304 Seeds of Irish Nationhood

By the 1580s, the English atrocities and the rebellion of James Fitzmaurice and the Earl of Desmond, Catholicism and its association with resistance ot English rule was clearly established. Events at Smerwick convinced the English that the foreign threat through Ireland was real.

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Last time, we ended with the arrival of a new Viceroy of Ireland, Henry Sidney in 1566. Sidney was already an experienced politician, had cut his administrative teeth at the council of Wales, and had come to Ireland with Sussex, whose deputy he had been. Sidney had strong connections at the English court, and had aligned himself very closely with Dudley;

‘I care not in regard of any subject your enemy in England but would be accounted a feather in your wing and a principal one too

He wrote, which is a lovely sentiment, but was to turn out to be a disadvantage. Just as factionalism had done for Sussex and hastened his recall, Sidney was to face the same problem, in spades. Dudley favoured the FitzGeralds, earls of Kildare and Desmond, and wanted to cast his protective wing over them; while the Queen rather favoured the Geraldines’ traditional rival, the Butlers, Earls of Ormond, in the form of Black Tom Butler. The Ormonds of course had Boleyn blood, and Tom Butler was well known to the queen and court. Sidney was very conscious and determined that as Viceroy in Ireland he must be non partisan – court politics in England was to make this difficult, and contribute towards rebellion.

Once Shane O’Neill’s head had been pickled by the Scots, Sidney sought to pursue the policy laid out so clearly by Sussex, to extend the shiring of Ireland, and introduce English style administration. But before he could embark on this, his peace was disturbed by what has been described by the last private war in Ireland, which suitably enough came between the Earls of Desmond and Ormond, in an argument over title and rights to land in Limerick, Tipperary and Kilkenny. In 1565, Desmond took the law into his own hand and tried to distrain land west of Waterford. This was too much for Ormond, who gathered his own army and met the Desmonds in battle – gave them a beating and captured the earl.

Now if you happen to be an early modern monarch, you have set your face against the idea of private battles; as far as you are concerned, the state has a monopoly of violence – formally operated in accordance with the law but you know if not, well needs must when the devil drives. So Ormond and Desmond indulging in a private bust up was very much not cricket, and both were summoned to court in England there to be carpeted. Both agreed to keep the peace; but the Queen’s preference for the Ormond case was clear. Desmond was therefore twice discomforted – beaten in battle by Ormond, now feeling his rival stood in higher respect in the English court.

On their return, though, in travelling through Ireland, Sidney soon had evidence of the instability and dispute even in Ormond’s lands, where the Earl’s brothers exercised authority with a high hand, and the Earls of Clanricard carried out a succession dispute of such violence that Sidney found Galway ‘a town of war, frontiering upon an enemy, rather than a civil town in a country under the sovereign’. Sidney was convinced that pacification and anglicisation of the administration could come only with English controlling it – and thus came the proposal to establish the Presidencies of Munster and Connacht. But in Munster, court politics trumped Sidney again when his nominee as President was recalled by the queen. The result was a further discomfited earl in Munster – who was you guessed it, the already twice discomfited earl of Desmond, and a power vacuum. For Desmond all of this was too much and he carried on the violence against the Ormonds despite his promises to Elizabeth. being accused of causing £20,000 worth of damage through his raids. In default of his agreement with Elizabeth, he was hauled off to captivity in the Tower of London until finally released in 1573.

Into this situation came the first Elizabethan adventurers in Ireland; together these kind of new arrivals threatened Irish Lords, Old English as much as anyone, with claims to title on their land, or innovations that would threaten their local dominance. Sidney’s proposed President of Munster, Warham St Leger, claimed land in Cork, as did the Richard Grenville, of later fame of the Revenge, a schoolboy story of naval obduracy some of you might know. Humphrey Gilbert was another, proposing to build a town on the west Cork coast.  But the most worrying was one Peter Carew, a Devonian. Carew put claims together based on land titles going back to Henry II would you believe, in County Carlow, and seemed to get support for his antiquated claims; these were on lands held by Ormond’s brother Edmund Butler. When the Butlers rebelled in 1569, they did so not against the queen, they said, but ‘against those that banish [sic] Ireland and mean conquest’. By which they meant this new breed of Elizabethan adventurer.

