The Glories of Ireland



“The sorrows of Ireland”! What a vision of woe the words conjure up. The late Goldwin Smith, himself an Englishman and a Unionist, in his Irish History and the Irish Question, finds that “of all histories, the history of Ireland is the saddest. For nearly seven centuries it was a course of strife between races, bloodshed, massacre, misgovernment, civil war, oppression, and misery.”

The first of the great scourges of Erin was the coming of the Danes, the bloodthirsty and conquest-loving Vikings of the North, the worshipers of Thor and Odin, the gods of thunder and of strife. These warriors, in never-ending invasions, had for four hundred years overrun Britain and finally conquered the northern provinces of Gaul. Until the end of the eighth century Ireland had been free from the Scandinavian scourge. About this time the invaders made lodgments along the caasts, passed inward through the island, burned and looted religious houses and schools of learning, levied tribute upon the inhabitants, and at length established themselves firmly at Limerick, Waterford, Dublin, Wexford, and Carlingford. Fortified towns were built, trading communications with Britain and the continent were set up, and the Northman, though not in actual possession of the interior of the island, was apparently in substantial control of its destinies. Brian Borumha, or Boru, brother of the king of Munster, of the Dalcassian race of O’Brien, refused to submit, roused his brother, fought the Danes of Limerick at Sulchoid (A.D. 968), and captured Limerick. Brian later succeeded his brother, became sovereign of all Ireland (A.D. 1001), and, on Good Friday, A.D. 1014, joined battle with the Danes upon the famous field of Clontarf. Here the power of the Northmen was forever broken, Brian falling at the moment of victory, while in his tent, by the hand of a fugitive Dane.

With the death of Brian the united government dissolved. The provincial kings, or princes, resumed separate authority and a struggle arose among them, with varying success, for the national sovereignty. The central government never had been strong, as the nation was organized on a tribal or family basis. In this weakened condition Dermot MacMurrough, king of Leinster, abducted the wife of O’Rourke, prince of Breffni, while the latter was on a pilgrimage. MacMurrough was compelled to fly to England. He sought the protection of the Angevin English king, Henry Plantagenet. As a result of this appeal, a small expedition, headed by Strongbow (A.D. 1169), was sent to Ireland, and Waterford, Wexford, and Dublin were taken. Then came Henry himself, in 1171, with a fleet of 240 ships, 400 knights, and 4,000 men, landing at Waterford. This expedition was the beginning of the English attempted conquest of Ireland–a proceeding that, through all the ruin and bloodshed of 800 years, is not yet accomplished. Henry’s first act was to introduce the feudal system into that southern half of the island which he controlled; he seized great tracts of land, which he in turn granted to his followers under feudal customs; he introduced the offices of the English feudal system and the English laws, and placed his followers in all the positions of power, holding their lands and authority under the feudal conditions of rendering him homage and military service.

This was the root of the alien “landlordism” and foreign political control of future times which became the chief curses of Ireland, the prolific source of innumerable woes. The succeeding years till the reign of Henry VIII. witnessed the extension, and at times the decline, of the Anglo-Norman rule. When Henry VII. became king of England the Anglo-Norman colony or “Pale” had shrunk to two counties and a half around Dublin, defended by a ditch. Many of the original Norman knights had become “more Irish than the Irish themselves.” Such was the great family of the Geraldines or Fitzgerald–the most powerful, with the O’Neills of the North, in Ireland. A united attack at this time would most certainly have driven out the invader; for it must be remembered that Dublin, the “Pale”–“the Castle government” of later times–was the citadel of the English foreign power, and before a united nation would most certainly have succumbed.

