The Collation

Research and Exploration at the Folger

Alcohol, Armies, and Contested Sovereignty in Early Modern Ireland

a guest post by Lila Chambers

The association between Ireland and excessive drinking is a pervasive one, from fifteenth century texts detailing treacherous feasts held by Irish opponents to Henry II, to Edmund Spender’s A View of the Present State of Ireland (1596), to simian caricatures promoted in Victorian-era Punch cartoons, to the present-day effluvia of t-shirts, buttons, and banners that linger after St. Patrick’s Day celebrations. What tends to be less appreciated is the extent to which the politics, economy, and cultural ideologies attached to alcohol factored into England’s labors to colonize and subdue Ireland, and Irish efforts to resist such incursions. Despite English efforts to associate demands for drink as a disordered component of Irish “barbarousness” while obscuring their own drinking, my research into official correspondence, military reports, State Papers, account books, and published narratives supported by the Folger Shakespeare Library quickly revealed that both the English and the Irish depended on alcohol. Alongside a shared history of interaction and exchange, as highlighted by Brendan Kane and Thomas Herron in the Folger’s own Nobility and Newcomers in Renaissance Ireland, all peoples in these isles valued alcohol and used it complimentary and competing ways.   

Illustrations of various grotesque heads
f. xi in Bodleian Library, MS Malone 3. “The Conquest of Ireland wrote by Thomas Bray. Copied by Josiah Jones, 1744. Photograph by the Author. This image details the primary characters in this somewhat fanciful narration of Henry II’s conquest of Ireland.

In today’s post, I want to specifically sketch how the provisioning of alcohol to fighting forces fit into that puzzle in the many armed contests that were fought across the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. As Captain Nathaniel Dawtry reported to the Queen’s Council in 1586, garrisons could not be maintained “without bread and beer.” Alcohol fueled English military initiatives in Ireland across the early modern period. Political figures and military leaders alike regularly reminded their superiors that soldiers could not—and often would not—exist on water, beef, and bread alone. At the same time, a range of Irish forces also relied on their ability to obtain “meate and drinke” in order sustain military campaigns against those that sought to dispossess them. While contests over an essential form of nourishment, medical treatment, and camaraderie may seem fairly straightforward, in fact, English and Irish disputes over access to and consumption of alcohol fed a broader politics of conflict over sovereignty, religion, and morality that informs my larger work on English empire, the development and experience of transatlantic slaving in West Africa and the Americas, and alcohol’s role within them.  

Victuals—including beer, aqua vitae, and cider—offered a vital material support to the English war effort across the reigns of Elizabeth, James I, and Charles I. As Lord Deputy William Fitzwilliam made clear as early as 1570, England’s martial presence in Ireland depended in no small part on supplying their forces with “beer, malt, and aqua vitae.” (f. 29, MS. Carte 56, Bodleian Library, Oxford University.) Sick and hurt men further required “sack and white wine,” as Robet Ardern expressed in his opinion on victualling the army in Ireland. Despite the comparatively short distance across the Irish Sea, complaints about supply lines peppered internal correspondence, much as they would as English imperial ambitions swelled to include West Africa and the Caribbean. Delays in shipping to Dublin in 1597 resulted in requests for “a proportion of malt to make beer for the soldiers, who, having no other drink than water, do fall daily into no small weakness of body, to the great hindrance of the service.” (Entry 86, vol. 200, Calendar of State Papers of Ireland, 1596-1597). Apart from considerations of forces weakened by hunger or drinking bad water, military officials worried that thirsty soldiers would descended upon the inhabitants, undermining English claims to civility against the more traditional practices of Irish lords, as Sir Richard Byngham did in 1588.  

Beyond disrupted supply lines, military officials worried equally about the beer spoiling once it arrived. In addition to the risk of incapacitating soldiers through the digestive problems prompted by ale gone off, spoiled beer meant wasted costs in product and in the effort to move it. Captains and generals were far from the only people concerned with preventing or recovering soured beer. L. Cromwell’s seventeenth-century recipe book detailed techniques including “To keepe beere fresh”, “to sweeten a hogshead”, “To make beere fresh that is deade & to bring up the barme againe”, and “to keepe beere Coole & from sowreinge.” All of these practices required extra ingredients like eggs, oyster shells, orange peels, and additional malt, in addition to a skilled hand and working knowledge. Though many plantation schemes sought to include a brewer or a distiller, armies suffering from lack of access to specialized supplies and from a limited number of women that might have known these strategies would most likely not have been able to recover rotten beer. For all the problems of maintaining a steady supply of healthful intoxicants, the English had no choice but to continue keeping their forces in drink, or risk losing the costly gains of their military campaigns.



