Resources  Teaching Assignment

A View of the Present State of Ireland:  Summary, Analysis and Questions

This guide is intended as a resource for students and teachers of Edmund Spenser’s A View of the Present State of Ireland (c. 1596; first published in 1633 as A View of the State of Ireland).  The guide was co-written by students as part of their coursework for “Ireland: Land, Conflict, and Memory,” an undergraduate history survey taught by Professor Susannah Ottaway at Carleton College, MN, in Fall 2015.

The students developed a thematic approach to the text.  The guide offers a brief synopsis of major sections and themes of the book and, for each section, proposes a set of discussion questions that are linked to the specific elements of the text that are summarized.  The guide concludes with an analysis of the influence of the View on later works.

Page references are all to Edmund Spenser, A View of the State of Ireland (1633), edited by Andrew Hadfield and Willy Maley (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000).


  1. Context and Basic Outline (by Thomas Herron)
  2. Criticisms of the Irish (by Celeste Koppe)
  3. The Old English (by Emily Marks)
  4. The Need for Drastic Solutions (by Leila Awad)
  5. Irenaeus’s Plan (by Sage Mitch)
  6. The Famine in the View (by Maggie Lloyd)
  7. the Bards (by Gracie McNeely)
  8. Contradictions in The View (by Liza Peterson)
  9. The Enduring Relevance of the View in the Modern Period (by Rachael Sutherland, Evan Rothman, Will Hall, and Jeremiah Moriart)

Context and Basic Outline

A View of the Present State of Ireland was written when the great rebellion, the Nine Years' War, led by Hugh O'Neill, earl of Tyrone, was already underway.  English crown-controlled government of Ireland was increasingly under threat.  The rebellion would spread out of Ulster and destroy Spenser’s home, in 1598 [see Destruction of the Munster Plantation (1598)].  That same year, a manuscript of the View was entered in the Stationer’s Register in London as a first step towards publishing the work.  For unexplained reasons, possibly including censorship, the work was not published at that time.  Instead, the Dublin-based antiquarian James Ware would first publish a revised version of it in 1633; this version softened some of the sharper critiques of Irish culture.  Spenser’s original work was widely disseminated in manuscript, however.

The View has three parts.  The first part focuses on three spheres in urgent need of reform, the laws, the culture, and religion.  Irish customs are examined and denigrated.  An alarm is raised over widespread racial and cultural degeneration from English norms.
The second part, which is flagged as a new section (91), details practical and often militarized solutions to Ireland’s current state of affairs, including an extended focus on infrastructure:  the tract advocates cutting down of forests and widening of roads for safety against rebel attacks, for example, as well as new and renewed fortresses and garrisons to control and reform the population.

In the third part, the briefest, the speakers discuss what authorities should be in charge of reform.  The current Anglican religious hierarchy is criticized for not doing enough, and the tract concludes in the hope that a strong chief executive officer, a Lord Lieutenant with sweeping powers, might be appointed to re-conquer and reform Ireland once and for all.  (It is thought that Spenser had Robert Devereux, the second earl of Essex, in mind for the office).

Criticisms of the Irish

The View of the State of Ireland is a policy tract in humanist-dialogue format featuring two interlocutors, Irenaeus and Eudoxus, who are in England.  Eudoxus typically asks questions of Irenaeus, who has recently travelled from Ireland and is expert on the culture and problems there.  Irenaeus is commonly understood by readers as Spenser’s own persona in the debate.

Spenser begins the tract with Irenaeus’s critique of the Irish. Irenaeus explains that there are three types of evils among the native Irish in particular: Irish laws, Irish customs, and Irish religion. Through the character of Irenaeus, Spenser goes to great lengths to clarify that the commonwealth law structure is not to blame for the flaws of governance in Ireland, but rather the poor application of the laws, which is in part due to the “barbaric Irish people” (15-36).1 Specifically, Irenaeus notes the stubbornness of the Irish in adhering to the traditional Brehon law in their clandestine meetings. Furthermore, he expresses his discontentment with the Irish laws of succession of local rulers (16), the discrimination of the Irish courts against the English (30-31), and the outdated laws governing the relationship between landlord and tenant (40-41). These faults frame the English king Henry VIII’s assertion of power over Ireland as merely nominal, faults which continued under his successors to the present day.