When Henry VIII. ascended the throne of England, the policy of peace in Ireland was continued during the early portion of his reign. Then came Henry’s break with the Pope over the royal divorce. The Irish beyond the Pale, and many within it, were loyal to the Church of their fathers, to the faith of Patrick, the faith of the Roman See. To Henry and his daughter Elizabeth, the daughter of Anne Boleyn, who displaced Henry’s lawful wife, this was treason. Henceforth, to the bitterness of race hatred and the pride of the conqueror were to be added the blackest of religious feuds, the most cruel of religious persecutions in the history of the world. Again let Goldwin Smith, the English Unionist, describe the result: “Of all the wars waged by a civilized on a barbarous (sic) and despised race these wars waged by the English on the Irish seem to have been the most hideous. No quarter was given by the invader to man, woman, or child. The butchering of women and children is repeatedly and brutally avowed. Nothing can be more horrible than the cool satisfaction with which English commanders report their massacres.” Famine was deliberately added to the other horrors. What was called law was more cruel than war: it was death without the opportunity for defense and with the hypocrisy of the forms of justice added.

Out of this situation came the infamous Penal Code, which, by the period of William the Third, about 1692, became a finished system. This is the “Irish Code” of which Lord Brougham said: “It was so ingeniously contrived that an Irish Catholic could not lift his hand without breaking it.” And Edmund Burke said: “The wit of man never devised a machine to disgrace a realm or destroy a kingdom so perfect as this.” Montesquieu, the great French jurist-philosopher, the author of the epoch-making Spirit of the Laws, commented: “It must have been contrived by devils; it ought to have been written in blood; and the only place to register it is in hell.” Yet for two hundred years this code of death, national and individual, was the supreme law of Ireland.

Wendell Phillips, the great American orator, in his lecture on “Daniel O’Connell,” summed up this Penal Code in words that will not soon be forgotten by the world. His reference to Mr. Froude is to James Anthony Froude, the English historian. He says:

