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The Story of Ireland By Emily Lawless Characters: 7808

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05

One of the greatest difficulties to be faced in the study of Irish history, no matter upon what scale, is to discover any reasonable method of dividing our space. The habit of distributing all historical affairs into reigns is often misleading enough even in England; in Ireland it becomes simply ridiculous. What difference can any one suppose it made to the great bulk of the people of that country whether a Henry, whom they had never seen, had been succeeded by an Edward they had never seen, or an Edward by a Henry? No two sovereigns could have been less alike in character or aims than Henry III. and Edward I., yet when we fix our eyes upon Ireland the difference is to all intents and purposes imperceptible.

That, though he never visited the country, Edward I., like his great-grandfather, had large schemes for the benefit of Ireland is certain. Practically, however? his schemes never came to anything, and the chief effect of his reign was that the country was so largely drawn upon for men and money for the support of his wars elsewhere as greatly to weaken the already feeble power of the Government, the result being that at the first touch of serious trouble it all but fell to pieces.

Very serious trouble indeed came in the reign of the second Edward. The battle of Bannockburn--the greatest disaster which ever befel the English during their Scotch wars--had almost as marked an effect on Ireland as on Scotland. All the elements of disaffection at once began to boil and bubble. The O'Neills--ever ready for a fray, and the nearest in point of distance to Scotland--promptly made overtures to the Bruces, and Edward Bruce, the victorious king's brother, was despatched at the head of a large army, and landing in 1315 near Carrickfergus was at once joined by the O'Neills, and war proclaimed.

The first to confront these new allies was Richard de Burgh, the "Red Earl" of Ulster, who was twice defeated by them and driven back on Dublin. The viceroy, Sir Edmund Butler, was the next encountered, and he also was defeated at a battle near Ardscul, whereupon the whole country rose like one man. Fedlim O'Connor, the young king of Connaught, the hereditary chieftain of Thomond, and a host of smaller chieftains of Connaught, Munster, and Meath, flew to arms. Even the De Lacys and several of the other Norman colonists threw in their lot with the invaders. Edward Bruce gained another victory at Kells, and having wasted the country round about, destroying the property of the colonists and slaughtering all whom he could find, he returned to Carrickfergus, where he was met by his brother, King Robert, and together they crossed Ireland, descending as far south as Cashel, and burning, pillaging, and destroying wherever they went. In 1316 the younger Bruce was crowned king at Dundalk.

Such was the panic they created, and so utterly disunited were the colonists, that for a time they carried all before them. It is plain that Edward Bruce--who on one side was descended both from Strongbow and Dermot McMurrough--fully hoped to have cut out a kingdom for himself with his sword, as others of his blood had hoped and intended before him. His own excesses, however, went far to prevent that. So frightfully did he devastate the country, and so horrible was the famine which he created, that many even of his own army perished from it or from the pestilence which followed. His Irish allies fell away in dismay. English and Irish annalists, unanimous for once, alike exclaim in horror over his deeds. Clyn, the Franciscan historian, tells us how he burned and plundered the churches. The annals of Lough Cè say that "no such period for famine or destruction of men" ever occurred, and that people "used then to eat one another throughout Erin." "They, the Scots," says the poet Spenser, writing centuries later, "utterly consumed and wasted whatsoever was before left uns

poyled so that of all towns, castles, forts, bridges, and habitations they left not a stick standing, nor yet any people remayning, for those few which yet survived fledde from their fury further into the English Pale that now is. Thus was all that goodly country utterly laid waste."

Such insane destruction brought its own punishment. The colonists began to recover from their dismay. Ormonds, Kildares, and Desmonds bestirred themselves to collect troops. The O'Connors, who with all their tribe had risen in arms, had been utterly defeated at Athenry, where the young king Fedlim and no less than 10,000 of his followers are said to have been left dead. Roger Mortimer, the new viceroy, was re-organizing the government in Dublin. The clergy, stimulated by a Papal mandate, had all now turned against the invader. Robert Bruce had some time previously been recalled to Scotland, and Sir John de Bermingham, the victor of Athenry, pushing northward at the head of 15,000 chosen troops, met the younger Bruce at Dundalk. The combat was hot, short, and decisive. The Scots were defeated, Edward Bruce himself killed, and his head struck off and sent to London. The rest hastened back to Scotland with as little delay as possible. The Scotch invasion was over.

It was over, but its effects remained. From one end of Ireland to the other there was disaffection, anger, revolt. England had proved too weak or too negligent to interfere at the right time and in the right way, and although successful in the end she could not turn back the tide. There was a general feeling of disbelief in the reality of her government. A semi-national feeling had sprung up which temporarily united colonists and natives in a bond of self-defence. Norman nobles and native Irish chieftains threw in their lot together. The English yeoman class, which had begun to get established in Leinster and Munster, had been all but utterly destroyed by Edward Bruce, and the remnant now left the country in despair. The great English lords, with the exception of Ormond and Kildare, from this out took Irish names and adopted Irish dress and fashions. The two De Burghs, as already stated, seized upon the Connaught possessions of their cousin, and divided them, taking the one Galway and the other Mayo, and calling themselves McWilliam Eighter and McWilliam Oughter, or the Nether and the Further Burkes. So too with nearly all the rest. Bermingham of Athenry, in spite of his late famous victory over the Irish, did the same, calling himself McYorris; Fitzmaurice of Lixnaw became McMaurice; FitzUrse of Louth, McMahon; and so on through a whole list.

Nor is it difficult to understand the motives which led to these changes. The position of an Irish chieftain--with his practically limitless powers of life and death, his wild retinue of retainers whose only law was the will of their chief--offered an irresistible temptation to men of their type, and had many more charms than the narrow and uninteresting r?le of liegeman to a king whom they never saw, and the obeying of whose behests brought them harm rather than good. England had shown only too plainly that she had no power to protect her Irish colonists, of what use therefore, it was asked, for them to call themselves any longer English? The great majority from that moment ceased to do so. Save within the "five obedient shires" which came to be known as the English Pale, "the king's writ no longer ran." The native Irish swarmed back from the mountains and forests, and repossessed themselves of the lands from which they had been driven. No serious attempts were made to re-establish the authority of the law over three-fourths of the island. Within a century and a half of the so-called conquest, save within one small and continually narrowing area, Ireland had ceased even nominally to belong to England.


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