Ireland’s role in shaping the first English Empire 1550-1770


Jane Ohlmeyer

Erasmus Smith's Professor of Modern History

Jane is Erasmus Smith’s Professor of Modern History (1762) at Trinity College Dublin and Chair of the Irish Research Council, which funds frontier research across…

Read Biography

David Olusoga OBE

University of Manchester

David Olusoga is a British-Nigerian historian, author, presenter and BAFTA winning film-maker. He is Professor of Public History at the University of Manchester and writes…

Read Biography

‘Making Empire’ with Jane Ohlmeyer and David Olusoga, Irish Embassy, London, 29 November 2023

Thanks to the generosity of Martin Fraser, Ireland’s ambassador to Great Britain, Jane Ohlmeyer and David Olusoga – together with a wonderful audience - met at the Irish Embassy in London to chat about Jane’s new book, Making Empire. Ireland, Imperialism and the Early Modern World (Oxford University Press, 2023).

Empire and imperial frameworks, policies, practices, and cultures have shaped the history of the world for the last two millennia.  It is nation states that are the blip on the historical horizon. This book re-examines empire as process - and Ireland’s role in it - through the lens of early modernity. It covers the two hundred years, between the mid-sixteenth century and the mid-eighteenth century, that equate roughly to the timespan of the First English Empire (c.1550-c.1770s).

Ireland was England’s oldest colony.  How then did the English empire actually function in early modern Ireland and how did this change over time?  What did access to European empires mean for people living in Ireland?  This book answers these questions by interrogating four interconnected themes. First, that Ireland formed an integral part of the English imperial system, Second, that the Irish operated as agents of empire(s). Third, Ireland served as laboratory in and for the English empire.  Finally, it examines the impact that empire(s) had on people living in early modern Ireland.  Even though the book’s focus will be on Ireland and the English empire, the Irish were trans-imperial and engaged with all of the early modern imperial powers.  It is therefore critical, where possible and appropriate, to look to other European and global empires for meaningful comparisons and connections in this era of expansionism.

What becomes clear is that colonisation was not a single occurrence but an iterative and durable process that impacted different parts of Ireland at different times and in different ways.  That imperialism was about the exercise of power, violence, coercion and expropriation.  Strategies about how best to turn conquest into profit, to mobilise and control Ireland’s natural resources, especially land and labour, varied but the reality of everyday life did not change and provoked a wide variety of responses ranging from acceptance and assimilation to resistance.

This book, based on the 2021 James Ford Lectures, Oxford University, suggests that the moment has come revisit the history of empire, if only to better understand how it has formed the present, and how this might shape the future.