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




FROM the time of the Norman Conquest the history of Ireland is associated with that of Great Britain. But the senti­ments of the Irish never became thoroughly assimilated with those of the conquerors. Ireland was incorporated with the Norman Sovereignty of England, but her individuality was never absorbed into that of the ruling race. Most of the great Irish Chiefs, seeing no hope of successful resistance, accepted the rule of King Henry II., and swore allegiance to him, but others held out to the last. It may seem a curious fact that the strongest and longest resistance to the Norman power was found in the northern part of Ireland, now the province of Ulster. Henry went to work to organize the country after his own


fashion, and set up some great institutions which have kept their undisputed place up to the present day. He laid the founda­tion of the legal system and established the courts of law, which no subsequent revolu­tion has endeavoured to disestablish. He divided the island into counties. But he also introduced the feudal system, as it pre­vailed in England, in place of the principle of land tenure and the arrangement between Chieftain and people which had existed in Ireland from the earliest days. His new systems of government were intended mainly for the security and benefit of the new settlers, and for a time, at least, the native Irish were allowed to maintain the old systems which they had derived from the Brehon laws.

Henry prudently refrained from any attempt to effect a complete revolution in the social and economic principles of the conquered race. It was not until a later time that the policy came into force which had for its object the transformation of the island into a mere dependency of England, compelled to adopt English systems and methods. Henry accomplished one great change before he left Ireland, as to the results of which the writers of history have ever since been engaged in controversy. He adopted a system of what must be called confiscation with regard to the lands of the


Chieftains and the Septs he had reduced to submission, and divided these lands amongst his followers, with the avowed object of establishing a Norman settlement in Ireland. It may be admitted that he did no worse than most other conquerors have done at all times with the land of those they had con­quered, but Henry's policy had unquestion­ably the effect of making the whole native population hostile to the Sovereign power of England.

The Irish Celts were devoted to the tradi­tions of their ancestors, and no power in any human system could reconcile them to the new principles of ownership, or to the Normans as lords of the soil. For many years the history of Ireland told of nothing but continuous struggles between the Irish inhabitants and the Norman settlers, mingled with much occasional strife between one Irish Chieftain and another. The cause of these latter struggles is not to be found merely in the tendency to jealousy and dis­union among Irish ruling families. Many of the Irish Chiefs had sworn allegiance to the Conqueror and accepted his support, while others held out to the last against him. The hatred of those who accepted the new con­ditions for those who refused to acknowledge them must have been as intense as the hatred of the conquering Normans for the native Chiefs who resisted their rule.


Ireland then became divided into four sections. By far the largest was made up of those Irish who held out against the invaders, and whose nearest approach to a pacific condition was that state of sullen, indomitable opposition which only waits for an opportunity to attempt a new uprising. Next came the Chiefs and their followers who submitted to Norman rule because they saw no means of getting rid of it, and were ready to accept any advantages it might bring. These two sections were always in more or less open hostility. Then came the Norman settlers, who were constantly in­creasing because of the attractions held out to them by royal grants of land. Finally, there were the Danes at the sea-ports, whose first desire was to be allowed to carry on their occu­pations without disturbance, and who were ready, if occasion tempted, to offer their services to that section of disputants from whom they might expect the greatest benefit. The Norman Barons built castles and strong­holds wherever they settled, ruled the people after the feudal fashion, and were their own law-makers. The estate of a Norman Baron was something very like a fortified camp, and his jurisdiction was limited only by the amount of armed force he could command. Everywhere outside these limits was the Celtic population, lying in wait for any chance of recovering the soil from the invaders.


Some of the invaders, when they had made homes in the island, grew into a genuine love for the country, and were proud in the hope that their names might become associated with its history. There was much in the scenery and atmosphere of Ireland as well qualified to exercise an influence over these new-comers as over the native race. Ireland is marvellously picturesque -in its landscape, and its climate lends it a peculiar charm in keeping with the outlines of its hills, the melancholy beauty of its lakes, and even the monotonous level of its low-lying inland regions. Almost everywhere around the coasts the island is hilly, while most of the interior is flat. Some parts are even swamp-like, and these gain from the soft gray atmosphere around them a poetic beauty unlike any that could be given to an expanse of flat land under a blazing sun. There are magnificent harbours here and there around the coast, with in most places a background of hill or mountain, making each great indentation of the shore a picture in itself. There are many rivers, some broad and rapid, some narrow, all alike charming. Edmund Spenser, who lived for a long time by one of these rivers, has celebrated in some of his noblest lines the loveliness of the Avondhu, which he tells us " of the English­men is called Blackwater." The most famous lakes in the country are the Lakes


