Tales from Irish History - Alice Birkhead

Another View of the State of Ireland

Spenser drew in his book the Ireland that he S knew, a country under the heel of a conqueror, before whom all prosperity soon vanished. His was the time of Ireland's downfall he had never known that glorious age when envy followed her mercantile success. Not altogether blessed for Ireland was the trade of the fourteenth and fifteenth century, which led her nearest neighbours to bring about her ruin.

If Spenser had visited those great fairs of thriving Ireland, he would surely have walked in wonder among merchants, clad in gorgeous apparel of silk and finest cloth, that aped the highest civilization of a European court. In silk hose and rich tunic the prentice ruffled by his master, mincing daintily in long, pointed shoes, tied by silver laces. The women bore on their heads high piles of home-spun linen, but they were by no means satisfied with the products of their own accomplished hands. They must have brave Italian fashions, and for great occasions even cloth of gold.

Women, held in high esteem during the age preceding conquest, were wont to preside with dignity at banquets, where they sat in converse with the learned of the land. They were taught foreign tongues and wise Irish proverbs, in which their own virtues were extolled. They would have summoned Spenser to their houses, furnished with costly luxury, and vied with the later Elizabethans in the board they spread for him. Wine from hot southern countries was always poured for an honoured guest, and, as he partook of choice fruits and spices, the singing of the bards struck sweetly on his ears. Spenser might have regretted still more the baseness of their fall, if he had seen the high estate in which every poet once lived secure.

Or, in a more humble dwelling, the same guest would have found the mistress busy at her loom, but not too much occupied to neglect the great duty of hospitality, which the Irish of that day all practised. She would offer whatever food the household afforded, and think it a disgrace to her bounty if the stranger visited an inn.

Perhaps Spenser would have chosen for a visit the famous fair held at Eniscorthy on Great Lady Day. He could then have proved his skill in tongues by parley with the merchants who came from foreign lands, eager to exchange their wares for those of Irish manufacture. Wandering down the splendid road that led towards the town he would have met, among the merchants, pilgrims bent on more pious errands to some monastery. Highways had been laid waste when Spenser lived in Ireland—they made the way too easy for a conqueror. He found his path a rough one when he went to visit Raleigh, yet he could have chatted to the pilgrims without a thought of danger. And Spenser would have received as well as given in talking to the learned men who went about the country in that time. The great warriors themselves were often scholars, and collected libraries to satisfy their own love of books as well as to provide for the tastes of scholar-guests.

Raleigh was not the first student in Ireland to ponder over foreign writings. Were not the Earls of Kildare famed for gifts both literary and warlike, and had not even a wild O'Neill more than once shown an inclination for gentler pursuits than raiding? When Spenser visited the western coast, he must have stood to watch the sun set over the broad Atlantic, and seen ships of curious aspect in the harbours as well as more familiar sail. Stone houses and stone piers in such towns as Galway and Sligo are silent witnesses of Ireland's former trade by sea. The exploits of Irish sailors have been overshadowed by the fame of Elizabethan sea-dogs, but their day was one of high renown. A woman, one Grania O'Maille, of a race of sturdy mariners, as valiant as the best, swept the western sea with two hundred fighting men at her command. She took her husband with her on these voyages "for she was as much by sea as land more than Mrs Mate with him."

The harbours showed fewer sails when the strife by land waxed grim; the smith forged weapons for use instead of to display his skill in artifice; the cattle, lowing of old in fertile orchards, had to browse on scanty pasturage; the hum of looms was silenced by the piteous shrieks of housewives and their children.

Commerce, under the restrictions of new laws, was crushed by the sheer tyranny of conquest. Learning decayed since it was made too difficult for a people who suffered cruel domination.

As the hands of all Irishmen learnt to wield weapons in their own defence, the generations following ceased to possess the ancient skill in manual labour.

Spenser spoke of benefits received from English rule, and hinted that the long, protracted warfare added but a shade of blackness to the former misery of Ireland. He knew the country in his misfortune and never loved it, because he mistook for national characteristics the reign of despair that succeeded the age of pride and plenty. Elizabethan Ireland had been stricken with her death-blow in the very flower of a splendid civilization.