The Story Of Ireland
Part 1 out of 6
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[Illustration: HOLY ISLAND LOUGH DERG. (_From a painting by Watkins._)]
The Story of the Nations
STORY OF IRELAND
THE HON. EMILY LAWLESS
AUTHOR OF "HURRISH: A STUDY," ETC
WITH SOME ADDITIONS BY
MRS. ARTHUR BRONSON
THE EARL OF DUFFERIN, K.P., G.C.B., F.R.S., &c.,
VICEROY OF INDIA.
* * * * *
SGEUL NA H-EIREANN
DON EIREANNACH AS FIU.
Irish history is a long, dark road, with many blind alleys, many sudden
turnings, many unaccountably crooked portions; a road which, if it has a
few sign-posts to guide us, bristles with threatening notices, now upon
the one side and now upon the other, the very ground underfoot being
often full of unsuspected perils threatening to hurt the unwary.
To the genuine explorer, flushed with justified self-confidence, well
equipped for the journey, and indifferent to scratches or bruises, one
may suppose this to be rather an allurement than otherwise, as he spurs
along, lance at rest, and sword on side. To the less well-equipped
traveller, who has no pretensions to the name of explorer at all, no
particular courage to boast of, and whose only ambition is to make the
way a little plainer for some one travelling along it for the first
time, it is decidedly a serious impediment, so much so as almost to
scare such a one from attempting the _role_ of guide even in the
slightest and least responsible capacity.
Another and perhaps even more formidable objection occurs. A history
beset with such distracting problems, bristling with such thorny
controversies, a history, above all, which has so much bearing upon that
portion of history which has still to be born, ought, it may be said, to
be approached in the gravest and most authoritative fashion possible, or
else not approached at all. This is too true, and that so slight a
summary as this can put forward no claim to authority of any sort is
evident enough. National "stories," however, no less than histories,
gain a gravity, it must be remembered, and even at times a solemnity
from their subject apart altogether from their treatment. A good reader
will read a great deal more into them than the mere bald words convey.
The lights and shadows of a great or a tragic past play over their easy
surface, giving it a depth and solidity to which it could otherwise lay
no claim. If the present attempt disposes any one to study at first hand
one of the strangest and most perplexing chapters of human history and
national destiny, its author for one will be more than content.
Early migrations--The great ice age--Northern character of the fauna and
flora of Ireland--First inhabitants--Formorian, Firbolgs,
Tuatha-da-Dannans--Battle of Moytura Cong--The Scoto-Celtic
invasion--Annals and annalists, how far credible?
THE LEGENDS AND LEGEND-MAKERS
The legends--Their archaic character--The pursuit of Gilla Backer and
his horse--The ollamhs--Positions of the bards or ollamhs in
Early Celtic law--The Senchus Mor and Book of Aicill--Laws of
inheritance--Narrow conception of patriotism.
ST. PATRICK THE MISSIONARY
St. Patrick's birth--Capture, slavery, and escape--His return to
Ireland--Arrives at Tara--Visits Connaught and Ulster--Early Irish
missionaries and their enthusiasm for the work.
THE FIRST IRISH MONASTERIES
"The Tribes of the Saints"--Small oratories in the West--Plan of
monastic life--Ready acceptance of Christianity.
COLUMBA AND THE WESTERN CHURCH
Birth of Columba--His journey to Iona--His character and
humanity--Conversion of Saxon England--Schism between Western Church and
Papacy--Synod of Whitby--The Irish Church at home.
THE NORTHERN SCOURGE
Ireland divided into five kingdoms--The Ard-Reagh--Arrival of
Vikings--Thorgist or Turgesius?--Later Viking invaders--The round
towers--Dublin founded--Hatred between the two races.
BRIAN OF THE TRIBUTE
Two deliverers--Defeat of the Vikings at Sulcost--Brian becomes king of
Munster--Seizes Cashel--Overcomes Malachy--Becomes king of
Ireland--Celtic theory of loyalty--Fresh Viking invasion--Battle of
Clontarf--Death of Brian Boru.
FROM BRIAN TO STRONGBOW
Result of Brian Boru's death--Chaos returns--Struggle for the
succession--Roderick O'Connor, last native king of Ireland.
THE ANGLO-NORMAN INVASION
First group of knightly invaders--Their relationship--Giraldus
Cambrensis--Motives for invasion--Papal sanction--Dermot McMurrough--He
enlists recruits--Arrival of Robert FitzStephen--Wexford, Ossory, and
Kilkenny captured--Arrival of Strongbow--Struggle with Hasculph the Dane
and John the Mad--Danes defeated--Dublin besieged--Strongbow defeats
Roderick O'Connor, goes to Wexford, and embarks at Waterford--Meets the
king--Arrival of Henry II.
HENRY II. IN IRELAND
Large military forces of Henry--The chiefs submit and do homage--Irish
theory of Ard-Reagh or Over-Lord--Henry in Dublin--Synod at
Cashel--Henry recalled to England.
EFFECTS OF THE ANGLO-NORMAN INVASION
Effect of Henry's stay in Ireland--His large schemes--Their practical
failure--Rapacity of adventurers--Contrast between Irish and their
conquerors--Civil war from the outset.
JOHN IN IRELAND
John's first visit--His insolence and misconduct--Recalled in
disgrace--Second visit as king--His energy--Overruns Meath and
Ulster--Returns to England--Effect of his visit.
THE LORDS PALATINE
The Geraldines--Their possessions in Ireland--The five palatinates--The
heirs of Strongbow--The De Burghs--The Butlers--Importance of the great
territorial owners in Ireland.
EDWARD BRUCE IN IRELAND
Want of landmarks in Irish history--Edward the I.'s reign--Battle of
Bannockburn--Its effect on Ireland--Scotch invasion under Edward
Bruce--Ravages and famine caused by him--The colonists regain courage:
Battle of Dundalk--Edward Bruce killed--Result of the Scotch invasion.
THE STATUTE OF KILKENNY
Reign of Edward III.--A lost opportunity--Duke of Clarence sent to
Ireland--Parliament at Kilkenny--Statute of Kilkenny--Its objects--Two
Irelands--Weakness resorts to cruelty--Effects of the statute.
RICHARD II. IN IRELAND
Richard the II.'s two visits to Ireland--Utter disorganization of the
country--The chieftains submit and come in--"Sir Art"
McMurrough--Richard leaves, and Art McMurrough breaks out again--Earl of
March killed--Richard returns--Attacks Art McMurrough--Failure of
attack--Recalled to England--His defeat and death--Confusion redoubles.
THE DEEPEST DEPTHS
Monotony of Irish history--State of Ireland during the Wars of the
Roses--Pillage, carnage, and rapine--The seaport towns--Richard Duke of
York in Ireland--His conciliatory policy--Battle of Towton--The Kildares
grow in power--Geroit Mor--His character.
THE KILDARES IN THE ASCENDANT
Effect of the battle of Bosworth--Kildare still in power--Lambert Simnel
in Ireland--Crowned in Dublin--Battle of Stoke--Henry VII. pardons the
rebels--Irish peers summoned to Court--Perkin Warbeck in
Ireland--Quarrels between the Kildares and Ormonds--Sir Edward
Poynings--Kildare's trial and acquital--Restored to power--Battle
FALL OF THE HOUSE OF KILDARE
Rise of Wolsey to power--Resolves to destroy the Geraldines--Geroit Mor
succeeded by his son--Earl of Surrey sent as viceroy--Kildare restored
to power--Summoned to London and imprisoned--Again restored and again
imprisoned--Situation changed--Revolt of Silken Thomas--Seizes
Dublin--Archbishop Allen murdered--Sir William Skeffington to
Ireland--Kildare dies in prison--"The Pardon of Maynooth"--Silken Thomas
surrenders, and is executed.
THE ACT OF SUPREMACY
Lord Leonard Grey deputy--Accused of treason, recalled and executed--Act
of Supremacy proposed--Opposition of clergy--Suppression of the
abbeys--Great Parliament summoned in Dublin--- Meeting of hereditary
enemies--Conciliatory measures--Henry VIII. proclaimed king of Ireland
and head of the Church.
THE NEW DEPARTURE
A halcyon period--O'Neill, O'Brien, and Macwilliam of Clanricarde at
Greenwich--Receive their peerages,--Attempt at establishing
Protestantism in Ireland--Vehemently resisted--The destruction of the
relics--Archbishop Dowdal--The effect of the new departure--The Irish
problem receives fresh complications.
THE FIRST PLANTATIONS
Mary becomes queen--Religious struggle postponed--Fercal Leix and Offaly
colonized--Sense of insecurity awakened--No Irish Protestant
martyrs--Commission of Dean Cole--Its failure--Death of Mary.
WARS AGAINST SHANE O'NEILL
Elizabeth becomes queen,--Effect of change on Ireland--Shane
O'Neill--His description, habits, qualities--His campaign against
Sussex--Defeats Sussex--His visit to Court--Returns to Ireland--Supreme
in the North--His attack on the Scots--Sir Henry Sidney marches into
Ulster--The disaster at Derry--Shane encounters the O'Donnells--Is
defeated--Applies to the Scots--Is slain.
BETWEEN TWO STORMS
Sir Henry Sidney Lord-deputy--A lull--Sidney's policy and
proceedings--Provincial presidents appointed--Arrest of Desmond--Sir
Peter Carew--His violence--Rebellion in the South--Sir James
Fitzmaurice--Relations between him and Sir John Perrot--He surrenders,
and sails for France.
THE DESMOND REBELLION
An abortive tragedy--State of the Desmond Palatinate--Sir James
Fitzmaurice in France and Spain--Nicholas Saunders appointed
legate--Stukeley's expedition--Fitzmaurice lands in Kerry--Desmond
vacillates--Death of Sir James Fitzmaurice--Concerted attack of Ormond
and Pelham--Horrible destruction of life--Arrival of Spaniards at
Smerwick--Lord Grey de Wilton--Defeat of English troops at
Glenmalure--Attack of and slaughter of Spaniards at Smerwick--Wholesale
executions--Death of the Earl of Desmond and extinction of his house.