Munster then rose in revolt in 1560 as well. In the absence of Desmond, it was led by a Fitzgerald kinsman, Fitzmaurice. Fitzmaurice struck a new, religious note, declaring that the queen was trying to force the Irish ‘to forsake the catholic faith by God unto his church given and by the see of Rome hitherto prescribed to all Christian men’. The revolt though was soon over; the earl of Ormond returned by August 1569 and submitted to Sidney, who arrived in the province with 600 men; Ormond was joined by Desmond’s half brother along with the Constable of the Desmond gallowglasses, Rory MacSheehy. Fitzmaurice fled to pursue a guerrilla war until 1571. Humphrey Gilbert, better known to English history as an explorer, was charged with pacifying Munster, which he did with tragic savagery, and enormous ruthlessness; he set out as a matter of military policy to terrify the Irish into submission. He refused to recognize the rebels through direct or indirect contact, and would give no one protection unless they first submitted to him, swore an oath to the queen, and entered into pledges of good behaviour. According to Thomas Churchyard, those who submitted to Gilbert had to approach him through a lane marked by decapitated heads.  Sir Walter Ralegh, was his half-brother, and would assert that he

‘never heard nor read of any man more feared than [Gilbert] is among the Irish nation’

Fitzmaurice and his rebellion received some encouragement in 1570 with the excommunication of Elizabeth, which also had the effect of equating Catholicism with rebellion in the English mind, and so despite continuing to take a softly softly line as regards reformation in Ireland, confessional lines were, as in England, drawn more clearly. But in the face of a new English captain, John Perrot, Fitzmaurice eventually submitted in January 1572, and in 1575 fled to France.

Sidney meanwhile had turned his hand towards advancing the cause of administration, and he turned to good traditional methods to do so – namely by calling a parliament, also in 1569. Amongst the many bills were two in particular.

The first was the attainder of Shane O’Neill. Now I can hear you muttering again as you sometimes do, that surely there was no need for an attainder – after all, O’Neill had been declared a traitor and outlaw, his lands were forfeit anyway. Ah, but I say unto you that the bill of attainder included a preamble that sought to resolve the Shane O’Neill conundrum, the conflict between the Gaelic view of land ownership by the Sept, and English law. So the preamble had a bit of history, a bit of history so far fetched that it relied on Geoffrey of Monmouth’s history, and possibly even Geoffrey might have blushed in his grave. The story went that the original settlers of Ireland, had been given permission to do so by their own lord Gurmundus, who happened also to be king of the Britons. So Ireland it turned out had actually always been subject to England, it’s just that they hadn’t asserted it for some time, and in the meantime all these nefarious Gaelic practices had sprung up, now to be banished. So in a stroke the problem of competing law was cancelled, deleted, by prior English right.

The other law of note was one to banish coin and livery. This was nuclear, and not only for the Gaelic lords, but also to the Old English of the Pale, the heartland of English power. The ability to tax and make arbitrary impositions on the people and maintain a retinue and household was the very foundation of Irish lordship; if this went what would be left? The proposal was fiercely resisted in the Commons of the Irish parliament, and would eventually fail; and with it went a major plank of the attempt to introduce a public administration based on the English model and public taxation. Sidney went back to England after his first term in Ireland in 1571, but returned as Viceroy for a second stint in 1575, and would try again. This time, he introduced an idea called composition. The idea was that instead of the various impositions and taxes imposed by the crown, going by the name of cess, each of the lords would make a private accommodation with the Viceroy, agree a sum that they would pay instead; in return they’d be confirmed in all their tenurial titles, and be given a discount on what they owed. It was an idea of some genius; the composition would be used in the local administration and to fund a small local armed force at the disposal of the President or governors. And some of the lords saw the benefit of the reform – the introduction of some certainty and assured income. Finally, the shires would have the means to make themselves a reality.

Once again though, resistance was fierce – mainly again from the Pale and from the towns, driven at least in part by the new English. Because although it offered real potential for progress in administration it was in essence taxation without representation – a tax designed, agreed and gathered by the crown, not by parliament. Although it was also then revived by a later governor in the 1581-4, the same John Perrot we’ve met in Munster, the idea foundered on that principle.

