Ireland: Peeps at History - Beatrice Home

Under the Tudors

Henry VII., the founder of the Tudor dynasty, had ascended the throne in 1485, but his tenure of it was uncertain. Yorkist feeling still ran high, and nowhere was it more keen than in the English Pale in Ireland, where the Duke of York, who fell at Wakefield, was remembered with affection. When the young impostor, Lambert Simnel, arrived in Dublin, announcing himself as the grandson of the Duke of York, and heir to the throne, he was welcomed with enthusiasm, and crowned with full ceremony as Edward VI. Nearly all the great nobles of the Pale, with the Earl of Kildare at their head, supported the youth, and followed him to England, largely increasing the original army of 2,000 German mercenaries under Martin Schwartz, with which Simnel had been supplied by the Yorkist Duchess of Burgundy. A rapid disaster at Stoke in Nottingham quelled the rebellion, many of the leaders dying on the field, Simnel being captured and contemptuously pardoned by King Henry, who made the claimant of the throne a turnspit in his kitchen.

A few years later, Henry, being more settled in England, turned his attention to Ireland, where he found the Pale dominated by the Anglo-Irish nobles, who had little regard for the Crown. Determining to alter this state of affairs, the King sent over Sir Edward Poynings as Viceroy, with powers to effect drastic changes in the government. Supported by an army, and with English officials to replace the Irish, Poynings landed in Ireland in 1494 and summoned a Parliament at Drogheda, where the famous act was passed which bears his name. By this law no legislation could be discussed in the Irish Parliament until it had received approval from the King and his Council in England, and at the same time all English laws were made binding in Ireland. Destined to be a source of intense irritation and disaffection in the succeeding centuries, it remained in force until 1782, when the Irish Parliament achieved its brief independence. Originally intended as a means of checking the power of the nobles, who were responsible for much ill-considered and arbitrary legislation, and also as a means of spreading the English law and royal authority, Poynings' Law became in later times the vehicle of interference by the English Parliament, who knew little of Irish affairs.

Though Poynings had carried out royal instructions, he was soon recalled, and Gerald the Great, the eighth Earl of Kildare, restored to his old position of Lord Deputy. Kildare was a man of commanding stature, considerable administrative powers, and possessed of general capacity and resourcefulness. Pardoned by King Henry for his share in Simnel's rebellion, and allowed still to act as viceroy, he had been accused of treason at the Drogheda Parliament, and sent a prisoner to the Tower of London. After a year's confinement he was brought before the King, who was pleased with his audacity and wit, and also by his adroit flattery. When informed that "all Ireland cannot govern this man," Henry is said to have replied, "Then this man shall govern all Ireland." It is at any rate certain that Kildare returned to his office and ruled Ireland till his death, in 1513. He remained entirely loyal to the king, maintaining royal authority, and doubtless at the same time that of his own house, and by his personal power and forceful administration subdued the Celts and kept the country in fair order. He was succeeded by his son, the ninth Earl, who for a time was high in favour with Henry VIII., being endowed with many of the winning qualities of his family. Unfortunately for him, he indulged in reckless behaviour in Ireland, carrying on the old-time raids upon his enemies, and, though twice pardoned by the King and restored to power, he finally died a prisoner in the Tower. His impetuous young son, Lord Thomas Fitzgerald, known as "Silken Thomas," either from the badge of silk worn upon the helmets of his followers or from the rich display of his dress, heard a rumour that his father had been executed, and, without waiting for confirmation, instantly threw off his allegiance to King Henry, and at the head of the Geraldine forces attacked Dublin. For a time he was successful. Skeffington, sent over from England with an army, remained inactive in Dublin for some months, while Ormond, the hereditary foe of the Fitzgeralds, fought and harassed Lord Thomas, who had become the Earl of Kildare through his father's death in prison. At last Skeffington moved, attacked the Kildare stronghold, the Castle of Maynooth, and by the aid of artillery took a castle hitherto thought impregnable. With this capture and the cruel treatment to the prisoners the rebellion ended. Lord Thomas, after holding out for a little longer, finally surrendered, thinking his life was to be spared; but royal clemency for the House of Kildare had been strained too far, and after a year's imprisonment he and five uncles with him were hanged at Tyburn. The only representative left of the Geraldines of Leinster was a boy of twelve, who managed to escape the general doom of his house, being protected by the faithful adherents of his family.