Fol.47. from Folger MS V.a.8, showing various modifications that could be made to improve malt-based beer

For as much ink as the English spilled over having enough beer and spirits to sustain their forces, they expressed equal concern for the consumption habits of Irish military leaders and soldiery. Rather than purely documenting a rivalry over increasingly diminished resources, such fretting indicated more deeply held considerations of the strength of Irish claims to authority over territory and populations. The importance of hospitality practices, particularly feasts, to Gaelic Irish codes of leadership and morality has been noted by scholars like Brendan Kane, Harold O’Sullivan, and Jane Ohlmeyer 



John Derricke, The image of Ireland: with a discovery of woodkarne. Reproduction of 1581 edition. London: A & C Black, 1883. Plate 3. (Folger PR2244 D4 1883)

In the context of military movement, however, the ability to garner the drink and foodstuffs necessary to sustain your fighting force by acquiring it from the resident population took on heightened importance. As the English soldier John Dymmock described it, “Coynye is as much to saye as a placinge of men and boyes upon the cuntrye, vsed by a prerogatyve of the Brehon law, whereby they are permitted to take meate, drinke, aqua vitae and money of their hostes, without paye-makinge therefore.” He decried such practices as “the very roote and fowndacion of the rebellions which have beene from tyme to tyme in that cuntryexplaining that it sustained the leader and his forces with calories and drink, as well as directly communicated a lord’s strength to the people he claimed control over, despite the assertions of the English Crown to the contrary. And in fact, one of the central aims of Lord Deputy, Sir John Perrot’s provisioning and politicking strategy was to have  “The Chieftans of Ulster brought to contribute for funding of English soldiers” through redirecting the “meate and drinke” they collected towards the Crown’s forces. (f. 49, MS Perrot 1, Bodleian Library, Oxford University). Sir Robert Jacob continued to view such behavior as a key to power in Ireland in 1609, in regards to his suspicions about Sir Tirlough M’Henry. He recounted thatThis man is very much to be suspected, for he has 100 men at his command, and gives meat and drink and wages (which they call bonnaght) to idle and loose persons, which has always been a course held amongst the Irish to make themselves great.” Though dismissive, Jacobs pointed to an important component of Irish martial politicking involving the appropriate supplying of alcohol. 

Irish leaders also forged and reinforced political relationships designed to threaten English sovereignty and support their own campaigns through quaffing and distributing international libations in the form of wines from Catholic allies in Spain, Italy, and France. Wine trading routes could also allow other types of reinforcements to sneak through, as Sir George Carew informed Robert Cecil in 1601.  Wine alone often proved threat enough, and wine ships carrying hogsheads destined for Irish soldiers stood as a common target of the admiralty. Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone and leader of the resistance to Tudor control of Ireland during the Nine Years’ War (1593-1603), received particular censure for his wine drinking and international connections, both from contemporary opponents like Sir Henry Docwra, the leader of the English forces in Ulster, and more famously, in verse. In “England’s Hope, Against Irish Hate” printed in 1600 decries the defection of “Terone” from the English side to Catholic Europe by exclaiming, “Each howre against the annoynted hee conspires/ His hart a thousand stratagems retaines,/And downe his throat he needs wil swallow Spaine/With Fraunce and Italy, to worke our paine.” The poem goes on to explain that such an diet, which includes the blood of the innocents, will incite him to ever growing levels of destruction, arguing “The more he hath, the more he will destroy/Nor is it soueraintie, but beastiall lust.” Rather than highlighting drinking that would have been beyond the ken of most English lords, concerns over Irish elite consumption of wine had less to do with morality or standards of manners, and much more to do with an international and domestic politics of power.

A microfilm scan of an opening of a book
“Englands Hope, Against Irish Hate,” London: Printed by VV.VV. for Thomas Heyes, 1600. Early English Books Online. Courtsey of Lambeth Palace Library.

In depicting the O’Neill as gluttonous, overly indulgent when it came to foreign wines, and bestial, the author sought to create distance between English consumption and English martial practice and the alleged depravity of the Irish rebels, despite the fact that both groups considered themselves working in the service of extending and securing their sovereignty and their religion. Such a framework fits squarely within a longer trajectory of English narrations of their relationship to alcohol in military campaigns. The starving but doughty Protestant English army searching for life-sustaining and wholesome beer was repeatedly contrasted against the gluttonous, pillaging, immoderate and barbarous Irish. In reality, all participants were desperate for enough calories and the social and medical warming qualities of alcohol. The creation of this dichotomy around the appropriate use of alcohol in colonization would have long reaching ramifications in Ireland and within England’s growing Atlantic empire.  

Lila O’Leary Chambers is a historian of race, slavery, and commodification in the early modern Atlantic. She recently received her PhD from New York University. In addition to working as a Research Fellow with the AHRC-funded The Legacies of the British Slave Trade at University College London, she is revising her PhD into a book manuscript entitled, “Liquid Capital: Alcohol and the Rise of Slavery in the British Atlantic.”

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