BETWEEN TWO MORE STORMS
State of Munster--The new plantations--Perrot's administration--Tyrlough
Luinagh,--Sir William Fitzwilliam--Executions without trial--Alarm of
northern proprietors--Earl of Tyrone--Character of early loyalty--Causes
of dissatisfaction--Quarrel with Bagnall--Preparations for a rising.
BATTLE OF THE YELLOW FORD
The Northern Blackwater--Attack of Blackwater Fort by Tyrone--Death of
the deputy, Lord Borough--Bagnall advances from Dublin--Battle of the
Yellow Ford--Defeat and death of Bagnall--Retreat of the English
troops--The rising becomes general.
THE ESSEX FAILURE
Essex appointed Lord-Lieutenant--Arrival in Ireland--Mistakes and
disasters--Death of Sir Conyers Clifford in the Curlews--Essex advances
north--Holds a conference with Tyrone--Agrees to an armistice--Anger of
the Queen--Essex suddenly leaves Ireland.
END OF THE TYRONE WAR
Mountjoy appointed deputy--Contrast between him and Essex--Reasons for
Mountjoy's greater success--Conquest by starvation--Success of
method--Arrival of Spanish forces at Kinsale: Mountjoy and Carew marched
south and invests Kinsale--Attack of Mountjoy by Tyrone--Failure of
attack--Surrender of Spaniards--Surrender of Tyrone.
THE FLIGHT OF THE EARLS
The last chieftain rising against England--Condition of affairs at close
of war--Tyrone's position impossible--Reported plot--Tyrone and
Tyrconnel take flight--Confiscation of their territory--Sir John
Davis--The Ulster Settlement.
THE FIRST CONTESTED ELECTION
Parliament summoned--Anxiety of government to secure a Protestant
majority--Contested election--Narrow Protestant majority--Furious
quarrel over election of Speaker--Parliament dissolved--The king
appealed to--Attainder of Tyrone and Tyrconnel--Reversal of statute
OLD AND NEW OWNERS
Further plantations--The Connaught landowners--Their positions--Charles
I.'s accession and how it affected Ireland--Lord Falkland appointed
viceroy--Succeeded by Wentworth.
Arrival of Wentworth in Ireland--His methods and theory--Dissolves
parliament--Goes to Connaught--Galway jury fined and imprisoned--His
ecclesiastical policy--His Irish army--Return to England--Attainder,
trial, and death.
Confusion and disorder--Strafford's army disbanded, but still in the
country--Plot to seize Dublin Castle--Plot transpires--Sir Phelim
O'Neill seizes Charlemont--Attack upon the Protestant
settlers--Barbarities and counter barbarities.
THE WATERS SPREAD
The rising at first local--Attitude of the Pale gentry--They resolve to
join the rising--Disorganization of the northern insurgents--Incapacity
of Sir Phelim O'Neill--Arrival of Owen Roe O'Neill and Preston--Meeting
of delegates at Kilkenny--Charles decides upon a _coup de main_.
Effect of the Ulster massacres on England--An agrarian rather than
religious rising--The Confederates' terms Glamorgan sent to Ireland, The
secret treaty transpires, Arrival of Rinucini, Battle of Benturb, Ormond
surrenders Dublin to the Parliament.
THE CONFUSION DEEPENS
Total confusion of aims and parties, The "poor Panther" Inchiquin,
Alliance between Jones and Owen Roe O'Neill, Ormond advances upon
Dublin, Battle of Baggotrath and defeat of the Royalists, Arrival
CROMWELL IN IRELAND
Cromwell's mission, Assault of Drogheda, and slaughter of its garrison,
Wexford garrison slaughtered, Cromwell's discipline, The "country
sickness," Confusion in the Royalist camp, Signature of the Scotch
covenant by the king, Final surrender of O'Neill and the Irish army.
Loss of life during the eight years of war, Punishment of the
vanquished, Executions, Wholesale scheme of eviction, The New Owners,
"The Burren," Sale of women to the West Indian plantations,
Dissatisfaction amongst the soldiers and debenture holders, Irish
THE ACT OF SETTLEMENT
The Restoration, Henry Cromwell, Coote and Broghill, Court of claims
established in Dublin, Prolonged dispute, Final settlement, Condition of
Irish Roman Catholics at close of the struggle.
OPPRESSION AND COUNTER OPPRESSION
Effects of the Restoration upon the Ulster Presbyterians--A new Act of
Uniformity--Exodus of Presbyterians from Ireland--The Popish
plot--Insane panic--Execution of Archbishop Plunkett--Sudden reversal of
the tide--Tyrconnel sent as viceroy--Terror of Protestant
settlers--William of Orange in England--James II. arrives in Ireland.
WILLIAM AND JAMES IN IRELAND
Popular enthusiasm for James--Struggle between his English and Irish
adherents--James advances to Londonderry--Siege of Londonderry--Its
garrison relieved--Debasing the coinage--Reversal of the Act of
Settlement--Bill of Attainder--Arrival of William III.--Battle of the
Boyne--Flight of James--First siege of Limerick--Athlone captured by
Ginkel--Battle of Aughrim.
THE TREATY OF LIMERICK
Sarsfield refuses to surrender--Second siege of Limerick--The Limerick
treaty--Its exact purport--The military treaty--Departure of the exiles.
THE PENAL CODE
A new century and new fortunes--Mr. Lecky's "Eighteenth
Century"--Reversal of all the recent Acts--The Penal Code--Burke's
description of it--How evaded--Its effects upon Protestants and
THE COMMERCIAL CODE
The "Protestant Ascendency"--England's jealousy of her Colonists, Act
passed prohibiting export of Irish woollen goods, Effects of the Act
upon Ireland, Smuggling on an immense scale, Collapse of industry,
MOLYNEUX AND SWIFT
The "Ingenious Molyneux," Irish naturalists, Molyneux's "Case of
Ireland," Effect of its publication, Death of Molyneux, Dean Swift, His
position in Irish politics, The "Drapier Letters," Their line of attack,
Effect on popular opinion, Wood's halfpence suspended.
Forty dull years, Parliamentary abuses, Charles Lucas, Flood enters
Parliament, His struggle with the Government, Lord Townsend recalled,
Flood accepts office, Effect of that acceptance, Rejoins the Liberal
side, Tries to outbid Grattan, Failure and end.
Unanimity of opinion about Grattan, His character, Enters Parliament,
The "Declaration of Rights," Carried by the Irish Parliament,
Declaratory Act of George I. repealed, A spell of prosperity, Rocks
ahead, Disaster following disaster, Grattan and the Union,
THE IRISH VOLUNTEERS
Revolt of the American Colonies, Its effect on Ireland, Disastrous
condition of the country, Volunteer movement begun in Belfast, Rapid
popularity, Its effect upon politics, Free Trade, Declaratory Act
repealed, The Volunteers disband.
Reform the crying necessity of the hour--Corruption steadily
increasing--Attempt to obtain free importation of goods to England--Its
failure--Disturbed state of the country--Its causes--"White boys," "Oak
boys," and "Steel boys"--Faction war in the North--Orange
lodges--"Society of United Irishmen"--The one hope for the future.
THE FITZWILLIAM DISAPPOINTMENT
General desire for Catholic Emancipation--Lord Sheffield's evidence--The
Catholic delegates received by the king--Lord Fitzwilliam sent as
Lord-Lieutenant--Popular enthusiasm--Recalled--Result of his recall.
Wolfe Tone, his character and autobiography--The other leaders of the
rebellion--England and France at war--Hoche's descent--Panic--Habeas
Corpus Act suspended--Misconduct of soldiers--Arrest of Lord Edward
Fitzgerald--Outbreak of the rebellion--The rising in Wexford--Bagenal
Harvey--Arklow, New Ross, and Vinegar Hill--Suppression of the
rebellion--Final incidents--Death of Wolfe Tone.
State of Ireland after the rebellion--Pitt resolved to pass the
Union--Inducements offered--Discrepancy of statements upon the
subject--Bribery or not bribery?--Lord Cornwallis and Lord
Castlereagh--The Union carried.
O'CONNELL AND CATHOLIC EMANCIPATION
The Union not followed by union--The Emmett outbreak,--Young Daniel
O'Connell--The new Catholic Association--The Clare election--Catholic
Relief Bill carried--The "Incarnation of a people"--Repeal--The
O'Connell gatherings--The meeting proclaimed at Clontarf--Prosecution
and condemnation of O'Connell--Released on appeal--Never regained his
power--Despondency and death.
"The Nation"--Sir C. Gavan Duffy--Thomas Davis--Smith O'Brien--Effect of
O'Connell's death on the "Young Ireland" party--James Lalor--His
influence on Mitchell--The "United Irishmen" newspaper started--Arrest
and transportation of Mitchell--The end of the "Young Ireland" movement.
First symptoms of the potato disease--The fatal night--Beginning of
Famine--Rapid mortality--Mr. Forster's reports--Relief works--Soup
kitchens--Failure of preventive measures--Famine followed by
ruin--Clearances and Emigration--Emigrant ships--Permanent effects of
the Famine on Ireland.
THE LATEST DEVELOPMENT
Encumbered Estates Act--Tenant League of North and South--The "Brass
Band"--A lull--The Phoenix organization--The Fenian "scare"--Rescue of
Fenian prisoners at Manchester--The Clerkenwell explosion--The Irish
Church Act--The Irish Land Act of 1870--Failure of Irish Education Act,
and retirement of the Liberals--Mr. Butt and Mr. Parnell--The Land
League established--Return of the Liberals to power--The Irish Land Act
of 1881--Arrest and release of Land League Leaders--Murders in the
Phoenix Park--James Carey--- His death--The agrarian struggle--Home
Rule--Its eventual destiny--The untravelled Future.
Irish heroes--Causes of their want of popularity--Irish _versus_ Scotch
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS.
