FROM EARLY TIMES TO EDWARD I (1272)
Of all histories the history of Ireland
is the saddest. For nearly seven centuries it
was a course of strife between races, bloodshed, massacre,
misgovernment, civil war, oppression, and misery.
Hardly even now have the troubles of Ireland come
to a close, either for herself or for her partner.
Unrest still reigns in her and, embodied in her Parliamentary
delegation, harasses the Parliament and distracts the
councils of Great Britain.
The theatre of this tragedy is a large
island lying beside one nearly three times larger,
which cuts it off from the continent of Europe, while
on the other side it fronts the wide ocean. The
climate is for the most part too wet for wheat.
The pasture is very rich. Ireland seems by nature
to be a grazing country, and a country of large farms;
tillage and small farms have been enforced by the
redundance of rural population consequent on the destruction
of urban industries. In coal and minerals Ireland
is poor, while the sister island abounds in them,
and in its swarming factories and mines furnishes
a first-rate market for the produce of Irish pastures;
so that the two islands are commercial supplements
of each other. The progress of pastoral countries,
political and general, as they have little city life,
is slow. With beauty Ireland is well endowed.
The interior is flat, with large peat bogs and brimming
rivers. But the coast is mountainous and romantic.
The western coast especially, where the Atlantic rolls
into deep inlets, has a pensive charm which, when troubles
end and settled peace reigns, may attract the villa
as they do the wanderer now. In early times the
island was densely clothed with woods, which, with
the broad and bridgeless rivers, operated like the
mountain barriers of the Scottish Highlands in perpetuating
the division of clans, with their patriarchal system,
their rivalries, and their feuds, thus precluding
the growth of a nation. In Ireland there was no
natural centre of dominion. Interest of every
kind seems to enjoin the union of the islands.
But in the age of conquest the weaker island was pretty
sure to be marked as a prey of the stronger, while
the difficulties of access, the Channel, broad in
the days of primitive navigation, and the Welsh mountains,
combined with the internal barriers of forest and river
and with the naturally wild habits of the people,
portended that the conquest would be difficult and
that the agony would be long. Such was the mould
The people of Ireland when history
opens were Celts, kinsmen of the primitive races of
Gaul and Britain, remnants of which are left in Wales
and in the Highlands of Scotland. Their language
was of that family, while cognate words connect it
with the general Aryan stock. There are traces
of a succession of immigrations. Too much,
no doubt, has been made of the influence of race.
Yet the Teuton is a Teuton and the Celt is a Celt.
The Celt in his native state has everywhere shown
himself lively, social, communicative, impulsive,
prone to laughter and to tears, wanting, compared
with the Teuton, in depth of character, in steadiness
and perseverance. He is inclined rather to personal
rule or leadership than to a constitutional polity.
His poet is not Shakespeare or Milton, but Tom Moore,
a light minstrel of laughter and tears. His political
leader is O’Connell, a Boanerges of passionate
declamation. In war he is impetuous, as was the
Gaul who charged at Allia and the Highlander who charged
at Killiecrankie and Prestonpans. His taste as
well as his manual skill in decoration is shown by
the brilliant collection of gold ornaments in the
Celtic Museum at Dublin, as well as in stone carvings
and such a paragon of illuminated missals as the Book
of Kells. But it is greater than his aptitude
for high art, that art which treats the human form,
in which he has not shone. His religious tendency,
the outcome of his general character, is either to
Catholicism with its fervid faith, its mysteries,
and its ceremonial, as in Ireland; or to the enthusiastic
forms of Protestantism, as in the Highlands and in
Wales. Anglicanism, a sober cult with a balanced
creed, suits him not. It was a cruel decree of
destiny that the larger island from which the conqueror
would come was peopled by the Teuton, so that to the
usual evils of conquest was added that of a difference
of character inherent in race.
The primitive organization of the
Irish Celts was tribal, the underlying idea being
kinship, real or reputed. The ruler with paternal
authority was the chief of the tribe. To avert
strife his tanist, or successor, was elected in his
lifetime. In a community of reputed kinsmen there
could be no aristocracy of birth; but there seems
to have been a plutocracy, whose riches in that pastoral
country consisted of cattle, which formed the measure
of wealth and command of which made poorer clansmen
their retainers. Under these were the freemen
of the tribe. Under the freemen again were the
unfree, wanderers or captives taken in war or slaves
from the English slave-market. The unfree appear
to have been the only tillers of the soil. Thus
tillage was marked with a bar sinister from its birth.
The tribal law was a mystical and largely fanciful
craft or tradition in the keeping of the Brehons,
or judges, a hereditary order who, though revered
as arbiters, were without power of enforcing their
judgments. Like primitive law in general, it
lacked the idea of public wrong. It treated crime
as a private injury, to be compounded by fine.
