Anti-Irish Sentiment in Early Modern Britain

Anti-Irish Sentiment in Early Modern Britain

Anti-Irish sentiment in Britain has a long, complicated history. This history does not necessarily begin in the early modern period, or in the sixteenth century as selected here. However, this period includes the first large-scale, and semi-successful effort to colonise Ireland, an activity that was to influence the ways in which Irish people were perceived and stereotyped. The beginning of the colonisation period was characterised by descriptions of the native Irish as ‘wild’ and barbaric, followed by increasingly exaggerated representations of Irish people. This period spans several hundred years, during which Englishmen were ‘planted’ in Ireland in a concerted effort to take control of the island. One of the consequences of the plantations was to problematise what is meant by ‘Irish’. In this context, it refers largely to Irish Catholics, or those who were perceived to be Irish Catholics. These Irish Catholics were the inhabitants of the islands prior to English colonisation. Before colonisation, the Irish possessed their own customs, language, traditions and even their own particular form of the Catholic religion. During the colonisation process Ireland was effectively anglicised, from its place names, such as Londonderry, to the slow dissolution of the Irish language. The violent reactions of natives to their oppression influenced the ways in which they were described, with the violence often being greatly exaggerated. Irish emigration to England, often necessitated by extreme poverty, also inspired anti-Irish sentiment, particularly during times of economic hardship and disease. Anti-Irish sentiment changed and intensified at points throughout the period, arguably reaching its height in the seventeenth century, only rivalled by twentieth-century responses to the situation in Northern Ireland.


The Sixteenth Century

Sixteenth-century English narratives mostly characterised the Irish people as ‘wild’, barbaric and uncivilised. A cursory search of records on Early English Books online gives 503 hits in 311 records for ‘wild(e) Irish’.  In Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotlande and Irelande (1587), and John Harvey’s A Discourse Problem (1588) the Irish are referred to as ‘the wilde Irish’ and the ‘wicked Irishe’. Holinshed was an English historian concerned primarily with the greatness of England and its history, and so it is not surprising that he has chosen to characterise the Irish as a backward people. However, Holinshed does note that the Scottish were once savages before they were converted by ‘Christian elders’:

Meates. Pictes, Caledonies which lye beyonde the Scottish sea, receiued also the preaching of such christian elders, as aduentured thither daily, and not without great successe, and in|crease of perfit godlynesse, in that parte of the Ile. Certes this prosperous attempt, pas|sed all mens expectatio~, for that these nations were in those dayes reputed wild sauage, and more vnfaithfull and craftye, then well minded people, (as the wilde Irish are in my time) and such were they to say the truth, in déede, as neyther the sugred curtesye, nor sharpe swordes of the Romaines, coulde re|streyne from their naturall fury or bring to any order.

Holinshed implies that conversion of the Irish failed and that the Romans likewise failed to civilise them. The ‘naturalll fury’ of the Irish is suggested as something that needed to be brought order, and fits with narratives about the potential English colonisation of Ireland as a civilising mission. Holinshed also refers to the ‘wicked Irishe’ and in a separate volume of his work suggests that early Irish people were cannibals, mirroring later rhetoric about new world inhabitants in the seventeenth century:

For both Diodorus lib. 6. and Strabo lib. 4. doo seeme to speake of a parcell of the Irish nation that should inhabit Bri|taine in their time, which were giuen to the eating of mans flesh, and therefore called Anthropophagi

As we shall see, the trope of Irishmen as cannibals is repeated throughout English histories and treatises, particularly following the 1641 Rebellion. Other English chroniclers such as John Hayward (c.1560-1627) refer to the Irish as ‘barbarous’, detailing how they had ‘cut in pieces’ the garrison of Roger Mortimer. Hayward refers to the actions of the Irish as ‘exercising all the crueltie in wa|sting of the country, which wrath and rage of victorie could incite a Barbarous people to practise.’ Hayward’s characterisation of the Irish as barbaric was likely politically motivated, as the preface to his original edition expressed support for the Earl of Essex who was soon to commence an Irish campaign. Sixteenth century narratives then, began constructing stereotypes about the Irish as barbaric and violent, stereotypes which would be even more exaggerated in the next century.