[Nearly all the archaeological illustrations in this volume are from
"The Early Christian Architecture of Ireland," by Miss M. Stokes, who
has kindly allowed them to be reproduced. The portraits are chiefly from
engravings, &c., kept in the Prints Room of the British Museum.]
HOLY ISLAND, LOUGH DERG.
MAP OF IRELAND IN REIGN OF HENRY VII.
CROSS IN CEMETERY OF TEMPUL BRECCAN.
WEST CROSS, MONASTERBOICE.
DOORWAY OF MAGHERA CHURCH.
KELLS ROUND TOWER.
BASE OF TUAM CROSS.
DOORWAY OF KILLESHIN CHURCH.
INTERIOR OF CORMAC'S CHAPEL (CASHEL).
WEST FRONT OF ST. CRONAN'S CHURCH.
WEST DOORWAY OF FRESHFORD CHURCH.
SIR HENRY SIDNEY (PORTRAIT OF).
CATHERINE, THE "OLD" COUNTESS OF DESMOND.
SIR JOHN PERROT (PORTRAIT OF).
CAHIR CASTLE (IN 1599).
CAPTURE OF THE EARL OF ORMOND BY THE O'MORES.
IRELAND IN THE REIGN OF JAMES I.
THOMAS WENTWORTH, EARL OF STRAFFORD, 1641.
ARCHBISHOP USSHER (PORTRAIT OF).
JAMES, DUKE OF ORMOND (PORTRAIT OF).
HENRY CROMWELL (PORTRAIT OF).
DEAN SWIFT (PORTRAIT OF).
PHILIP, EARL OF CHESTERFIELD (PORTRAIT OF).
RIGHT HON. HENRY FLOOD (PORTRAIT OF).
RIGHT HON. HENRY GRATTAN, M.P. (PORTRAIT OF).
JAMES CAULFIELD, EARL OF CHARLEMONT (PORTRAIT OF).
RIGHT HON. EDMUND BURKE (PORTRAIT OF).
THE EARL OF MOIRA ("A MAN OF IMPORTANCE").
RIGHT HON. EDMUND BURKE (SKETCH FROM LIFE).
THEOBALD WOLFE TONE (PORTRAIT OF).
LORD EDWARD FITZGERALD (PORTRAIT OF).
THE FOUR COURTS, DUBLIN.
MARQUIS CORNWALLIS (PORTRAIT OF).
ROBERT EMMETT (PORTRAIT OF).
DANIEL O'CONNELL, M.P. (SKETCH OF).
LESSER ILLUSTRATIONS (AT ENDS OF CHAPTERS).
CROMLECH ON HOWTH.
MOUTH OF SEPULCHRAL CHAMBER AT DOWTH.
ST. KEVIN'S CHURCH.
CORMAC'S CHAPEL AND ROUND TOWER.
ROUND TOWER AT DEVENISH.
SOUTH WINDOW OF ST. CAEMIN'S CHURCH.
FIGURES ON KILCARN FONT.
FIGURES ON KILCARN FONT.
INITIAL LETTER (FROM THE BOOK OF KELLS).
ST. PATRICK'S BELL.
INITIAL LETTER (FROM THE BOOK OF KELLS).
DOORWAY OF ST. CAEMIN'S CHURCH.
SHRINE OF ST. PATRICK'S BELL.
ST. COLUMBA'S ORATORY.
INITIAL LETTER (FROM THE BOOK OF KELLS).
CRYPT OF CHRIST CHURCH CATHEDRAL.
THE STORY OF IRELAND.
"It seems to be certain," says the Abbe McGeoghehan, "that Ireland
continued uninhabited from the Creation to the Deluge." With this
assurance to help us on our onward way I may venture to supplement it by
saying that little is known about the first, or even about the second,
third, and fourth succession of settlers in Ireland. At what precise
period what is known as the Scoto-Celtic branch of the great Aryan stock
broke away from its parent tree, by what route its migrants travelled,
in what degree of consanguinity it stood to the equally Celtic race or
races of Britain, what sort of people inhabited Ireland previous to the
first Aryan invasion--all this is in the last degree uncertain, though
that it was inhabited by some race or races outside the limits of that
greatest of human groups seems from ethnological evidence to be
When first it dawns upon us through that thick darkness which hangs
about the birth of all countries--whatever their destiny--it was a
densely wooded and scantily peopled island "lying a-loose," as old
Campion, the Elizabethan historian, tells us, "upon the West Ocean,"
though his further assertion that "in shape it resembleth an egg, plain
on the sides, and not reaching forth to the sea in nooks and elbows of
Land as Brittaine doeth"--cannot be said to be quite geographically
accurate--the last part of the description referring evidently to the
east coast, the only one with which, like most of his countrymen, he was
at that time familiar.
Geographically, then, and topographically it was no doubt in much the
same state as the greater part of it remained up to the middle or end of
the sixteenth century, a wild, tangled, roadless land, that is to say,
shaggy with forests, abounding in streams, abounding, too, in lakes--far
more, doubtless, than at present, drainage and other causes having
greatly reduced their number--with rivers bearing the never-failing
tribute of the skies to the sea, yet not so thoroughly as to hinder
enormous districts from remaining in a swamped and saturated condition,
given up to the bogs, which even at the present time are said to cover
nearly one-sixth of its surface.
This superfluity of bogs seems always in earlier times to have been
expeditiously set down by all historians and agriculturists as part of
the general depravity of the Irish native, who had allowed his good
lands,--doubtless for his own mischievous pleasure--to run to waste;
bogs being then supposed to differ from other lands only so far as they
were made "waste and barren by superfluous moisture." About the middle
of last century it began to be perceived that this view of the matter
was somewhat inadequate; the theory then prevailing being that bogs owed
their origin not to water alone, but to the destruction of woods, whose
remains are found imbedded in them--a view which held good for another
fifty or sixty years, until it was in its turn effectually disposed of
by the report of the Bogs Commission in 1810, when it was proved once
for all that it was to the growth of sphagnums and other peat-producing
mosses they were in the main due--a view which has never since been
called in question.
A great deal, however, had happened to Ireland before the bogs began to
grow on it at all. It had--to speak only of some of its later
vicissitudes--been twice at least united to England, and through it with
what we now know as the continent of Europe, and twice severed from it
again. It had been exposed to a cold so intense as to bleach off all
life from its surface, utterly depriving it of vegetation, and grinding
the mountains down to that scraped bun-like outline which so many of
them still retain; had covered the whole country, highlands and lowlands
alike, with a dense overtoppling cap of snow, towering often thousands
of feet above the present height of the mountains, from which "central
silence" the glaciers crept sleepily down the ravines and valleys,
eating their way steadily seaward, and leaving behind them moraines to
mark their passage, leaving also longitudinal scratches, cut, as a
diamond cuts glass, upon the rocks, as may be seen by any one who takes
the trouble of looking for them; finally reaching the sea in a vast
sloping plateau which pushed its course steadily onward until its
further advance was overborne by the buoyancy of the salt water, the
ends breaking off, as the Greenland glaciers do to-day, into huge
floating icebergs, which butted against one another, jammed up all the
smaller bays and fiords; were carried in again and again on the rising
tide; rolled hither and thither like so many colossal ninepins; played,
in short, all the old rough-and-tumble Arctic games through many a cold
and dismal century, finally melting away as the milder weather began
slowly to return, leaving Ireland a very lamentable-looking island
indeed, not unlike one of those deplorable islands scattered along the
shores of Greenland and upon the edges of Baffin's Bay--treeless,
grassless, brown and scalded, wearing everywhere over its surface the
marks of that great ice-plough which had lacerated its sides so long.
There seems to be good geological evidence that the land connection
between Ireland and Scotland continued to a considerably later period
than between it and England, to which, and as far as can be seen to no
other possible cause is to be attributed two very striking
characteristics of its fauna, namely, its excessive meagreness and its
strikingly northern character. Not only does it come far short of the
already meagre English fauna, but all the distinctively southern species
are the ones missing, though there is nothing in the climate to account
for the fact. The Irish hare, for instance, is not the ordinary brown
hare of England, but the "blue" or Arctic hare of Scotch mountains, the
same which still further to the north becomes white in winter, a habit
which, owing to the milder Irish winters, it has apparently shaken off.
It would be pleasant to linger here a little over this point of
distribution--so fruitful of suggestion as to the early history of the
planet we occupy. To speculate as to the curious contradictions, or
apparent contradictions, to be found even within so narrow an area as
that of Ireland. What, for instance, has brought a group of South
European plants to the shores of Kerry and Connemara, which plants are
not to be found in England, even in Cornwall, which one would have
thought must surely have arrested them first? Why, when neither the
common toad or frog are indigenous in Ireland (for the latter, though
common enough now, was only introduced at the beginning of last century)
a comparatively rare little toad, the Natterjack, should be found in one
corner of Kerry to all appearances indigenously? All these questions,
however, belong to quite another sort of book, and to a much larger
survey of the field than there is time here to embark upon, so there is
nothing for it but to turn one's back resolutely upon the tempting sin
of discursiveness, or we shall find ourselves belated before our real
journey is even begun.
The first people, then, of whose existence in Ireland we can be said to
know anything are commonly asserted to have been of Turanian origin, and
are known as "Formorians." As far as we can gather, they were a dark,
low-browed, stunted race, although, oddly enough, the word Formorian in
early Irish legend is always used as synonymous with the word giant.
They were, at any rate, a race of utterly savage hunters and fishermen,
ignorant of metal, of pottery, possibly even of the use of fire; using
the stone hammers or hatchets of which vast numbers remain in Ireland to
this day, and specimens of which may be seen in every museum. How long
they held possession no one can tell, although Irish philologists
believe several local Irish names to date from this almost inconceivably
remote epoch. Perhaps if we think of the Lapps of the present day, and
picture them wandering about the country, catching the hares and rabbits
in nooses, burrowing in the earth or amongst rocks, and being, not
impossibly, looked down on with scorn by the great Irish elk which still
stalked majestically over the hills; rearing ugly little altars to dim,
formless gods; trembling at every sudden gust, and seeing demon faces in
every bush and brake, it will give us a fairly good notion of what these
very earliest inhabitants of Ireland were probably like.