Under Henry VIII.. the first systematic effort to bring Ireland into union with England was attempted. Surrey, one of the viceroys who held brief sway, urged his monarch to reconquer Ireland thoroughly by military force, and then to settle English colonists on the land; but Henry wished to obtain the desired end—the subjection to royal authority and "the reduction of the said land to a due civility and obedience and the advancement of the public weale of the same"—by conciliatory methods. He was even willing to allow the exercise of the Irish laws when they were as efficient as the English in maintaining order. By his consideration and courtesy to the Irish chiefs, making many of them earls after the English feudal system, and inviting them to his Court, he hoped to bind them to his throne. But King Henry's policy and that of his successors, though at first conciliatory, "gradually," as Mr. Dunlop observes, "and to all appearance, inevitably developed into one of a directly opposite tendency."

[Illustration] from Peeps at History - Ireland by Beatrice Home


There is no question that Ireland was an extremely difficult country to govern, however admirable the wishes of the king in distant England. A king was needed on the spot, with an army ready to put down risings and to keep justice and order, with councillors chosen from both races in the country, whose interest and honour would be bound up in the land. But this Ireland was never destined to obtain. Henry VIII.. found Ireland distraught with faction, possessing no national spirit, each chief and Anglo-Irish noble fighting for himself, sometimes combining for a short time, but only to break away again. The mass of the population was totally ignorant and little removed from the early barbaric life of the original Celtic inhabitants of the land, their condition being sympathetically described in the following question asked in one of the State Papers—"What common folk in all this world is so poor, so feeble, so evil beseen in town and field, so bestial, so greatly oppressed and trodden under foot, fares so evil, with so great misery, and with so wretched a life, as the common folk of Ireland?" A certain amount of commerce was carried on between the chief seaports and England and the Continent: Bristol shipped goods to Dublin, Galway was a port for Spanish trade, and Cork was the entrance for French wines. But this intercourse had but slight effect upon the country as a whole. It has been well observed that, "of those larger influences which were transforming the face of Europe politically, intellectually, and morally, Ireland knew nothing. The wave of the Renaissance expended its force without touching her shores."

Had Henry VIII.. not wished to marry Anne Boleyn, he might possibly have succeeded in establishing better permanent conditions in Ireland; but, his matrimonial desires bringing him into a breach with Rome, Ireland was forced into line with the Reformation, without any inward convictions. The Irish Parliament was ordered to acknowledge the King as Head of the Church, and the monasteries began to be dissolved. This arbitrary act caused little disturbance. At that time neither Celtic nor English Church had much hold on the people, who during their perpetual wars burnt and plundered religious houses with equanimity. Moreover, the priests were corrupt, slothful, and ignorant, many parishes were left without anyone to look after the spiritual life of the district, and only in some of the monasteries did real religion flourish at all. At the Parliament of 1541, where Irish chieftains for the first time assembled with the Anglo-Irish lords, all the alterations in the Church system were accepted, and Henry acknowledged as King and not merely "Lord" of Ireland, by the nobles and chiefs, who had eagerly participated in the spoil of the Church lands. Ireland having been the nominal gift from the Pope to Henry II., it had been found necessary for Henry VIII.. to claim his kingdom formally, and no longer to remain a vassal lord of Rome.

A rising took place which was declared to be a religious one, but which was obviously not the outburst of a people against interference with their sacred beliefs, but merely the common rebellion of a family indignant at harsh treatment. The relatives and connections of the Kildares rose, and tried to gain support from the Pope and the Catholic Emperor, but, failing to obtain this, they were soon put down. During Mary's brief reign Catholicism was restored, Mass was again celebrated, and the sacred images replaced in the churches. These changes seem to have been acquiesced in almost with indifference by the general population.

Queen Elizabeth, resembling her royal father in so many of his characteristics, endeavoured to follow his policy with regard to Ireland, but failed as he did. She was beset with many difficulties and surrounded by enemies, declared illegitimate by the Catholic powers, who invited her subjects to rebel, and hindered by want of money from carrying out any large schemes. Starting with the ideal of treating Ireland with justice and kindness, she was led by force of circumstances into countenancing the most horrible cruelties, and to permitting wars abundant in devastation and atrocities. As one writer puts it, "It was inauspicious that the work of constructing a stable government should have begun in Ireland centuries later than in the rest of Western Europe; that it should have been accompanied by a dispossession of the people from their lands, and the unsparing use of fire and famine as well as of the sword; that the venom of religious hatred should have been added to the hostility of races in different stages of civilization."

