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The Story of Ireland By Emily Lawless Characters: 10154

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05

The most salient fact in Irish history is perhaps its monotony. If that statement is a bull it is one that must be forgiven for the sake of the truth it conveys. Year after year, decade after decade, century after century, we seem to go swimming slowly and wearily on through a vague sea of confusion and disorder; of brutal deeds and yet more brutal retaliations; of misgovernment and anarchy; of a confusion so penetrating and all-persuasive that the mind fairly refuses to grapple with it. Even killing--exciting as an incident--becomes monotonous when it is continued ad infinitum, and no other occurrence ever comes to vary its tediousness. Campion the Elizabethan historian, whose few pages are a perfect magazine of verbal quaintness, apologizes in the preface to his "lovyng reader, for that from the time of Cambrensis to that of Henry VIII." he is obliged to make short work of his intermediate periods; "because that nothing is therein orderly written, and that the same is time beyond any man's memory, wherefore I scramble forward with such records as could be sought up, and am enforced to be the briefer."

"Scrambling forward" is, indeed, exactly what describes the process. We, too, must be content "to be the briefer," and to "scramble forward" across these intermediate and comparatively eventless periods in order to reach what lies beyond. The age of the Wars of the Roses is one of great gloom and confusion in England; in Ireland it is an all but complete blank. What intermittent interest in its affairs had been awakened on the other side of the channel had all but wholly died away in that protracted struggle. That its condition was miserable, almost beyond conception, is all that we know for certain. In England, although civil war was raging, and the baronage were energetically slaughtering one another, the mass of the people seem for the most part to have gone unscathed. The townsfolk were undisturbed; the law was protected; the law officers went their rounds; there seems even to have been little general rapine and pillage. The Church, still at its full strength, watched jealously over its own rights and over the rights of those whom it protected. In Ireland, although there was nothing that approached to the dignity of civil war, the condition of the country seems to have been one of uninterrupted and almost universal carnage, pillage, and rapine. The baronage of the Pale raided upon the rest of the country, and the rest of the country raided upon the Pale. Even amongst churchmen it was much the same. Although there was no religious dissension, and heresy was unknown, the jealousy between the churchmen of the two rival races, seems to have been as deep as between the laymen, and their hatred of one another probably even greater. As has been seen in a former chapter, no priest or monk of Irish blood was ever admitted into an English living or monastery, and the rule appears to have been quite equally applicable the other way.

The means, too, for keeping these discordant elements in check were ludicrously inefficient. The whole military establishment during the greater part of this century consisted of some 80 archers, and about 40 "spears;" the whole revenue amounted to a few hundred pounds per annum. The Parliament was a small and irregular body of barons and knights of the shires, with a few burgesses, unwillingly summoned from the towns, and a certain number of bishops and abbots, the latter, owing to the disturbed state of the country, being generally represented by their proctors. It was summoned at long intervals, and met sometimes in Dublin, sometimes in Drogheda, at other times in Kilkenny, as occasion suggested. Even when it did meet legislation was rarely attempted, and its office was confined mainly to the voting of subsidies. The country simply drifted at its own pleasure down the road to ruin, and by the time the battle of Bosworth was fought, the deepest depths of anarchy had probably been sounded.

The seaport towns alone kept up some little semblance of order and self-government, and seem to have shown some slight capacity for self-defence. In 1412, Waterford distinguished itself by the spirited defence of its walls against the O'Driscolls, a piratical clan of West Cork, and the following year sent a ship into the enemy's stronghold of Baltimore, whose crew seized upon the chief himself, his three brothers, his son, his uncle, and his wife, and carried them off in triumph to Waterford, a feat which the annals of the town commemorate with laudable pride. Dublin, too, showed a similar spirit, and fitted out some small vessels which it sent on a marauding expedition to Scotland, in reward for which its chief magistrate, who had up to that time been a Provost, was invested with the title of Mayor. "The king granted them license," says Camden, "to choose every year a Mayor and two baliffs." Also that its Mayor "should have a gilt sword carried before him for ever."