Next followed a Belgic colony, known as the Firbolgs, who overran the
country, and appear to have been of a somewhat higher ethnological
grade, although, like the Formorians, short, dark, and swarthy.
Doubtless the latter were not entirely exterminated to make way for the
Firbolgs, any more than the Firbolgs to make way for the Danaans,
Milesians, and other successive races; such wholesale exterminations
being, in fact, very rare, especially in a country which like Ireland
seems specially laid out by kindly nature for the protection of a weaker
race struggling in the grip of a stronger one.
After the Firbolgs, though I should be sorry to be obliged to say how
long after, fresh and more important tribes of invaders began to appear.
The first of these were the Tuatha-da-Danaans, who arrived under the
leadership of their king Nuad, and took possession of the east of the
country. These Tuatha-da-Danaans are believed to have been large,
blue-eyed people of Scandinavian origin, kinsmen and possibly ancestors
of those Norsemen or "Danes" who in years to come were destined to work
such woe and havoc upon the island.
Many battles took place between these Danaans and the earlier Firbolgic
settlers--the native owners as no doubt they felt themselves of the
country. One of the best substantiated of these, not, indeed, by history
or even tradition, but by a more solid testimony, that of the stone
remains left on the spot, prove, at any rate, that _some_ long-sustained
battle was at some remote period fought on the spot.
This is the famous pre-historic battle of Moytura, rather the Southern
Moytura, for there were two; the other, situated not far from the
present town of Sligo, retaining "the largest collection of pre-historic
remains," says Dr. Petrie, "in any region in the world with the
exception of Carnac." This second battle of Moytura was fought upon the
plain of Cong, which is washed by the waters of Lough Mask and Lough
Corrib, close to where the long monotonous midland plain of Ireland
becomes broken, changes into that region of high mountains and low-lying
valleys, now called Connemara, but which in earlier days was always
known as Iar Connaught.
It is a wild scene even now, not very much less so than it must have
been when this old and half-mythical Battle of the West was fought and
won. A grey plain, "stone-roughened like the graveyard of dead hosts,"
broken into grassy ridges, and starred at intervals with pools,
repeating the larger glitter of the lake hard by. Over the whole surface
of this tumbled plain rise, at intervals, great masses of rock, some
natural, but others artificially up-tilted cromlechs and dolmens,
menhirs and cairns--whitened by lichen scrawls, giving them often in
uncertain light the effect of so many undecipherable inscriptions,
written in a long-forgotten tongue.
From the position of the battle-field it has been made out to their own
satisfaction by those who have studied it on the spot, that the Firbolgs
must have taken up a fortified position upon the hill called Ben-levi; a
good strategic position unquestionably, having behind it the whole of
the Mayo mountains into which to retreat in case of defeat. The Danaans,
on the other hand, advancing from the plains of Meath, took up their
station upon the hill known as Knockmaa, standing by itself about
five miles from the present town of Tuam, on the top of which stands a
great cairn, believed to have been in existence even then--a legacy of
some yet earlier and more primitive race which inhabited the country,
and, therefore, possibly the oldest record of humanity to-day extant
 Now Castle Hacket Hill.
Three days the battle is said to have raged with varying fortunes, in
the course of which the Danaan king Nuad lost his arm, a loss which was
repaired, we are told, by the famous artificer Credue or Cerd, who made
him a silver one, and as "Nuad of the Silver Hand" he figures
conspicuously in early Irish history. In spite of this, and of the death
of a number of their fighting-men, the stars fought for the
Tuatha-da-Danaans, who were strong men and cunning, workers in metal,
and great fighters, so that at last they utterly made an end of their
antagonists, occupying the whole country, and holding it, say the
annalists for a hundred and ninety and six years--building earth and
stone forts, many of which exist to this day, but what their end was no
man can tell you, save that they, too, were, in their turn, conquered by
the Milesians or "Scoti," who next overran the country, giving to it
their own name of Scotia, by which name it was known down to the end of
the twelfth century, and driving the earlier settlers before them, who
thereupon fled to the hills, and took refuge in the forests, whence they
emerged, doubtless, with unpleasant effect upon their conquerors, as
another defeated race did upon _their_ conquerors in later days.
As regards the early doings of these Scoti, although nearer to us in
point of time, their history is, if anything, rather more vague than
that of their predecessors. The source for the greater part of it is in
a work known as the "Annals of the Four Masters," a compilation put
together in the sixteenth century, from documents now no longer
existing, and which must unfortunately, be regarded as largely
fictitious. Were names, indeed, all that were wanting to give
substantiality there are enough and to spare, the beginning of every
Irish history positively bristling with them. Leland, for instance, who
published his three sturdy tomes in the year 1773, and who is still one
of our chief authorities on the subject, speaks of Ireland as having
"engendered one hundred and seventy one monarchs, all of the same house
and lineage; with sixty-eight kings, and two queens of Great Brittain
and Ireland all sprung equally from her loins." We read in his pages of
the famous brethren Heber and Heremon, sons of Milesius, who divided the
island between them; of Allamh Fodla, celebrated as a healer of feuds
and protector of learning, who drew the priests and bards together into
a triennial assembly at Tara, in Meath; of Kimbaoth, who is praised by
the annalists for having advanced learning and kept the peace. The times
of peace had not absolutely arrived however, for he was not long after
murdered, and wild confusion and wholesale slaughter ensued. Another
Milesian prince, Thuathal, shortly afterwards returned from North
Britain, and, assisted by a body of Pictish soldiers, defeated the
rebels, restored order, and re-established the seat of his monarchy
As a specimen of the sort of stories current in history of this kind,
Leland relates at considerable length the account of the insult offered
to this Thuathal by the provincial king of Leinster. "The king," he
tells us, "had married the daughter of Thuathal, but conceiving a
violent passion for her sister, pretended that his wife had died, and
demanded and obtained her sister in marriage. The two ladies met in the
royal house of Leinster. Astonishment and sorrow put an end to their
lives!" The offender not long afterwards was invaded by his justly
indignant father-in-law, and his province only preserved from desolation
on condition of paying a heavy tribute, "as a perpetual memorial of the
resentment of Thuathal and of the offence committed by the king of
Another special favourite of the annalists is Cormac O'Conn, whose reign
they place about the year 250, and over whose doings they wax eloquent,
dwelling upon the splendour of his court, the heroism of his warlike
sons, the beauty of his ten fair daughters, the doings of his famous
militia, the Fenni or Fenians, and especially of his illustrious general
Finn, or Fingal, the hero of the legends, and father of the poet
Ossian--a warrior whom we shall meet with again in the next chapter.
And now, it will perhaps be asked, what is one in sober seriousness to
say to all this? All that one can say is that these tales are not to be
taken as history in any rigid sense of the word, but must for the most
part be regarded as mere hints, caught from chaos, and coming down
through a hundred broken mediums; scraps of adventures told around camp
fires; oral traditions; rude songs handed from father to son, and
altering more or less with each new teller. The early history of Ireland
is in this respect much like the early history of all other countries.
We have the same semi-mythical aggregations, grown up around some small
kernel of reality, but so changed, swollen, distorted, that it is
difficult to distinguish the true from the false; becoming vaguer and
vaguer too as the mists of time and sentiment gather more and more
thickly around them, until at last we seem to be swimming dimly in a
"moony vapour," which allows no dull peaks of reality to pierce through
it at all. "There were giants in those days," is a continually recurring
assertion, characteristic of all ancient annals, and of these with
[Illustration: CROMLECH ON HOWTH.]
THE LEGENDS AND THE LEGEND MAKERS.
Better far than such historic shams--cardboard castles with little or no
substance behind them--are the real legends. These put forward no
obtrusive pretensions to accuracy, and for that very reason are far
truer in that larger sense in which all the genuine and spontaneous
outgrowth of a country form part and parcel of its history. Some of the
best of these have been excellently translated by Mr. Joyce, whose
"Celtic Romances" ought to be in the hands of every one, from the boy of
twelve upwards, who aspires to know anything of the inner history of
Ireland; to understand, that is to say, that curiously recurrent note of
poetry and pathos which breaks continually through all the dull hard
prose of the surface. A note often lost in unmitigated din and discord,
yet none the less re-emerging, age after age, and century after century,
and always when it does so lending its own charm to a record, which,
without some such alleviations, would be almost too grim and
disheartening in its unrelieved and unresulting misery to be voluntarily
approached at all.
Although as they now stand none appear to be of earlier date than the
ninth or tenth century, these stories all breathe the very breath of a
primitive world. An air of remote pagan antiquity hangs over them, and
as we read we seem gradually to realize an Ireland as unlike the one we
know now as if, like the magic island of Buz, it had sunk under the
waves and been lost. Take, for instance--for space will not allow of
more than a sample--the story of "The Pursuit of Gilla Backer and his
Horse," not by any means one of the best, yet characteristic enough. In
it we learn that from Beltane, the 1st of May--the great Celtic festival
of the sun--to Sanim, the 1st of November, the chiefs and Fenni hunted
each day with their hounds through the forests and over the plains,
while from Sanim to Beltane they lived in the "Betas," or houses of
hospitality, or feasted high with Finn McCumal, son of Cumal, grandson
of Trenmore O'Baskin, whose palace stood upon the summit of the hill of
Allen, a hill now crowned with a meaningless modern obelisk, covering
the site of the old historic rath, a familiar object to thousands who
have looked up at it from the Curragh of Kildare, certainly with no
thought in their minds of Finn McCumal or his vanished warriors.