Two years after her accession to the throne a Parliament met in Dublin and established in legal form the English Church system, the compromise effected between the two extreme forms of religion by the Elizabethan councillors. A new prayer-book was ordered to be used, the mass was converted into the sacrament, the old ritual service abolished, a new liturgical system instituted, and all services were to be read in English. Again it is surprising that this sweeping change evoked no general rising, the chief feeling against it being that it was the work of the English, who seemed greedy to obtain all Ireland for themselves. The penalties for non-compliance with the new order of religion were not very severe—merely a fine of twelve pence for non-attendance at church on Sunday. Those priests who suffered death during Elizabeth's reign did so, not because of their faith, but because they were rebels to her government. Many Catholic writers, however, regard them as martyrs, maintaining that they were innocent of anything worthy of such severity.

[Illustration] from Peeps at History - Ireland by Beatrice Home


The first serious trouble with which Elizabeth had to contend in Ireland was connected with Shane O'Neill, a younger son of the O'Neill who had been created Earl of Tyrone by Henry VIII.. On the death of his father Shane was chosen as the chief of his clan, regardless of the English custom of descent through the eldest son. Taking up the cause of the legitimate heir, as they considered Shane's young nephew, the son of his elder brother, the English Government attacked Shane, who, however, proved himself no easy foe to deal with. So successful was Shane in the way he managed his rude forces that the English commander came to terms with him, and Shane agreed to go to England and interview the Maiden Queen personally. At that meeting the fierce, uncultured Irish chieftain, with 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," followed by his clansmen bearing battle-axes, faced the distinguished courtiers of Elizabeth's throne. He pleased the Queen with his flattery and skilful arguments, but she detained him in London a semi-prisoner till he agreed to terms in order to escape. Once back in his own country, he broke all promises, and ruled as king in Ulster, acting wisely and justly as a chieftain, but rashly ignoring the power of England, which he openly defied. In the end his enemies closed round him, his brother chieftains joining with the English to accomplish his overthrow. Forced to seek shelter with some of his hereditary foes, the brave but turbulent chieftain met his death in an obscure drunken quarrel. In Irish poetry Shane is represented as an ideal patriot, while his English contemporaries considered him an unscrupulous villain; whereas he was, as far as one can judge, a typical Celtic chieftain, possessing many warlike virtues and some administrative capacity, but entirely lacking in any national aspiration, fighting his tribal foes with as much zest as the English.

Shane O'Neill and Queen Elizabeth


After the death of Shane a temporary period of rest occurred, to be followed in 1579 by a war of such atrocity that it can never be read without a feeling of horror that it could have taken place among civilized people. The Desmond Geraldines owned almost the whole south-west corner of Ireland, a vast territory of wild hills, fertile valleys, and impenetrable forests, and they ruled it with regal powers. Gerald, the last Earl of Desmond, a craven, vacillating specimen of his house, was kept a captive in England as a kind of hostage for the good behaviour of his followers, who were constantly at warfare with the Butlers, then high in favour with Elizabeth. Sir James Fitzmaurice, cousin of Desmond, escaped to the Continent after heading an abortive rising of the Desmond clansmen, indignant at the rumour that their whole lands were to be parcelled out among English settlers. Fitzmaurice, the only capable leader of the Geraldines, urged his cause at every Catholic Court in Europe, and succeeded in gaining help from the Pope and some vague promises from Philip II. of Spain. Returning to Munster with a small force, and a sacred banner blessed by the Pope, Fitzmaurice roused the whole forces of the province, whose untrained, ill-armed men flocked to fight for their old leaders. Desmond, who had been released, joined the rising, which was doomed from the start, owing to the murder of Fitzmaurice by a local tribe, more absorbed by a petty jealousy than the threatened extinction of their race. Unable to meet the English soldiers in open battle, and without any efficient leader, the Desmond clansmen hid among the forests, dashing out to slaughter small parties of the English, who proceeded to lay waste the country in a most cold-blooded and thorough manner. Castles were razed, all captives, regardless of sex or age, were ruthlessly slaughtered, houses burnt, and crops destroyed, till the land was an arid desert. The Irish retaliated when they could, but Desmond early gave up hope, and only hurried from one hiding-place to another. Help arrived from Spain too late to assist the rising. A landing was made at Smerwick Bay in Kerry and a fort built and armed; but on the arrival of Lord Grey de Wilton the Spaniards surrendered, and as mercy a was not thought good to show them," as Spenser tells us, they were all killed in cold blood. For four years this terrible guerilla warfare went on, the rebel clansmen still proving dangerous in their hiding-places; but at last, worn out with ceaseless war and starvation, the Irish submitted, the ghastly condition of pardon for a rebel being the production of an Irishman's head. So peace at last was obtained, when the people of Munster had no longer the strength to fight. The poet Spenser, an eyewitness, and not an over-sympathetic one, describes their condition: "They were brought to such wretchedness that any stony heart would rue the same. Out of every corner of the woods and glens they came, creeping forth upon their hands, for their legs could not bear them. They looked like anatomies of death; they spoke like ghosts crying out of their graves."