We’ve focused a lot on policy as defined by Viceroys of Ireland, Sussex and Sidney, who for all their sometimes brutal military action were at least administrators and courtiers at heart; it’s been noted on Sidney for example that he worked to develop the infrastructure in Dublin to support the Irish Privy Council and law courts. I should not give the impression, however, that policy in Ireland was not also a constant focus of attention in Westminster, because it was, and generated reams of papers and discussions and maps; and at the centre of the discussions were Cecil and Walsingham, preparing proposals and reports for the Privy Council. One of the areas of increasing focus, was the idea of plantation – the colonisation of English settlers into Ireland. Most of the schemes that were advanced and taken forward were done so from England, not from the Irish Viceroy, and it meant that the Irish Viceroys were rarely in favour, rarely actively supportive – very often the schemes were implemented over their heads, worked against their aims and messed up relationships and politics, and thereby detracted from their authority. It’s easy I suppose to think of Ireland as being very separate from English politics and centre, but as you can see it’s not really the case – court politics were constantly playing a part, policy emanated from Westminster, and complaints and information went back from Ireland – not just from the likes of Shane O’Neill, but from the Old English of the Pale – many of their complaints led directly to the recall of Sussex, for example.


The idea of plantation was not new by Elizabethan times, they had been tried before. From the 1520s, there had been a lot of concern about violence and rebellion on the borders of the Pale, in the counties of Laois (Leesh) and Ofally. Plans were finally put forward under Edward VI for a plantation of English; the aim was to introduce populations loyal to the English but also in the English view, to develop greater productivity in agriculture, and thereby to also help the Irish population, as they saw it. Key to this is again the failure of the English to understand the Irish culture and economy, based on cattle; many English commentators simply saw the Irish way of life as barbarous, and in need of reform. The most honest of them, such as John Davies the Irish Attorney General, conceded that the problem also lay in English governance

That ever since our Nation had any footing in this Land, the State of England did earnestly desire … to perfect the Conquest of this Kingdom, but that in every page there were found such impediments and defects in both Realms, as caused almost an impossibility

The worst, by contrast, were men like John Meade who believed that the Irish deserved the terror inflicted on them, as punishment for rebellion and religion.

In 1550 then, government officials carried out a survey of lands in Laois and Offally, and placed restrictions on land that could be taken from local families such as the O’Moores and O’Connor; and then grants were issued to settlers – 29 in Laois and 11 in Offally, to a group of English and Welshmen, to some Old English, and even to native Irish and Scottish Galloglass families, so quite a mixture. The settlers were required to provide arms for themselves and for their tenants. There was a deal of confusion about terms, so in 1557 Mary reformed the system, trying to remove native Irish, setting the rent, and establishing the two forts of Maryborough and Phillipstown. In that very year, though, the plantations effectively failed, pushed out by native Irish.

The plantations there, however, were revived in the 1560s, with twice the number of settlers than the original settlement – half of whom were Catholic soldiers. Once again violence came periodically to the plantations; they faced attacks from local families leg by Rory Og O’More; rebellion was boosted by the rebellion in Munster in the later 1570s and 1580s, and desperate settlers tried to offload their estates. None the less some stayed, and with greater peace in the early 17th century, even began to thrive, as was revealed by a report of 1622 which noted

that this plantation in the King’s and Queen’s Counties as it was well begun so it hath prosperously continued, and is for the most part well built and peopled by the English and a great strength in the country[1]

However, the thrifty/mean Elizabeth, delete as applicable, rather focussed on the fact that these plantation schemes cost a bomb. So, the strategy in the 1570s changed somewhat, with the idea of what might be called private plantations. The idea was that the crown would make a grant of land to an individual, who would go and drive out the local upper class, retaining the peasantry as tenants. So a bit like the Norman conquest in England I guess, Billy with his men given titles and told to go get.

The first effort, though, was a good deal less successful than Billy was in England. The recipient was Thomas Smith, a classical scholar and member of the English Privy Council who had written much on Ireland. Smith drew on the idea of the Romans as both civilisers and colonisers. English colonisers he wrote ‘had responsibility to lead forth colonias to people the country with civil men brought up in the law of England’ and believed that his colony of the Ards in Ulster would be a ‘centre for defence, then of civilisation and trade’. Smith’s grant, though, was almost unbelievably poorly designed, even putting aside our modern objections to the very concept of colonisation. The Ards were claimed by one Brian MacPhelim, an O’Neill who had been consistently loyal to the English and one of their strongest supporters – the plantation seemed designed to torch the remaining positive relationships with local lords. Brian reacted with savage fury, Smith’s son was killed and the 100 settlers killed or driven out by 1574.

