The following are tracts taken from the 1919 work Phases in Irish History by Eoin MacNeil courtesy of An Cartlann
The most casual reader of Irish history knows that within a few centuries of the Norman invasion, the authority of the kings of England had shrunk to within a day’s easy ride of Dublin and the outskirts of a few other towns. Standish O’Grady has noted the constant alliance between town and crown in the Middle Ages. It was not peculiar to Ireland. The merchants and the sovereign had a common interest in resisting the encroachments of the great nobles. Even despotic kings, as a rule, governed better in the interest of the burgesses than any powerful oligarchy was likely to govern.
Why did the Norman conquest fail to be a conquest? Giraldus Cambrensis gave to his story the title Hibernia Expugnata—”Ireland fought to a finish.” Four centuries later comes another historian, telling of another conquest, and he calls his story Hibernia Pacaia—”Ireland pacified.” Why was the second conquest necessary?
There are two factors that make for the completeness and permanence of conquest—namely, physical superiority and moral superiority. In the art of war and in the apparatus of centralised government, the invaders, we have seen, were superior to the Irish. They could even use the Church as an instrument of the State, and Mr. Orpen boasts that, whereas the Irish bishop of Dublin, Lorcán O’Tuathail, was only a saint, the English bishops who succeeded him were statesmen. Warfare by incastellation, carried on for seventy years, brought three-fourths of the country under control. If to this physical superiority we must add the moral superiority claimed for the Feudal régime by modern admirers—if not by its contemporary champion in letters, Giraldus—there is left only one possible explanation of the failure, the perversity of the Irish mind, afflicted with a double dose of original sin, refusing to recognise either physical superiority in the arts of war or moral superiority in the arts of peace.
Another factor must not be forgotten. The second generation of Feudalism in Ireland was in full possession of all the military resources of the greater part of the country. Just as, in the beginning of the invasion, they had led armies of conquered Flemings and conquered Welshmen, and as a few years later they led a force of conquered Norsemen from Dublin to the battle of Thurles, where they were defeated by Domhnall O’Briain, so in their later wars they led armies of conquered Irishmen for the completion of the conquest. And even conquered Irishmen were not bad fighting material.
Two causes have been assigned by modern writers for the failure of the conquest. One cause alleged is the invasion by Edward Bruce in the years 1315 to 1318. In view of the fact that Bruce’s undertaking was itself an ignominious failure, another cause assigned is the transference of the Feudal lordship of Connacht and Ulster from the De Burghs, resident in Ireland, to the Plantagenets, who were absentees. This happened after 1333.
It will be shown that neither of these causes can be held to explain the failure. The conquest was brought to a standstill and the tide was turned more than half a century before the Bruce invasion. The principal factor was national sentiment, intensified and supplied with a more definite political form under a sense of national oppression. Hardly had the sentiment of nationalism acquired this form when a new and unexpected force came to its aid. The value of this new force was crystallised into a proverb by one of the Feudal lords, Sir Robert Savage of the Ards in East Ulster: “Better is a castle of bones than a castle of stones.” The policy of conquest by incastellation crumbled away before the castles of bones built up first under the Irish princes of Ulster, afterwards in Connacht, and in time all over Ireland. By a castle of bones, Sir Robert Savage meant a well organised, well armed, and well trained permanent field force. From the days of the Fiana down to the thirteenth century, there had been no such force under the command of an Irish king. Irish law and custom were unfavourable to soldiering as a profession. The new force was not supplied by Irishmen. It came from the Norse kingdom of Argyle and the Hebrides. Already before 1263, when the rulers of this kingdom ceased to be subject to Norway, we find Hebridean leaders helping the Irish of Ulster. Before the close of the thirteenth century, we find organised bodies of Hebridean fighting men on the Irish side, and a common name for them already in use, Gallógláich, a word which was afterwards transplanted into English in the form “galloglasses.” It means “foreign soldiers.” You may learn from a number of books that the galloglasses were heavy-armed Irish soldiers. They were men of Argyle and the Hebrides who came over to Ireland for military service, or descendants of such men who were settled in Ireland and held on to the profession of soldiers. It may possibly be too much to say that no Irish were admitted to their ranks; but with one very doubtful instance every officer of galloglasses that I find named from the thirteenth century, when they are first heard of, until the seventeenth century, when they are last heard of, bears a Hebridean surname; and the surnames of the majority of their commanders indicate descent from Sumarlidi, who established the kingdom of the Hebrides and Argyle in the twelfth century.
A century or so after the introduction of the galloglasses, we find native Irish troops established in imitation of them. These, however, bear a distinct name, buannadha, “buonies,” meaning men on permanent service.
It was this reintroduction of permanent military organisation that ultimately broke down the force of feudal conquest. But as this preceded the Bruce invasion, so also it will be seen that it was itself preceded by a very definite national rally of the free Irish. Let us trace the course of events in greater detail.