“You know that, under it, an Irish Catholic could not sit in the House of Commons; he could not hold any commission from the Crown, either civil or military; he could be a common soldier–nothing more. He could neither vote, nor sit on a jury, nor stand on a witness stand, nor bring a suit, nor be a doctor, nor be a lawyer, nor travel five miles from his own home without a permit from a justice of the peace. The nearest approach that ever was made to him was a South Carolina negro before the war. He had no rights that a Protestant needed to respect. If he was a land-holder, if all his children were Catholics, he was obliged to divide the land equally between them. This was the English plan for eliminating the Catholic tenure of the land and letting it slip out of their hands. Then, if any of the children, during their father’s life, concluded to become Protestants, in such case they took the whole estate; or, indeed, they might compel the father to put his estate in trust for their benefit. So, if the Catholic wife would not go to an Episcopalian church once a month–which she deemed it a sin to do–she forfeited her dower. But if she went regularly, she could have all the estate. If a Catholic had a lease, and it rose one-quarter in value, any Protestant could take it from him by bringing that fact to the notice of a justice of the peace. Three justices of the peace might summon any Catholic before them, and oblige him to give up his faith, or quit the realm. Four justices could oblige him to abjure his faith or sell his estates. If a Protestant paid one dollar tax, the Catholic paid two. If a Protestant lost a ship, when at war with a Catholic power–and at the time there was only one Protestant power in Europe, besides Great Britain; that was Holland: so that the chances were nine to one that, in case of war, Great Britain would be at war with a Catholic power–in such a case, if a Protestant lost a ship, he went home and assessed the value on his Catholic neighbors, and was reimbursed. So, of education. We fret a great deal on account of a class of Irishmen who come to our shores and are lacking in education, in culture, and refinement. But you must remember the bad laws, you must remember the malignant legislation, that sentenced them to a life of ignorance, and made education a felony in Catholic Ireland. If an Irishman sent his child to a Protestant schoolmaster, all right; but if the parent would not do so, and sent him to a Catholic school, the father was fined ten pounds a week; and the schoolmaster was fined five pounds a week; and for the third offense he was hung! But, if the father determined that his child should be educated, and sent him across the Channel to France, the boy forfeited his citizenship and became an alien; and, if discovered, the father was fined one hundred pounds; and anybody, except the father, who harbored him, forfeited all civil rights–that is, he could not sue in a court of law, nor could he vote. Indeed, a Catholic could not marry! If he married a Protestant, the marriage was void; the children were illegitimate. And, if one Catholic married another, it required the presence of a priest, and if a priest landed in Ireland for twenty minutes, it was death! To this ferocious ‘Code’, Sir Robert Peel, in our own day, added the climax, that no Catholic should quit his dwelling between the hours of sunset and sunrise, an exaggeration of the ‘Curfew Law’ of William the Conqueror. Now, you will hardly believe that this was enacted as a law. But Mr. Froude alludes to this code. Yes; he was very honest; he would paint England as black as she deserved. He said of Queen Elizabeth that she failed in her duty as a magistrate; she failed towards Ireland in her capability of being a great ruler. And then he proceeded, after passing sentence, to give us the history of her reign, and showed that, in very many cases, she could not have done any different. For instance–oh! it is the saddest, blackest, most horrible statement of all history; it makes you doubt the very possibility of human nature–when you read that Spenser, the poet, who had the most ardent, most perfect ideas in English poetry–Spenser sat at the council board that ordered the wholesale butchery of a Spanish regiment captured in Ireland, and, to execute the order, he chose Sir Walter Raleigh, the scholar, the gentleman, the poet, the author, and the most splendid Englishman of his age! And Norris, a captain under Sidney, in whose veins flowed the blood of Sir Philip, writing home to Elizabeth, begs and persuades her to believe in O’Neill’s crimes, and asks for leave to send a hired man to poison him! And the Virgin Queen makes no objection! Mr. Froude quotes a letter from Captain Norris, in which he states that he found himself in an island where five hundred Irish (all women and children; not a man among them) had taken refuge from the war; and he deliberately butchered every living soul! And Queen Elizabeth, in a letter still extant, answers by saying: ‘Tell my good servant that I will not forget his good services.’ He tells us that ‘The English nobility and gentry would take a gun as unhesitatingly as a fowler, and go out to shoot an Irishman as an Indian would a buffalo.’ Then he tells us, with amazement, that you never could make an Irishman respect an Englishman! He points to some unhappy Kildare, the sole relic of a noble house, whose four uncles were slaughtered in cold blood–that is the only word for this kind of execution, slaughtered–and he, left alone, a boy, grows up characterless and kills an archbishop. Every impetuous, impatient act is dragged before the prejudiced mind. But when Mr. Froude is painting Sir Walter and Spenser, blind no longer, he says: ‘I regret–it is very sad to think–that such things should ever have been!'”

Such was the cup from which Ireland drank even into the days of men now living. Nor was this all. The rise of English manufactures brought a new chapter of woes to Ireland. The Irish cattle trade had been killed by an Act of Charles II. for the benefit of English farmers. The Irish then took up the raising of wool and woolen manufactures. A flourishing trade grew up. An English law destroyed it. In succession the same greed killed the cotton, the glovemaking, the glassmaking, and the brewing trades. These were reserved for the English maker and merchant. These crimes upon Irish industry surpassed a thousand-fold the later English attempts upon the industries of the American colonies.