In addition to the poor administration of the laws, Spenser clarifies that the Irish are too uncivilized for English laws, saying, “For Lawes ought to be fashioned unto the manners and conditions of the people, to whom they are meant, and not to be imposed upon them according to the simple rule of right” (20).   Irenaeus expands this racially based theory by tracing the origins of the Irish people. He scoffs at the idea of the Irish identifying as descendants of the Spaniards, as if this were a good thing.  He then argues that the Irish descended from the Scythians, whose barbaric culture flooded Ireland (50). Indeed the Spaniards themselves descended partly from the Scythians.  He ultimately determines that the Scythians, the Gauls, and the English are the three nations whose descendants are present in Ireland (54).

After discussing native Irish laws and racial-ethnic ancestry, Irenaeus moves to his criticisms of Irish customs. He targets the Irish lifestyle of nomadic cattle herding, their (in)famous garment (“the mantle”), and a barbaric hairstyle called a “glib” (55-58).  Later, in his discussion on the Old English and men’s apparel, Irenaeus elaborates on clothing and its connection to conditions and societal structures, in which he uses Aristotle as a source for his theory (72).

Lastly, to conclude this opening part of the View, Spenser briefly addresses the fault of religion in Ireland. Irenaeus criticizes the papists as not understanding the word of God and tells Eudoxus that now is not the time to pacify through religion because religious instruction requires “quiet times” (85).

Discussion Questions

  1. Irenaeus and Eudoxus spend a considerable amount of time discussing what he calls the “inconveniences” of laws as practiced in Ireland by the Irish people. What are these inconveniences that he enumerates to Eudoxus? In Irenaeus’ opinion, what seems to be the cause of these inconveniences?
    1. Irenaeus gives many examples of specific laws that he finds flawed. What are a few of his examples?
    2. What role do the Brehon laws play in these inconveniences?
    3. What does Irenaeus think about equality under the law in Ireland and how does this affect his criticisms of the Irish (p. 20)?
  2. Following Irenaeus and Eudoxus’s discussion on law, which customs does Irenaeus address in his critique of the Irish (pp. 57-64)? To what ancient group of people does he attribute these customs, and why is Irenaeus greatly concerned with assigning each custom to these ancient people?
  3. What does Irenaeus have to say about religion in Ireland? What do his comments imply regarding the Protestant Reformation and England’s current and future strategies for controlling the Irish?

Brehon Law— A judicial system operating in Gaelic Ireland, from breitheamh(ain), judge(s).
Mantle— A long coat or cloak worn by the Irish.
Glibs— Irish style of long hair that could cover the face.
Scythians— barbarian inhabitants of Scythia, a region north of the Black Sea, who according to Spenser intermingled with many European peoples.

The Need for Drastic Solutions

After criticizing the Old English, Spenser (represented by Irenaeus) begins introducing his plan to civilize Ireland.  Spenser recognizes that his plan, a detailed strategy for the militarization of Ireland, is radical.  The use of dialogue in this section is particularly powerful, as it helps Spenser create a more effective point than he would otherwise be able to. The dialogue format is so effective because Eudoxus brings up solutions that sound reasonable, and then Irenaeus directly counters them by demonstrating why the moderate ideas are insufficient.  Irenaeus advocates for Spenser’s hard-line views, consistently advocating for the total military conquest of Ireland, including martial law, and Eudoxus represents the moderate English audience. 

The first issue they bring up is the Irish assemblies.  The native Irish had long had designated places where they gathered to resolve conflicts.  The assemblies were supposed to work like primitive courts, but Irenaeus claims that “many mischiefs have beene both practised and wrought” at these meetings, including murders (79).  To further ingrain disdain for the Irish people, Irenaeus says that the English and a few good Irish end up being victims at these assemblies.  Eudoxus suggests that officers or constables be stationed at the assemblies to keep the peace.  Irenaeus retorts that Irish officers would not effectively keep the peace, since they are no better than the rest of the Irish people, and that English officers would only endanger themselves.  For this reason, Irenaeus says, English soldiers need to be stationed all over the country and meetings that allow the Irish to settle their own disputes must be abolished. 

The next issue they address is the problem that landholders in Ireland only offer short, one-year leases, which causes their tenants to be little invested in the land they farm.  Tenants who consider their stay to be temporary will not bother to put up fences.  Irenaeus argues that this system of short-term leases is economically unstable, or at least less stable than a system where tenants lease for life.  Eudoxus makes the point that short-term leases exist to allow the landlord and the tenant the chance to make more money and the freedom to end an agreement that no longer works well.  However, Irenaeus says that even though the system is “most beneficiall to the land-lord and the tennant,” it is at the cost of the common good (84).  For example, he says that more fenced-in farms would decrease the number of thieves, rebels, and outlaws that might rise against the government.  Irenaeus heavily extrapolates the lack of fences to mean a threat to the stability of government. 