This was followed, though, by a much more extensive project, with the grant in 1572 of a vast area encompassing most of Antrim to a man called Walter Devereux, Earl of Essex, father of the Queen’s later favourite, Robert Devereux, and husband of a lady called Lettice Knollys we’ll hear about next week. Essex was to provide 1,200 fighting men to make good his claim to the land, with the rights of the incumbent O’Neills, MacDonnells, MacQuillans completely ignored. Slightly feebly Elizabeth stipulated that the native Irish be well treated…for which I suppose the gentlest of responses is a hollow laugh.

In the long run, Essex got no further than Smith really. He was of course resisted by most of the local Irish lords, with one interesting exception; even the current Earl of Tyrone, Turlough Luineach (two-low Lune-each) avoided Essex and provided no assistance. The only real local help came from the Baron of Dungannon, one Hugh O’Neill. Interesting because we will meet Hugh again in a very different context, and he’s proof of the point I made last time that many of the Irish lords started with a desire to reach accommodation with the English, before being driven into rebellion.

Apart from that, Essex received little and unenthusiastic support from the Viceroy, one Fitzwilliam at the time; the Irish Lords claimed that they resisted not against the queen, but to defend ‘their own lands and goods’; and swore that this could not be rebellion, since if this had been the Queen’s war she would have sent the Viceroy, not Essex. In his desperation, Essex turned to atrocity; in 1574, invited to parley at Castlereagh by Brian MacPhelim, he instead attacked, and killed between 100 and 200 of their retainers, took 2 of Brian’s relations to the castle at Carrickfergus and had them executed, while Brian himself was executed in Dublin.

Essex’s viciousness was heighted by English fears of the Scots, connected of course to the plots surrounding Mary Queen of scots and her English ambitions; in addition the Macdonald chief, Sorley Boy, was closely connected to the Campbell Earl of Argyll, supporter of Mary. The MacDonalds in Antrim as we mentioned last time had also a firmly established colony at Rathlin Island, a staging post from the western Isles, and Rathlin was described as ‘the greatest enemy that Ireland hath…, the only succour of the Scots’[2]. In 1575, Essex sent a force under John Norreys, ferried there by Francis Drake, though Drake took no part in what followed; it is a feature, though, of the wars in Ireland that the English could always rely on one major advantage, the ability to use the sea freely. What followed was the surrender of the castle on the Island, under terms that the constable and his family would be spared – the rest of the 200 defenders killed. Not a great deal, but Norreys committed even worse butchery, killing as many as 400 of the other inhabitants including women and children, hunted down even in caves where they hid. It is unlikely that Essex disapproved, writing of Sorley Boy, watching with despair from the mainland.

The massacre achieved no purpose but to add to the list of English atrocities in Ireland; Rathlin proved impossible to hold as a fortress. Essex’s plantation was also at and end by 1575, also achieving nothing – and it had not even been cheap, costing the crown a whopping investment.

You might hope that there would now be a pause in the violence, and to a degree there was, with the Presidencies of Munster and Connacht at last beginning to be established; but there is more. Because of course to be effective, the new presidencies had to assert their authority, and that meant offending old power structures and undermined the likes of Desmond. Meanwhile, English fears of the strength of the Catholic Counter Reformation and the potential for invasion continued to grow. And once more, here is living proof that just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean that they aren’t out to get you. On the edges of our story appears one Thomas Stuckley, about whom I might do a short bio sometime as the archtypical early modern soldier of fortune. He was a Devonian, and as we know, the Devonians can be a wild bunch, he was a soldier in Berwick and on the Scottish borders; who accompanied Robert Dudley to see Henry II in France in 1551. He was also connected to the Somerset regime, which led him to fall foul of the Duke of Northumberland, and he jumped ship to France – which turned out to also have the helpful result of allowing him to escape his creditors. The man’s a card. He then fought for France and for Savoy, came close to joining the French colony in Florida, and then turned up in an official mission to persuade Shane O’Neill to come to terms. He then tried to join the Elizabethan adventurers in Ireland, but Elizabeth had his measure – especially after hearing that Stuckley had declared he ‘set not a fart ‘ for the queen. So he was passed over in favour of Peter Carew.