The Seventeenth Century

The seventeenth century is referred to by Jenny Shaw and Andrew Hadfield as a ‘watershed’ for English perceptions of Irish barbarity. The Irish rebellion of 1641, the violence of which was greatly exaggerated in English sources to present the Irish as a barbarous and dangerous people, had a profound impact on the way in which the Irish were perceived. The events of the rebellion and other conflicts with the Irish as well as English perceptions of Irish culture and religious belief led to the construction of various stereotypes of the Irish as a lazy, violent, and culturally backward people. Pamphleteers depicted the Irish as barbarians, murderers, animals, anti-Christian, and even as cannibals. Another expression of anti-Irish sentiment during this century was the forced transportation of Irish Catholics to other English Colonies, namely Barbados, Jamaica and Virginia, where they were forced to indenture themselves to pay for passage, food and board. They endured harsh conditions on the islands, mainly carrying out fieldwork along with slaves and were excluded from roles occupied by other white servants, such as militia duty, due to their reputation for perfidy.

ireland's lamentation

Irelands Lamentation‘, an illustrated accompaniment to A Prospect of bleeding Ireland’s miseries (1647)

A Prospect of bleeding Ireland’s miseries (1647) was a single page pamphlet complete with an illustration titled ‘Irelandes Lamentation’. The pamphlet recounts the ‘barbarous and bloody massacres’ of English Protestants at the hands of Irish rebels in gory detail, including boiling Protestant children in cauldrons and disembowelling their Protestant victims. The pamphlet lists murder after murder in an attempt to disgust the reader and reiterate the sheer barbarity of the Irish rebels. Likewise, the illustration that accompanies it includes a depiction of a woman, Ireland, crying surrounded by dead bodies and severed body parts, again to emphasise the barbarity of Irish Catholics. The English perception of the Irish as blood-thirsty or cannibals is a particularly prominent feature in accounts on Irish affairs during this period. For example, James Cranford’s The Teares of Ireland (1642) includes the line ‘Blush! ô Sun, to behold the inhumane cruelties and beastly usages of these unheard of Cannibals.’ The description of the Irish as cannibals appears in a number of other pamphlets, such as Anthony Stampe’s A Protestant Souldier’s Congratulation to the Prince of Orange (1688), which calls the Irish ‘Cannibal Men-eaters’ and Edmund Staunton’s Rupes Israelis (1644) where the Irish are referred to as ‘the Cannibal-Irish’ who ‘delights in their trade of blood’. Likewise, William Vaughan refers to ‘heathenish Canniballes, or Irish Karnes’. The Irish are also frequently referred to as ‘blood thirsty’ in accounts of the rebellion, with even Cromwell himself writing of the ‘bloud-thirsty Irish’.  The connotations of such phrasing do not merely suggest the spilling of English blood by Irish rebels, but also perpetuate the myth of the Irish as cannibal blood-drinkers. An account from the year following the rebellion makes the claim that the Irish did indeed drink the blood of the Protestants whom they had slain by referring to ‘Christians bloud, late drunke’. Such descriptions of the Irish sought to villainise them and exaggerate the events of the rebellion in order to foster a popular hatred of the native Irish.