of Killarney in the south and Lough Neagh in the north, and they might well challenge comparison with Windermere or Loch Katrine, Lucerne or Maggiore. The Irish lakes have not the bright skies and glowing sun of Switzerland or Italy, but their soft clouds and gray poetic atmosphere lend them a beauty entirely their own. The Irish lake and mountain scenery is, on the whole, less bold and broken than the Scotch, but more varied than that of England, and has a charm of soft melancholy which harmonizes with the poetic dreamings of Irish legend­ary literature. Every lake, mountain, and valley has its own legend. On the Lakes of Killarney Irish boatmen still describe the foam-crested waves flung out by some waterfall as " O'Donoghue's horses," O'Don-oghue being the patronymic of a great house, whose descendants have come down to our own times. The traveller who sails over Loch Neagh is told of the buried city whose towers may be seen shining beneath the waters. With the first dawn of Chris­tianity upon the island the building of great churches and abbeys began almost every­where, and the ruins of some of these are still a peculiar feature of Irish landscape. Even the marshy regions have a charm for the artistic eye, and are haunted by poetic legends. The most unsympathetic stranger travelling through the island could hardly describe it


as a natural home for the prosaic and the commonplace.

It is not surprising that many of the Norman invaders who had eyes to see and hearts to feel should have yielded to the witchery of this country so new to them, and have become permanent settlers there. A new race grew up of Norman or English invaders, who were proud in later days to be described as more Irish than the Irish them­selves. Most of these families can be traced through history by the Norman prefix of Fitz, as the Fitzgeralds, the Fitzmaurices, Fitz-Patricks, and many others. The Fitzgeralds were probably the most numerous, and gave the title of Geraldines to the new order of settlers. Many of their descendants took a leading part in all the Irish uprisings against English rule down to the days when Lord Edward Fitzgerald was one of the leaders in the rebellion of 1798. So thoroughly is this Geraldine race associated with Irish nation­ality that the name of Fitzgerald would now seem to the ordinary English reader as dis­tinctly Hibernian as O'Donoghue or O'Neill.

Except for this gradual and peculiar blend­ing, it may be said that while the history of Ireland was becoming more and more a part of England's history, the Irish populations in general showed no signs of accepting English rule or becoming to any extent Anglicized. The land question in Ireland has always been


the great trouble to English legislators. The complete revolution effected in the system of Irish land tenure after the Norman settlement was always regarded by the vast majority of the Irish as an outrageous act of tyranny. The Irish depended for the most part on the culture of the soil, and under the old patri­archal system that culture was so carried on as to identify with it the comfort and grow­ing prosperity of the cultivator while he kept on doing his work well, as directly as it pro­vided for the dignity of the local Chieftain. It was a sort of Communism in which the proportionate rights of the occupier were as clearly recognised and firmly maintained as those of the landlord-if I may use this modern word. The great change in the national mode of life was the more unwelcome because it was the result of a foreign invasion and conquest, the expulsion of the old-time Chieftains and heads of families, and the settling of foreign masters over the conquered people. The Irish tiller of the soil had not only to accept a system of land tenure en­tirely strange to all his national traditions, but also to accept the presence of a foreign landlord whose language and habits and sym­pathies were alike unintelligible to him.

The assimilation between the settlers from England and the native populations of Ire­land was peculiarly distasteful to the English Government. The rulers in England felt


bound to do something to prevent this un­welcome alliance. In 1295 a law was passed which prohibited, under severe penalty, the adoption of the Irish dress by Norman settlers. The statute never had any real effect, for just then the ruling powers in Eng­land were too much engrossed with their difficulties at home to be able to enforce their decrees in Ireland. After the defeat of the English at Bannockburn by Robert Bruce, affairs in Ireland became more troublesome than ever to the English Sovereign, and the Irish Chieftains actually organized a formid­able rebellion. Edward Bruce, brother of the victorious Robert, came over to Ireland to help the insurrection, which gave him a welcome opportunity for paying off national grievances against England. It is an un­doubted fact that many of the Norman Barons in Ireland actually joined the forces of Edward Bruce and the Irish. Edward Bruce was crowned King of Ireland, and the insurrection for a while seemed likely to carry all before it. The English Sovereign rallied all the forces he could command for what seemed an almost desperate effort, and he gained a complete victory over his Irish, Anglo-Irish, and Scottish opponents. In this battle Edward Bruce lost his life.

