Ireland and Her Story by Justin McCarthy - 1903

Table of Contents | Chapter I | Chapter II | Chapter III | Chapter IV | Chapter V | Chapter VI | Chapter VII | Chapter VIII | Chapter IX | Chapter X | Chapter XI | Chapter XII | Index



THE conditions of life prevailing in Ire- land before the Gospel of Christianity had reached her shores were very much what might have been expected from a people whose legendary lore inspired and reflected, as I have briefly described, the national temperament. The population lived for the most part on agricultural produce, although there was a certain exportation of its mineral products-gold in some parts-to the nearer shores of the Continent. The social condi­tion of the island approached nearly to a form of communism under the direction of a hierarchy of elected Sovereigns or Chieftains. There was a Druid priesthood who had the care of religious teaching, and the guiding principle of that teaching appears to have been


the worship of some vague, unknown supreme being whose presence was typified to mortals by the sun. The population of the island was divided into Septs, and each Sept was composed of families who bore the name of the foremost man, the head of the clan. The Chief of each Sept recognised the supreme authority of the chosen head or Sovereign of the whole island. This ruler and all the Chiefs under him were chosen by a form of popular election. The principle of primo­geniture was unknown to the islanders, and the successor to each Chief was elected during that Chief's lifetime and bore the title of Tanist, the only condition being that the Tanist must be chosen from the family to which the Chief belonged. The sons were regarded as partners with their father, and after the death of the father his possessions were divided in equal shares among his male children.

The position of woman was very high- was indeed equal to that of man, except where actual service in arms and the necessity of tilling and defending imposed duties on men which could not in the ordinary course of nature have become a task for women. The wife was the equal of her husband, the sisters of the brothers, and there was through­out the whole social system a respect and even a romantic reverence for womanhood more appropriate to the age of chivalry than


to the days before the Gospel of Christianity had been preached to the world. Whatever Ireland may have derived from the teachings of the East, she had accepted no ideas in­volving the subjection of women. The Brehons were the official and hereditary judges and promulgators of the laws. The Brehons, like the Chieftains, were elected to their positions in the commonwealth. The people lived in houses or huts built of wood or made of wattles, and even the palaces, if they may so be called, were only constructions of wood, painted over with coloured and ornamental devices. The wealth of the country consisted in its agricultural productions, its minerals, its fish, and its cattle, horses, pigs, and sheep. Some of the Irish Septs showed much skill in the erection of fortresses for their defence, and displayed reverence for the dead by raising great monu­ments to their memory.

Every stranger who has visited Ireland must have been impressed by the Round Towers still to be seen in almost all parts of the island-tall, pillar-like erections, which are almost as peculiar to Ireland as the Pyramids are to Egypt. The traveller from Dublin to the south can see more than one of those pillar towers standing, almost un­harmed by time, quite near to the rails along which run the steaming and screaming engines of modern locomotion. It is still


disputed whether these Round Towers were built long before or soon after the birth of Christianity, and whether they symbolized any form of worship, and, if so, what was the form of worship in whose honour they pointed to the sky.

It is enough for my purpose to say that the Round Towers were certainly built before authentic history had to do with Ireland, and that they testify to the existence, from dim unknown days, of a remarkable degree of artistic development. There are many indi­cations of a love for art and "skill in artistic ornament among the people of Ireland even in prehistoric times. Abundant specimens of their skilful workmanship in gold can now be seen by anyone in Irish and other museums, and a dispute has quite lately been going on as to whether the ownership of certain trea­sures of early Irish art ought to be vested in the British Museum, as the treasure-house of the Empire, or in the Dublin institution which represents exclusively the preservation of Ire­land's historic relics. The Irish Chieftains and law-makers and Druids appear to have cultivated from days far beyond the reach of history the art of writing, and to have in­vented an alphabet of their own, innumerable specimens of which are still preserved and made the subjects of much learned discus­sion. With the time when Christianity touched


the island to take possession of it, what may be regarded as Ireland's authenticated history began. St. Patrick is the patron saint of Ireland, and is identified with the whole de­velopment of the Irish since they became known to the outer world. His name, is as much reverenced now by the great mass of the Irish as it was at any time since he first set foot on the soil as the teacher of Christianity. Patrick had seen something of Ireland before he came there to teach and preach. In his early youth he was carried from Gaul to Ireland as a slave, and even in his days of slavery he formed an affection for the country and its population. He made his escape from servitude, and found his way to France and then to Rome. He devoted him­self in Rome to teaching the Gospel, and soon became a conspicuous figure among those who were spreading the doctrines of Christianity. But he never forgot the island he had seen as a slave, and his heart was filled with a passionate desire to convert the Irish to Christianity.