The land was the common property of the tribe, to
which it nominally reverted on the demise of the holder,
though it may be assumed that the chiefs at all events
had practically land of their own and that the tendency
in this, as in other cases, was to private ownership.
What the religion was is not certainly
known. Probably it was the same as that of the
Celts of Great Britain and Gaul, Druidism, wild, orgiastic,
and perhaps sanguinary. But there seem to be no
remains clearly Druidic in Ireland.
Life was pastoral, roving, probably
bellicose. It appears that women required to
be restrained from taking part in war. The characteristic
garb of the tribesman was a loose saffron mantle,
which served as his dress by day, his coverlet by
night. His favourite weapons, often used, were
an axe and a dart. He drew, it seems, a bow weak
compared with the long-bow of England. The gentler
side of his character was shown in his passionate
love of the harp and the reverence in which he held
the harper, and which was extended to the bard, whose
rude lays saluted the intellectual dawn and whom we
find in later times feared as an author of lampoons.
Among his favourite amusements was chess.
Knowledge of the peculiar system of
the Irish, political and legal, is of more consequence
because the opposite system, that of constitutional
government and feudal ownership, having presented itself
to him as that of alien masters and oppressors, tribal
peculiarities and sentiments lingered long. The
idea of tribal ownership perhaps was a few generations
ago still faintly present in agrarian agitation.
Nor has the general character of the tribesman long
been, if it yet is, extinct. Tribal feuds were
until lately represented in the strange faction fights
of the Caravats and Shanavests, the Two-Year-Olds
and Three-Year-Olds, the annual fight of factions
for a legendary stone, and the encounters between bodies
of the peasantry at Irish fairs. Perhaps another
feature of character traceable to tribalism may be
the gregarious habit of Irishmen contrasted with the
Englishman’s isolation and love of his private
Connected apparently with the tribal
sentiment were the strange customs of fosterage and
gossipred. Fosterage consisted in putting out
the child to be reared by a tribesman who became its
foster-father. Gossipred, a Christian addition,
was a spiritual kinship formed at the font. Both
relations had extraordinary force.
There were, of course, tribal wars.
There were leagues or dominations of powerful tribes
which left their traces in the division of the island
into four or five provinces, once petty kingships.
There was a supreme kingship, the seat of which, sacred
in Irish tradition and legend, was the Hill of Tara;
but it was probably only when common danger compelled
a union of forces that this kingship became a real
power. The features of the country, combined
with the character of the tribal organization based
on kinship, not on citizenship, would prolong the tribal
divisions and prevent union. Nor had nature anywhere
fixed a central seat of command. Only when opposed
to an invader and struggling against him for the land
did Celtic Ireland form for the time a united people;
even then it could hardly be called a nation.
The Roman conqueror looked, but came
not. It might have been better for Ireland if
he had come. Yet, when he retired, he would probably
have left the Romanized provincial, here as in Britain,
too unwarlike to hold his own against the next invader.
A conqueror of a different kind came.
He came in the person, not of a Roman general, but,
if the tradition is true, of a slave. By the preaching
of St. Patrick, according to the common belief, Ireland
was added to the Kingdom of Christ. The conversion
was rapid and probably superficial, the chief of the
tribe carrying the tribe over with him, as Ethelbert
of Kent and other English kinglets carried over their
people, rather to a new religious allegiance than
to a new faith.
Within the Roman Empire the centres
of the Church had been the cities. Cities were
the seats of its bishoprics. The models of its
organization were urban. But in Ireland there
were no cities. The episcopate was irregular
and weak, denoting rank rather than authority or jurisdiction.
The life of the Church was monastic and missionary.
The weird Round Towers, believed to have been places
of refuge for its ministers and their sacred vessels,
as well as bell-towers, speak of a life surrounded
by barbarism and rapine as well as threatened by the
heathen and devastating Northmen. Partly perhaps
owing to its comparative isolation and detachment
at home, the Irish clergy was fired with a marvellous
and almost preternatural zeal for the propagation
of the Gospel abroad. It crossed the sea to Iona,
the sacred isle, still to religious memory sacred,
from which the light of the Gospel shone to the wild
islesmen and to the rovers of the Northern Sea.
Irish missionaries preached to heathen Germany, colliding
there, it seems, with a more regular episcopate.
They played a part in the conversion of Britain not
less important than that of the missionaries of Rome,
before whose authority, however, the Irish Church in
the person of Aidan was at last compelled to retire,
the decisive struggle taking place on the mode of
In Ireland itself there arose in connection
with the Church a precocious and romantic passion
for learning which founded primitive universities.