The tale tells how one day, after hunting on the Plains of Cliach, the
Fenni sat down to rest upon the hill of Colkilla, their hunting tents
being pitched upon a level spot near the summit. How presently, afar off
over the plain at their feet, they saw one of the conquered race of
earlier inhabitants, a "Formorian" of huge size and repulsive ugliness
coming towards them, leading his horse by the halter, an animal larger,
it seems, than six ordinary horses, but broken down and knock-kneed,
with jaws that stuck out far in advance of its head. How the heroes,
idling pleasantly about in the sunshine, laughed aloud at the uncouth
"foreigner" and his ugly raw-boned beast, "covered with tangled scraggy
hair of a sooty black." How he came before the king and, having made
obeisance, told him that his name was the Gilla Backer, and then and
there took service with him for a year, desiring at the same time that
special care should be paid to his horse, and the best food given it,
and care taken that it did not stray, whereat the heroes laughed again,
the horse standing like a thing carved in wood and unable apparently to
move a leg.
No sooner, however, was it loosed, and the halter cast off, than it
rushed amongst the other horses, kicking and lashing, and seizing them
with its teeth till not one escaped. Seeing which, the Fenni rose up in
high wrath, and one of them seized the Gilla Backer's horse by the
halter and tried to draw it away, but again it became like a rock, and
refused to stir. Then he mounted its back and flogged it, but still it
remained like a stone. Then, one after the other, thirteen more of the
heroes mounted, but still it stirred not. The very instant, however,
that its master, the Gilla Backer rose up angrily to depart, the old
horse went too, with the fourteen heroes still upon his back, whereat
the Fenni raised fresh shouts of laughter. But the Gilla Backer, after
he had walked a little way, looked back, and seeing that his horse was
following, stood for a moment to tuck up his skirts. "Then, all at once
changing his pace, he set out with long strides; and if you know what
the speed of a swallow is, flying across a mountain-side, or the fairy
wind of a March day sweeping over the plains, then you can understand
Gilla Dacker, as he ran down the hillside towards the south-west.
Neither was the horse behindhand in the race, for, though he carried a
heavy load, he galloped like the wind after his master, plunging and
bounding forward with as much freedom as if he had nothing at all on
Finn and his warriors left behind on the hill stared awhile, and then
resolved to go to Ben Edar, now Howth, there to seek for a ship to
follow after Gilla Dacker and his horse, and the fourteen heroes. And on
their way they met two bright-faced youths wearing mantles of scarlet
silk, fastened by brooches of gold, who, saluting the king, told him
their names were Foltlebar and Feradach, and that they were the sons of
the king of Innia, and each possessed an art, and that as they walked
they had disputed whose art was the greater. "And my art," said
Feradach, "is this. If at any time a company of warriors need a ship,
give me only my joiner's axe and my crann-tavall, and I am able to
provide a ship without delay. The only thing I ask them to do is
this--to cover their heads close and keep them covered, while I give the
crann-tavall three blows of my axe. Then I tell them to uncover their
heads, and lo, there lies the ship in harbour, ready to sail!"
 A sling for projecting stones, strung rather like a cross-bow.
The Foltlebar spoke and said, "This, O king, is the art I profess: On
land I can track the wild duck over nine ridges and nine glens, and
follow her without being once thrown out, till I drop upon her in her
nest. And I can follow up a track on sea quite as well as on land, if I
have a good ship and crew."
And Finn replied, "You are the very men I want; and now I take you both
into my service. Though our own trackmen, the Clan Naim, are good, yet
we now need some one still more skilful to follow the Gilla Dacker
through unknown seas."
To these unknown seas they went, starting from Ben Edar, and sailed away
west for many days over the Atlantic, seeing many strange sights and
passing many unknown islands. But at last the ship stopped short in
front of an island with vast rocky cliffs towering high above their
heads as steep as a sheet of glass, at which the heroes gazed amazed and
baffled, not knowing what to do next. But Dermot O'Dynor--called also
Dermot of the Bright-face--undertook to climb it, for of all the Fermi
he was the most learned in Druidical enchantments, having been early
taught the secret of fairy lore by Mananan Mac Lir, who ruled over the
Inis Manan or Land of Promise.
Dermot accordingly took leave of his friends and climbed the great
cliff, and when he reached the top he found that it was flat and covered
with tall green grass, as is often the case in these desolate wind-blown
Atlantic islets. And in the very centre he found a well with a tall
pillar stone beside it, and beside the pillar stone a drinking-horn
chased with gold. And he took up the drinking-horn to drink, being
thirsty, but the instant he touched the brim with his lips, lo! a great
Wizard Champion armed to the teeth, sprang up out of the earth,
whereupon he and Dermot O'Dynor fought together beside the well the
livelong day until the dusk fell. But the moment the dusk fell, the
wizard champion sprang with a great bound into the middle of the well,
and so disappeared, leaving Dermot standing there much astonished at
what had befallen him.
And the next day the same thing happened, and the next, and the next.
But on the fourth day, Dermot watched his foe narrowly, and when the
dusk came on, and he saw that he was about to spring into the well, he
flung his arms tightly about him, and the wizard champion struggled to
get free, but Dermot held him, and at length they both fell together
into the well, deeper and deeper to the very bottom of the earth, and
there was nothing to be seen but dim shadows, and nothing to be heard
but vague confused sounds like the roaring of waves. At length there
came a glimmering of light, and all at once bright day broke suddenly
around them, and they came out at the other side of the earth, and found
themselves in Tir-fa-ton, the land under the sea, where the flowers
bloom all the year round, and no man has ever so much as heard the
What happened there; how Dermot O'Dynor met the other heroes, and how
the fourteen Fenni who had been carried off were at last recaptured,
would be too long to tell. Unlike most of these legends all comes right
in the end; Gilla Dacker and his ugly horse disappear suddenly into
space, and neither Finn himself nor any of his warriors ever see
It is impossible, I think, to read this, and to an even greater degree
some of the other stories, which have been translated by Mr. Joyce and
others, without perceiving how thoroughly impregnated with old-world and
mythological sentiment they are. An air of all but fabulous antiquity
pervades them, greater perhaps than pervades the legends of any other
north European people. We seem transplanted to a world of the most
primitive type conceivable; a world of myth and of fable, of direct
Nature interpretations, of mythology, in short, pure and simple. Even
those stories which are known to be of later origin exhibit to a greater
or less degree the same character; one which has come down to them
doubtless from earlier half-forgotten tales, of which they are merely
the final and most modern outcome.
When, too, we turn from the legends themselves to the legend-makers,
everything that we know of the position of the bards _(Ollamhs_ or
_Sennachies)_ carries out the same idea. In the earliest times they were
not merely the singers and story-tellers of their race, but to a great
degree they bore a religious or semi-religious character. Like the
Brehons or judges they were the directors and guides of the others, but
they possessed in addition a peculiarly Druidical character of sanctity,
as the inheritors and interpreters of a revelation confided to them
alone. A power the more formidable because no one, probably, had ever
ventured to define its exact character.
The Head bard or Ollamh, in the estimation of his tribesmen, stood next
in importance to the chieftain or king--higher, indeed, in some
respects; for whereas to slay a king might, or might not be criminal, to
slay an Ollamh entailed both outlawing in this life and a vaguer, but
not the less terrible, supernatural penalty in another. Occasionally, as
in the case of the Ollamh Fodla, by whom the halls of Tara are reputed
to have been built, the king was himself the bard, and so combined both
offices, but this appears to have been rare. Even as late as the
sixteenth century, refusal of praise from a bard was held to confer a
far deeper and more abiding stigma upon a man than blame from any other
lips. If they, "the bards," says an Elizabethan writer, "say ought in
dispraise, the gentleman, especially the meere Irish, stand in
It is easy, I think, to see this is merely the survival of some far more
potent power wielded in earlier times. In pre-Christian days especially,
the penalty attaching to the curse of a Bard was understood to carry
with it a sort of natural anathema, not unlike the priestly anathema of
later times. Indeed there was one singular, and, as far as I am aware,
unique power possessed by the Irish Bards, which goes beyond any
priestly or papal anathema, and which was known as the _Clann Dichin_, a
truly awful malediction, by means of which the Ollamh, if offended or
injured, could pronounce a spell against the very land of his injurer;
which spell once pronounced that land would produce no crop of any kind,
neither could living creature graze upon it, neither was it possible
even to walk over it without peril, and so it continued until the wrong,
whatever it was, had been repented, and the curse of the Ollamh was
lifted off from the land again.
Is it to be wondered at that men, endowed with such powers of blessing
or banning, possessed of such mystic communion with the then utterly
unknown powers of nature, should have exercised an all but unlimited
influence over the minds of their countrymen, especially at a time when
the powers of evil were still supposed to stalk the earth in all their
native malignity, and no light of any revelation had broken through the
thick dim roof overhead?
Few races of which the world has ever heard are as imaginative as that
of the Celt, and at this time the imagination of every Celt must have
been largely exercised in the direction of the malevolent and the
terrible. Even now, after fourteen hundred years of Christianity, the
Connaught or Kerry peasant still hears the shriek of his early gods in
the sob of the waves or the howling of the autumn storms. Fish demons
gleam out of the sides of the mountains, and the black bog-holes are the
haunts of slimy monsters of inconceivable horror. Even the less directly
baneful spirits such as Finvarragh, king of the fairies, who haunts the
stony slopes of Knockmaa, and all the endless variety of _dii minores_,
the cluricans, banshees, fetches who peopled the primitive forests, and
still hop and mow about their ruined homes, were far more likely to
injure than to benefit unless approached in exactly the right manner,
and with the properly littered conjurations. The Unknown is always the
Terrible; and the more vivid an untaught imagination is, the more
certain it is to conjure up exactly the things which alarm it most, and
which it least likes to have to believe in.
Getting out of this earliest and foggiest period, whose only memorials
are the stones which still cumber the ground, or those subtler traces of
occupation of which philology keeps the key, and pushing aside a long
and uncounted crowd of kings, with names as uncertain as their deeds,
pushing aside, too, the legends and coming to hard fact, we must picture
Ireland still covered for the most part with pathless forests, but here
and there cleared and settled after a rude fashion by rough
cattle-owning tribes, who herded their own cattle and "lifted" their
neighbour's quite in the approved fashion of the Scotch Highlanders up
to a century and a half ago.