Somewhere about the year 430 A.D. St. Patrick went back to Ireland and began his work of conversion at once. The work had been tried already by other Christian teachers, but without much success; and It was left for Patrick to accomplish a complete triumph. There is a genius for moral conversion as well . as for warlike conquest, and Patrick possessed


it in a supreme degree. No conqueror ever overran a fresh soil with more success than that which St. Patrick won for himself and for Ireland as a preacher of the Gospel. Wherever he made his appearance he gained believers and followers. He achieved as if by some magical spell the conversion of Ireland to Christianity, and the work once done was done for ever. He laboured for some sixty years, and when he died his body was laid to rest in Irish soil. He had found in Ireland a people in whose tem­perament the spirit of veneration had always played a leading part. That gleam of the poetic which belongs to the mind of the Irish peasant in the ordinary ways of his life was of itself an invitation to the prin­ciples of a Faith whose kingdom is not of this world. The Irish Celts have been since the days of St. Patrick, as before his time, peculiarly open to religious teaching, and they had only to learn of Christianity to accept it. The life of St. Patrick is the subject of a great mass of poetic legend of which it is not necessary in this short history to take much account. All that is known for certain of his life and labours is set forth sufficiently in the brief description I have given of him. His work forms a record of his life on which no historical investigation or sceptical analysis can cast any doubt. No such controversy as to the personality and career of St. Patrick


has been raised as that which Gibbon brought up concerning the identity and character of St. George. Even Gibbon could hardly have started any serious question as to the identity and work of the saint who conquered Ireland for Christianity. For a long time the island St. Patrick had converted was regarded throughout Europe as the especial home of Christianity, and was called the " Isle of Saints." Many great foreign historians, who had no particular sympathy with Celtic popu­lations, testified to the position Ireland held in the estimation of educated Europe.

But the internal condition of Ireland began to be visited by many disturbing influences. Perhaps the fame which she had won for enlightenment and religion attracted invaders to her shores. The Danish invasion was the first of these great inroads. The Danes were a people especially given to travel, adventure, and conquest, and the mild soft­ness of the Irish climate, the readiness with which the soil repaid its culture, must have been potent allurements to the inhabi­tants of a colder region with rougher seas and less temperate skies. Ireland was quite near enough to invite expeditions of conquest, and towards the close of the eighth century the hardy Norsemen effected their first land­ing upon Irish soil. Ireland was not at the time in a position to offer united resistance to the invaders. The constitution of the country


had not grown up under circumstances sug­gesting the necessity of constant defence against incursions from over the seas. On one side lay what was then regarded as the illimitable ocean, and on the other countries from which she had received many friendly visitations, but had no reason to expect con­quering inroads.

The island was divided among native Chiefs, who concerned themselves mainly about their local interests, and had, no doubt, their natural rivalries. In the crisis of danger they were not able to form any common league against the invaders. The warlike Danes overran Ireland and held the country for more than a century. Then there came about an event so common in the history of nationalities that any intelligent reader might be able to anticipate it. The native Irish had been conquered and reduced to servitude, not because they were incapable of effective resistance, but because the man had not yet come who was destined to show them how to organize the means and secure the end. At the critical moment the man arose. His name was Brian Boroihme, or Boru, a name ever since familiar to readers in all countries, even to readers who regard it as that of some half-mythical hero, the serio­comic invention of Hibernian imagination.