In violation of the Treaty of Windsor, the lordship of all Connacht, still unconquered, had been granted to William de Burgh. Marriage with De Lacy’s heiress had added the lordship of all Ulster, likewise unconquered, and the Earls of Ulster, chiefs of the great house of De Burgh, thus became titular lords of two-fifths of Ireland. To make their dominion a reality was a great incentive to the completion of the conquest. Half a century after the invasion, the conquest extended to about two-thirds of the country. In Leinster, the mountainous parts southward from Dublin were unsubdued; and in the midlands a group of the old Irish states, side by side, had resisted penetration, under the O’Connors of western Offaly, the O’Mores of Leix, the FitzPatricks of Upper Ossory, and the O’Carrolls of Ely. In Munster, MacCarthy More held out in Muskerry and kept the title of king of Desmond. The kings of Thomond preserved more real power, though part of their territory was occupied by the Norman de Clares. In Connacht, the O’Connor kings were still recognised by the Foreigners, and the kings of Breifne were intact. Along the western seaboard, too, the conquest had not taken effect. The De Burghs were established in the fortress of Galway and in the middle plain of Connacht. In the other parts of Leinster and Munster, and all over the old kingdom of Meath, the Irish states had either been altogether subverted or reduced to subjection.
In Ulster, the Earls of Ulster held effective dominion over so much territory as is now comprised in the counties of Down and Antrim.
The Irish rally may be dated from the year 1241. In that year Maeleachlainn O’Domhnaill became king of Tir Conaill, and by his aid Brian O’Neill became king of Tir Eoghain, defeating in battle the last king of the MagLochlainn line, one who was favourable to the Foreigners and no doubt acknowledged the dominion of the Earl of Ulster. The viceroy, or, as he was then called, justiciar, of the English king as lord of Ireland, was Maurice FitzGerald. He was the most active and enterprising of the new rulers since the first generation of bold adventurers had passed away, and he set himself the task of completing the conquest of Ireland by making the Earl de Burgh effective ruler of his titular lordships of Connacht and Ulster. In Connacht, he succeeded so far as to make the king of Connacht, Feidhlimidh O’Connor, his subject ally, allowing him to retain the title of king. In 1242, FitzGerald took the first step towards the reduction of Ulster by leading an army from Connacht against Tir Conaill and compelling the king, Maeleachlainn O’Domhnaill, to give him hostages. As yet, no fresh occupation of Ulster territory was attempted.
From the earliest times until the Confiscation of Ulster, the southern frontier of that province made invasion difficult. It was protected by broad lakes and rivers and deep woods, and probably also by the remains of that great ancient line of earthworks of which I have spoken in an earlier lecture. When Ulster was invaded by land, the approach was almost always on the eastern side from Dundalk or Ardee towards Armagh, or on the western side between Lower Loch Erne and the sea-coast. Maurice FitzGerald planned to invade it, building castles as he gained ground, both on east and west. In 1244 we read of a new castle built at Donaghmoyne, near Carrickmacross.
Next year, 1245, FitzGerald was summoned by Henry III. to aid him in an invasion of Wales. He went across with an Irish army and his subject king of Connacht. The enterprise did not answer expectation, and Henry sent FitzGerald back deprived of the viceroyship. FitzGerald nevertheless resumed his plan of conquest, the new viceroy, FitzGeoffroi, seconding him. In 1247 he built a castle at Sligo, as a basis of operations towards the Erne. This done, the next step was to seize and fortify the passage of the Erne at Ballyshannon; but he found the king of Tir Conaill there on guard. FitzGerald ordered his Connacht auxiliaries to pretend a retirement and to make a circuit crossing the Erne some miles further up. The stratagem succeeded. The king of Tir Conaill, attacked in front and flank, was defeated and fell in the fight. At his side fell a chief named MacSomhairlidh, “the son of Sumarlidi.” This name is the first sign of the Hebridean Galloglach element in Irish wars.
Next year, 1248, the justiciar FitzGeoffroi cooperated in the campaign against Ulster. He led an army to Coleraine, where already there was a castle on the eastern side of the Bann. He built a bridge and built a second castle on the western side, thus securing a new way for invasion. Brian O’Neill did not remain inactive. He brought ships over land from Loch Foyle to Loch Erne, and attacked and demolished a castle at Belleek, newly built by FitzGerald. Fast upon this followed a revolt of Feidhlimidh O’Connor. The viceroy marched to FitzGerald’s aid and Feidhlimidh was driven out, but returned next year and continued to hold his own.
In 1250, taking advantage of a dispute about the succession, FitzGerald invaded Tir Conaill but did not remain there. In 1252, he renewed the attack, building a new castle near Belleek and another on the eastern frontier near Banbridge. The viceroy also came on with a strong army, penetrating into Tir Eoghain by way of Armagh. O’Neill bent before the storm and made submission. This was the culminating point. Next year, 1253, hoping to enforce his advantage, the viceroy once more invaded Tir Eoghain, but this time he obtained no submission and was forced to retreat with heavy loss. O’Neill forthwith took the offensive, invaded the Earl of Ulster’s territory, and destroyed a number of castles including the new castle near Banbridge. There is a lull at the turning of the tide. For several years, hostilities cease on both sides. Then in 1257, Godfrey O’Domhnaill, king of Tír Conaill, destroys again the castle of Caoluisce near Belleek and attacks Sligo, burning the town. Retiring, he fights a rearguard action, and both he and Maurice FitzGerald receive wounds of which they afterwards die.
Under the following year, 1258, is chronicled an event in itself of the greatest significance and also an index of the significance of foregoing events. Of the unsubdued Irish outside of Ulster, the chief potentates at this time were Tadhg O’Briain, king of Thomond, and Aodh O’Connor, king of Connacht, son of Feidhlimidh who had cast off the authority of FitzGerald and De Burgh. These two kings assembled their nobles and their forces and marched together to Caoluisce on the Erne, the site of the demolished fort. They met there Brian O’Neill, king of Tyrone, “and,” says the annalist, “all those nobles gave the supreme authority to Brian O’Neill.” That is to say, so far as lay in their power, by a spontaneous act, they restored the monarchy of Ireland.