Another trope evident in seventeenth-century anti-Irish pamphlets is that of the Irish devil or antichrist. A 1681 piece in The True Informer, an early newspaper, describes ‘the naturall bloud-thirsty Irish’ and their ‘Romish and Antichristian religion’; similarly, in Edmund Staunton’s Rupes Israelis the Irish are referred to explicitly as ‘Antichristian Rebels’. Moreover, John Trapp’s (1601-1609) account refers to the Irish as ‘breathing devils’, and they are described in the same manner in The History of Oliver Cromwell (1692) as ‘Devills in humane shape.’ The rejection of the Irish as Christians in the eyes of English elites stresses the difference between the two doctrines by presenting Catholicism as the antithesis of not only Protestantism but of Christianity itself. Another piece titled The discourse and sad complaints betwixt the French-man and the Irish-man (1646), a fictional conversation between two Catholics, presents an alliance between the French and Irish as a deal between two devils agreed upon in Hell. Early modern witchcraft beliefs also inform the piece; when the Frenchman asks the Irishman ‘What Spell brought you hither?’, an obvious reference to the summoning of demons that formed a part of early modern demonologies. As well as serving as a means of accentuating ideas of religious difference, the presentation of the Irish as devils serves as a means of exaggerating the violence of Irish rebellion, as William Hooke and Richard Braithwaite have done in their accounts of the bloody killings of English Protestants by Irish rebels:

Oh those incarnate  Irish Devils! let them be often in our sight. Their blasphemies, their burnings, their robberies, their rapes, their rostings, their strippings, rippings, hangings, drownings, dis-membrings, butcheries, the very shambles of the Devil erected in Ireland, would be alwaies in our eyes and eares

there are Irish Devills as hot as fire, and as bloody as Belzebub, these delight in firing of houses, in killing women and Children, in tearing the flesh off Protestants shoulders with hot Pincers, as they did in Ireland

Hooke and Braithwaite’s works, printed three and four years following the famed 1641 Rebellion use the metaphor of the Irish as devils to emphasise the violent nature not just of the rebellion, but also of the Irish themselves. By presenting the Irish as devils rather than men, Hooke and Braithwaite create a further dimension of difference between Irish rebels and their English opponents. Moreover, the image of the Irishman as a devil makes him a more fearsome character, thereby amplifying English anxiety toward the Irish. Hooke’s use of the phrase ‘allwaies in our eyes and eares’ suggests a desire on the part of English elites that the rebellion not be forgotten, and that indeed it had not been several years after the event.

The Irish were also described in animalistic terms, mostly frequently as wolves, or more generally as ‘beasts’.  The History of Oliver Cromwell (1692) for example, presents Cromwell as a hero who set out to defeat the Irish enemy whom the author refers to as ‘bloody wolves’. A number of other accounts likewise utilise the phrase ‘Irish wolves’ to describe the rebels. A Muzzle for Cerberus (1648) paints an image of ‘Irish wolves, lately devouring our English Protestants’. Similarly, John Taylor describes ‘the howling of Irish wolves’ and metaphorizes the killing of Protestants by Irish rebels as ‘Irish Wolves [who] lately shore and tore our English sheep’ in A Brown Dozen of Drunkards (1648). John Trapp also describes the Irish as various types of animals, including bears, lions, boars and leopards who ‘did rage against dead carcasses, and tore them apart with their teeth.’ Trapp’s description again attempts to emphasise the barbarity of the Irish by presenting them as animals, and also utilises the cannibalistic language employed in other texts to cement the idea of the Irish as beasts and brutes in the minds of English readers. The presentation of the Irish as animals shows how far English ideas about difference could extend; they did not consider Irish natives to be wholly human. Not only were ideas of difference figured in terms of religion and culture, English writers also hinted that the Irish were not even quite the same species. References to this idea are also implicit in other texts, such as Peter Heylyn’s Cosmographie (1652) in which it is written that the Irish behaved ‘scarcely like men’. The description of the Irish as animals, as well as devils and demons, also serves to dehumanise the Irish, likely for the purpose of justifying the colonisation of Ireland and the subsequent displacement, transportation, and murder of native Irish peoples.