Irenaeus’ third grievance is religion; he calls the Irish Papists and goes on to say that they are “so blindly and brutishly informed” and barbaric that they know nothing of the Catholic religion or religion at all (85).  Irenaeus champions Protestantism.  Eudoxus speculates as to who is at fault for the lack of proper religion in Ireland and Irenaeus responds that it is a result of the turmoil in the region.  He says that instruction in religion can only take hold in times of peace.  He claims that it is the responsibility of the English to “purchase peace unto the laity” (85).  Eudoxus, being a religious man, is slightly surprised to hear this because he would have thought of religion as a starting place to making the Irish better people, rather than the last issue to be ameliorated.  Irenaeus says that yes, “the care of the soule and soule matters is to be preferred before the care of the body,” but that does not apply in Ireland’s situation (85).  His example is that one should call a doctor for a sick man before calling a priest.  Thus, Ireland needs to be reformed through military action before Protestantism can be fully implemented.3

Eudoxus continues, asking if any abuse exists within the Irish churches, aside from the fact that they are “popish” (86).  Irenaeus lists off a slew of problems: “simony, greedy covetousnesse, fleshly incontinency, carlesse sloath, and generally all disordered life” (86).  He says that the reason these issues are not addressed is because the clergymen are afraid to make complaints to the bishops when the bishops could so easily dismiss them from their posts.  Looking for a moderate solution, Eudoxus asks if there are any laws in place that might prevent such abuses.  Irenaeus mentions a law “grounded in good meaning” that says any competent Englishman should be hired to an empty position within the diocese before an Irishman is considered.  This law could fix the transgressions within the church, he claims, except that the Irish are very quick to reject Englishmen as incompetent.  Irenaeus thereby shows that the law that a moderate Englishman would prescribe is already in place and insufficient; it thereby follows that more drastic measures are necessary. 
After discussing the above grievances, Eudoxus makes one last attempt to encourage peaceful reform “by making of good lawes, and establishing of new statues, with sharp penalties and punishments” (92).  Irenaeus’ final counterargument is that the Irish will rebel against all English laws.  The Irish will rebel against anything the English try to do, so the only option is to subdue them by force. 

Discussion Questions

  1. How does the use of dialogue support Spenser’s argument that the problem of the Irish can only be solved “by the sword” (93)?  In other words, how does dialogue make the argument more convincing?
  2. Why does Irenaeus believe that a more peaceful effort would be unsuccessful in reforming the Irish people? What analogies does he use to illustrate this?

On page 85, Irenaeus says that even though Irish religious affairs have degenerated, “good religion” cannot be reinstated until after the rest of the problems are solved through militarization.  Compare this section with the criticism of religious authorities in the third part of the View, near the end of the tract.  How do the two sections reinforce or contradict one another?

3For more on this issue see Brendan Bradshaw, “Sword, Word and Strategy in the Reformation in Ireland," The  Historical Journal, Vol. 21, No. 3. (Sep., 1978), 475-502.

Irenaeus’s Plan

Irenaeus concludes his section on the need for drastic action by stating that only the sword can affect change; imposition of English law simply will not work (93). At the same time, he begins to explain his plan to reform Ireland, explaining that only those who are familiar with Ireland can truly know how to reform it. He states that “we have thus ended all the abuses and inconveniences of that government which was our first part. It followeth now that we pass unto the second part which was of the means to cure and redress the same” (91). He then lays out in extraordinary detail the specifics of his plan for the military re-conquest, preservation of order, and reorganization of Irish society.

Irenaeus explains that the longer the current course is allowed to continue, the worse it will be, and peaceful measures are now in vain. Policies at this point plugging one hole only allow many more to develop. The Irish now hate and are wary of reforming efforts by the English, for they fear they will be deprived of their property. Only the sword can bring progress at this point. While it is indeed a violent solution, the Irish are too far gone to be saved. A large number of men must be sent over. The certainty of victory justifies the cost of men and supplies, especially considering how expensive the conflict has already been to the crown (94).
For Irenaeus’s plan to be successful, he requires no more than 10,000 footmen and 1000 horses, for about a year and a half, to conquer Ireland.  He would not have them seek out the enemy, for the Irish engage in guerilla warfare, retreating into bogs and narrow passes to their advantage. Instead he will garrison them in key places. He will garrison their power chiefly in areas that are strong with rebels, with smaller numbers spread to weaker areas (96). [see interactive map of Spenser’s proposed garrisons]  Irenaeus goes into great detail about the numbers and locations of garrisons. Men will be supplied with food for half a year, including supplies to bake bread and make beer. Occasionally they should be able to forage for themselves among the Irish land and take supplies. By supplying them only every half year, money will be saved, as supply convoys are frequently attacked by the Irish. The different garrisons will be able to chase the Irish rebels around and deprive them of supplies until they’re completely exhausted; one winter of this activity should take care of the problem.