Therefore, when I say that Brian O’Neill’s defence of Ulster, with the co-operation of the kings of Tir Conaill, marks the definite rallying point against the Norman conquest, I give something more than a private opinion or a modern inference. It is a fact to which, in the year 1258 on the banks of the Erne, the kings and nobles and fighting men of Thomond and Connacht, as well as of Tyrone, render the clearest and most solemn testimony possible. Never before in Irish history had the chief provincial kings thus spontaneously and peacefully awarded the high-kingship to one of their number. The act implied a repudiation of the authority that set up feudal lords over Irish kings, and amounted to a declaration of national independence. Half a century later, Brian O’Neill’s son, in a letter to the Pope, again declares the Plantagenet lordship of Ireland to be null and void and asserts the right of the Irish to determine their own sovereignty.
These facts prove that the first factor in the Irish rally of the thirteenth century was the sense of nationality, intensified by adversity. Of this we shall see new and striking proofs.
About this time, the Irish began to strengthen their domestic polity by adopting the custom of tanistry.
In 1260, Brian O’Neill led an army of Ulstermen and Connachtmen against the Earl of Ulster’s stronghold, Downpatrick. The viceroy, warned of his movements, was there to meet him. Brian was defeated and killed, and, as though his death were a greater glory than his life, he is known to his countrymen of later times as Brian Catha an Dúin, “Brian of the Battle of Down.”
Three years later, in 1263, when king Hakon of Norway came with his fleet to the Hebrides, he received a message from Ireland. Sir George Dasent, the English editor of the history of king Hakon, undertakes to say quite gratuitously and quite as absurdly that this embassy in 1263 came from the Ostmen of Dublin. The facts are related by Sturla, a contemporary, a councillor of king Hakon, and no doubt on the testimony of eye-witnesses. Sturla and his informants knew the difference between Ostmen and Irishmen. Sturla says that, after Hakon’s first arrival in the Hebrides, “there came these messages to him from Ireland, that the Irishmen offered to come into his power, and said they needed much that he should free them from that thraldom which the English had laid on them, for that they held then all the best towns along the sea. But when333 king Hakon lay at Gigha (off Cantire) he sent men out to Ireland in a light cutter, and that man with them who was called Sigurd the South-Islander (i.e. the Hebridean, no doubt as interpreter). They were to find out in what way the Irish invited them to come thither.” Before their return, Hakon’s expedition had proved unsuccessful. As he lay at Lamlash, in the Firth of Clyde, “thither came to him those men that he had sent to Ireland, and told him that the Irish would keep the whole host that winter, on the understanding that king Hakon would free them from the sway of the English. King Hakon was very much inclined to sail to Ireland, but that was much against the mind of all his people. And so, because the wind was not fair, then the king held a thing (i.e. an assembly) with his force, and gave it out that he would give them all leave to sail to the Hebrides as soon as the wind was fair; for the host had fallen short of victuals.”
It is not unlikely that Hakon gave the Irish to understand that he would come to them later. The entry of his death in the Annals of Ulster shows that at that time, two months after he left Lamlash, he was expected in Ireland. The annalist says: “Ebdonn, king of Norway, dies in the Orkney Islands on his way to Ireland.”
Here we have the second attempt within fifteen years on the part of the Irish to determine the sovereignty under which they were to live. There was a third attempt, in 1314, after the battle of Bannockburn, when Domhnall, son of Brian O’Neill, with other Irish princes, offered the sovereignty of Ireland to Robert Bruce, and, at his instance, chose his brother Edward to be king of Ireland.
A rapid survey of events will enable us to trace the development of the Irish resistance from these beginnings. We shall see the extension of Irish rule over territories once in Feudal occupation, the destruction or reduction of Feudal castles, the building of castles by the Irish, the spread of the galloglass organisation, the renewal of distinctive elements of national life.
Since the immigration of Hebridean soldiers was continuous for about three centuries, so as to form a considerable new element in the population of Ireland, and since their descendants are numerous among us to-day, I shall put in a word here about the principal families that reached Ireland in this way.
In Tir Conaill, the leaders of galloglasses belonged to the family of MacSuibhne, englished MacSweeny or Sweeny.
In Tir Eoghain, MacDomhnaill (englished MacDonnell and MacConnell), MacRuaidhri (englished MacRory and Rogers), and MacDubhghaill (englished MacDugall in Scotland, MacDowell and Doyle and Coyle in Ireland). These three families are descended from Sumarlidi, first king of Argyle and the Hebrides.
In Connacht, MacDomhnaill, MacRuaidhri and MacSuibhne. In Munster, MacSuibhne and MacSithigh (englished MacSheehy, Sheehy, and Shee). This family is a branch of the MacDonnell family. In Leinster, MacDomhnaill. In Oriel, MacCába, “MacCabe.”
Of galloglass commanders on record, those of the race of Sumarlidi far outnumber all the rest together.
The galloglass chiefs obtained grants of land for their support. About a fourth of the whole territory of Tir Conaill was held by the three MacSuibhnes. Besides these principal names, many less prominent surnames, especially in Ulster, are of galloglass origin.
The events hereinafter related are drawn from the Annals of Ulster mainly.
