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 reign of Henry VIII. proved to be a time of much excitement and dis­turbance in Ireland. The Geraldines and their followers had the practical control of the whole region known as the Pale - the region mainly colonized by the English settlers. The Pale comprised the greater part of the counties of Dublin, Louth, Meath, and Kildare. Nor were Henry and his advisers impressed merely by the fact that the Lords of the Pale were establishing a rule of their own over the regions where they had settled, a rule becoming more and more independent of any control which royal authority could exert. Even that would have been enough to arouse the jealousy and impatience of the English Sovereign, but Henry also saw that


the Geraldines and the other great families who were more or less allied with them were gradually forming friendly alliances with many of the native Chieftains, and that a renewed movement for Irish independence appeared to be already foreshadowed. Henry took prompt and stern measures. Gerald, the ninth Earl of Kildare, the son of the Lord Deputy mentioned in the preceding chapter, was now becoming a powerful per­sonage. He had rendered great service to the English cause. He had successfully resisted some Irish invasions of the Pale, defeating the Irish with much slaughter and putting to death several of their leaders. King Henry appointed Kildare Lord Deputy of Ireland, and he is said to have accom­panied the King to France in June, 1520, and to have been present with him on the famous Field of the Cloth of Gold. After his return to Ireland Kildare made many enemies among the loyalists, and became engaged in rivalry with other resi­dent English nobles. A new Deputy was appointed, the Earl of Ormond, and then set in a bitter feud between the two Earls and their followers. In those days, if one great nobleman got into a quarrel with another, it might be taken for granted that each would accuse his opponent of treason against the Sovereign. The reciprocal com­plaints of Kildare and Ormond appear to


have been submitted to a sort of court of arbitration under the royal authority. Some of the conditions suggested by the arbitrators were that both the Earls should be pledged to abstain from making war without the con­sent of the King, should cease from levying taxes of their own on the loyal regions of the Pale, should prevail upon their followers to acknowledge the laws made by the King's Government, and that each should give security by a bond of 1,000 marks to keep-the peace for a year. This curious page of history illustrates clearly the condition of things then prevailing throughout that part of Ireland. These disputing Earls were not Irish Chieftains. They were English nobles, who had each held the highest office in Ireland under Henry's Sovereign authority. Each, was supposed to be " fighting for his own hand," endeavouring to make himself complete master for his own purposes of as much of Ireland as he could, while professing an unvarying allegiance to the Sovereign of England, The dispute was settled, but broke out again and again, and the King had more than once to appoint new commissions or courts of arbitration to bring the troubles to some kind of settlement. Kildare was after­wards again appointed Lord Deputy of Ire­land, and the old story began anew.

It is not necessary to follow the story much farther. Kildare was accused of having en-


tered into treasonable alliances with Irish Chieftains, and this was a much more serious charge than any accusation of attempting to make himself master of the lives and liberties of the King's loyal subjects while still acting professedly as the King's Lord Deputy. Kildare was summoned to England to give account of his conduct, and was committed to the Tower of London. A report of his execution in the Tower reached Ireland almost at once, and led to some striking events there. It seems to be historically established that Kildare was not executed, but that after a long confinement his health broke down, and he died quietly in his prison. His son, Lord Thomas Fitzgerald, had for some time held the office of Vice-Deputy in Ireland, having received the ap­pointment from his father. He was a brave, brilliant, and open-hearted young man, with a strong affection for the country of his adoption as well as for the country of his birth, but he was impulsive and incautious, and fond of display. The manner in which he adorned the war costumes of himself and his immediate retainers with fringes of silk and lace procured for him the nickname of " Silken Thomas." When Thomas Fitzgerald heard of his father's imprisonment and re­ceived the added story of his immediate execution, he took counsel with some of his close friends, the O'Neills and O'Connors,