Irenaeus then goes into gruesome detail about his plans to weaken the Irish through famine, a subject that will be further expanded upon in the next section. If news of the famine make the English look too harsh and move the court to compassion, as happened to Lord Deputy Grey during his deputyship, the work of the Lord Deputy will be undone. Truly then, the complaints against Grey’s excessive use of force were slanderous, for Lord Grey acted only with justice and in the only way that would have been successful (105). The following governors, who treated Ireland more kindly, seeking to win the rebels over, simply undid Grey’s good work and made no long-term progress.

It is also important to employ good captains of the different garrisons so that they will lead their men well; the colonel over all of them must keep a good watch and be of integrity, and there should be a separate paymaster (107). This will assure that everything goes according to plan and reduces corruption.  Additionally, the Lord Deputy will oversee the resettling of those men who submit in the first 20 days, and soldiers accused of misconduct will be tried by a jury of their peers not by the colonel, all to insure that the colonel behaves well.

Hugh O’Neill, the earl of Tyrone, as the arch-rebel shall not be accepted if he submits, for he has done so and reversed course many times before and is sneaky (109-10). He was already an outcast of the O’Neills themselves. It would be bad to bring in the Scots to help, for the Irish of the north are their old friends and kin and, combined, they would not be loyal to the English. There is already much rivalry between the Irish families in this land over who rightfully governs it. Irenaeus denounces them all as usurpers (111-112).
The English garrisons will also serve against Tyrone, and prevent him from going into neighboring land. He will be kept busy by the many small garrisons and his supporters will soon desert him when they see him losing (115). It will only take about one year to vanquish him in this way.

It would be best to employ captains who have already served in Ireland because they know the land and situation (116). The inexperienced will lose time and cost the crown. There is a problem in that old soldiers returning need jobs or may be maimed or may serve abroad, which is not good for England – there is an extra benefit here to Irenaeus’s plan, in that 6000 soldiers will be retained in Ireland and other retired ones settled there at no cost to her Majesty.

Those who surrender in Ulster will be stripped of all weapons and then resettled in Leinster as good subjects on the land. Those in Leinster will be resettled in Ulster. The resettled Irish will be the tenants of Englishmen who come over and are given the land as a “seignory” (120). The resettled Irish will be scattered far apart from any friends or relatives, and the English will be watching closely for any signs of rebellion. The English will receive rents, called “Romescots,” used to defray costs of the garrisons (121). For example, the rents will pay to maintain 1500 soldiers in Ulster, divided into three different strategic garrisons. The Englishmen would be specially chosen, so as to be competent, rather than just those most willing to come. Connacht will have a similar plan with 1000 soldiers (125).  Similar plans are offered for Meath and Munster, funded by the Romescot. Towns and farmland alike will pay the tax since they partake of the protection and stability of the garrison. The merchants and farmers and residents of other counties will all benefit from the increased security (132). For the first two years, troops will be supplied every half-year from England to give the Pale time to recover.

Through a strong hand, eternal peace will come to Ireland. Common law will be applied throughout the land. There will be enough loyal Irishmen and English to support such laws, and they will come to dominate parliament. Irenaeus intends to divide the whole island into separate “tythings” that will then police themselves.  The Old English including the noblemen will also be supervised as they are just as corrupted. Some New Englishmen will be interspersed as pillars of the community. Irenaeus goes on to lay out his plans for the new communities, dividing labor into three types: manual, intellectual, and mixed. He privileges husbandry as most necessary, but finds the Irish way of herding to be immoral, mandating instead that they must herd and plow. A “Marshall” will be appointed to enforce that every man is working (152). Irenaeus concludes the book by explaining how implementing his plan will truly establish peace in Ireland for eternity as no other effort has been able to. He assuages all of Eudoxus’s concerns about cost, cruelty, leadership, and the land until he convinces his audience that his plot is logically sound.