Several eminent figures appear amongst the "ruck of empty names" which fill up the list of fifteen

th-century Irish viceroys. Most of these were mere birds of passage, who made a few experiments at government--conciliatory or the reverse, as the case might be--and so departed again. Sir John Talbot, the scourge of France, and antagonist of the Maid of Orleans, was one of these. From all accounts he seems to have quite kept up his character in Ireland. The native writers speak of him as a second Herod. The colonist detested him for his exactions, while his soldiery were a scourge to every district they were quartered upon. He rebuilt the bridge of Athy, however, and fortified it so as to defend that portion of the Pale, and succeeded in keeping the O'Moores, O'Byrnes, and the rest of the native marauders to some degree at bay.

In 1449, Richard, Duke of York, was sent to Ireland upon a sort of honorary exile. He took the opposite tack of conciliation. Although Ormond was a prominent member of the Lancastrian party, he at once made gracious overtures to him. Desmond, too, he won over by his courtesy, and upon the birth of his son George--afterwards the luckless Duke of Clarence--the rival earls acted as joint sponsors, and when, in 1451, he left Ireland, he appointed Ormond his deputy and representative.

Nine years later he came back, this time as a fugitive. The popularity which he had already won stood him then in good stead. Seizing upon the government, he held it in the teeth of the king and Parliament for more than a year. The news of the battle of Northampton tempted him to England. His son, the Earl of March, had been victorious, and Henry VI, was a prisoner. He was not destined, however, to profit by the success of his own side. In a temporary Lancastrian triumph he was outnumbered, and killed by the troops of Queen Margaret at Wakefield.

His Irish popularity descended to his son. A considerable number of Irish Yorkist partisans, led by the Earl of Kildare, fought beside the latter at the decisive and sanguinary battle of Towton, at which battle the rival Earl of Ormond, leader of the Irish Lancastrians, was taken prisoner, beheaded by the victors, and all his property attained, a blow from which the Butlers were long in recovering.

No other great Irish house suffered seriously. In England the older baronage were all but utterly swept away by the Wars of the Roses, only a few here and there surviving its carnage. In Ireland it was not so. A certain number of Anglo-Norman names disappear at this point from its annals, but the greater number of those with which the reader has become familiar continue to be found in their now long established homes. The Desmonds and De Burghs still reigned undisputed and unchallenged over their several remote lordships. Ulster, indeed, had long since become wholly Irish, but within the Pale the minor barons of Norman descent--Fingals, Gormanstons, Dunsanys, Trimbelstons and others--remained where their Norman fathers had established themselves, and where their descendants for the most part may be found still. The house of Kildare had grown in strength during the temporary collapse of its rival, and from this out for nearly a century towers high over every other Irish house. The Duke of York was the last royal viceroy who actually held the sword. Others, though nominated, never came over, and in their absence the Kildares remained omnipotent, generally as deputies, and even when that office was for a while confided to other hands, their power was hardly diminished. Only the barren title of Lord-Lieutenant was withheld, and was as a rule bestowed upon some royal personage, several times upon children, once in the case of Edward IV.'s son upon an actual infant in arms.

In 1480, Gerald, eighth Earl of Kildare, called by his own following, Geroit Mor, or Gerald the Great, became deputy, and, from that time forward under five successive kings, and during a period of 33 years, he "reigned" with hardly an interval until his death in 1513.

Geroit Mor is perhaps the most important chief governor who ruled Ireland upon thorough-going Irish principles. "A mighty man of stature, full of honour and courage." Stanihurst describes him as being "A knight in valour;" and "princely and religious in his words and judgments" is the flattering report of the "Annals of the Four Masters." "His name awed his enemies more than his army," says Camden. "The olde earle being soone hotte and soone cold was of the Englishe well beloved," is another report. "In hys warres hee used a retchlesse (reckless) kynde of diligence, or headye carelessnesse," is a less strong commendation, but probably not less true.

He was a gallant man unquestionably, and as far as can be seen an honest and a well-intentioned one, but his policy was a purely personal, or at most a provincial, one. As for the interests of the country at large they seem hardly to have come within his ken. That fashion of looking at the matter had now so long been the established rule that it had probably ceased indeed to be regarded as a failing.


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