In 1264, the year after Hakon’s death, Aodh Buidhe O’Neill, who succeeded Brian as king of Tir Eoghain, extended his sovereignty over Oriel. After his time, the kings of Tir Eoghain take the title of kings of Ulster.
1265. The kings of Connacht and Tir Conaill join forces and destroy the castle of Sligo.
1267. Murchadh MacSuibhne is captured by the Earl of Ulster and dies in prison. He is the first of his surname in the Irish record.
1269. Roscommon castle built by the viceroy D’Ufford, and Sligo Castle rebuilt.
1270. The king of Connacht defeats the Earl of Ulster (lord of Connacht), and next year destroys the castles of Teach Teampla, Roscommon, Sligo, and Áth Liag; and the year after, 1272, he destroys the castle of Rinndown. This king of Connacht was the same who joined in offering the sovereignty of Ireland to Brian O’Neill in 1258.
In 1278, Donnchadh O’Briain, king of Thomond, defeated the Earl of Clare at Quin. His father had been taken three years earlier by the same Earl of Clare and put to death by being drawn asunder by four horses.
In 1286, Ricard de Burgh, the Red Earl of Ulster, comes to the front with a sustained effort to recover power in Ulster and Connacht. Several times he forced a king of his own choosing on Tír Eoghain in place of Domhnall O’Neill, son of Brian of the Battle of Down. Domhnall, however, time after time recovered the kingship, and held it until his death in 1325.
1289. De Birmingham is defeated by the Irish of Offaly, under their king, Calbhach O’Conor.
1290. Toirdhealbach O’Domhnaill, “with the help of his mother’s kindred, the MacDonnells of Scotland, and many other galloglasses,” deposes his brother and makes himself king of Tir Conaill. This is the first mention of galloglasses by name and also of the MacDonnells as galloglass chiefs, in the Annals of Ulster, but the context indicates that the word was already in established use.
1291. The Red Earl exacts the hostages of Connacht and harries Tir Conaill.
1292. FitzGerald of Offaly rebuilds the castle of Sligo and takes the king of Connacht prisoner. Next year, this king, having got free, destroys the castle of Sligo.
1295. Geoffrey O’Farrell destroys three border castles of Meath. The O’Farrell territory was at this time a small part of the present county of Leitrim. It was gradually extended after this until it comprised the county of Longford in addition. Longford takes its name from Longphort Ui Fhearghail, “O’Farrell’s camp,” a name significant of the new military organisation.
1305. Sir Piers de Bermingham caused three of the Irish ruling family of Offaly and twenty-nine nobles of their people to be murdered at a banquet to which he had invited them in his own castle. For this he received a reward in money from the Viceroy and Council, with the consent of Ricard de Burgh, Earl of Ulster.
In the same year, the Earl of Ulster built a castle in Inishowen, no doubt with a view to commanding Loch Foyle and hindering the landing of galloglasses. It may be noted that the Irish name of Milford Haven, a little farther west, is Port na nGalloglach, “the port of the galloglasses.” This year we find a MacSuibhne in command of galloglasses in Breifne.
1307. Donnchadh O’Ceallaigh, king of Ui Maine, in retaliation for the burning of his town of Ath Eascrach, attacks Roscommon, kills a great part of the defenders, and captures the Sheriff.
1308. The Foreigners of North Connacht are defeated by the Irish at Ballysodare.
1310. Geoffrey O’Farrell marches against Donore Castle in Westmeath, and Ruaidhri, king of Connacht, attacks the De Burgh castle of Bun Finne.
1315. At the instance of the northern Irish, Robert Bruce, having himself declined to accept the sovereignty of Ireland, sends his brother Edward to Ireland at the head of a strong expedition.
Now that we have reached this point, it is fairly evident that the Bruce invasion, so far from being the origin or cause of the Irish reaction against Feudalism and the English sovereignty, was itself a consequence of that reaction. Notwithstanding several great victories and successful marches through the country, Edward Bruce showed himself incapable of any constructive policy. His victories were more than counterbalanced by the crushing defeat of the western Irish at Athenry and by his own defeat and death at Fochairt, near Dundalk, in 1318. The northern annalist, in chronicling this event, makes it plain that the Irish of Ulster who suffered least during the invasion, knew no reason to grieve over its ending. This is his record of the event:
1318. “Edward Bruce, the destroyer of Ireland in general, of Irish as well as Foreigners, is killed by the Foreigners of Ireland through strength of fighting at Dundalk, and along with him are killed MacRuaidhri, king of the Hebrides, and MacDomhnaill, king of Argyle.” In the previous year, the same annalist tells that Robert Bruce came to Ireland to aid his brother in expelling the Foreigners, and brought with him many galloglasses. It may be noted that the purpose, “to expel the Foreigners,” is identical with that proposed half a century earlier by the Irish embassy to King Hakon. The failure of Edward Bruce, after a campaign of four years, must have restored some of the lost prestige of the Feudal colonists. On the other hand, the Irish of Thomond, by the defeat and death of Ricard de Clare, rid themselves of invasion.