The victory, however, did not accomplish much for the pacification of Ireland. In a certain sense it made things worse. The


Anglo-Irish nobles who had not thrown off their allegiance to the English Sovereign saw only too plainly what an immense effort it had cost him to send into Ireland an army strong enough to defeat the insurgents and their allies in the open field. They knew they could not count on the English Govern­ment for continuous protection if the great majority of the Irish were still bitterly op­posed to them. It was one thing to gather together an army strong enough to win a single battle, and quite another to maintain such a force in Ireland as should assure the safety of the settlers who professed alle­giance to English rule. The result was that many of the settlers who had up to this time resisted the process of amalgamation with the Irish Chieftains began to find that they could secure quieter daily lives for themselves by following in the steps of the Geraldines. Statute after statute was passed to prohibit this. The famous Parliament of Kilkenny in 1367 passed laws which proclaimed the heaviest penalties against any English in Ire­land who adopted Irish names, customs, or even costume.

It should be explained that the Parliament of Kilkenny was one of a series of assemblies instituted by the English Government after the fashion of the Parliament then existing in England. These Parliaments constituted the first rude attempts at a system of constitutional


government, and were, after their imperfect fashion, the predecessors of the Parliamentary system prevailing in Great Britain at the present day. The King summoned an Upper House, consisting of lay peers and the higher clergy, and a Lower House made up of the Knights of the Shires and burgesses. These chambers were called together with the object of enabling the Sovereign to receive trust­worthy advice from the chosen and loyal representatives of the different orders in the country. But when this system was set up in Ireland it was fenced around by so many limitations that it became merely a convoca­tion of those who were openly hostile to the claims of the native population. Those parts of the country which were wholly in the hands of the native Irish or of the Anglo-Irish were not invited to send representatives to either House. This curious anomaly, the Parliament of Ireland, was summoned at irregular intervals by the King, and met, now in Dublin, now in Drogheda, now in Kilkenny. The whole attempt at the creation of a Par­liament in Ireland under such conditions must seem to modern readers to have very little to do even with the earliest and rudest growth of the representative principle. But it is certain that if the English Sovereigns who successively endeavoured to maintain the conquest of Ireland had allowed the Irish people to express their views through any


form of representation, that expression would have embodied itself in the demand for Ire­land's absolute independence.

It is quite obvious that the rule of the conqueror can, at its earliest stages, only be maintained by the sword. If the conquering race be inspired by wise, just, and generous counsels, they may win the conquered into willing acceptance of their rule; but the conquerors of Ireland at the time of this Kilkenny Parliament had not advanced far enough in civilization to trouble themselves with moral or philosophical speculations as to the best manner of winning the friendship of those they strove to govern. The Parlia­ment of Kilkenny took energetic measures against the growing amalgamation of the English invaders and the. Irish. One of these measures decreed that an English settler who married an Irish woman should forfeit his estate and be put to death, the death itself being preceded by the disembowel­ling process, which made a part of capital punishment down to a much later period. Macaulay has said somewhere that it was not likely a disloyal subject could feel him­self won back to loyalty while the hangman was grabbing at his entrails. It is not likely that the English settler in Ireland who married an Irish wife would have felt loyal devotion to the Sovereign while the hangman was performing that peculiar ceremonial.


Fortunately, these atrocious enactments were not carried out as often as the ruling powers in England might have desired. The English Government had not the strength to enforce such a policy in many instances, and the statutes passed by the Parliament of Kil­kenny were doomed to comparative failure on both sides. They failed to satisfy the vengeance of the conquerors, and they further embittered the mood of the half-conquered. Meanwhile England had so many troubles of her own that she could not devote herself exclusively to the subjugation of Ireland.