Discussion Questions

  1. What is Irenaeus’s plan? Can you distinguish the military and economic portions of his argument?
  2. Irenaeus’s plan is described in incredible detail down to the locations of specific subdivisions of garrisons and the possible rents that could be collected. What do you think is the purpose of this level of detail? (96-100, 120-130)
    1.  What does it reveal about Spenser’s intended audience?
    2.  Where do you think Spenser collected this specific information? Does he have the military experience to back up his claims?
    3. Why does he include such details on the geography and specific families of Ireland, if his audience would not have known it?
  3. Irenaeus is able to persuade Eudoxus that his plan is necessary and all for the best. Do you think Spenser’s assurances would have persuaded those at court?
  4.  To each criticism of Eudoxus, Irenaeus has a response. Can you think of some that he missed?
  5.  Given the long history of conflict in Ireland, do you think Irenaeus’s plan would have been successful? What makes it different from earlier campaigns? How does it fit into this particular historical moment for the English?
  6. From a contemporary perspective, Irenaeus's plan seems cruel and unsustainable. Do you think it is a viable military endeavor or does it amount to something akin to genocide?
  7. Part of Irenaeus’s plan involves moving and separating the people from their land. Like Gerald of Wales, he puts a great deal of emphasis on the soil and land itself as a source for historic memory and rebellion. Where else do you see this connection?  What is significant about the focus on property and land use?

Famine in the View

A critical aspect of Irenaeus’s drastic plan to defeat Irish rebels involves inducing famine, so that those resisting are weakened. This systemic weakening of the Irish population would help minimize the number of troops needed to conquer the country, thus saving English lives and resources in battle.  Killing the enemy by depriving them and their civilian backers of basic sustenance was a time-honored military tactic and a horrific one.  It certainly attests to Spenser’s view of the severity of the crisis at hand and his willingness to punish any population that fostered rebellion.

Irenaeus begins his discussion of the famine by explaining specific details of the plan. The famine will begin in winter, when life in Ireland is hardest (98). Because livestock give no milk during winter and the Irish are largely dependent on milk for sustenance, a winter famine will put the Irish in a hard place. They will be forced to kill their livestock for meat in order to survive once their stored food supplies and tillable land are destroyed.  This will leave them without milk and without any hope for new calves to repopulate their herds in the spring and summer.

When Eudoxus asks about how exactly this war will end, Irenaeus tells him that the English will have to do very little with their swords, because the famine will kill or weaken everyone for them. Irenaeus has seen famine in Ireland before, when the citizens of the plentiful country of Munster rose up against authority during the Desmond rebellion (1579-83) and were brought to complete “wretchednesse” (101). Irenaeus describes the Munster famine in a frequently quoted, particularly gruesome passage:
Out of every corner of the woods and glynnes they came creeping forth upon their hands, for their legges could not beare them; they looked like anatomies of death, they spake like ghosts crying out of their graves; they did eate the dead carrions, happy where they could finde them, yea, and one another soone after, insomuch as the very carcasses they spared not to scrape out of their graves; and, if they found a plot of water-cresses or shamrocks, there they flocked as to a feast for the time, yet not able long to continue therewithal; that in short space there were none almost left, and a most populous and plentifull country suddainely left voyde of man and beast; yet sure in all that warre, there perished not many by the sword, but all by the extremitie of famine, which they themselves had wrought (101-102).

Irenaeus’s description is bone chilling, filled with images of the starving Irish who were forced to resort to cannibalism and eating roughage in an attempt at survival. In conclusion, Irenaeus blames these atrocities on the victims, who brought it upon themselves by rising up against their rulers.

Irenaeus’s plan to eradicate the Irish is certainly extreme, and Spenser is aware that readers may be sensitive to the ruthlessness of intentionally causing wide-scale famine. Irenaeus explains that individual Irish will have a chance to surrender and be spared famine, though this surrender will only be allowed for the first twenty days of the war, and requires the Irish to submit absolutely and to turn on their leaders and native people. Should the English deem their surrender total and true, those who submit will be “sent away into the inner parts of the realme, and dispersed in such sort as they may not come together, nor easily return if they would” (100). Irenaeus does, therefore, offer the option of mercy for the Irish, but it can only be earned under very specific, unappealing conditions and would be followed by dislocation.

The notion of mercy is brought up one other time, towards the end of Spenser’s discussion of famine.  Eudoxus raises a concern that the queen, who is “full of mercy and clemency,” will object to this brutal plan (102). Irenaeus counters this with the explanation, once again, that the Irish situation requires a drastic solution. He then transitions back into detailed political theory, and the issue of famine is closed.  