Under the Code, and through the extreme poverty produced thereby, substantially all the land of Ireland passed out of the hands of the people. They became mere serfs upon the soil. Their tribute was paid through a rapacious agent to a foreign landlord. The improvement of the land by the labor of the tenant brought increase of rent. There was no fixity of tenure of the land. It was held at the will of the agent, reflecting the rapacity of the non-resident landlord. Upon these holdings the principal crop was the potato. A failure of this crop was a failure to pay rent, eviction on the roadside, and starvation. The results, after the enactment of the Penal Code, and during the greater part of the eighteenth century, are thus described by Goldwin Smith: “On such a scene of misery as the abodes of the Irish cotters the sun has rarely looked down. Their homes were the most miserable hovels, chimneyless, filthy. Of decent clothing they were destitute. Their food was the potato; sometimes they bled their cattle and mixed the blood with sorrel. The old and sick were everywhere dying by cold and hunger, and rotting amidst filth and vermin. When the potato failed, as it often did, came famine, with disease in its train. Want and misery were in every face, the roads were spread with dead and dying, there was sometimes none to bear the dead to the grave, and they were buried in the fields and ditches where they perished. Fluxes and malignant fevers followed, laying these villages waste. ‘I have seen,’ says a contemporaneous witness, ‘the laborer endeavoring to work at his spade, but fainting for want of food and forced to quit it. I have seen the helpless orphan exposed on the dunghill, and none to take him in for fear of infection. And I have seen the hungry infant sucking at the breast of the already expired parent.'”

All these are not only the horrors of a hundred or two hundred years ago; they were repeated in ten thousand forms in the awful famine days of 1847. In 1841 the population of Ireland was 8,796,545 persons. In 1851, after four years of famine, the population was 6,551,970, leaving 2,244,575 persons to be accounted for, and taking no account of the natural increase of the population during the ten years. Not less than a million and a half of these died of starvation and the fevers brought on by famine. The remainder emigrated to foreign lands.

In this account of the Sorrows of Ireland nothing has been said of the vast emigrations, thousands upon thousands of persons in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries leaving Ireland under forced deportations, in a practical selling into slavery. The sum total of this loss to Ireland cannot be less than 5,000,000 souls. The earlier deportations were carried out under the most atrocious circumstances. Families were broken up and scattered to distant and separate colonies, such as Barbados, the New England States, and later to the South Pacific.

This is but a glance at some of the wrongs to Ireland’s religious, intellectual, and material welfare, wrongs that have plunged her into an age-long poverty. But one of the greatest of all her sorrows has been the denial of her national life, the attempt to strangle her rightful aspirations as a free people. Her autonomy was taken from her; her smallest legislative act was the act of a stranger; in fine, every mark of political slavery was put upon her. A foreign soldiery was, and still is, quartered upon her soil. The control of her revenues, of the system of taxation, was wrested from her. These became the function of a hateful resident oligarchy, alien in everything to the Irish people, and of the English parliament, to which she was not admitted until the days of Daniel O’Connell. And then she was admitted only through fear of revolution.

The dawn has come. The dark night is almost past; the heroic struggle of Ireland is about to close in triumph. Her loyalty to her ideals of freedom and religion is to meet its reward. The epitaph of Robert Emmet will soon be written, for at last Ireland is certain of “taking her place among the nations of the earth.”


D’Alton: History of Ireland; J.P. Prendergast: Cromwellian Settlement; Barrington: Rise and Fall of the Irish Nation; McNevin: Confiscation of Ulster; R.R. Madden: History of the Penal Laws; Murphy: Cromwell in Ireland; T.A. Emmet: Ireland under English Rule, 2 vols.; Mrs. J.R. Green: Irish Nationality; Walpole: A Short History of the Kingdom of Ireland; A.M. Sullivan: Story of Ireland; Thomas Moore: History of Ireland; Edmund Spenser: View of the State of Ireland; C. Gavan Duffy: Four Years of Irish History, 1845-49; Isaac Butt: Land Tenure in Ireland; Justin McCarthy: History of our own Times; Johnston and Spencer: Ireland’s Story; MacGeoghegan’s History of Ireland and its continuation by John Mitchel; William Sampson: Memoirs of an Irish Exile, 1832; John Curry: A Historical and Critical Review of the Civil Wars in Ireland (1775); John Boyle: The Battlefields of Ireland (1879); Speeches of Edmund Burke, Daniel O’Connell, Henry Grattan; Wendell Phillips’s Speech on Daniel O’Connell; Father Tom Burke: Lectures on Ireland.

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