Upon the whole, we may fairly conclude that matters were ameliorating
more or less; that the wolves were being killed, the woods cleared--not
as yet in the ferocious wholesale fashion of later days--that a little
rudimentary agriculture showed perhaps here and there in sheltered
places. Sheep and goats grazed then as now over the hills, and herds of
cattle began to cover the Lowlands. The men, too, were possibly
beginning to grow a trifle less like two-legged beasts of prey, though
still rough as the very wolves they hunted; bare-legged, wild-eyed
hunter-herdsmen with--who can doubt it?--flocks of children trooping
vociferously at their heels.
Of the daily life, habits, dress, religion of these people--the direct
ancestors of four-fifths of the present inhabitants of Ireland--we know
unfortunately exceedingly little. It is not even certain, whether human
sacrifices did or did not form--as they certainly did in Celtic
Britain--part of that religion, though there is some evidence that it
did, in which case prisoners taken in battle, or slaves, were probably
That a considerable amount of slavery existed in early Celtic Ireland is
certain, though as to the rules by which it was regulated, as of almost
every other detail of the life, we know little or nothing. At the time
of the Anglo-Norman conquest Ireland was said to be full of English
slaves carried off in raids along the coast, and these filibustering
expeditions undoubtedly began in very early times. St. Patrick himself
was thus carried off, and the annalists tell us that in the third
century Cormac Mac Art ravaged the whole western coast of Britain, and
brought away "great stores of slaves and treasures." To how late a
period, too, the earlier conquered races of Ireland, such as the
Formorians, continued as a distinct race from their Milesian conquerors,
and whether they existed as a slave class, or, as seems more probable,
as mere outcasts and vagabonds out of the pale of humanity, liable like
the "Tory" of many centuries later, to be killed whenever caught; all
these are matters on which we have unfortunately only the vaguest hints
to guide us.
The whole texture of society must have been loose and irregular to a
degree that it is difficult for us now to conceive, without central
organization or social cement of any kind. In one respect--that of the
treatment of his women--the Irish Celt seems to have always stood in
favourable contrast to most of the other rude races which then covered
the north of Europe, but as regards the rest there was probably little
difference. Fighting was the one aim of life. Not to have washed his
spear in an adversary's gore, was a reproach which would have been felt
by a full-grown tribesman to have carried with it the deepest and most
lasting ignominy. The very women were not in early times exempt from war
service, nay, probably would have scorned to be so. They fought beside
their husbands, and slew or got slain with as reckless a courage as the
men, and it was not until the time of St. Columba, late in the sixth
century, that a law was passed ordering them to remain in their homes--a
fact which alone speaks volumes both for the vigour and the undying
pugnacity of the race.
While, on the one hand, we can hardly thus exaggerate the rudeness of
this life, we must be careful, on the other, of concluding that these
people were simple barbarians, incapable of discriminating right from
wrong. Men, even the wildest, rarely indeed live entirely without some
law to guide them, and certainly it was so in Ireland. A rule was
growing up and becoming theoretically at any rate, established, many of
the provisions of which startle us by the curious modernness of their
tone, so oddly do they contrast with what we know of the condition of
civilization or non-civilization then existing.
Although this ancient Irish law was not drawn up until long after the
introduction of Christianity, it seems best to speak of it here, as,
though modified by the stricter Christian rule, it in the main depended
for such authority as it possessed upon traditions existing long before;
traditions regarded indeed by Celtic scholars as tracing their origin
beyond the arrival of the first Celt in Ireland, outcomes and survivals,
that is to say, of yet earlier Aryan rule, showing points of resemblance
with the equally Aryan laws of India, a matter of great interest,
carrying our thoughts back along the history of humanity to a time when
those differences which seem now the most inherent and vital were as yet
undreamt of, and not one of the great nations of the modern world were
as much as born.
The two chief books in which this law is contained, the "Book of Aicill"
and the "Senchus-Mor," have only comparatively recently been translated
and made available for English readers. The law as there laid down was
drawn up and administered by the Brehons, who were the judges and the
law-makers of the people, and whose decision was appealed to in all
matters of dispute. The most serious flaw of the system--a very serious
one it will be seen--was that, owing to the scattered and tribal
existence prevailing, there was no strong central rule _behind_ the
Brehon, as there is behind the modern judge, ready and able to enforce
his decrees. At bottom, force, it must not be forgotten, is the sanction
of all law, and there was no available force of any kind then, nor for
many a long day afterwards, in Ireland.
It was, no doubt, owing chiefly to this defective weakness that a system
of fines rather than punishments grew up, one which in later times
caused much scandal to English legal writers. In such a society crime in
fact was hardly recognizable except in the form of an injury inflicted
upon some person or persons. An offence against the State there could
not be, simply because there was no State to be offended. Everything,
from murder down to the smallest and most accidental injury, was
compensated for by "erics" or fines. The amount of these fines was
decided upon by the Brehon, who kept an extraordinary number of
imaginary rulings, descending into the most minute particulars, such as
what fine was to be paid in the case of one person's cat stealing milk
from another person's house, what fine in the case of one woman's bees
stinging another woman, a careful distinction being preserved in this
case between the case in which the sting did or did not draw blood! Even
in the matter of fines it does not seem clear how the penalty was to be
enforced where the person on whom it was inflicted refused to submit and
where there was no one at hand to coerce him successfully.
As regards ownership of land early Irish law is very peculiar, and
requires to be carefully studied. Primogeniture, regarded by all English
lawyers trained under the feudal system as the very basis of
inheritance, was simply unknown. Even in the case of the chieftain his
rights belonged only to himself, and before his death a re-election took
place, when some other of the same blood, not necessarily his eldest
son, or even his son at all, but a brother, first cousin, uncle, or
whoever stood highest in the estimation of the clan, was nominated as
"Tanist" or successor, and received promises of support from the rest.
Elizabethan writers mention a stone which was placed upon a hill or
mound having the shape of a foot cut on it, supposed to be that of the
first chief or ancestor of the race, "upon which stone the Tanist
placing his foot, took oath to maintain all ancient customs inviolably,
and to give up the succession peaceably to his Tanist in due time."
The object of securing a Tanist during the lifetime of the chief was to
hinder its falling to a minor, or some one unfit to take up the
chieftainship, and this continued to prevail for centuries after the
Anglo-Norman invasion, and was even adopted by many owners of English
descent who had become "meere Irish," as the phrase ran, or
"The childe being oftentimes left in nonage," says Campion, "could never
defend his patrimony, but by the time he grow to a competent age and
have buried an uncle or two, he also taketh his turn," a custom which,
as he adds, "breedeth among them continual warres."
The entire land belonged to the clan, and was held theoretically in
common, and a redistribution made on the death of each owner, though it
seems doubtful whether so very inconvenient an arrangement could
practically have been adhered to. All sons, illegitimate as well as
legitimate, shared and shared alike, holding the property between them
in undivided ownership. It was less the actual land than the amount of
grazing it afforded which constituted its value. Even to this day a man,
especially in the West of Ireland, will tell you that he has "the grass
of three cows," or "the grass of six cows," as the case may be.
It is curious that the most distinct ancient rules concerning the
excessive extortion of rent are, as has been shown by Sir Henry Maine,
to be found in the "Senchus Mor." Under its regulations three rents are
enumerated--namely, the _rack rent_ to be extorted from one of a strange
tribe; the _fair_ rent from one of the same tribe; and the _stipulated_
rent to be paid equally to either. The Irish clan or sept was a very
loose, and in many cases irregular, structure, embracing even those who
were practically undistinguishable from slaves, yet from none of these
could any but _fair_ or customary rent be demanded. It was only when
those who by no fiction could be supposed to belong to the clan sought
for land that the best price attainable might be extorted and
In so primitive a state of society such persons were almost sure to be
outcasts, thrown upon the world either by the breaking up of other clans
or by their own misdoings. A man of this class was generally what was
known as a "Fuidhar" or "broken man," and answered in some respects to
the slave or the serf of the early English village community. Like him
he seems to have been his lord's or chief's chattel, and if killed or
injured the fine or "eric" was paid not to his own family, but to his
master. Such men were usually settled by the chief upon the
unappropriated tribal lands over which his own authority tended to
increase. This Fuidhar class from the first seem to have been very
numerous, and depending as they did absolutely upon the chief, there
grew up by degrees that class of armed retainers--kerns and
galloglasses, they were called in later times--who surrounded every
important chief, whether of English or Irish descent, and were by them
quartered forcibly in war time upon others, and so there grew up that
system of "coyne and livery," or forced entertainment for horse and men,
which is to be met with again and again throughout Irish history, and
which undoubtedly was one of the greatest curses of the country, tending
more perhaps than any other single cause to keep its people at the
lowest possible condition of starvation and misery.
No system of representation seems ever to have prevailed in Ireland.
That idea is, in fact, almost purely Teutonic, and seems never to have
sprung up spontaneously amongst any Celtic people. The family was the
real root. Every head of a family ruled his own household, and submitted
in his turn to the rule of his chief. Blood-relationship, including
fosterage, was the only real and binding union; that larger connection
known as the clan or sept, having the smaller one of the family for its
basis, as was the case also amongst the clans of the Scotch highlands.
Theoretically, all members of a clan, high and low alike, were held to
be the descendants of a common ancestor, and in this way to have a real
and direct claim upon one another. If a man was not in some degree akin
to another he was no better than a beast, and might be killed like one
without compunction whenever occasion arose.
Everything thus began and centred around the tribe or sept. The whole
theory of life was purely local. The bare right of existence extended
only a few miles from your own door, to the men who bore the same name
as yourself. Beyond that nothing was sacred; neither age nor sex,
neither life nor goods, not even in later times the churches themselves.