Discussion Questions  

  1. Discuss some of the specific details of Irenaeus’s plan for causing a massive famine in Ireland. When and how will he induce this famine?
  2. What tactics does Irenaeus (Spenser) use to make his plans to intentionally induce famine in Ireland seem less barbaric?
  3. Irenaeus describes the Munster famine in vivid, disturbing detail. At the end of this depiction, he twists this event to be something that they brought upon themselves. What is his logic for blaming the victims for this carnage? How does this contribute to the portrayal of the Irish as a barbaric people in a beautiful land? How successful is he in “blaming the victim” here?

the Bards

Fúbún fúibh, a shluagh Gaoidheal (Fooboon upon you, ye hosts of the Gael)4

Fooboon5 upon you, ye hosts of the Gael,
      For your own Innisfail has been taken,
And the Gall6 is dividing the emerald lands
      By your treacherous bands forsaken.7
Clan Carthy of Munster from first unto last
      Have forsaken the past of their sires,
And they honour no longer the men that are gone,
      Or the song of the God-sent lyres.8
The O'Briens of Banba whom Murrough led on,
      They are gone with the Saxon aggressor,9
They have bartered their heirloom of ages away
      And forgotten to slay the oppressor.
The old race of Brian mac Yohy the stern
      With gallowglass, kern, and bonnacht10
They are down on their knees, they are cringing today
      'Tis the way through the province of Connacht.
In the valleys of Leinster the valorous band
      Who lightened the land with their daring,
In Erin's dark hour now shift for themselves,
      The wolves are upon them and tearing.

And O'Neill, who is throned in Emania afar
      And gave kings unto Tara for ages,11
For the earldom of Ulster has bartered, through fear,
      The kingdom of heroes and sages.
Alas for the sight! the O'Carrolls of Birr
      Swear homage in terror, sore fearing,12
Not a man one may know for a man can be found
      On the emerald ground of Erin.13
And O'Donnell the chieftain, the lion in fight,
      Who defended the right of Tirconnell,
(Ah! now may green Erin indeed go and droop!)
      He stoops with them—Manus O'Donnell!
Fooboon for the court where no English was spoke,
      Fooboon for the court of the stranger,
Fooboon for the gun in the foreigner's train,
      Fooboon for the chain of danger.
Ye faltering madmen, God pity your case!
      In the flame of disgrace ye are singeing.
Fooboon is the word of the bard and the saint,
      Fooboon for the faint and the cringing.

“Through desire of pleasing perhappes too much, and ignorance of the arts, and purer learning, they have clouded the truth of those lines.” (Spenser, View 47)

Throughout his text, Spenser discusses the role that “bards” or “Irish chroniclers” have in Ireland's culture, outlining both the positive and negative —much more negative— aspects of these people. Before launching into A View, we must understand the term bard in the sixteenth-century Irish context. An Irish bard was a combination of a “poet, historian, and legal arbiter…[whose] role allowed him a freedom of speech” — something unseen in contemporary England. A key role of the bard was to support his patron’s family and valorous deeds in propagandistic verse.  Bards created what the Irish perceived as truthful poetry. Spenser thought otherwise.

Spenser reacted strongly against the glorification of martial heroes and Irish noble families found in poems such as the above, “Fúbún fúibh, a shluagh Gaoidheal,” a poem that tried to shame native Irish families into action against the English “Saxon oppressor.”  Spenser also sharply questioned the historical accuracy and cultural value of such works. According to Irenaeus, the bards “delivered no certaine truth of anything” and “[wrote] things according to the appearance of the truth which they conceived…” (48). He criticizes their honesty, comparing it to his own approach writing his prose: “I do gather a likelihood of truth…which I leave to your judgment to believe or refuse” (46). Here, Spenser not only criticizes Irish chroniclers’ supposed lack of verity, but also argues that he is a better chronicler, allowing his reader to challenge his claims.  To reinforce his point, Irenaeus praises the learning of the modern Scottish historian Buchanan: “For that hee himselfe, being an Irish Scot or Pict by nation, and being very excellently learned, and industrious to seeke out the truth of all things concerning the originall of his owne people…” (46).

Irenaeus thus combines his criticism of the bards with a compliment of at least one “Irish” (Scottish) historian, Buchanan, and then further modifies his argument to admit that “there appeares among them, [contemporary bards] some reliques of the true antiquitie, though disguised, which a well eyed man may happily discover and finde out” (47). They may have controversial writings, but there is ancient material of importance in their writing. 