Eighteenth Century

Accounts of the 1641 Rebellion characterising the Irish as incredibly violent and barbaric

irish volunteers siege of dublin

Irish Volunteers Advancing on the Siege of Dublin (c1800-1810) 

continued to surface into the eighteenth century with accounts appearing as late as 1799. Also published in 1779 was a Protestant martyrology in which the ‘bloody Irish massacre’ (which presumably means the 1641 Rebellion) is presented along with the Gunpowder Plot and the Spanish Inquisition as part of the historical persecution of English Protestants. In much the same way as the previous century, the Irish are depicted as the enemies of English Protestants, with the Rebellion taking on legend-like status. Satirical cartoons also began to emerge in this period, often depicting the Irishman as a fool or drunkard. It is in this period that we start to see the ‘Paddy’ stereotype being constructed. While accounts of the rebellion still portray the Irish as a violent people, the Paddy by contrast is a largely comical character, indicating that the Irish were no longer singularly an object of fear, but now one of ridicule and mockery.

Satirical cartoons during this period are dominated by discussions about the Union, with cartoons often repeating the refrain ‘Erin go brach’ which is a bastardisation of the Irish ‘Éirinn go Brách’, a phrase expressing allegiance to Ireland. This is not only a mockery of Unionists but also of the Irish language itself, which is significant given the cultural colonisation of Ireland from the seventeenth century in which Irish place names were anglicised, for example, Daire becoming Londonderry in 1613. The misnomer is then an insult to the Irishman and implies that the language is obsolete or unimportant, even nonsensical. The Irish are also portrayed as idiotic in cartoons such as Paddy on Horseback (1779) where the Irish ‘Paddy’ is seen riding a bull, rather than a horse, and riding it backwards, holding its tail as if holding reins. The same image can be seen in Irish Volunteers Advancing on the Siege of Dublin (c1800-1810) where three Irish soldiers are depicted riding bulls backwards, throwing potatoes from sacks. Paddy on Horseback too has a sack of potatoes strewn over his steed. Similarly in St Patrick for Ireland (1781) potatoes appear skewered onto the sword of St Patrick. The potato, along with the sickle, are associated with farming, but particularly with poor farmers. The stereotypical Irishman is then a peasant as well as a simpleton. Furthermore, he is a drunkard, as demonstrated by the drunken brawling toward the end of Progress of an Irishman

the irish patent

The Irish Patriot (1784)

(1794) and the tankard carried by St Patrick. Eighteenth century depictions then tended to satirise the Irishman rather than present him as a threat, however there is still an undercurrent of violence present in depictions. From brawls in Progress, to the weapons carried by St Patrick, and the demon sitting upon the shoulder of The Irish Patriot (1784), symbols of Irish sedition are numerous in English depictions. The demon too contains echoes of seventeenth century stereotypes of the Irishman as evil and anti-Christian, truly the antithesis of the pious English Protestant.



Anti-Irish sentiment was expressed in different ways in Britain throughout the early modern period. Stereotypes were formed in reaction to events in Ireland, as well as the influx of Irish immigrants in the later portion of the period. Anti-Irish sentiment was to continue into the modern period, even intensifying in reaction to the political climate. Anti-Irish sentiment was also of course expressed in other ways, namely in the massacre of Irish peoples throughout this period. The 1641 Rebellion, for example, resulted in an unknown number of Catholic deaths, though contemporary accounts suggest that numbers could range in the thousands. The Gibbet Rath massacre also included the deaths of several hundred surrendered Irish rebels at the hands of British forces in 1798. Violence against Irish Catholics was to continue well into the twentieth century, being perhaps one of the most overt and consequential outcomes of anti-Irish attitudes.


 Written By Enya Holland



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Hadfield, Andrew and John McVeagh, Strangers to that Land: British Perceptions of Ireland from the Reformation to the Famine. Buckinghamshire: Colin Smythe Limited, 1994.

Hayton, David. “From Barbarian to Burlesque: English Images of the Irish c.1600-1750” Irish Economic and Social History 15 (1988)

Shaw, Jenny. Everyday Life in the Early English Caribbean: Irish, Africans, and the Construction of Difference. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2013.

Shuttleworth, Ian G. et al, Troubled Geographies: A Spatial History of Religion and Society in Ireland. Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 2013.

State, Paul F. A Brief History of Ireland. New York: Checkmark Books, 2009.