We come now to the next event which has been described as the turning point in the fortunes of the great struggle. In 1326, the Red Earl died, having recovered all that he had lost in East Ulster from Bruce’s occupation, but not all in the same condition as before. He was succeeded by his son, the Brown Earl, William de Burgh. A feud arose among the De Burghs, and the young earl captured his kinsman Walter de Burgh, and starved him to death in the Red Earl’s new castle of Inishowen. Death by starvation in prison is so frequent an incident of the Feudal regime as to suggest that these magnates obeyed the commandment, “Thou shalt not kill,” by allowing God to allow their enemy to die, themselves not interfering. The event shows that, despite the Bruce invasion, the old earl held on to his isolated fortress among his Ulster enemies. The kinsmen and friends of Walter de Burgh avenged his death by assassinating the young earl near Carrickfergus. He died without male heir, his sole child, an infant daughter, became by law the ward of the king of England, who made her over in marriage, with the titular lordships of Connacht and Ulster, to his son Lionel, duke of Clarence.
Sir John Gilbert, in his history of the Viceroys of Ireland, writes soberly and judiciously. He has one weakness. Just as Mr. Orpen revels in grants of land, which he takes to be the bedrock of civilisation, and therefore declares to have been no structural element in the Irish polity, attaching to them a sacred efficacy of which neither Henry II. nor John nor their grantees in Ireland appear to have been fully sensible; so Gilbert revels in details of court procedure, and overloads his book with them: to be excused, perhaps, on the ground that he is writing the history of a court not of a country and people. Gilbert does not regard the Bruce invasion as a deciding factor in the attempted conquest; but he does attach this character to the demise of the Feudal lordships of Connacht and Ulster from the great house of De Burgh, resident in Ireland, upon a branch of the Plantagenets, absentees in England. He pictures to us the De Burgh chiefs forthwith abandoning their allegiance to the English sovereign as lord of Ireland and at the same time suddenly adopting the language, laws, customs and manners of the Irish; and the other Feudal lords infected by their example. We may readily believe that the titular dominion of the De Burgh earls over Connacht and Ulster had been a strong incentive to urge them to complete the conquest of those provinces, and the Feudal authority exercised by the earls, backed up by the power of the viceroys, furnished military resources which might conceivably have sufficed for such a conquest. It is further probable that Feudal law, so far as it could subject the De Burghs to the dominion of an absent prince, found little favour with them. There is no evidence forthcoming that the De Burghs in the fourteenth century were more reverent than De Prendergast, De Courci, or the De Lascis of the invasion period in their interpretation of the obligations of Feudal allegiance. Their loyalty was measured by the power and prestige of their overlord, so far as he could make it felt. The decline of the Feudal regime was as much cause as effect of the estrangement of the De Burghs from the English interest. As for any sudden change of language, we must bear in mind that the “Anglo-Normans” of the invasion did not speak English. So far as their language was not French, it was Welsh, with a mixture of Flemish. There was not much use for any of these languages in Connacht, where the De Burghs and other Feudal settlers led Irish armies and intermarried with Irish families. In short, the sudden and deliberate turning Irish of the De Burghs, after they had killed off their last earl, seems to be no better than a fantastic inference. Instead of adopting any common counsel or common policy, the De Burgh chiefs, after the Earl’s assassination, engaged in violent warfare against each other.
From this time on we can trace the gradual and rapid spread of the galloglass organisation in various parts of Ireland; and this continues until the time of Elizabeth who employed galloglasses on her own side and rewarded their chiefs with grants of Irish land. Meanwhile resurgent Ireland began to assimilate her “Old Foreigners.” In 1374, the annalist, recording the death of Jenkin Savage, says that “he leaves poetry an orphan.” This foster-father of Irish poetry was of the family of old Sir Robert Savage who said “a castle of bones is better than a castle of stones,” Feudal lord of the Ards in East Ulster.
The year after his death, 1375, a second battle of Downpatrick was fought. The Irish were commanded by Niall O’Neill, great-grandson of “Brian of the battle of Down,” so little were the Irish of that age daunted by the apparent disasters of their forefathers. The Foreigners were commanded by Sir James Talbot of Malahide. O’Neill was victorious. Talbot fell in the fight. The battle put an end to the Feudal dominion established over East Ulster by the valiant de Courci. Of this fact we have a striking proof in the succession of bishops to the sees, then separate, of Down and Connor. From De Courci’s time until the second battle of Down, during two centuries, no man of the Irish nation had been allowed to hold either bishopric. Soon after this, we find appointed bishop of Connor a man named O’Lúcharáin, and Irish surnames become very frequent in the clergy of both Down and Connor.
In 1384, Niall O’Neill attacked and destroyed the fortress of Carrickfergus, and (says the annalist) “obtained great power over the Foreigners.” In 1392, the Feudal colonists of Dundalk submitted to him. In the record of his death in 1397, he is entitled “king of Ulster.”
About this time, Eoin MacDomhnaill, brother to Domhnall of Harlaw, king of Argyle and the Islands, acquired the Feudal title to the Glens of Antrim through marriage to the heiress of Biset. Having taken possession, the MacDonnells did not concern themselves about Feudal duties to an overlord, an Earl of Mortimer or an Earl of March. Afterwards, in the official language of the Elizabethan government, the MacDonnells of the Glens were intruding Scots: a point of view which their chief, Somhairle Buidhe, countered bluntly by proclaiming that “plainly the English have no right to be in Ireland.”
In the fourteenth century and still more in the fifteenth, the Irish built castles for themselves and took possession of many castles built for their subjugation. They turned the policy of incastellation against its proprietors and patentees. In this they were facilitated by the galloglass organisation, always ready for military service. The principal family of galloglass chiefs, the MacDonnells, had for their heraldic motto “Toujours prêts”—”always ready.” In this period, too, a number of the old petty kingdoms, after long abeyance under Feudal lords, once more emerge into prominence.