This quasi-compliment towards the bards is quickly followed by criticism. After Irenaeus informs Eudoxus that “Ireland hath had the use of letters very anciently, and long before England,” Eudoxus responds, “How comes it then that they are so unlearned still, being so old schollers?” (47) Irenaeus does not have a specific answer to this question and begins discussing the Saxons, Scythians, and eventually Spain, and the bards are no longer the focus of the dialogue. Spenser brings the bards back, however, listing his admiration and dislike for them on page 75: Irenaeus sincerely compliments their great skill in versification (Spenser was himself a poet of supreme technical skill), “But these Irish Bardes are for the most part of another minde, and so farre from instructing yong men in moral discipline, that they themselves doe more deserve to bee sharpely disciplined” (76). As well as immoral, Irenaeus calls them licentious, lewd, notorious thieves, and wicked outlaws.  They write well but their writing promotes rebellious and destructive behavior.  Policy follows opinion:  Irenaeus wants to eliminate or at least suppress the Irish bards because of their negative political influence.

Discussion Questions

  1. In general, what does Spenser (or Irenaeus) think about Bards or Irish chroniclers?  Why does Irenaeus think the Bards set a bad example?
  2. Where else have we seen this type of thinking, where Spenser is extremely critical rather than malleable in his views?
  3. Does Irenaeus think negatively about all Irish chroniclers? What are his views of ancient Irish history?  Of bardic versification?
  4. How does Spenser weave in the barbarity of the Irish in this account?
  5. After Eudoxus asks, “shew what other their customes you have dislike of,” why does he re-introduce Bards later in the text?

4 Anonymous, “Fúbún fúibh, a shluagh Gaoidheal (Fooboon upon you, ye hosts of the Gael)” The Norton Anthology of English Literature (accessed October 4, 2015),
5 The word “ fúbún” cannot be directly translated, but it carries the sense of “ shame on you.”
6 Gall: Gaelic term for the British in Ireland
7 Literally, this line compares the Irish lords to a fairy host, implying that they are at once insubstantial and unreliable.
8 Literally, not one of them (the McCarthys) still follows Gaelic ways, including musical composition.
9 As in Welsh and Scottish Gaelic, Irish uses the word "Saxon" to describe the English generally.
10 These are types of Irish soldiery. The literal sense of the line, however, is that these past heroes never had to pay for their own food.
11 Tara was traditionally the seat of the High Kings of Ireland.
12 The literal sense is rather that the poet has sworn loyalty to the O'Carrolls; that is, he is their court bard.
13 Erin: Ireland.

Contradictions in the Text

A recurring criticism of A View of the State of Ireland is that the work contradicts itself, presenting an incoherent and/or rambling argument to its readers.14 One instance of opposing statements in A View is Irenaeus’s championing of the good that absolute power of the English crown can bring (12-14), and his later proposal to distribute power in Ireland to the English who live there (160). Another apparent inconsistency appears when Irenaeus first claims that laws should be fashioned to the manners of the people they apply to (20), and then later claims that the Irish must be forcibly molded to English rule (92-93). At first look, these statements appear to contradict one another, and if our analysis stops there, we could conclude that A View is an incoherent text. However, Andrew Hadfield has addressed these inconsistencies and rationalized them (in his book Edmund Spenser’s Irish Experience), offering a rebuttal to these claims of inconsistency.

In response to Irenaeus’s inconsistent ideas concerning what type of government Ireland needs, Hadfield offers a simple explanation. As an individual and stakeholder in the Munster plantation [see The Munster Plantation], Spenser believed that delegating power absolutely to those English in Ireland was the best way for them to rule over the Irish people. However, as an English subject, Spenser walks a fine line between offering advice and seditiously criticizing English imperial policy, and thus, he also praises the English crown, the source of imperial power, to avoid such accusations. Therefore, this is not an instance of indecision, but one of political strategy and self-preservation.15

The second popularly cited instance of contradiction in Spenser’s text is his opposing language on the nature of law. Once again, Hadfield offers a resolution to this apparent contradiction. Hadfield explains that this text works as a dialogue between two men, and thus inherently allows Irenaeus to manipulate his point to convince Eudoxus of his logic.16 Because it is not a work of scholarly political theory, Spenser has the freedom to come to his point gradually and indirectly. In A View, Irenaeus first claims that laws should be fashioned for the people they will apply to. Eudoxus agrees, and why should he not? It is a logical statement that we can all accept without too much argument. However, Irenaeus then explains that the Irish are so out of control that in their present fervor, no reform, not even one with laws fashioned for them, would be successfully enforced. Once Eudoxus concedes this point, Irenaeus then states his second point; the Irish must be forcibly broken, such that they can eventually be molded into English civil law. Therefore, this contradiction, too, is not a weak point or an overlooked mistake of the text. It is Spenser carefully crafting his argument to manipulate his audience into thinking as he does.

