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Jane Ohlmeyer MRIA, historian

Professor Ohlmeyer’s recent scholarship on Ireland and imperialism in early modernity re-examines empire as process, and Ireland’s role in it; recognises the agency of marginal people, particularly women, under colonialism; and demonstrates how people from Ireland were both active agents of and subversives within early modern empires.

2024 marks twenty years since the RIA and the Higher Education Authority established the Gold Medals to acclaim Ireland’s foremost thinkers in the humanities, social sciences, and across the fields of science. The Gold Medals have become the ultimate accolade in scholarly achievement in Ireland. Since 2005, 34 medals have been awarded. In recognition of this important milestone, past RIA Gold Medals recipients have contributed blogs focusing on their research to our Members’ Research Series.

A woman with short white cropped hair, wearing black glasses, is holding a presentation box with a gold medal inside, in the background is a redbrick building.
Jane Ohlmeyer, 2023 RIA Gold Medallist in the Humanities

Jane Ohlmeyer MRIA, Erasmus Smith’s Professor of Modern History (1762) at Trinity College Dublin (TCD), was Trinity’s first vice-president for Global Relations (2011–14), director of the Trinity Long Room Hub (2015–20), and chair of the Irish Research Council (2015–21). She was awarded the RIA Gold Medal in the Humanities in 2023.

I am an expert on the New British and Atlantic histories and have published extensively on early modern Irish and British history. I am author or editor of more than 40 peer-reviewed articles and 14 books, published with leading international publishers such as Yale University Press, Cambridge University Press, Oxford University Press and Manchester University Press. Some of these publications have involved major fundraising and a level of teamwork rarely found in the humanities. In 2023 I received an Advanced European Research Council Award for VOICES, a project that aims to recover the lived experiences of women in early modern Ireland, and was awarded the Royal Irish Academy Gold Medal in the Humanities.

My most recent book, Making empire: Ireland, imperialism and the early modern world (Oxford, 2023), is based on lectures I delivered at the University of Oxford in 2021 for the prestigious James Ford Lectures in British and Irish History series.

In Making empire I wanted to do four things. First, to re-examine empire as process—and Ireland’s role in it—through the lens of early modernity (c. 1550–1750). In so doing the book offers, as David Armitage noted in his 13 January 2024 review in the Times Literary Supplement, ‘a model for deprovincializing any national history under the long shadow of empire’. What becomes clear is that imperialism 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, expropriation and ‘othering’. According to Sir Hilary Beckles, the leading historian of the Caribbean, ‘Ireland is now a prime site for the re-examination of the complexity of racism and the hatred it houses’.

It is a timely moment to reflect on the legacies of empires. Events that occurred in early modern Ireland remain very much part of the DNA and are core to the identity of people living in Ireland today. Until recently few fully appreciated the significance of Ireland’s imperial past, but this is changing and there is a growing awareness of the importance of informed discussion and respectful debate.

Second, I wanted to move beyond the ‘colonised’/‘coloniser’ stereotypes, and so the book recognises the agency of marginal people especially women, from all ethnic and religious backgrounds, who were often the social glue that held together families and communities. This exploration of more everyday issues—landholding and labour as well as material culture and money-lending—and the emphasis on assimilation, however, does not diminish the endemic violence and intense warfare or the expropriation and exploitation that characterised early modern Ireland. My ERC VOICES project, where the focus is on the lived experiences of non-elite women, develops further the role women played in colonial Ireland.

Third, I wanted Making empire to demonstrate how people from Ireland, both Catholics and Protestants, were agents of the British and other early modern empires. They were trans imperial, and by the 1660s men and women from Ireland were to be found in the Spanish, French and Dutch Caribbean; the Portuguese and later Dutch Amazon; across New Spain; and in English settlements from Newfoundland to the Chesapeake in North America, to the Caribbean, India and the Mediterranean, at Tangier in North Africa.

Fourth, with this book I show how the Irish were subversives within empires. From the 1890s, from ideology to tactics, the Irish taught the Indians their ABC of freedom fighting, something that would be repeated across the colonial world. As one review of Making empire in The Irish Times of 11 November 2023 noted, ‘Ireland unmade empire just as it had helped make it, and just as it had itself been made by it’. Like it or not, empire and colonialism have profoundly impacted Ireland and the Irish, as in so many other places.

It is a timely moment to reflect on the legacies of empires. Events that occurred in early modern Ireland remain very much part of the DNA and are core to the identity of people living in Ireland today. Until recently few fully appreciated the significance of Ireland’s imperial past, but this is changing and there is a growing awareness of the importance of informed discussion and respectful debate. In the words of Christopher Kissane in his November 2023 Irish Times review of Making empire, this ‘is a complex history that we are still unravelling, and Ohlmeyer’s important work will, hopefully, force us to ask questions we have perhaps too long avoided. In an age of Brexit, decolonisation and renewed debates about Irish unity, such reflection is vital’.

The James Ford lectures are hosted on the RTÉ website.