In 1423, the Irish of Tír Eoghain and Tir Conaill, aided now by the Irish of East Ulster, defeat the viceroy, the Earl of Ormond, at Dundalk. In 1425, the Earl of March, heir to the lordship of Ulster and Connacht, is sent to Ireland as viceroy and receives the formal submission of the Ulster princes. This does not count for much, for in five years time Eoghan O’Neill, son of the king of Ulster, received in his father’s name the allegiance of O’Farrell, king of Annaly, O’Connor, king of Offaly, O’Molloy, king of Fir Ceall, O’Melaghlin, titular king of Meath, and other Irish rulers in the midlands; also of Nugent, Baron of Delvin, the Plunkets, the Herberts, and the Foreigners of Westmeath in general. This, in the year 1430, marks the highest point of power reached by the kings of Tir Eoghain at any time. On his father’s death in 1432, Eoghan O’Neill, says the annalist, “went to Tulach Óg, and was there inaugurated king on the stone of the kings by the will of God and men, of bishops and chief poets.”
In the year following, 1433, Margaret, daughter of O’Carroll, king of Eile, and wife of O’Connor, king of Offaly, held those two festivals for the learned of Ireland that have been justly described as national events of high and singular importance, proving that the Irish of that time acted on a clear and definite consciousness of nationality. It should however, be made plain that Margaret’s achievement marked no new expression of the national consciousness, either in conception or execution. Eighty-two years earlier, in 1351, what we may call a fair of Irish learning was held by William O’Kelly, king of Ui Maine, in his own territory.
A contemporary account of O’Kelly’s assemblage has been left us by one of his guests, Gofraidh Fionn Ó Dálaigh, official poet to MacCarthy, king of Desmond. Miss Knott, who has edited the poem in Ériu, says properly that these assemblies of the learned under Irish rulers had a political import: the poets fulfilling in that age a function proper to the journalists of our time.
The poet makes the occasion clear. O’Kelly had regained power in his ancestral territory, long under the control of the Foreigners, whom he had expelled, and was about to divide it again among his own people. In celebration of his good fortune, he offers a Christmas feast to all the men of learning and art of his nation: to the seven orders of poets, to the jurists, the historians, musicians, craftsmen, and jugglers also and jesters. Wide avenues were laid out with lines of conical roofed houses of timber and wickerwork: a street for the poets, one for the musicians, one for the chroniclers and genealogists, one for the rhymers and jugglers. These structures are compared to the letters on a page, O’Kelly’s castle to the illuminated capital letter at their head. Craftsmen are busy carving animal figures on its oakwork. It is in the midst of a rich country, re-conquered by O’Kelly. On its bounds are Athenry, Athlone, and Athleague, three famous fords. “Loch Derg, a cause of pride, Loch Ree with its green marshes, these blue bays on which the sun shines brightly are the boundaries of William’s land.” Before William’s ancestors, the land belonged to the hero Goll MacMorna and his brethren. It is a country of plenty, with every variety of surface, tillage and grasslands and forest. “We men of learning have come through evil days—the time of conquest and disruption—our lore neglected, our affluence reduced, most of our country against us; but a better time has come. Our host to-night has delivered us from sorrow.”
It was among a people once more confident of the future that a congress of this kind was planned and successfully held. The poet bears witness that the king’s invitation has brought together a concourse from every part of Ireland, from Ulster, Thomond, Desmond, Leinster and Meath. The annals tell us they came away well pleased. Could any event be more typical of a conscious and constructive national idea?
In 1387, Niall Ó’Néill the younger, in the reign of his father, the victor of Downpatrick, built a hostel for the learned of all Ireland in Eamhain Macha, the site of the ancient home of the kings of Ulster. Margaret O’Carroll’s great festival of the learned in 1433 was thus the third such occasion within three generations, noteworthy above the other two in this respect among others, that it revived the fulness of national tradition on the very borders of the Pale.
The true beginning of the Irish rally was in the minds of those kings and nobles and fighting men of Thomond and Connacht who marched to the Erne in 1258 to offer the headship of the free Irish to a king of Tir Eoghain. Both O’Brien and O’Connor were closer in the line of descent to kings of Ireland than O’Neill was. There was no country in Europe at that time whose magnates were not willing to have civil war rather than abandon plausible claims to sovereignty. From this worthy beginning I have traced the progress of resurgent Ireland down to a worthy fruition, the generous homage of an Irish queen to that literary tradition which, as Mrs. Green has so clearly shown us in a recent work, is the most characteristic element in Irish nationality. And there I leave the story.
Another time of dark adversity came afterwards. What stands for the history of Ireland in that dark time is mainly the history of a government which nobody pretends to have been Irish. We need a new history from the fifteenth century onward, written out of the records of the Irish people. But as I have set down the Irish rally as the subject of this lecture, I may properly be asked how this resurgent movement ended. I shall go as near as I can to imitate the brevity of Sir Robert Savage. The Plantagenets invoked Peter, the Tudors invoked saltpetre. When the Plantagenets undertook to become missionaries in Ireland, and incidentally to pay Peter’s Pence, as Giraldus says, out of the profits, they were under the impression that Irish kings had control of secret gold mines. When Elizabeth’s ministers professed a yearning to bring the Irish to civility, they were calculating how much land could be acquired by the expenditure of the stock of saltpetre available from time to time at so much per ton. It may shock the proper sense of the “Ireland under” historians that this villainous substance should be blown betwixt the wind and their civility, but just as the true keynote of what is called “Ireland under the Normans” is incastellation, so the true keynote of “Ireland under the Tudors” is gunpowder. There is more mental profit in one fact of this kind than in the painful perusal of stacks of State papers, evidence mainly against those who write them.