and all agreed that an effort must be made to free the country from the arbitrary rule of the English King. "Silken Thomas" made up his mind not only to lead a rebellion against the English Sovereign, but to precede his acts of war by a public renunciation of his allegiance. Lord Thomas rode to the council chamber of Dublin in splendid array, attended by some hundred and forty retainers in becoming panoply. He entered the council chamber and took his place as Vice-Deputy at the head of the table, while his armed followers rushed in and filled whatever space had been left in the great hall. Then Lord Thomas arose and delivered a speech, in which he renounced his allegiance to the English Sovereign, and declared that he was no longer the Deputy of King Henry, but his foe. He announced that his desire now was rather to meet King Henry in the field than to serve him any longer in office. The Chancellor and others at the council table made earnest and even impassioned appeals to the young nobleman not to commit himself to so rash a course, but " Silken Thomas " was " not to be dissuaded. The story goes that his Irish harper had followed him into the council chamber, and, understanding only Irish, began to fear that the interchange of talk at the table boded some wavering in Lord Thomas's purpose. He suddenly in­toned a Gaelic poem inciting his lord to go


bravely on, and telling him that he had already lingered too long in the hall of his enemies. It is not likely that Lord Thomas needed any incentive, but, as the tale goes, the recited words ended all parley. " Silken Thomas " rose to his feet and declared that he preferred " rather to die with, valiantnesse and libertie than to live under King Henrie in bondage and villanie," Then he "flung on the table the sword of State he had been carrying as Vice-Deputy, and left the council chamber with his crowd of armed retainers. There was no force immediately at the dis­posal of the Chancellor which could have prevented Lord Thomas from going his way. The Council promptly issued an order to the Lord Mayor of Dublin for the immediate arrest of " Silken Thomas," but the Lord Mayor had a prudent mind, and did not see by what means he could carry out such an order.

"Silken Thomas" raised a formidable re­bellion against the power of the English Sovereign, and a war went on which for a long time proved favourable to his cause. The English troops, however, had resources of modern artillery and warlike munitions which were new to the Irish, and the prospects of the struggle began to show darkly against " Silken Thomas" and his followers. In the meantime authentic news came to Ireland that the Earl of Kildare had died quietly in


the Tower of London, and " Silken Thomas " succeeded to the title-a barren title, as it proved to be. The new Earl of Kildare made unavailing efforts to obtain the intervention of some Continental power in his struggle against England. Altogether the war lasted fourteen months, and it ended in the Earl's surrender. There is much dispute as to whether bis surrender was absolute or con­ditional, but it is enough to know that " Silken Thomas" was sent to the Tower of London, and that on February 3, 1537, he was hanged on the gallows at Tyburn after an imprisonment of sixteen months. His five uncles, after imprisonment of eleven months, met the same death. " Silken Thomas" was but twenty - four when his life thus ended, and his short career came to be illuminated and enshrined in poetry and romance as well as in history.

The religious and political movements which brought about the Reformation were the source of new enmities and new struggles in Ireland. By far the greater part of the Irish remained absolutely faithful to the form of Christian worship which had been estab­lished in the island by St. Patrick. It is a curious fact, which must interest all students of Irish history, that some of the noble families who had settled in Ireland and con­formed to the doctrines of the Protestant Church remained still faithful to the principle


of Irish nationality. It will be seen in subse­quent chapters that almost every rebellion in Ireland against the Sovereignty of England, down even to times in the recollection of living men, had some descendant of one of these families amongst its leaders. The great calamity for Ireland was that to political troubles were added, from the days of Henry VIII., religious troubles of the most wasting and disastrous order. The severest edicts were enacted against any of the Irish or Anglo-Irish families who did not at once give in their allegiance to the English Sovereigns and publicly renounce the spiritual authority of the Pope. During the reign of Edward VI. a policy of something like exter­mination was undertaken against the Roman Catholics and against those whom we may call the Nationalists in Ireland. There was a short period of political and religious re­action under the rule of Queen Mary, but when Elizabeth came to the throne the policy for the suppression of the Roman Catholic religion and the spirit of Irish Nationalism went on with greater severity than ever. The Roman Catholic Church was suppressed in Ireland, so far as Acts of Parliament and the power of the Sovereign could suppress it; but the Irish Catholic priests and monks, and the preachers and teachers who came from the Continent to help them, still preached the doctrines of their Church all over the hill-


sides and throughout the valleys and forests and villages of the country, in defiance of all pains and penalties. Elizabeth must, of course, bear the historical responsibility for the oppressive policy which strove to crush out the Irish national faith; but it is only reasonable to believe that in many instances her representatives acted with an uncom­promising rigour not always in accordance with the disposition of the Queen herself.