Brian Boru was brother of the King, or Chief, of Munster, and had already made


himself very popular with the people in general. Apparently, he had only been wait­ing for the opportunity to develop the genius of a warlike commander, and now showed himself capable of turning it to the fullest advantage. He raised and organized an army, attacked the Danes, and inflicted on them some heavy defeats. He brought them to that condition of temporary humi­liation which made them willing to re­main in the island, provided they con­sented to live quietly in the seaport towns and make no effort at re-conquest. Then followed what might have been expected in the career of a conqueror. Brian became possessed by the conviction that his country would thrive better and more securely under the reign of a single Sovereign than under the separate rule of the Chiefs, and that he was the man who ought to be supreme ruler. It was the story of Alexander, of Caesar, of the first Napoleon, told at a different time and under different conditions. Many native historians insist that Brian was actuated by purely patriotic motives, that he believed Ireland could only be safe and prosperous under the rule of one Sovereign, and that he best knew how to initiate such a rule. It seems only reasonable, when we survey Brian's whole career, to assume that there must have been some element of the purely patriotic mingling with his natural ambition.


He was not allowed to obtain his place of supremacy without opposition. Some of the Irish Chieftains denounced him as a mere usurper, and rose in arms against him ; but he bore down their opposition. The Irish people, who had seen their country conquered by the Danish invaders because the separate Chief­tains could not unite in resistance, might well have believed that the government of a single ruler, and that ruler the man who had just overcome the Danes, would bring about a better era for their native land. Brian was before long acknowledged as King of all Ireland, and he proved himself a most wise and capable monarch. Under his reign peace prevailed throughout the land; the laws of property were respected, men and women could make their living in safety and no attempt was made at any uprising, even local, against his beneficent rule. The poems and legends which tell of the perfect order and prosperity prevailing under Brian's rule, although sometimes extravagant in their terms, form, a very substantial tribute to the general character of his reign. When the whole minstrelsy and legendary art of a people unite in describing a certain ruler as wise and beneficent, their testimony is not to be classed with the mere eulogy of court poets and flattering pensioners. Brian had still some military work to do before his people could consider themselves free from the enter-


prises of the Danes. The Danish residents in Ireland began to chafe at the subordinate position to which Brian had reduced them, and they kept up a constant communication with their kinsmen and friends in the North. The result was that another expedition from the Danish shores was organized against Ire­land, and a great fleet, as fleets were then, was sent to make war upon the new Irish Sovereign. Brian was now sinking into age -he had had some twelve years of peaceful reign-but he showed that the courage and capacity of his earlier days had not deserted him. He roused the whole country to a de­termined resistance. He took command him­self. He encountered the Danish army at Clontarf on the Good Friday of 1014, and inflicted on them a defeat so crushing that it put an end to all likelihood of further Danish invasion.

The victory of the Irish was not gained without heavy cost, for it brought with it the death of Ireland's great Sovereign. Brian, who took but too little care for the safety of his own person, assumed that the battle was all over when he had seen the Danes de­feated and dispersing in utter flight. He returned to his tent, in order, it is supposed, to give directions to officers whom he ex­pected to meet there, or, as some say, to offer up a prayer, and was killed by one of the Danish leaders. He may be said to have


accomplished the one great purpose of his life, for his active career closed that whole volume, of Irish history which has to do with Danish invasion. His memory is still cherished in the national sentiment of Ireland as that of King Alfred is in England. No matter what historical criticism may do with many of the stories which glorify the life and deeds of King Brian, his figure must stand out to all time as that of a great soldier, a sincere patriot, and a wise ruler. His death was in every sense a great loss to his country. There are conditions which may justify at some national crisis the usurpation of supreme authority by a master-spirit, but the master­spirit is not always able to bequeath his own genius and authority to his successors. No Sovereign followed King Brian who could continue the work of peace, union, and pros­perity he had begun.

It must be said for the Danes that they had in their time rendered material service to the country they invaded and occupied. Belong­ing to the race of the Sea Kings, they naturally were able to do good work in the making of harbours, and the remains of their skill are to be seen on many parts of the Irish shores. They were given to the build­ing of towns, and history credits them with the foundation of the City of Dublin, Ire­land's metropolis, and other cities as well. After the death of Brian, when all idea of


reconquering the island had passed out of the Danish mind, a large number of Danes kept up their settlement in Ireland, and it must be owned that if they did some sub­stantial work for the benefit of the island, they sometimes exercised a very baneful in­fluence by promoting dissension among the ruling Irish Septs and Chieftains.