I must say that Irish history in the diatribal stage afflicts me much less than Irish history in popular handbooks. This lecture has not exhausted the subject from the time of Brian O’Neill to the time of Margaret O’Carroll—less than two centuries. I claim to have shown evidence of real life, growth, development, purpose and spirit in the Irish nation during that time. Take up one of these popular handbooks and what will you find? The dissensions of the Irish clans, Edward Bruce’s invasion, the perpetual Statute of Kilkenny, and how Richard II. fared in Ireland. Much is made of the Statute of Kilkenny, as though its oppressive operation were a necessary consequence of its record on the Statute Book. The Irish dissensions are gravely deprecated. They are the whole history of the nation during all this period, and one example is given as sufficing for all. It tells how Godfrey O’Donnell, after his fight with FitzGerald near Sligo, returned to Tir Conaill never to recover from his wounds; how Brian O’Neill used the occasion to invade Tir Conaill; how O’Donnell had himself borne on a litter at the head of his forces, routed O’Neill, and died in the hour of victory. All this story indeed is related in a Latin chronicle of uncertain date and the place of battle is not mentioned. The contemporary Annals of Ulster are the most copious and minute record for that time of the affairs of Tir Eoghain and Tir Conaill, having been written not far from the border of the two territories. They say nothing about an invasion of Tir Conaill or about any battle or hostility between the two kings. They relate the death of O’Donnell in these words only: “quievit in Christo“—”he fell asleep in Christ,” the customary formula of the obit of a churchman or of a layman who died in religious retirement in a monastery. This leaves the romantic battle story open to question. Whether the story be truth or fiction, when it stands with Edward Bruce, Richard II., and the Statute of Kilkenny, as a representation of Irish history during the period with which this lecture is concerned, it is not the truth of history. Not indolence nor want of access to the materials produces popular history of this sort. It is the product of a peculiar obsession of mind, that makes Ireland appear a sort of hotel, in which the important people are always distinguished visitors, and the permanent residents, when they are not under orders, are occupied with quarrelling children and other household worries in the garret or the basement.
I have said in a former lecture that the “clan system,” or, as some prefer to say, the “tribal system,” of medieval Ireland, is a modern notion and is an illusion. Its basis is found in the prominence given in Irish literature to the aristocratic kindreds and in the Irish custom of naming territorial divisions by the names of the septs to which their lords belonged. From this has arisen the notion that the sept or clan from whom a territory was named was the people of the territory. The illusion has been enlarged by the loose use of the term “tribe,” which quotation has shown applied to a family group consisting of the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of one man; the same term being applied to an ancient aristocratic kindred like Dal Cuinn, spread over nearly half of Ireland. Common tenure of land by a family group, necessitating redistribution of the land as new generations come forward, with the use of the term “tribe” to denote such groups, has created the further illusion of a tribal territory held in common and periodically redistributed. These things being illusions, I am reminded that I have not endeavoured to set out the facts in their stead.
Let me then take a particular territory like William O’Kelly’s kingdom of Ui Maine. In the fifth century, the lordship of this territory, carrying the title of king, was granted by a king of Connacht to his kinsman Maine. His descendants, called Ui Maine, were the principal nobility of the territory in later times. Before Maine, the territory belonged to a Pictish folk, the Sogini or Soghain, also found in other parts of the country. This Pictish folk continued to inhabit the territory under the rule of the sept of Maine, and under the subordinate rule of their own nobles. But even before Maine’s time, the population did not consist of a homogeneous tribe of Sogini, for we find record of another folk dwelling there, distinguished from the Picts and classed among the Fir Iboth, i.e. the Ebudeans or Hebrideans; and their descendants also remained in occupation, and are named and located in medieval documents. Successive conquests established various degrees of freedom, the measure of freedom being the degree of immunity from tributes and services. Besides these permanent inhabitants, there were landless immigrants who obtained holdings of land on very exacting terms, mitigated, however, by law after long continued occupancy. At the bottom of the scale, there were slaves, who could be bought, sold, or given away. In historical time, the slaves were never numerous.
In addition there were professional men, the brehons or jurists, the poets and historians, the physicians, the musicians; and with these must be classed the master craftsmen. All these had lands for their support. In the later age, lands were also set apart for the captains of galloglasses and the constables of castles. The law of the family or the fine governed all property in land, including the high proprietorship of the ruler. Under this and other influences, every calling tended to be hereditary in the Irish sense, not necessarily from father to son, but within the legal family group. It is even clear from the annals that the clergy were drawn from certain families much more than from others.
There were common rights over rough land unsuitable for tillage. The remainder of the land was apportioned among family groups. There may have been an older system of a more communal character, for there is a tradition or legend about the enclosure and specific apportionment of the lands of Ireland in the reign of Aodh Sláine, about A.D. 600.
Any king or lord could make grants of land within his jurisdiction; and this can be shown to have been done in every age from the fifth to the sixteenth century.