Like his cousin of the Scotch Highlands, the Irish tribesman's life was
one perpetual carnival of fighting, burning, raiding, plundering, and he
who plundered oftenest was the finest hero.
All this must be steadily borne in mind as it enables us to understand,
as nothing else will, that almost insane joy in and lust for fighting,
that marked inability to settle down to orderly life which runs through
all Irish history from the beginning almost to the very end.
Patriotism, too, it must be remembered, is in the first instance only an
idea, and the narrowest of local jealousies may be, and often are, forms
merely of the same impulse. To men living in one of these small isolated
communities, each under the rule of its own petty chieftain, it was
natural and perhaps inevitable that the sense of connection with those
outside their own community should have been remarkably slight, and of
nationality, as we understand the word, quite non-existent. Their own
little circle of hills and valleys, their own forests and pasturage was
their world, the only one practically of which they had any cognizance.
To its scattered inhabitants of that day little Ireland must have seemed
a region of incalculable extent, filled with enemies to kill or to be
killed by; a region in which a man might wander from sunrise to sunset
yet never reach the end, nay, for days together without coming to a
second sea. As Greece to a Greek of one of its smaller states it seemed
vast simply because he had never in his own person explored its limits.
[Illustration: MOUTH OF SEPULCHRAL CHAMBER AT DOWTH, NEW GRANGE.]
ST. PATRICK THE MISSIONARY.
But a new element was about to appear upon the troubled stage, and a new
figure, one whose doings, however liberally we may discount the more
purely supernatural part of them, strikes us even now as little short of
miraculous. There are plenty of heathen countries still; plenty of
missionaries too; but a missionary at whose word an entire island--a
heathen country given up, it must be remembered, to exceedingly heathen
practices--resigns its own creed, and that missionary, too, no king, no
warrior, but a mere unarmed stranger, without power to enforce one of
the decrees he proclaimed so authoritatively, is a phenomenon which we
should find some little difficulty now, or, indeed, at any time, in
In one respect St. Patrick was less fortunate than his equally
illustrious successor, Columba, since he found no contemporary, or
nearly contemporary chronicler, to write his story; the consequence
being that it has become so overgrown with pious myths, so tangled and
matted with portents and miracles, that it is often difficult for us to
see any real substance or outline below them at all.
What little direct knowledge we have is derived from a famous Irish
manuscript known as "The Book of Armagh," which contains, amongst other
things, a Confession and an Epistle, believed by some authorities to
have been actually written by St. Patrick himself, which was copied as
it now stands by a monkish scribe early in the eighth century. It also
contains a life of the saint from which the accounts of his later
historians have been chiefly drawn.
According to the account now generally accepted he was born about the
year 390, though as this would make him well over a hundred at the time
of his death, perhaps 400 would be the safest date; was a native, not as
formerly believed of Gaul, but of Dumbarton upon the Clyde, whence he
got carried off to Ireland in a filibustering raid, became the slave of
one Milcho, an inferior chieftain, and herded his master's sheep upon
the Slemish mountains in Antrim.
Seven or eight years later he escaped, got back to Britain, was
ordained, afterwards went to Gaul, and, according to one account, to
Italy. But the thought of the country of his captivity seems to have
remained upon his mind and to have haunted his sleeping and waking
thoughts. The unborn children of the pagan island seemed to stretch our
their hands for help to him. At last the inward impulse grew too strong
to be resisted, and accompanied by a few followers, he set foot first on
the coast of Wicklow where another missionary, Paladius, had before
attempted vainly to land, and being badly received there, took boat
again, and landed finally at the entrance of Strangford Lough.
From this point he made his way on foot to Meath, where the king
Laoghaire was holding a pagan festival, and stopped to keep Easter on
the hill of Slane where he lit a fire. This fire being seen from the
hill of Tara aroused great anger, as no lights were by law allowed to be
shown before the king's beacon was lit. Laoghaire accordingly sent to
know the meaning of this insolence and to have St. Patrick brought
before him. St. Patrick's chronicler, Maccumacthenius (one could wish
that he had been contented with a shorter name!), tells that as the
saint drew nigh to Tara, many prodigies took place. The earth shook,
darkness fell, and certain of the magicians who opposed him were seized
and tossed into the air. One prodigy certainly took place, for he seems
to have won converts from the first. A large number appear to have been
gained upon the spot, and before long the greater part of Meath had
accepted the new creed, although its king, Laoghaire himself remained a
sturdy pagan until his death.
From Tara St. Patrick went to Connaught, a province to which he seems to
have been drawn from the first, and there spent eight years, founding
many churches and monasteries. There also he ascended Croagh Patrick,
the tall sugar-loaf mountain which stands over the waters of Clew Bay,
and up to the summit of which hundreds of pilgrims still annually climb
in his honour.
From Connaught he next turned his steps to Ulster, visited Antrim and
Armagh, and laid the foundations of the future cathedral and bishopric
in the latter place. Wherever he went converts seem to have come in to
him in crowds. Even the Bards, who had most to lose by the innovation,
appear to have been in many cases drawn over. They and the chiefs
gained, the rest followed unhesitatingly; whole clans were baptized at a
time. Never was spiritual conquest so astonishingly complete!
The tale of St. Patrick's doings; of his many triumphs; his few
failures; of the boy Benignus his first Irish disciple; of his wrestling
upon Mount Cruachan; of King Eochaidh; of the Bard Ossian, and his
dialogues with the apostle, all this has been excellently rendered into
verse by Mr. Aubrey de Vere, whose "Legends of St. Patrick" seem to the
present writer by no means so well known as they ought to be. The second
poem in the series, "The Disbelief of Milcho," especially is one of
great beauty, full of wild poetic gleams, and touches which breathe the
very breath of an Irish landscape. Poetry is indeed the medium best
suited for the Patrician history. The whole tale of the saint's
achievements in Ireland is one of those in which history seems to lose
its own sober colouring, to become luminous and half magical, to take on
all the rosy hues of a myth.
The best proof of the effect of the new revelation is to be found in
that extraordinary burst of enthusiasm which marked the next few
centuries. The passion for conversion, for missionary labour of all
sorts, seems to have swept like a torrent over the island, arousing to
its best and highest point that Celtic enthusiasm and which has never,
unhappily, found such noble exercise since. Irish missionaries flung
themselves upon the dogged might of heathenism, and grappled with it in
a death struggle. Amongst the Picts of the Highlands, amongst the fierce
Friscians of the Northern seas, beside the Lake of Constance, where the
church of St. Gall still preserves the name of another Irish saint, in
the Black Forest, at Schaffhausen, at Wuertzburg, throughout, in fact,
all Germany and North Italy, they were ubiquitous. Wherever they went
their own red-hot fervour seems to have melted every obstacle; wherever
they went victory seems to have crowned their zeal.
 For an account of Irish missionaries in Germany, see Mr.
Baring-Gould's "Germany," in this series, p. 46.
Discounting as much as you choose everything that seems to partake of
pious exaggeration, there can be no doubt that the period which followed
the Christianizing of Ireland was one of those shining epochs of
spiritual and also to a great degree intellectual enthusiasm rare indeed
in the history of the world. Men's hearts, lull of newly--won fervour,
burned to hand on the torch in their turn to others. They went out by
thousands, and they beckoned in their converts by tens of thousands.
Irish hospitality--a quality which has happily escaped the tooth of
criticism--broke out then with a vengeance, and extended its hands to
half a continent. From Gaul, from Britain, from Germany, from dozens of
scattered places throughout the wide dominions of Charlemagne, the
students came; were kept, as Bede expressly tells us, free of cost in
the Irish monasteries, and drew their first inspirations in the Irish
schools. Even now, after the lapse of all these centuries, many of the
places whence they came still reverberate faintly with the memory of
Before plunging into that weltering tangle of confusion which makes up
what we call Irish history, one may be forgiven for lingering a little
at this point, even at the risk of some slight over-balance of
proportion. With so dark a road before us, it seems good to remember
that the energies of Irishmen were not, as seems sometimes to be
concluded, always and of necessity directed to injuring themselves or
tormenting their rulers! Neither was this period by any means a short
one. It was no mere "flash in the pan;" no "small pot soon hot"
enthusiasm, but a steady flame which burned undimmed for centuries.
"During the seventh and eighth centuries, and part of the ninth," says
Mr. Goldwin Smith, not certainly a prejudiced writer, "Ireland played a
really great part in European history." "The new religious houses," says
Mr. Green in his Short History, "looked for their ecclesiastical
traditions, not to Rome, but to Ireland, and quoted for their guidance
the instructions not of Gregory, but of Columba." "For a time," he adds,
"it seemed as if the course of the world's history was to be changed, as
if that older Celtic race which the Roman and German had swept before
them, had turned to the moral conquest of their conquerors, as if Celtic
and not Latin Christianity was to mould the destinies of the Church of
THE FIRST IRISH MONASTERIES.
At home during the same period the chief events were the founding of
monasteries, and the settling down of monastic communities, every such
monastery becoming the protector and teacher of the little Christian
community in its vicinity, educating its own sons, and sending them out
as a bee sends its swarms, to settle upon new ground, and to fertilize
the flowers of distant harvest fields.
At one time, "The Tribes of the Saints" seem to have increased to such
an extent that they threatened to absorb all others. In West Ireland
especially, little hermitages sprung up in companies of dozens and
hundreds, all over the rock-strewn wastes, and along the sad shores of
the Atlantic, dotting themselves like sea gulls upon barren points of
rock, or upon sandy wastes which would barely have sufficed, one might
think, to feed a goat. We see their remains still--so tiny, yet so
enduring--in the Isles of Arran; upon a dozen rocky points all round the
bleak edges of Connemara; in the wild mountain glens of the Burren--set
often with an admirable selection of site, in some sloping dell with,
perhaps, a stream slipping lightly by and hurrying to lose itself in the
ground, always with a well or spring brimming freshly over--an object
still of reverence to the neighbouring peasants. Thanks to the innate
stability of their material, thanks, too, to the super-abundance of
stone in these regions, which makes them no temptation to the despoiler,
they remain, roofless but otherwise pretty much as they were. We can
look back across a dozen centuries with hardly the change of a detail.