Its memory lingers in the melancholy ruins of Clonmacnoise.
This was the delusive brightness of a brief day, to
be followed by the darkness of a long night.
The Church of Ireland seems in its
origin to have been national and neither child nor
vassal of Rome. Its theology must have been independent
if Scotus Erigena was its son. But Rome gradually
cast her spell, in time she extended her authority,
over it. Its heads looked to her as the central
support of the interests of their order and as their
protectress against the rude encroachments of the
native chiefs. Norman Archbishops of Canterbury
served as transmitters of the influence. Still,
the Irish Church was not in Roman eyes perfectly regular.
Tithes were not paid, nor was the rule of consanguinity
observed, or the rite of baptism administered in strict
accordance with the ordinances of Rome.
Christianity did not kill the brood
of a lively superstition, the fairy, the banshee,
the spectre, charms, amulets, prophecies, wild legends,
which in the times of gloom that followed strengthened
their hold upon Irish imagination.
Hostile invasion came first in the
form of the Northmen, whose piracy and rapine extended
to Ireland as well as to Gaul and Britain. Piracy
and rapine we call them now, but to the Northmen they
seemed no more criminal than to us seems hunting or
fishing. The chief objects of the invader’s
attack were the monasteries, at once treasuries of
Church wealth and hateful to the people of Odin.
Ruthlessly the Northman slew and burned. His
fleet made him ubiquitous and baffled defence, union
for which there was not at first among the tribes.
Common danger at last enforced it. A national
leader arose in the person of Brian Boru, who was for
Ireland the military, though not the political, saviour
that Alfred was for England. At the great battle
of Clontarf, the host over which the Danish Raven flew
was totally overthrown, and Ireland was redeemed from
its ravages. The Dane, however, did not wholly
depart. Exchanging the rover for the trader,
he founded a set of little maritime commonwealths at
Dublin, Wexford, Waterford, and Limerick, germs on
a small scale and in a rude way of municipal as well
as commercial life.
But a conqueror, more fell and more
tenacious than the Dane, was at hand. In 1169
a little fleet of Welsh vessels ran into the Bay of
Bannow. From it landed a band of mail-clad soldiery,
men trained to war, with a corps of archers.
They were Normans from Wales under the leadership of
the Anglo-Norman rover Fitzstephen, and were the precursors
of a larger body which presently followed, under Richard
Strigul, Earl of Pembroke, from the strength of his
arm surnamed Strongbow. Dermot, an Irish chief,
expelled for his tyranny, had brought these invaders
on his country as the instruments of his revenge.
Henry II. had, by giving letters of marque, sanctioned
the enterprise, the fruits of which he intended to
reap. Early in his reign the king had obtained
from Pope Adrian IV., an Englishman by birth, a bull
authorizing him to take possession of Ireland, which
with other islands the bull declared of right to be
an appanage of the Holy See. Here, as in the
case of William’s invasion of England, the Papacy
used Norman conquest as the instrument of its own aggrandizement.
The authenticity of the bull is disputed by Irish
patriotism, but in vain. No one questions the
share of the Papacy in the Norman conquest of England.
With the aid of his Norman allies,
to whom the Irishman with his naked valour was as
the Mexican to the Spaniard, Dermot prevailed and glutted
his revenge by plucking from the triumphal pyramid
of hostile heads that of his chief enemy and tearing
it with his teeth. But in this case, as in that
of the alliance of Cortez with the Tlascalans, the
ally had conquered for himself. Declining to
be dislodged, he proceeded to establish himself and
to organize a Norman principality.
Now the jealousy of the English king
was aroused. He saw an independent Anglo-Norman
kingdom on the point of being founded by Strongbow
in Ireland. He published the papal bull, came
over to Ireland in his power, and held his court at
Dublin in a palace of wickerwork run up in native
style for the occasion, where the Irish chiefs bowed
their heads, but not their hearts, before him.
He organized a feudal principality with himself as
lord, but having the Pope as its suzerain, and tributary
to the Papacy. He formally introduced the organization
of a feudal kingdom. He held at Cashel a synod
like that held by William the Conqueror at Winchester
for the purpose of reforming, that is thoroughly Romanizing,
the Church of Ireland. Irregularities respecting
infant baptism and the matrimonial table of consanguinity
were set right. The payment of tithes, that paramount
duty of piety, was enjoined. Rome was installed
in full authority, thus in Ireland, as in England,
receiving from her Norman liegemen her share of their
prize. With this pious offering to the Papacy
in his hand, Henry departed to meet his responsibility
for the slaying of Becket. He was presently succeeded
for a short time in Ireland by his hopeful boy, John,
whose personal behaviour was an earnest of the future
tenour of his reign. Afterward, as king, John
paid Ireland another flying visit in which, besides
pouncing on an enemy, he seems to have made a fleeting
attempt to regulate the government.
