This is a book about dreams and the harm that dreams can do: to the dreamers and to those they draw into their orbit. The title is slightly misleading. There is much more here than the story of the Elizabethans in Ireland. Rather, it is the story of the Elizabethans and their exploits. The history that we – in the UK at least – are taught in school covers their many successes. A more objective view would include the failures. Ryan has given us this objective assessment.
There is the search for the North West passage. This was the dream of a sea captain called Frobisher. He convinced several backers to invest in his dream of an alternative route to the Orient, avoiding the dangers contingent in rounding the southern tip of Africa.
That dream died when he failed to find the channel through the ice he believed would carry him across the North pole and into the Pacific Ocean. What he did find was a vast quantity of gold-bearing ore. More investment was needed from his backers in order to refine the ore and produce the gold that would make them rich. Except that what they had taken to be gold was in fact iron pyrites, or ‘fool’s gold’, and worth nothing.
Frobisher also brought back to England an infant taken from the native population of what would become New Brunswick. The fate of this ‘Caliban’ forms another thread of Ryan’s expertly woven narrative.
Another dreamer was the Queen’s astrologer John Dee. Dee is depicted as a man obsessed with discovering the lodestone. He observes the behaviour of a water beetle which he tries to emulate by immersing himself in the waters of the Thames.
Meanwhile Raleigh‘s harrying of the Spanish and Portugese fleets proved more lucrative than the colony he had established in Virginia. Until the Spanish responded with several attempts at invasion, including a couple via Ireland as well as the infamous Armada.
Whilst each of these attempts to expand the various European empires were underway, there were rebellions in Ireland, newly colonised under the authority of her predecessors on the throne, her brother Edward VI and sister, Mary. Those rebellions needed to be put down. In the process, the back door route used by the Spanish to gain access to British soil could be closed.
One of the men entrusted with this task was the poet Edmund Spenser. Alongside Raleigh, and others, he played a key role in the brutal suppression of the Irish clans and the Spanish invaders.
The book explores his relationship with Ireland, its landscape and its people through his poetry. The narrative is peppered with quotations from his verses. The contrast between the fantasy land of his dreams and the reality of life in Ireland is explored in depth.
There are many real characters in this book, besides Frobisher, Spenser and Raleigh, including some of the more important of the Irish clan leaders. None is able fully to satisfy his dreams. Each seeks something more. Ryan argues that this is in the nature of humanity; of all life.
In a telling passage, towards the end, Raleigh’s widow compares the propensity of men to fight over possessions to the behaviour of the birds she feeds on her lawn: “They alert one another to the food and then, they squabble over the crumbs, although I have enough for everyone. I chide them. I tell them to share, but still they fight. They encroach, one on another’s empire.”
The writing style, with its short sentences and spare but effective descriptions, is delightful. I obtained this book primarily for research for my own proposed book about the early Tudor plantation of Leinster. Reading it was a pleasure and I would unhesitatingly recommend it to anyone concerned to explore the lessons of history.