After Brian's death there came up no man capable of reuniting the whole Celtic popu­lation under his rule, and the resident Danes were only too ready to avail themselves of any dissensions going on among the Irish ruling families, and to support one Chief­tain or to oppose another, according as it might seem to suit their own immediate interests. Thus the condition of Ireland, when the rule of the strong man ended, be­came, so far as its system of rule was con­cerned, very much the same as before the birth of Brian. The country was once again divided into the dominions of separate Chiefs or Kings, all professing an allegiance, which was merely nominal, to the government of one Sovereign Chief. The country was divided amongst four rulers. Each of these four dominions was but a federation of tribes and families. The four divisions were those we now know as the provinces of Leinster, Ulster, Munster, and Connaught. Lagenia was then the name of Leinster, Mononia Munster, Conacia Connaught, and Ulidia


Ulster. It is believed that with the reign of King Brian came into settled use the fashion of describing Irish families by the prefix O or Mac, in each case indicating descent, and showing that the head of the family was the son or grandson of some distinguished founder or leader of a sept.

There were keen rivalries and jealousies among the different chieftains, families, and provinces, and it is curious to notice how the Irish poetry of that day, as well as of a much later day, harps continually on the perils to which the country was subjected by the want of union among the leaders and people. " While your tyrants joined in hate, you never joined in love" were the words of reproach Thomas Moore addressed to his countrymen during the nineteenth century, and he but echoed the remonstrance which had thrilled on many harp-strings through long ages of the past. The quarrels between Irish chief­tains found their culmination in an event which belongs to the same romantic order as the story of Helen and the war of Troy. One of the Irish nobles, the Lord or Chief of Brefni, had a beautiful wife, who attracted the admiration of Dermot Macmurragh, the King of Leinster. Macmurragh was a type of the royal savage, as we have known him through all legend and history, a reckless warrior, loving the battle-field and the chase, enjoying revelry of every kind, and utterly


selfish in gratifying his desires. The fair Devorgilla yielded herself only too readily to the appeal of her lover, and was carried off by him. The immediate result was a civil war. Brefni took up arms against the chieftain who had so deeply wronged him, and the supreme Sovereign of Ireland espoused the cause of the injured husband. The story was made by Moore the subject of one of his most popular ballads. Dermot fled the country and threw himself at the feet of the English monarch, Henry II., to whom he offered allegiance. There was a combination of conditions peculiarly favour­able to Dermot's desire for vengeance upon his countrymen, from whom he had had to seek safety by flight. The Norman rulers of England were a race even more formidable and enterprising as invaders than the Danes, and they had long been casting eager eyes upon the island that lay at the North-West. The ruler of the Christian Church at that time, Pope Adrian IV., the only English­man who ever filled the Papal throne, had before this given to Henry II. a Bull of Authority over Ireland, and now the time seemed most convenient to the Norman King for making himself the master of Ireland. He did not make any decided movement on his own account at first, but looked on en­couragingly while many of the Norman Barons, at the persuasion of Dermot, pre-


pared for an invasion of Ireland. One of these Barons was Richard de Clare, Earl of Pembroke, who is best remembered by his famous appellation "Strongbow." To make the alliance between the Norman invaders and their Irish associate more firm, Strong-bow married Dermot's daughter Eva. The Normans were splendid soldiers, trained to warfare under the latest developments of military science, and well provided with armour and weapons quite unfamiliar to the Irish. The Normans at first carried all be­fore them. Still, the Irish resisted manfully, and, by a strange turn of fate, they now found reinforcements among their old enemies the Danes, who refused to submit to Norman occupation of the seaports in which they had settled. The resistance of the Irish aroused King Henry to decisive action. He had already shown himself uneasy about the in­fluence Strongbow was obtaining over the Norman forces in Ireland, and apparently was impressed with the idea that Strongbow had the ambition to set himself up as a rival to the King himself. Henry summoned Strong-bow back to England in order to obtain from him a clear explanation of his purposes. Strongbow was too busily engaged in war at the time to obey even the royal command, but when he found an opportunity, after an important success, he returned to England and came to a thorough understanding with


his Sovereign. The result was that Henry called together a great Norman army, led it himself into Ireland, crushed all resistance offered to his conquering progress, accom­plished his Norman invasion, and made Ire­land a part of his dominions.

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