Ultimately, upon closer inspection of the text, it is evident that these contradictions in Spenser’s writing are not flaws in his argument. They reflect both the complexity of the situation in Ireland, and the degree to which Spenser has considered and analyzed his own place in the situation. These apparent contradictions in the text should not discount the valuable nature of A View and should instead serve as windows into the complexities of colonial Ireland as seen by Spenser.

Discussion Questions

  1. Where do you see other contradictions in Spenser’s text?
  2. Can these contradictions be resolved? If not, can they be rationalized?
  3. How does the style/genre of this work play into the way we read this text?

Papist – A derogatory term for followers of the Pope (Roman Catholics).
Simony – The practice of selling religious benefits, one of the acts abolished by Protestant reform.
Fleshly incontinency – Lust.
Romescot – The payment of military wages by a tax assessed of the land and residents.
Seignory – Land grant of feudal lordship, in the case of Spenser’s text, one given to an Englishman in Ireland. Spenser himself had such a grant.
Pale –  The main area of governance controlled by the English crown in the later middle ages and centered around Dublin, with shifting parameters.
Tything – A division of the population and land into a small subgrouping for bureaucratic and policing purposes.

14 Andrew Hadfield and Willy Maley, “Introduction,” A View of the State of Ireland, by Edmund Spenser (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000), xi-xxvi:  xii.
15 Andrew Hadfield, Edmund Spenser’s Irish Experience (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997), 77.
16 Hadfield 63.

The Enduring Relevance of the View in the Modern Period

In the two centuries following the publication of Edmund Spenser’s A View of the Present State of Ireland, the text was often referenced by seventeenth- and eighteenth-century writers, demonstrating its enduring importance to English understanding of Ireland.  As historian Clare O’Halloran has argued, the “explicit evocation of Spenser’s ghost to re-view Ireland” was quite common among Protestant antiquaries and scholars.17 During the late-seventeenth century, interest in A View was more subdued, and greater focus was placed on Spenser’s poetic works. As time passed, eighteenth-century Protestant antiquaries, such as Thomas Campbell and Edward Ledwich, relied heavily on A View and readily endorsed and furthered the book’s claims. New editions of A View were published in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries, and varied writings, from histories to fiction, continued to echo Spenser’s negative opinion of the Irish, reflecting the ongoing political tension between the Irish and English. Additionally, as O’Halloran notes, Protestant sources reinforced Spenser’s depiction of Irish culture and society, while only a few Catholic responses to A View openly challenged its colonial ideology (the main early challenge came from Geoffrey Keating).  This indicated the lasting significance of “Spenserian perspectives.”

Several key works that make use of Spenser’s texts are available on “Early English Books Online” and “Eighteenth-Century Collections Online,” or are accessible on CELT: Corpus of Electronic Texts; these works are listed below in date order.

Keating, Geoffrey. History of Ireland. London, 1634.  In Corpus of Electronic Texts Edition, trans. David Comyn, Patrick S. Dinneen, Cork: University of Cork, 2010.

Booker, John. “A Bloody Irish Almanack, Or, Rebellious and Bloody Ireland.” London, 1646.  In Early English Books Online. British Library, 2014. 2-3.

Campbell, Thomas.  A Philosophical Survey of the South of Ireland, In A Series of Letters to John Watkinson, M.D. London, MDCCLXXVII [1777]. Eighteenth Century Collections Online. Gale. Carleton College. 25 Oct. 2015, 29.  <

Joseph C. Walker, An historical essay on the dress of the ancient and modern Irish: addressed to the Right Honourable Earl of Charlemont. To which is subjoined, a memoir on the armour and weapons of the Irish. Dublin, 1788. Eighteenth Century Collections Online. Gale. Carleton College. 26 Oct. 2015 

Ledwich, Edward. Antiquities of Ireland. Dublin, 1790. Eighteenth Century Collections Online. Gale. Carleton College. 17 Nov. 2015 

17 Clare O’Halloran, “Recalling the View: Edmund Spenser and Ireland in the Eighteenth Century,” Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy Section C: Archaeology, Celtic Studies, History, Linguistics, Literature 114C (2014): 215.