‘Little Better than Cannibals: Property and Progress in Sir John Davies and Edmund Burke’
Northern Ireland Legal Quarterly, Vol. 54, No. 1, 2003
24 Pages Posted: 18 Sep 2009
Date Written: 2003
Their lives separated by a century, any tie joining Sir John Davies (1569-1626), the most important jurist in early seventeenth-century Ireland, and Edmund Burke (1729-1797) is less than obvious. At the core of the discussion here is a curious historical irony. Elements of Brehon law deemed by Davies, with many other English commentators, to be prohibitive of social and economic progress in Ireland were to reappear less than a century later in the penal laws. This is, of course, entirely consistent. If native custom was seen to effectively obstruct 'improvement', it is not surprising that similar formulae would reappear in a legal order designed to inhibit development or to erode the position of propertied catholics. While, in general, Davies and Burke appear to adopt broadly similar schemes of property and progress, in which law and commerce were important influences on manners (broadly understood to include social practices and mores), there were also critical differences. These relate primarily to Burke’s substantially different interpretation of Irish history both before and after Davies’ time in Ireland. Living as he did on the march-lands of Irish/British, catholic/protestant, even perhaps ancient/modern, identities, Burke provides an especially interesting subject for the student of Irish history. This essay is a first, tentative step in understanding his complex relationship to Ireland and its past.
Keywords: Edmund Burke, Ireland, Irish history, Irish legal history, John Davies
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