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Henry Piers’s Continental Travels, 1595-1598, Brian Mac Cuarta (ed.)

Thomas O’Connor
p. 123-125
Référence(s) :

Henry Piers’s Continental Travels, 1595-1598, Brian Mac Cuarta (ed.), Cambridge, Cambridge University Press (Camden Fifth Series; 54), 2018, 238 p.

Texte intégral

1The 1607 Turas na dTaoiseach (most recently edited by Nollaig Ó Muraíle) is perhaps the best-known, early modern Irish travel memoir. In it, Tadhg Ó Cianáin, a member of a Gaelic professional learned family, follows Hugh O’Neill, earl of Tyrone, and his entourage into exile, through France, the Low Countries, the Empire and eventually to caput mundi. Other Irish travellers preceded O’Neill and more followed him but none benefited from the services of a professional memorialist like Ó Cianáin. Fortunately, a handful of these less fortunate travellers rose to the task of penning their own memoirs. One was Henry Piers, whose account of his 1595 turas to the Continent has now been edited by Brian Mac Cuarta for publication by the Royal Historical Society. Described by the editor as a “memoir” (p. 2), this text is also a conversion account that provides rare access to the inner world of a 16th-century Irishman.

2In a thorough introduction, the editor sets Piers in his multiple contexts. Immediately striking is the unusual density of connections and relationships that characterised Piers’s life. Of English parentage, he was born in Ireland, fostered with a local Gaelic family and intimate with Old English notables. He was also networked into English recusant circles in Dublin, and Staffordshire; in Rome, he associated with English clergy, in Seville, with a range of Irish merchants. At this level, two things stand out. First of all, Piers and his associates were highly mobile. Theirs was a world on the move and frequently in turmoil. Second, the significance of English recusancy is marked. David Edwards and, more recently, Ruth Canning, have identified English recusant agency on the other side of the Irish Sea. Piers’s account helps us understand how it might actually have worked. As Mac Cuarta points out, Piers managed these multiple connections deftly but their complexity and apparent incompatibility often aroused suspicion. In Rome, for instance, he fell foul of both Gaelic and English collegians, who, despite their own political differences, were united in suspicion of Piers’s layered loyalties. So too the Dublin and London administrations and, of course, his own Protestant family and in-laws.

3Running like a scarlet thread through the account is Piers’s relationship with the Jesuits. It was under their direction that he came, as he says, “to knowe my self” (p. 51) and, thanks to the Spiritual Exercises that he developed his “better inclynation” (ibid.) to move, as he saw it, from the confusion of heresy and schism to the comforts of orthodoxy. Whether intended or not, this physical journey mirrors an inner turas. It was in Jena, as he approached Europe’s 16th-century faith frontier, that he finally decided to act on his inner inclination to convert. One senses his relief, a little later, when at Kaisheim he crosses from the Protestant authority into “the firste churche of Catholicke government […]” (p. 66). His religious homecoming, far from closing his mind, actually increases his curiosity. Insatiably enquiring, he remains sensitive to the variety in nature and culture encountered on his way, reflecting on his experiences with the intellectual and spiritual tools of his Jesuit formation. In the Low Countries, he observes the bust of Erasmus (p. 54), admires the hydrological ingenuity of the natives and is astonished at the wealth trade has brought the Netherlands. Unfailingly, he gives the price of every commodity and the value of every ornament, whether secular or religious (p. 72). His interest in wealth creation is matched by impressively accurate observations, as he comments, for instance, on the demographical costs of maintaining Spain’s vast empire (p. 199). Turning to the physiological, he laments the toll taken by Roman weather on the cooler constitutions of the Irish and English (p. 140), remarking, en passant, how Irish and English students in Rome were wont to lose their facility in their native tongue (p. 145).

4For Piers, Rome is both a spiritual destination and a model, the most nearly perfect earthly image of the Dei civitas. Not only the churches but also the rituals celebrated, the processions and devotions are of a piece with the spiritual and moral transformation he sees as the core of the Christian life. In this sense, the entire city functions as a liturgical space and, thanks to its 142 churches, “there is not anie one daie in the yeere one the wch you shall not finde either solemn stations or festival days” (p. 116). In this context he laments the demise of public Catholicism in Ireland and England, which has led, he says, to a cooling in charitable ardour. The pastoral consequences of Ireland’s split with Rome are reflected, he continues, in the “the uncivill and careless living of a great parte as well of them of the spirituall calling as of the layetie wch profess religion in this land” (p. 79). In Rome, as in Spain, on the contrary, secular and religious seem to combine for the benefit of the soul of man without any hindrance to mundane business (p. 198). In this Catholic context, catechesis is not confined to pulpit or classroom but can be conducted on the hoof, so to speak, wherever the opportunity arises, as he observes on his voyage to Spain (p. 197).

5Although Piers’s faith was honed by the religious controversies between Catholics and Protestants, his worldview is grander, as his fascinating references to Islam and Judaism suggest. His views of Islam are refracted through the history and Roman celebration of Lepanto. His comments on the Jewish ghetto in Rome are liturgically contextualised but remarks on Jewish traffic into inquisitorial Spain suggest a laissez-faire attitude towards, even admiration for those who could fox the law. Not that Piers made light of the law. For him, the possession of the true religion was never a justification for rebellion but rather a call to patience to suffer whatever persecution God permitted. In this spirit, he intended his account to “encouradge this poore contrie [Ireland] to devotione and patience exortinge those wch be well inclined to induere these calamities and myseries wth patience and wth feare” (p. 215). Such a serene attitude gained little purchase with either his Gaelic clerical contemporaries in Rome or their patrons back in Ireland. For Piers, their disapproval, however, was of little account, no more than that of the Tudor and Stuart administrations. Thanks to his conversion, he believed he possessed the personal, intellectual and spiritual resources necessary to navigate the choppy political and cultural waters of early modern Europe. One can only admire his imperturbability. Scholars and the general public are indebted to the editor and publisher for bringing this rare and dense text so elegantly and meticulously to light.

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Thomas O’Connor, « Henry Piers’s Continental Travels, 1595-1598, Brian Mac Cuarta (ed.) »Études irlandaises, 45-1 | 2020, 123-125.

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Thomas O’Connor, « Henry Piers’s Continental Travels, 1595-1598, Brian Mac Cuarta (ed.) »Études irlandaises [En ligne], 45-1 | 2020, mis en ligne le 24 septembre 2020, consulté le 10 juin 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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