Henry, had he not been called away
by the storm following the death of Becket, might
have left things in better shape, but nothing could
make up for the permanent absence of the king.
Two antagonistic systems henceforth confronted each
other. On one side was the feudal system, with
its hierarchy of land-owners, from lord-paramount
to tenant-paravail; its individual ownership of land;
its hereditary succession and primogeniture; its feudal
perquisites, relief, wardship, and marriage; its tribute
of military service; the loyalty to the grantor of
the fief which was its pervading and sustaining spirit;
its knighthood and its chivalry; its Great Council
of barons and baronial bishops; its feudal courts of
justice and officers of state; all however highly
rude and imperfect. On the other side was tribalism,
with its tie of original kinship instead of territorial
subordination; its tanistry; its Brehon law. But
the feudal system in Ireland lacked the keystone of
its arch. It was destitute of its regulating
and controlling power, the king. A royal justiciar
could not fill the part. From the outset the
bane of the principality was delegated rule.
Ireland was a separate realm, though
attached to the Crown of England. It had a Parliament
of its own, which followed that of England in its
development, being at first a unicameral council of
magnates, lay and clerical; but after the legislation
of Edward I. a bicameral assembly with a Lower House
formed of representatives of counties and boroughs,
whose consent would be formally necessary to taxation.
Representatives of Ireland were at first called to
Edward’s Parliament at Westminster, but the
inconvenience seems to have been found too great.
Weak, however, was the Parliament of the colony compared
with that of the imperial country. If the Lords
ever showed force, the making of a House of Commons
was not there. The representation, as well as
the proceedings and the records, appears to have been
very irregular. Nothing worthy of the name of
Parliamentary government seems ever to have prevailed.
Among those who signed the Great Charter was the Archbishop
of Dublin; but of chartered rights Ireland was not
the scene. There is no appearance of a separate
grant of subsidies by the clerical estate. The
clergy, it seems, were represented by their proctors
in the Lower House, as by the bishops and abbots in
the Upper House. The Parliament appears to have
been generally a tool in the hands of the deputy.
The irregularity of its composition seems to have
extended to its meetings.
From the first the relation between
the feudal realm and that of the tribes was border
war. They were alien to each other in race, language,
and social habits, as well as in political institutions.
The Norman could not subdue the Celt, the Celt could
not oust the Norman. The conquest of England
by William of Normandy had been complete, and had given
birth to a national aristocracy, which in time blended
with the conquered race and united with it in extorting
the Great Charter. The Norman colony in Ireland
was left to its feeble resources, and to a divided
command, while the monarchy was far away over sea,
was squandering its forces in French fields, and could
not even project a complete conquest. Besides,
there were the difficulties which the country, with
its broad rivers, its bogs, its mountains and forests,
opposed to the heavy cavalry of the Anglo-Norman.
There was the mobility of a pastoral people, presenting
no cities or centres of any kind for attack, driving
its cattle to the woods on the approach of the invader,
and eluding his pursuit like birds of the air.
Thus the Anglo-Norman colony failed to become a dominion
and presently dwindled to a pale. Between the
Pale and the Celt incessant war was waged with the
usual atrocity of struggles between the half-civilized
and the savage. Fusion there could be none.
There was not the bond of human brotherhood or that
of a common tongue. On neither side was the murder
of the other race a crime. Never was there a more
inauspicious baptism of a nation.
Anglo-Norman and Celt, feudalist and
tribesman, alike were Catholics. A common religion
might have been a bond, a common clergy might have
been a mediating power. But race and language
prevailed over religion. The Churches, though
outwardly of the same faith, remained inwardly separate,
and not only separate but hostile to each other, the
clergy on both sides sharing the spirit and the atrocities
of race enmity and frontier war. The Church of
the tribes was still very rough and irregular.
The Norman on his part was devout. He was a founder
of monasteries, thereby discharging his conscience
of a load not seldom heavy. Whatever of religious
life and activity there was in the Pale seems to have
been monastic. Our glimpses of the secular clergy
show that they were secular indeed. Among them
not neglect of duty only but criminality appears to
have been rife.
In the little commercial towns of
Danish foundation on the coast which had been taken
over by the Norman, life was probably rather more civilized;
but they were too diminutive to exert any influence
beyond their gates. Galway in time became the
port of an active trade with Spain which is supposed
to have left a Spanish trace on its architecture and
a Spanish strain in the blood of its people.