The condition of Ireland was now one of chronic rebellion. The political or national warfare, the fight for Irish independence, had been embittered and infuriated to the last degree by the struggle of the old form of religion against the new. The Roman Catholics were not allowed any chance of coming into political harmony with the con­quering race. The ordinary man may submit when a system of political rule is bearing-down upon him which he sees no chance of resisting with success, but if he must also abjure the Faith of his fathers or hold his home and life at the mercy of his conquerors, he will naturally feel compelled to try the last and to die for his creed. This was the feeling in the hearts of the Irish Catholics. The defence of the ancestral soil became identified with the defence of the ancestral faith. So strongly did these sentiments take hold of the great majority of the Irish that almost any foreign Power which happened to be the


enemy of England was regarded as the friend of Ireland. The possessions of the Catholic Church having been confiscated, the next movement of the English conquerors was to confiscate the estates of the Irish Chieftains who had stood out against England's rule. The estates even of some of the Geraldines were thus declared to be the possession of the Crown, and their lands were distributed among English noblemen and settlers who had shown themselves loyal subjects of the Sovereign and were ready to colonize the island with imported Englishmen. This pro­cess of colonization did not go very far. Ad­venturers of all kinds were eager to come over to Ireland on the chance of making a good business out of the prizes held out to English settlers. But the English man of business who desired to cultivate his proffered possessions in peace and quietness was not much tempted by the prospect of having to fight for his acres and his life with the dis­possessed Irish, whom all the forces of the Crown had not been able to extirpate.

This time of trouble called forth some powerful champions of the Irish National cause. One of these, Shane O'Neil, has been celebrated in many a popular ballad. The head of the house to which he belonged had acknowledged allegiance to Henry VIII. and received the title of Earl of Tyrone. The English title carried with it, according to


English law, the principle of hereditary suc­cession ; but when the first Earl died the clan of O'Neil refused to adopt the English prac­tice, and, according to the Irish principle of Tanistry, chose as his successor the member of the House for whom they had the highest regard. This was Shane O'Neil, who was a younger and not even a legitimate son of the Earl of Tyrone, but whose energy, courage, and strong national sentiments had already made him the hero of his sept. Shane O'Neil at once proclaimed himself the champion of Irish national independence. Queen Elizabeth, amid all her troubles with foreign States, had to pour large numbers of troops into Ireland, and these troops, as all historians admit, overran the country in the most reckless and merciless manner. Shane O'Neil, however, held his own, and began to prove himself a formidable opponent of Eng­lish power. The evidence of history leaves little or no doubt that Elizabeth connived at a plot for the removal of O'Neil by assassination. This project did not come to anything, and the Queen tried another policy. She was a woman not merely of high intellect but also of artistic feeling, and it would seem as if the picturesque figure of Shane O'Neil had aroused some interest in her. She proposed to enter into terms with the new " Lord of Ulster," as he now declared himself, and in-


vited him to visit her Court in England. O'Neil seems to have accepted with great goodwill this opportunity of seeing a life hitherto unknown to him, and he soon ap­peared at Court. We read that O'Neil and his retainers presented themselves in their saffron-coloured shirts and shaggy mantles, bearing battle-axes as their weapons, amid the stately gentlemen, the contemporaries of Essex and Raleigh, who thronged the Court of the great Queen. A meeting took place on January 6, 1562. Froude tells us the effect produced upon the Court by the appear­ance of O'Neil and his followers ; " The council, the peers, the foreign ambassadors, bishops, aldermen, dignitaries of all kinds, were present in State, as if at the exhibition of some wild animal of the desert. O'Neil stalked in, his saffron mantle sweeping round and round him, his hair curling on his back and clipped short below the eyes, which gleamed from under it with a grey lustre, frowning, fierce, and cruel. Behind him followed his gallow-glasses, bareheaded and fair-haired, with shirts of mail which reached beneath their knees, a wolf's skin flung across their shoulders, and short, broad battle-axes in their hands." O'Neil made a formal act of submission to the Queen, and negotiations set in for a definite and lasting arrangement. Nothing came of it. O'Neil seems to have understood that he was acting under a


