (Spenser and Raleigh). Another famous Englishman, the scientist and explorer Thomas Harriot, was a tenant and employee on Raleigh’s plantation, as was the artist and former governor of the Virginia “Lost Colony,“ John White.
Spenser, Raleigh, Harriot, White and their fellow colonials were known as the “New English.“ They were a different cultural group than the “Old English,“ i.e., descendants of the original English settlers in Ireland from the late twelfth century on. The Old English had long occupied Munster along with the “native Irish,“ or inhabitants of Gaelic ancestry and culture who were conquered by and intermarried with the Old English. Spenser criticizes these past efforts at English colonization. The Old English, he argues, had “degenerated“ by intermingling with native Irish culture and families. Because of lack of proper government and their own inherently sinful nature (like all of humanity), the Old English had become corrupt and in dire need of reform. Their presence weakened the commonwealth and provoked rebellion, including direct threats against the English government in Ireland and at home. Spenser advocates martial law and other harsh authoritarian methods in his political tract, A View of the Present State of Ireland (c. 1596), as means towards reformation of the Old English and the Irish of non-English descent.
Backed with arms and the law under Queen Elizabeth I’s authority, many of the New English sought to change a supposedly barbaric and “degenerate“ Old English and Irish, Catholic culture around them into a “civilized“ Protestant, (more) English one that would be more loyal and profitable to the English crown. Spenser makes this argument in A View while worrying about his own situation: in 1596, around the time he composed the tract, a major rebellion in Ireland against the English crown, known as the Nine Years’ War, had already begun. It would eventually burn Spenser out of Kilcolman (Destruction of Plantation). Spenser died soon after in London, in 1599. The Munster Plantation was re-established in the early seventeenth century and included Spenser’s immediate family and later descendants.