Proper blazing now, Stuckley found a new carer as a Catholic convert and stalked the courts of Europe hawking an invasion of Ireland – from 1570 he based himself in Spain, honoured by Philip II, who gave him a pension and awarded him the title of Duke of Ireland. Might I note this when we come to the question of whether the English provoked Spain to war in the 1580’s. Finally in 1578, Stuckley got himself an 800 tom warship from Phillip stuffed with Catholic exiles; but in Lisbon, he was inveigled away from the enterprise by a more shiny and exciting enterprise – a Portuguese attack on the Sultan of Morrocco. The Morrocan cavalry put paid to the Portuguese, and in the process both Stuckley’s legs were shot off by a cannon, and he died. Burghley’s considered, judicious and balanced opinion of Thomas was that he possessed

‘the highest degree of vain-glory, prodigality, falsehood, and vile and filthy conversation of life … altogether without faith, conscience, or religion’[3]

So there, take that Stukers.

However, Stuckley was not the only rebel down and out in London, Paris and Madrid. There was also our James FitzMaurice of the Fitzgeralds, cousin of the Earl of Desmond and, as we have heard, failed rebel. He and his family had set up shop in France, and lived at St Malo, and twice met the king Henry II. But despite that, he felt no help to be coming from the French, so he took him to Rome, where Pope Gregory was more than happy to encourage a bit of bloodshed against the heretic, and offered a plenary indulgence and remission of their sins for all that helped him – and a papal banner which would be a feature of the resulting campaign. In Spain, Phillip was not supportive, but he did meet up with the Catholic firebrand and Anne Boleyn hater Nicholas Sander. In Lisbon they found a bunch of rebels wandering around asking ‘Where’s Thomas got to? Anyone seen Thomas?’, and after hiring a ship 700 brave souls set off for Smerwick on the west coast of Ireland. Once there, Henry Davells, constable of Dungarvan, and nineteen others of his party were killed while they slept in Tralee, and for a month Fitzmaurice tried to recruit the earl of Kildare, the Munster lords, Turlough Luineach, O’Donnell, and O’Rourke; he had money to recruit gallowglasses, and declared that they were ‘defending our country’.





Fitzmaurice overestimated his chances. While his rebellion might be seen in retrosp ect as the start of the anti English sentiment that would eventually make English rule impossible, the focus was as much against Elizabeth as a pretended queen and heretic. As yet, most influential Irish leaders would go as far as expressing resentment against English rule and no more; and the Catholic component of Fitzmaurice’s rebellion rather foundered on the lack of English religious repression at this stage. The violence of the rebels reflected the growth of the threat from the English; they timed their attack on Enniscorthy in county Wexford for the summer fair to make maximum impact, men were cut down in the streets by Fitzmaurice’s rebels and women raped, bodies dumped in the river and the walls razed. The town of Youghal [you-ll] suffered a similar fate.

Rather ignobly, Fitzmaurice was killed in August 1579 in a skirmish with the Burkes of Clanwilliam over stolen horses. By now, English forces were gathering; the English Captain Malby led 2,000 soldiers and in October defeated the rebel force commanded by FitzMaurice’s half brother. The defeat confined the rebellion to Munster…unless, the earl of Desmond could be persuaded to join. Which early in 1580 he did, declaring that he fought for the Catholic faith and against the English who ‘go about to overrun our country and make it their own’. But the war began to acquire the flavour of the long-standing Fitzgerald-Butler rivalry instead, his local opponents sweeping off great herds of cattle, and burning the ripening harvest. Many of Desmond’s Irish supporters quickly deserted him; where other Irish lords did rebel, their horizons stayed resolutely local.

At Smerwick, however, another force arrived of 600 Spanish and Italian soldiers sent by the pope. It was met by one of the most brutal of a crop of brutal English captains, the Lord Deputy Grey of Wilton. Grey was a Protestant fanatic, and when he saw the Catholic fanatics with their Papal banner, it filled him with fury, which saw expression in yet another atrocity. When the garrison at Smerwick surrendered to Grey, all of them, under the white flag, were slaughtered. I am told that the phrase ‘Grey’s Faith’ entered the language as an act of treacherous dishonesty[4]. Elizabeth appears not have balked at the horror – Grey was in fact promoted to Viceroy. For Elizabeth and the English Privy Council of course probably more important than the papal banner was the fact that at Smerwick the paranoid of foreign invasion through Ireland was made flesh, made reality.

