Beacon (Becon), Richard
He appears to have broadly favoured the claims of English undertakers over those of the native Irish. This is not surprising, given his own background and the fact that he had become an undertaker himself by May 1589, having purchased 6,000 acres in Co. Waterford and Co. Cork. These lands were formally granted to him by the crown in early 1591, but his colonial venture proved an unhappy experience. His territory in Cork, formerly held by the Clandonnell Roe, was barren and remote. Moreover, he had to contend with Donal MacCarthy Mór (qv), 1st earl of Clancarty, who was the most powerful surviving Gaelic lord in Munster and who regarded the former Clandonnell Roe territory as rightfully his. Clancarty's illegitimate son Donal attacked Beacon's settlements there many times, burning the abbey of Beare on one occasion. Undaunted, Beacon took the fight to the MacCarthys in the law courts and on the battlefield, but he lacked the resources either to ward off these hostile incursions or to develop his holdings into a viable colony. In Waterford he also faced legal challenges from the previous occupant, Gerrot mac Thomas Fitzgerald, and from the influential Irish judge Nicholas Walsh (qv) (d. 1615), who had earlier bought his lands from attainted rebels.
The dispossessed Irish were not Beacon's only problem. Both he and another settler, Sir William Herbert (qv), were vocal critics of many of their fellow undertakers, arguing that they were unnecessarily alienating the already resentful natives through their greed, and called for an impartial application of the law between planter and native. The more hard-line settlers responded in summer 1589 by accusing them of employing rebels and murderers on their estates and of extorting money from their own tenants. In August 1591, the vice-president of Munster, Sir Thomas Norris (qv), resurrected these long-dormant allegations and imprisoned Beacon for corruption and abuse of office. The lord deputy, Sir William Fitzwilliam (qv), subsequently authorised his dismissal as principal attorney for Munster; Beacon formally resigned as such in December.
At this time, Fitzwilliam was engaged in an ultimately successful attempt to ruin his predecessor as lord deputy, Sir John Perrot (qv), by accusing him of treason; and Beacon, as a known supporter of Perrot, may have fallen victim to this political struggle. It is likely that the charges against him were embellishments if not outright fabrications. Discredited and disillusioned, he had sold some of his land in Cork by May 1592, also leaving Ireland at this time. During his absence, Walsh obtained substantial portions of his Waterford lands by course of law. Contrastingly, but equally effectively, Gerrot mac Thomas with fifty armed followers simply seized his former lands from Beacon's agents.
Back in England, Beacon based himself at Oxford and busied himself writing a book on the reform of Ireland, published in spring 1594: Solon his follie, or A politique discourse touching the reformation of common weales conquered, declined, or corrupted. At this time Fitzwilliam was on the point of being recalled in disgrace, having presided over a disastrous decline in the crown's authority in Ireland, something to which Beacon alluded gleefully in his preface. By then he was aligned with Robert Devereux (qv), 2nd earl of Essex, who was engaged in an intense political rivalry with Fitzwilliam's patron Lord Burghley for control over the English government, and whose client Sir William Russell (qv) was Fitzwilliam's designated successor. In part, Beacon's book was an attempt to undermine Burghley by condemning the rule of Ireland by his client Fitzwilliam. Significantly, Essex was chancellor of Oxford University, which published Solon. In order to get his book past the royal censors, who were unlikely to accept a work that directly criticised the queen's chief ministers in England and Ireland, he framed his argument in the form of an allegory, in which a leading statesman of sixth-century BC Athens discussed with his advisers how to govern Athens's colony of Salamina.
At the outset, he proclaimed his intention to steer a moderate course between the extremes of harsh repression or impartial administration of the law, although as it turns out he tended more towards the former than the latter. In book I he asserted that Ireland, due to the neglect of its royal administrators, had declined into a state of barbarism and could only be rescued by radical reforms of government and society. Government officials were entitled to employ deception and intrigue in order to achieve these reforms. In the last resort, any tactic, including presumably widespread and indiscriminate slaughter, was justified in order to overcome opposition. Although he was at pains to stress that such extreme courses should only be used in times of crisis, this in practice meant a policy of fire and sword, given the troubled state of Ireland at the time. These passages were heavily influenced by Machiavelli's Discourses on Livy. Like many other English colonial theorists and practitioners, Beacon found Machiavelli's advocacy of self-consciously amoral statecraft to be particularly applicable to Ireland's often brutal and chaotic socio-political environment.
Having established that radical reforms were required and might have to be enforced with great brutality, he went on in book II to detail these reforms. His prescriptions were largely unoriginal, regurgitating standard English colonial tropes such as the need to reduce the quasi-sovereign powers enjoyed by the Irish feudal lords, with particular reference to the abolition of their levying of military exactions on the peasantry and to the abolition of their private armies. Continuing his attempt to cloak his essentially pessimistic, radical, and highly authoritarian proposals behind a veneer of studied moderation, he advised that the crown should compound with the Irish nobility for their traditional exactions and make every effort to accommodate them once they have been suitably harnessed. Perrot had implemented such a policy in Connacht during his lord deputyship, and this passage can be seen as Beacon's defence of his fallen patron.
More interesting was his call for a reformation in Ireland's form of government, which has been mistakenly interpreted as indicating that Beacon harboured republican sympathies. In calling for the appointment of an honest but severe governor vested with widespread discretionary powers for a limited period, he was not advocating any kind of constitutional change; rather, he was criticising the widespread corruption and prevarication that had previously characterised English rule in Ireland, while urging the queen to provide her Irish viceroy with enough political, financial, and military support to carry out thorough reforms. Such authoritarianism was further justified by the need for the state to protect the people of Ireland from its over-mighty aristocracy. Reflecting his messianic protestant beliefs, he enjoined an imperialist foreign policy for England, involving the reduction of Ireland and a more aggressive pursuit of the ongoing war with catholic Spain. Again, this can be read as an implied rebuke of the failings of royal policy in Ireland and further afield.
Not the least of his concerns in writing and publishing Solon was to rehabilitate his own reputation and to secure restoration to public office in Ireland. The gambit proved successful: by January 1595, he was in Dublin, probably as part of the entourage of Russell (the new lord deputy). Alarmed by the growing strength of the Irish rebels, he called for harsh measures to be taken against them and praised Russell's rule. On 11 February he was appointed commissioner of ecclesiastical causes for Munster, suggesting that Russell envisaged a political role for him in the province. However, Beacon appears to have died soon after, as no more is heard of him. By 1611 at the latest either he or his heirs had sold their remaining property in Munster.