The 2021 James Ford lectures on 'Ireland, Empire and the Early Modern World' were delivered online by Professor Jane Ohlmeyer, Trinity College Dublin. The Ford Lectures in British and Irish History were first delivered in 1896-7 under a bequest from James Ford. Since then they have been delivered annually by a distinguished historian in Oxford.

These Ford Lectures are hosted here with the permission of the Ford Electors at the University of Oxford.

Hibernia illustration from the 17th century
The frontispiece of James Ware's 1658 book Equitis Aurati de Hibernia and Antiquitatibus ejus, Disquisitiones

The frontispiece of James Ware's 1658 book Equitis Aurati de Hibernia and Antiquitatibus ejus, Disquisitiones depicts Hibernia as both shepherdess and huntress, with bees – the symbols of industry and colonization – circling her head and Irish wolfhounds at her side. 

This, and the accompanying contrasts between the wild forests and the cultivated arable and pastoral lands represents many of the themes that are explored in these lectures which re-examine Ireland's role in empire through the lens of early modernity.

The focus is on Ireland and the First English Empire (c.1550-1770s) but also looks to other European and global empires for meaningful comparisons and contrasts.  These lectures draw on a wide range of written, visual, and archaeological sources while works of poetry, prose, and performance help to recapture emotions and more nuanced senses of identity. 

Four interconnected themes underpin the series. First, as England’s first colony, Ireland formed an integral part of the English imperial system. Second, as well as being colonised the Irish operated as active colonists in the English and other European empires.

Third, the extent to which Ireland served as laboratory for empire in India and the Atlantic world is analysed.  Finally, the impact empire had on the material and mental worlds of people living in early modern Ireland is examined alongside how these years are remembered today.

Lecture One: Making History

The play Making History by Brian Friel, which was first performed in 1988, is set on the eve of the Nine Years War (1594-1603), of the completion of the English conquest of Ireland, and of the onset of a period of intense anglicisation, colonisation and commercialisation.

The play is used to explore these themes, which reoccur across the lecture series, along with three chronological contexts pertinent to any discussion of empire and Ireland. First, the turn of the seventeenth century, the transitionary moment in which the play was set; second, the late 1980s, when at the height of the Troubles the play was performed first in Derry and then across Ireland; and, finally, the context of today, the early 2020s, as we continue to wrestle with the legacy of empire in Ireland, in the UK, and around the world.

Lecture Two: Anglicisation

How Ireland was made English is the subject of the second lecture and will interrogate, under the umbrella of anglicisation, conquest, colonisation, 'civilisation', cultivation, and commercialisation. When viewed from the perspective of early modernity what is clear is that anglicising processes did not occur in a linear way, nor was the outcome predestined.

On the contrary, what becomes apparent is the haphazard, messy and clumsy nature of the processes surrounding anglicisation and the very real limitations on central power.

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Lecture 3: Assimilation

This lecture examines colonial Ireland as an integral part of the English imperial system. While there is no escaping discussion of race, religion, and rebellion or of extreme violence, exploitation, and expropriation, there are also stories of assimilation, acceptance, negotiation, survival, and tolerance that need to be told.

The traditional configurations of kingdom, colony, and empire are viewed through the prism of gender and the particular relationship between marriage and cultural assimilation is also examined.

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Lecture 4: Agents of Empire

This lecture looks at the Irish, Catholic and Protestant, as agents of empire who played active roles in European global expansionism. By 1660 Irish people, mostly men, were to be found in the French Caribbean, the Portuguese and later Dutch Amazon, Spanish Mexico, and the English colonies in the Atlantic and Asia where they joined colonial settlements, served as soldiers and clergymen, forged commercial networks as they traded calicos, spices, tobacco, sugar, and slaves.

How did these encounters and experiences shape their identity and how did others perceive and represent them? Equally, how might this hibernocentric perspective challenge, complicate and even change received understandings of empire, especially the English one?

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Lecture 5: Laboratory of Empire

This lecture explores the extent to which Ireland served as laboratory both for imperial rule and for resistance to that rule. Processes and practices of government, especially legal and landed ones and others relating to anglicisation, characterised from the mid-sixteenth century the implementation of English imperial authority in both Ireland and across the English empire.

In addition to analysing influences and actions distinctive to English rule in Ireland, India and the Atlantic, it is important to acknowledge those shared more generally by early modern empires. Equally challenging is how we draw insights across time and make meaningful connections from the early modern into the modern period, rather than taking a teleological approach and reading history back from the present.

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Lecture 6: Empires in Ireland

The final lecture focuses on the impact of empire on Ireland and how empire has been remembered. How did empire shape the lives of those living in Ireland, and how is Ireland's engagement with and experience of empire in the early modern period remembered (or not) and represented/mis-represented?

Today in Ireland some celebrate and some excoriate connections with the British Empire. Others have either conveniently forgotten or are simply ignorant of Ireland’s imperial past. However the decade of commemorations (2012-2022) in Ireland and campaigns around 'Black Lives Matters’, Brexit, and ‘Rhodes must fall’ have kindled a greater awareness of the importance of revisiting the history of empire, if only to better understand its legacy and how it has shaped the present.

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Professor Jane Ohlmeyer, MRIA, FTCD, FRHS, is Erasmus Smith's Professor of Modern History (1762) at Trinity College Dublin. She was the founding Head of the School of Histories and Humanities and Trinity's first Vice-President for Global Relations (2011-14).

She was a driving force behind the 1641 Depositions Project and the development of the Trinity Long Room Hub Arts and Humanities Research Institute and she was, from 2015-2020, its Director. Since 2015, she has been chair of the Irish Research Council, an agency that funds frontier research across all disciplines.

She is the PI for 'Shape-ID: Shaping Interdisciplinary Practices in Europe' and for 'Human+’ a Marie Curie Cofund programme that places the human at the centre of technological innovation, both of which are funded by European Commission’s Horizon 2020 programme.

She is the author or editor of numerous articles and 13 books, including being the editor of Volume 2 of The Cambridge History of Ireland, published in 2018. She is currently working on a book on ‘Ireland, empire and the early modern world’, the subject of her recent Ford Lectures in Oxford.

She is a Member of the Royal Irish Academy, of the Irish Manuscripts Commission and of a number of editorial boards. She has also served on the Consortium of Humanities Centres and Institute’s international advisory board (2017- 2020).

You can read Professor Ohlmeyer's Irish Times piece on Ireland and Empire here, listen to her interview with Kathy Sheridan on the Irish Times Women's Podcast here and listen to her interview with Hugh Linehan on the Irish Times Inside Politics podcast here