promise of safe conduct, and was to be con­firmed in the ownership of his estates in return for his submission. But whatever may have been the misunderstanding, it is certain that these terms were not carried out accord­ing to O'Neil's expectation. He was detained in London in qualified captivity, and was in­formed that he could only be restored to his lands when he had engaged to make war against his former allies the Scots, had pledged himself not to make war without the consent of the English Government, and to set up no claim of supremacy over other Chiefs in Ireland.

O'Neil seems to have proved himself skilful as a diplomatist, and he greatly gratified the Queen by paying intense deference to all her suggestions, and even by modestly requesting that she would choose a wife for him. He seems to have agreed to what he did not intend to carry out. Some terms were under­stood to be arranged at last, and on May 5, 1562, a Royal proclamation was issued de­claring that in future he was to be regarded as a good and loyal subject of the Queen. Shane returned to Ireland, and made known to his friends that the articles of agreement had been forced upon him under peril of captivity or death, and that he could not re­gard them as binding. He went so far to maintain the terms of the treaty as to begin a war against the Scots, and sent the Queen


a list of his captives in token of his sincerity. But he still insisted that he had never made peace with the Queen except by her own seeking; that his ancestors were Kings of Ulster, and that Ulster was his kingdom and should continue to be his. He soon after applied to Charles IX., King of France, to send him 5,000 men to assist him in expelling the English from Ireland. Then war set in again between the English Lord Deputy and Shane O'Neil. Defeated in many encounters, O'Neil again tried to make terms with the Queen, and again applied to the King of France for the help of an army to drive the English from Ireland and restore the Catholic faith. By this time the Scottish settlers in Ulster, who appear to have once been as much disliked by the English Government as the Irish themselves, had turned completely against him. His end was not in keeping with his soldierly and picturesque career. After a severe defeat he took refuge with some old tribal enemies of his, who at first professed to receive him as a friend and find a shelter for him. A quarrel sprang up at a drinking festival during the June of 1567, and Shane and most of his companions were killed in the affray. It is not easy to come to a satisfactory estimate of the character of Shane O'Neil. Some English historians treat him as if he were a mere monster of treachery and violent crime. Most Irish


legends and stories convert him into a perfect hero and patriot; while other Irish writers of graver order are inclined to dwell alto­gether upon the wrongs done to him and the perfidies employed to ensnare him by those who acted for the English Government. It is necessary to keep always in mind that in their dealings with the Irish native popula­tions the English Government only too frequently employed deception and treachery, thus giving the Irish Chieftains what they considered warrant enough for playing a similar game. Shane O'Neil was very un­scrupulous in his methods of dealing with his enemies ; he was a man of sensuous passions and fierce hatreds, but he was gifted with splendid courage, a remarkable capacity for soldiership, and much of the diplomatist's or statesman's art. An Irish essayist, who writes with much judgment and moderation on the subject, describes Shane as "a thorough Celtic Chief, not of the traditional type, but such as centuries of prolonged struggle for existence had made the Chieftains of his nation." This seems the only fair standard by which to judge his career. No Irish family gave more trouble in its time to the English conquerors than did the O'Neils, and Shane O'Neil was in some of his qualities the most extraordinary man of the family. There were other O'Neils who bequeathed to their country's history a brighter and purer fame.


and of whose characters we can form a common estimate with less chance of dispute, but in Shane O'Neil we see a genuine type of the ancestral Irish Chieftain brought into dealings and antagonism with the advances and the emissaries of a newer civilization.

All contents of this site are copyright © 2007


Library Home | About | Links | Mailing List | Contact Us