Richard II., King of England, was in Ireland with a large force, endeavouring to reduce the whole island to submission, when the tidings came to him that Bolingbroke had landed " upon the naked shore at Ravens-purgh," Richard hurried back to England with the hope of putting down his cousin's enterprise, but he utterly failed, and had to resign the crown. Bolingbroke became Henry IV. Richard was imprisoned for a while in the Tower, and is believed to have been murdered afterwards at Pontefract Castle. The long struggles between the rival houses of York and Lancaster were carried on in Ireland as well as in England. The Norman families settled on Irish soil were divided, as their kinsmen were in England, and for a time the Irish national question was put in the background. Civil war


went on In both islands until after the defeat and death of Richard III. on Bosworth Field. Henry VII. had not time at first to give him­self much trouble about Ireland. Gradually, however, his attention became drawn to the fact that the Irish Chieftains were becoming more powerful throughout the country than they had been since the Norman invasion. Henry at last determined to reduce the country to complete subjection by a process which he believed to be more statesmanlike and to promise a more abiding effect than a momentary conquest on the battlefield. Up to this time no comprehensive attempt had been made to establish by force in Ireland the whole system of government and law prevailing in England. The " Parliaments " held from time to time in Ireland were, indeed, moulded after the fashion of the Eng­lish Parliaments; but as they were allowed to retain, in the one country as in the other, something professing to be a representative principle, the Irish Parliament, with its Geraldine members, was never quite submis­sive to the wishes of the English Sovereigns. Henry and his advisers were of opinion that the time had come to assert the complete supremacy of the English constitution and laws over the unmanageable and Indomitable Irish people. . We now come to an event of the greatest importance in Irish history, the mission of


Sir Edward Poynings to Ireland as Lord Deputy. Henry sent him over to establish a change in the system of Ireland's govern­ment which should, to begin with, make the authority of the Irish Parliament wholly and avowedly subservient to that of the Sovereign and Parliament of England. Poynings went to Ireland with a powerful army, and con­vened in the name of the King such a Parliament at Drogheda as best suited his master's purpose. He succeeded in passing through that Parliament the measure ever since famous as Poynings' Law. We shall hear of this measure again and again during the present narrative. It was passed on September 13, 1494. It declared and estab­lished two principles: the first, that all laws existing in England should apply with equal validity to Ireland ; the second, that no measures, even though applying to Ireland alone, should be initiated by an Irish Parlia­ment without the preliminary consent of the English Sovereign and Council. The Irish Parliament was thus to be prevented from even discussing any proposal which the King of England did not wish to have passed into law. The English statesmanship of the time seemed now satisfied that the whole question was settled for ever. Did Ireland want a Parliament ? Behold she had a Parliament, although that Parliament could not even listen to a proposal for any measure without


the previous consent of the English King; and what more could any loyal and reasonable country desire. King Henry seemed to believe that the main difficulties were now removed from the way of English government in Ireland, and that there was nothing more to be done so far as he was concerned. There is a story told of Henry VII. which is believed to have some historical foundation. One of the most powerful Geraldine nobles in that day was the Earl of Kildare, and it is said that 'Henry had received admonitions that Kil­dare's influence might be a danger in Eng­land's way. Henry expressed a wish to know what was to be said against the Earl. He was told that all Ireland could not con­trol the Earl of Kildare. "Very well," was the reply attributed to Henry, " then let the Earl of Kildare control all Ireland." There was a certain humour in Henry's answer, but he soon showed he was not merely jesting. He left to the Earl of Kildare the full authority of governing Ireland in the best way he could. This probably seemed to Henry the easiest way of getting out of the difficulty. To govern Ireland after the fashion in which an English Sovereign would have her governed seemed to him to mean nothing but unceasing civil war, for which he had now no inclination. If the Earl of Kildare or any other man had influence enough


to keep Ireland out of actual rebellion, and with any semblance of submission to the English monarch, Henry probably thought that no more satisfactory plan could be de­vised for maintaining the connection and sparing England the cost and trouble of another invasion and conquest. The states­manship of the time does not seem to have thought of consulting the national feelings of the Irish, It did not occur to the advisers of Henry VII. that in the exercise of such a policy might be found the surest and indeed the only possible way to a genuine union of interests and affections between England and Ireland.

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