To prevent any further disorders in Munster, Desmond's forfeited lands (he had been slain in Kerry) were to be divided among English owners, with strict conditions that the owners were to live on their lands, to build houses, and to bring over English working people to farm the land. The natives were to retire to the waste lands and live how they could, the real wish of the Government being that they should become extinct. But in spite of the conditions the English owners managed to evade them; very few English labourers cared to risk their lives among the sullen dispossessed Irish, who were ready to pounce upon their property at any moment. The few Englishmen who did come over were soon merged among the native population, and the problem of the government of Ireland remained as unsolved as ever.

Munster had been crushed, but Ireland was still rebellious, as she was likely to remain, considering that no chief or noble felt his lands secure. At any time his property might be taken from him on some flimsy excuse, and handed over to an Englishman. The wholesale confiscation of land was the chief cause, far predominating over the religious differences, of the seething discontent of the country, whose native owners would naturally rise to protect their ancestral lands.

When Elizabeth was growing old and weary, another Irish rebellion arose, more dangerous than either of the preceding revolts against her government. It was headed by Hugh O'Neill, Earl of Tyrone, grandson of the first Earl, a man well known in Elizabeth's Court, where he had been brought up, learning all the culture and courtly grace of the time. For some years after attaining manhood he remained thoroughly loyal to the Queen, even helping the English to put down the Desmond rebellion, but later on he was forced to become a rebel himself. He saw that the English rulers had their eye upon Ulster, and also he had some personal wrongs to redress. Knowing the formidable power of the English, Tyrone sent emissaries to the Pope, pleading the cause of religion (a cause to which he was personally indifferent), and to Philip of Spain, asking for help, and in the meantime held the English at bay. Time and again he defeated the well-trained English soldiers, his rougher levies following their leader implicitly. Essex, the Queen's favourite, came with a large army, but did nothing effective, only having a private conference with Tyrone, when he arranged a truce which, considering the forces he commanded, was reckoned treasonable. Hearing unfavourable news from England, Essex hastily returned, having lost in Ireland all his reputation as a soldier.

[Illustration] from Peeps at History - Ireland by Beatrice Home


Though constantly successful, Tyrone was not supported by a national party, and when help from Spain arrived, it came, as it always did, at an unfortunate time and place. Instead of landing in the North, close to Tyrone's army, they settled on Kinsale in the south, obliging Tyrone to march the length of Ireland to join them. Meanwhile Lord Mountjoy, who had succeeded Essex, had besieged the Spaniards by sea and land. When at last he arrived with his tired men, Tyrone was over-persuaded into attacking the English. He was defeated, hundreds of his followers slain, the Spaniards surrendered, and Tyrone was forced to retreat northwards. But though defeated he was still a danger, and Lord Mountjoy was only too anxious to make terms, knowing that Elizabeth's death was expected hourly. The terms of peace were generous—a full pardon for Tyrone and his followers, and lands and title to be retained by the Earl.

At last England's foes were crushed, but at the cost of justice and mercy. The only excuse that can be offered for the relentless cruelty and merciless policy of confiscation was that similar treatment was meted out to fallen foes by all the rulers of the time. Ireland at the end of Elizabeth's reign lay prostrate, gasping from her wounds. Land that had been fertile lay a desert, strewn with ruined castles and churches, and the people were homeless, faced with starvation and despair. At the time when England was making great strides in civilization, producing great writers and thinkers, vast numbers of the Irish people were living like barbarians, lacking even the necessaries of life.