The horror was not yet over; by the time Desmond was murdered by a rival Irish Sept in November 1583, he would have begun to see the violence English captains wreaked on Munster, with stocks of grain burned and cattle slaughtered, so that famine stalked the land, and even spread to the Pale. As a result, Munster was severely depopulated. The Desmond revolt, although a failure did leave a long-term legacy. Catholicism had been equated even more firmly with resistance; and a growing belief in the evil and illegitimacy of the English rule was seeded, with the ideology of both Old English and Gaelic Irish to defend ‘this noble Ireland’, ‘our dear Country’.

In the short term, though it would lead to more plantation – the plantation of Munster, a scheme particularly supported by Walsingham as well as the English Privy Council. For once the plantation looked as though it would be a success – by 1589 it could be that 3,000 English had settled there, helped of course by the attainder of Desmond and therefore giving rise to less dispute to land title. 3,000 of course dwarfs the other plantations so far – but still left the new English vastly outnumbered by Old English and gaelic Irish; and the events of 1598 would prove that the New English had not, shall we say, assimilated well. None the less substantial numbers and substantial building took place. The accounts of the Welsh gentleman William Herbert, for example, who acquired 13,000 acres in Kerry, took over the Desmond house at Castleisland, lavishly converted. A mill and brewhouse were built, an orchard planted. Industry based on the felling of timber and manufacture of horse harnesses, took off, with furnaces to smelt ore to produce ploughs.

By the late 1580s the sum total of all of this was that some progress had been made in the implementation of a shire system all over Ireland, the implementation of the presidencies in Connacht and Munster; and for a short while stability appeared to have a chance; but despite the cancellation of martial law by Elizabeth in 1591, the damage was already done – some prosperity returned to Connacht under the governorship of the controversial Richard Bingham, but at the price of both the massacre of Scots mercenaries at the battle of Ardnaree, and the constant interference in the lives of the Gaelic Irish. Although the English in Ulster profited still from the support of Hugh O’Neill, the attempted poisoning of Shane O’Neil, the murder of Brian O’Phelim, and numerous injustices and betrayals by the English, real and imagined, led to deep resentment and anger. The brutal actions of English captains had created an escalation of violence from the Irish as well as the New English. All in all, English rule in Ireland was beginning to have uncomfortable parallels with the rule of the Spanish in the Netherlands, and the plantations and violence were sowing the seeds of a new Irish nationhood. Into this would come a transformation of the situation in Ulster, and the career of Hugh O’Neil.

[1]  Margey,A ‘Plantations, 1550– 1641’ in in Ohlmeyer, J Ed:  The Cambridge History of Ireland: Volume 2, 1550–1730 p 564


[2] Hayes-Mccoy, G A The Completion of The Tudor Conquest and the Advance of the Counter-Reformation, 1571–1603 in Moody, Ed. A New History of Ireland: Early Modern Ireland 1534-1691 p 5


[3] Holmes, P in ODNB

[4] Cooper, J The Queen’s Agent p249


2 thoughts on “304 Seeds of Irish Nationhood

  1. Wonderful episode and a much needed one. I think it is important to shine a light on the both the good and the ill that makes up English history. Sugarcoating the past will just lead to ignorance of other country’s own cultures and history especially as your series no doubts finds England having more interaction with the wider world.

    I am curious if you intend to go as far as the Empire because goodness, there’s a can of worms waiting right there.

    Thank you very much for all the hard work, I look forward hearing more.

    1. Hi Michael and thank you! I must admit, I don’t think there’s any choice – any complete history of England needs to cover all of that. And to be honest, while I’d rather tell a story about a shining faultless nation, there’s never been one, let alone England. I’m looking forward to the Empire actually – I intend to play it with a straight bat, and without shame. The facts and story are for me to relate, the moralising can get done wherever people feel it ought to be done! Thanks for writing in, it is lovely to get feedback!

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