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The Story of Ireland By Emily Lawless Characters: 6723

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05

Henry had been only six months in Ireland, but he had accomplished much--more certainly than any other English ruler ever accomplished afterwards within the same time. He had divided the ceded districts into counties; had appointed sheriffs for them; had set up three Law Courts--Bench, Pleas, and Exchequer; had arranged for the going on circuit by judges; and had established his own character for orthodoxy, and acquitted himself of his obligations to the papacy by freeing all church property from the exactions of the chiefs, and rigidly enforcing the payment of tithes.

In a still more important point--that about which he was evidently himself most tenacious--his success was even more complete. He once for all put a stop to all danger of an independent lordship by forcing those who had already received grants of land from the native chiefs to surrender them into his hands, and to receive them back direct from himself, according to the ordinary terms of feudal tenure.

That he had larger and more statesmanlike views for the new dependency than he was ever able to carry out there can be no question. As early as 1177 he appointed his youngest son John king of Ireland, and seems to have fully formed the intention of sending him over as a permanent governor or viceroy, a purpose which the misconduct of that youthful Rehoboam, as Giraldus calls him, was chiefly instrumental in foiling.

It is curious to hear this question of a royal viceroy and a permanent royal residence in Ireland coming to the front so very early in the history of English rule there. That the experiment, if fairly tried, and tried with a man of the calibre of Henry himself, might have made the whole difference in the future of Ireland, we cannot, I think, reasonably doubt. Any government, indeed, so that it was central, so that it gathered itself into a single hand and took its impress from a single mind, would have been better a thousand times than the miserable condition of half-conquest, half-rule, whole anarchy and confusion which set in and continued with hardly a break.

This is one reason more why it is so much to be regretted that Ireland, save for a few years, had never any real king or central government of her own. Had this been the case, even if she had been eventually conquered by England--as would likely enough have been the case--the result of that conquest would have been different. There would have been some one recognized point of government and organization, and the struggle would have been more violent and probably more successful at first, but less chronic and less eternally renewed in the long run. As it was, all the conditions were at their very worst. No native ruler of the calibre of a Brian Boru could ever again hope to unite all Ireland under him, since long before he arrived at that point his enemies would have called in the aid of the new colonists, who would have fallen upon and annihilated him, though after doing so they would have been as little able to govern the country for themselves as before.

This also explains what is often set down as the inexplicable want of patriotism shown by the native Irish in not combining more resolutely together against their assailants. It is true that they did not do so, but the fact is not referred to the right cause. An Englishman of the time of the Heptarchy

had, if at all, little more patriotism, and hardly more sense of common country. He was a Wessex man, or a Northumbrian, or a man of the North or the East Angles, rather than an Englishman. So too in Ireland. As a people the Irish of that day can hardly be said to have had any corporate existence. They were O'Briens, or O'Neils, or O'Connors, or O'Flaherties, and that no doubt in their own eyes appeared to be quite nationality enough.

Unfortunately both for the country and for his own successors, Henry had no time to carry out his plans, and all that he had begun to organize fell away into disorder again after his departure. "That inconstant sea-nymph," says Sir John Davis, "whom the Pope had wedded to him with a ring," remained obedient only as long as her new lord was present, and once his back was turned she reverted to her own ways again. The crowd of Norman and Welsh adventurers who now filled the country were each and all intent upon ascertaining how much of that country they could seize upon and appropriate for themselves. There were many gallant men amongst them, but there was not one apparently who had the faintest trace of what is meant by public spirit. Occupied only by their own interests, and struggling solely for their own share of the spoil, they could never really hold the country, and even those parts which they did get into their hands lapsed back after a while into the old condition again.

The result was that the fighting never ended. The new colonists built castles and lived shut up in them, ruling their own immediate retainers with an odd mixture of Brehon and Norman law. When they issued forth they appeared clad from head to foot in steel, ravaging the country more like foreign mercenaries than peaceful settlers. The natives, driven to bay and dispossessed of their lands, fought too, not in armour, but, like the Berserkers of old, in their shirts, with the addition at most of a rude leather helmet, more often only with their hair matted into a sort of cap on their foreheads in the fashion known as the "gibbe," that "rascally gibbe" to which Spenser and other Elizabethan writers object so strongly. By way of defence they now and then threw up a rude stockade of earth or stone, modifications of the primitive rath, more often they made no defence, or merely twisted a jungle of boughs along the pathways to break the advance of their more heavily armed foes. The ideas of the two races were as dissimilar as their weapons. The instinct of the one was to conquer a country and subdue it to their own uses; the instinct of the other was to trust to the country itself, and depend upon its natural features, its forests, morasses, and so forth for security. The one was irresistible in attack, the other, as his conqueror soon learnt to his cost, practically invincible in defence, returning doggedly again and again, and a hundred times over to the ground from which he seemed at first to have been so easily and so effectually driven off.

All these peculiarities, which for ages continued to mark the struggle between the two races now brought face to face in a death struggle, are just as marked and just as strikingly conspicuous in the first twenty years which followed the invasion as they are during the succeeding half-dozen centuries.


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