In every large territory there were church lands. The inhabitants of a church estate formed a little body politic by themselves, with a chief of their own, the airchinnech (oirchinneach, “erenach,” or “herenagh”). O’Donovan thought that the lay succession to this title was a consequence of the disorder caused by the Norse wars; in any case, it was merely an assimilation of the temporal government of church lands to the ordinary civil polity. The airchinnech was obliged to provide from his revenue for the support of the clergy and the maintenance of religious services. Otherwise, his status was that of any territorial lord. In medieval Ireland, as elsewhere, we find the conflict between Church and State about the immunity of Church possessions from rendering tributes and services to the secular prince.
On broad and simple lines, the government of an Irish State resembled that of the Roman republic, with the king added as chief officer of State. Authority belonged to the patrician class, conditioned only by the prudential maxim, is treise tuath na tighearna—”a people is stronger than a lord.” Of the election of a king I know only one detailed account—the last instance in history—the election of Aodh Ruadh O’Domhnaill in 1593. The nobles, meeting apart, came to a decision, and then brought it before the popular assembly for ratification. New laws, and even important legal decisions, such as the sentence of death or deposition of a king, were also proposed for ratification by assemblies.
The executive functions of the king and the relations of subordinate to superior kings are well indicated in a law tract printed by Meyer in Eriu. It deals with a case in which a plaintiff or creditor has a claim to recover against a defendant or debtor who belongs to a different State. The plaintiff’s king has no jurisdiction over the defendant. He must refer it to the next superior king, called “the king of a major State.” If the defendant is outside of this king’s jurisdiction, the major king must have recourse to the next higher authority, traditionally called “the king of a fifth.” This king, if his jurisdiction does not extend to the defendant, must take the case to the king of Ireland, whose duty it will then be to levy the claim.
From this it follows that, when the parties at litigation were both subjects of the same petty king, it was his duty and function to give effect to the law as between them.
The Irish Record Reports contain particulars of a class of State papers, the Fiants, which, especially for the reign of Elizabeth, contain lists of the principal followers of various Irish chiefs. No one who examines these lists will entertain the illusion that the people of an Irish territory were a homogeneous clan. In a single list of the principal followers of O’Donnell, there are close on 150 distinct surnames, and among these the O’Donnells form a very small fraction. With regard to occupation, in these lists we find gentlemen, yeomen, husbandmen, surgeons, physicians, priests, rhymers, harpers, pipers, goldsmiths, blacksmiths, tailors, butchers, carpenters, masons, etc., and on the military side, horsemen, kerns, and galloglasses.
There is no doubt that life in ancient Ireland was for the most part rural life. It did not reach that social intensity and complexity which are peculiar to towns and to countries in which town life is dominant. Nevertheless it was probably as high a development of rural life as any country had produced in any age.
What I have said about Irish institutions has of necessity taken often the form of an apologia; of necessity, because I have found the balance heavily weighted down. But, one may object, there must have been some radical defect in this ancient civilisation, otherwise its inherent soundness would have been more secure against either castles or saltpetre. How came it that a brave and intelligent and energetic people did not keep itself in the forefront of western development?
My answer to that is, that Ireland was ruled by a patrician class—and that is not all, for other countries have made remarkable progress under a patrician rule. The Irish nobility were rendered incapable of using their intelligence to profit with the times by one defect—they were perhaps the most intensely proud class of men that ever existed. This pride was bred in their bones. It came to them out of an immemorial past. The history of the Gaelic people falls into cycles of four centuries, beginning with our earliest knowledge of the Celts in the Hallstatt Period. There are four centuries of conquest, expansion and domination, before the Celts came to Ireland. By this time, pride of race was already their dominant sentiment. A Latin poet has described a Celtic general:
“Before the rest, the rapid wing of the Boii, led on by Crixus, charges headlong into the foremost ranks and their gigantic limbs engage in battle, Crixus himself, swelling with ancestral pride, boasted his descent from Brennus, and bore for his token the capture of the Capitol. His shield depicted the Celts weighing out the gold of Rome. His milk-white neck gleamed with a golden torque, his raiment was embroidered with gold, the sleeves were stiff with gold, and the same metal formed his helmet’s nodding crest.”
Four centuries more established the Celtic rule in Ireland. Their rule in Ireland remained secure during four centuries of Roman domination in Gaul and Britain. During four centuries of Germanic invasion and conquest, Ireland stood intact. After four centuries of Norse supremacy over neighbouring seas and lands, Ireland emerged unconquered. Two thousand years of unbroken sway may suffice to set pride above prudence in the tradition of any class. At the end of another cycle, when the Irish nobles were scattered over Europe, the nobility of their bearing and the distinction of their manners won admiration for them in every land but one.
This intense pride is blazoned on the pages of our medieval literature, in annals, genealogies, stories, poems. The poets lived by ministering to it. In this respect, too, we can see the analogy with a good deal of modern journalism.
Too much pride blinded the native rulers of Ireland to the insecurity of their state, and made them careless of their safety, and neglectful of the measures it required. Glorying in the long vista of their past, they did not look before them. They were conservative, inadaptable, unproviding. Herein lay the fatal weakness of medieval Ireland.
We are now nearing the end of the seventh cycle. It has brought us a different experience. I must not speculate upon the outcome. If only I have succeeded in convincing you that Irish history must contain life, movement, colour, coherence, and human interest, beyond anything depicted of it in many books that have been written about it, with that and the recollection of your kind support I make a well contented conclusion.