[Illustration: CROSS IN CEMETERY OF TEMPUL BRECCAIN, ARANMOR. _From a
drawing by M. Stokes (after Sir F.W. Burton_).]
In these little western monasteries each cell stood as a rule by itself,
containing--one would say very tightly containing--a single inmate. In
other places, large buildings, however, were erected, and great numbers
of monks lived together. Some of these larger communities are stated to
have actually contained several thousand brethren, and though this
sounds like an exaggeration, there can be no doubt that they were
enormously populous. The native mode of existence lent itself, in fact,
very readily to the arrangement. It was merely the clan or sept
re-organized upon a religious footing. "Les premieres grands monasteres
de l'Irelande," says M. de Montalembert in his "Moines d'Occident," "ne
furent done autre chose a vrai dire qui des _clans_, reorganises sous
une forme religieuse." New clans, that is to say, cut out of the old
ones, their fealty simply transferred from a chief to an abbot, who was
almost invariably in the first instance of chieftain blood. "Le prince,
en se faisant moine, devenait naturellement abbe, et restait ainsi dans
la vie monastique, ce qu'il avait ete dans la vie seculiere le chef de
sa race et de son clan."
There was thus nothing to jar with that sense of continuity, that inborn
love of the past, of old ways, old habits, old modes of thought which
made and still makes an Irishman--be he never so pronounced a
republican--the deepest at heart of Conservatives. Whereas every later
change of faith which has been endeavoured to be forced upon the country
has met with a steady and undeviating resistance, Christianity, the
greatest change of all, seems to have brought with it from the first no
sense of dislocation. It assimilated itself quietly, and as it were
naturally, with what it found. Under the prudent guidance of its first
propagators, it simply gathered to itself all the earlier objects of
belief, and with merely the change of a name, sanctified and turned them
to its own uses.
[Illustration: ST. KEVIN'S CHURCH, GLENDALOUGH.]
ST. COLUMBA AND THE WESTERN CHURCH.
About fifty years after the death of St. Patrick a new missionary arose,
one who was destined to carry the work which he had begun yet further,
to become indeed the founder of what for centuries was the real
metropolis and centre of Western Christendom.
In 521 A.D., St. Columba was born in Donegal, of the royal race, say the
annalists, of Hy-Nial--of the royal race, at any rate, of the great
workers, doers, and thinkers all the world over. In 565, forty-four
years later, he left Ireland with twelve companions (the apostolic
number), and started on his memorable journey to Scotland, a date of
immeasurable importance in the history of Western Christianity.
In that dense fog which hangs over these early times--thick enough to
try even the most penetrating eyesight--there is a curious and
indescribable pleasure in coming upon so definite, so living, so
breathing a figure as that of St. Columba, In writing the early history
of Ireland, one of the greatest difficulties which the historian--great
or small--has to encounter is to be found in that curious unreality,
that tantalizing sense of illusiveness and indefiniteness which seems to
envelope every figure whose name crops up on his pages. Even four
hundred years later the name of a really great prince and warrior like
Brian Boru, or Boruma, awakens no particular sense of reality, nay as
often as not is met by a smile of incredulity. The existence of St.
Columba no one, however, has been found rash enough to dispute! His, in
fact, is one of those essentially self-lit figures which seem to shed
some of their own light upon every other they come in contact with, even
accidentally. Across the waste of centuries we see him almost as he
appeared to his contemporaries. There is something friendly--as it were,
next-door-neighbourly--about the man. If we land to-day on Iona, or
stand in any of the little chapels in Donegal which bear his name, his
presence seems as real and tangible to us as that of Tasso at Ferrara or
Petrarch at Avignon. In spite of that thick--one is inclined to say
rank--growth of miracles which at times confuse Adamnan's fine portrait
of his hero--cover it thick as lichens some monumental slab of
marble--we can still recognize his real lineaments underneath. His great
natural gifts; his abounding energy; his characteristically Irish love
for his native soil; for the beloved "oaks of Derry." We see him in his
goings out and his comings in; we know his faults; his fiery Celtic
temper, swift to wrath, swift to forgive when the moment of anger is
over. Above all, we feel the charm of his abounding humanity. Like
Sterne's Uncle Toby there seems to have been something about St. Columba
which "eternally beckoned to the unfortunate to come and take shelter
under him," and no one apparently ever refused to respond to
One thing it is important hereto have clearly before the mind, as it is
very apt to be overlooked. At the time of St. Columba's ministry,
England, which during the lifetime of St. Patrick had been Roman and
Christian, had now under the iron flail of its Saxon conquerors lapsed
back into Paganism. Ireland, therefore, which for a while had made a
part of Christendom, had been broken short off by the heathen conquest
of Britain. It was now a small, isolated fragment of Christendom, with a
great mass of heathenism between. We can easily imagine what a stimulus
to all the eager enthusiasts of the Faith the consciousness of this
neighbourhood must have been; how keen the desire to rush to the assault
and to replace the Cross where it had been before.
That assault was not, however, begun by Ireland; it was begun, as every
one knows, by St. Augustine, a Roman priest, sent by Pope Gregory, who
landed at Ebbsfleet, in the Isle of Thanet, in the year 597--thirty-two
years after St. Columba left Ireland. If the South of England owes its
conversion to Rome, Northern England owes its conversion to Ireland,
through the Irish colony at Iona. Oswald, the king of Northumbria, had
himself taken refuge in Iona in his youth, and when summoned to reign he
at once called in the Irish missionaries, acting himself, we are told,
as their interpreter. His whole reign was one continuous struggle with
heathenism, and although at his death it triumphed for a time, in the
end the faith and energies of the missionaries carried all before them.
After the final defeat of the Mercians, under their king Penda, at
Winwoed, in 655, the struggle was practically over. Northern and
Southern England were alike once more Christian.
One of the chief agents in this result was the Irish monk Aidan, who had
fixed his seat in the little peninsula of Lindisfarne, and from whose
monastery, as from another Iona, missionaries poured over the North of
England. At Lichfield, Whitby, and many other places religious houses
sprang up, all owing their allegiance to Lindisfarne, and through it to
Iona and Ireland.
In this very fervour there lay the seeds of a new trouble. A serious
schism arose between Western Christendom and the Papacy. Rome, whether
spiritually or temporally, was a name which reverberated with less
awe-inspiring sound in the ears of Irishmen (even Irish Churchmen) than,
probably, in those of any other people at that time on the globe. They
had never come under the tremendous sway of its material power, and
until centuries after this period--when political and, so to speak,
accidental causes drove them into its arms--its spiritual power remained
to them a thing apart, a foreign element to which they gave at most a
reluctant half adhesion.
From this it came about that early in the history of the Western Church
serious divisions sprang up between it and the other churches, already
being fast welded together into a coherent body under the yoke and
discipline of Rome. The points in dispute do not strike us now of any
very vital importance. They were not matters of creed at all, merely of
external rule and discipline. A vehement controversy as to the proper
form of the tonsure, another as to the correct day for Easter, raged for
more than a century with much heat on either side; those churches which
owed their allegiance to Iona clinging to the Irish methods, those who
adhered to Rome vindicating its supreme and paramount authority.
At the Synod of Whitby, held in 664, these points of dispute came to a
crisis, and were adjudicated upon by Oswin, king of Northumbria; Bishop
Colman, Aidan's successor at Holy Island, maintaining the authority of
Columba; Wilfrid, a Saxon priest who had been to Rome, that of St.
Peter. Oswin's own leaning seems at first to have been towards the
former, but when he heard of the great pretensions of the Roman saint he
was staggered. "St. Peter, you say, holds the keys of heaven and hell?"
he inquired thoughtfully, "have they also been given then to St.
Columba?" It was owned with some reluctance that the Irish saint had
been less favoured. "Then I give my verdict for St. Peter," said Oswin,
"lest when I reach the gate of heaven I find it shut, and the porter
refuse to open to me." This sounds prudent, but scarcely serious; it
seems, however, to have been regarded as serious enough by the Irish
monks. The Synod broke up. Colman, with his Irish brethren, and a few
English ones who threw in their lot with them, forsook Lindisfarne, and
sailed away for Ireland. From that moment the rift between them and
their English brethren grew steadily wider, and was never afterwards
It does not, however, seem to have affected the position of the Irish
Church at home, nor yet to have diminished the number of its foreign
converts. Safe in its isolation, it continued to go on in its own way
with little regard to the rest of Christendom, although in respect to
the points chiefly in dispute it after a while submitted to the Roman
decision. Armagh was the principal spiritual centre, but there were
other places, now tiny villages, barely known by name to the tourist,
which were then centres of learning, and recognized as such, not alone
in Ireland itself, but throughout Europe. Clonard, Tallaght Clonmacnois;
Slane in Meath, where Dagobert II. one of the kings of France, was
educated; Kildare, where the sacred fire--not lamp--of St. Bridget was
kept burning for centuries, all are places whose names fill a
considerable space in the fierce dialectical controversy of that fiery
 For an excellent account of early Irish monastic life see "Ireland,
and the Celtic Church," by Professor G. Stokes.
This period of growth slipped all too quickly away, but it has never
been forgotten. It was the golden time to which men looked wistfully
back when growing trouble and discord, attack from without, and
dissension from within, had torn in pieces the unhappy island which had
shone like a beacon through Europe only to become its byword. The
Norsemen had not yet struck prow on Irish strand, and the period between
the Synod of Whitby and their appearance seems to have been really one
of steady moral and intellectual growth. Heathenism no doubt still
lurked in obscure places; indeed traces of it may with no great
difficulty still be discovered in Ireland, but it did not hinder the
light from spreading fast under the stimulus which it had received from
its first founders. The love of letters, too, sprang up with the
religion of a book, and the copying of manuscripts became a passion.
[Illustration: WEST CROSS OF MONASTERBOICE, CO. LOUTH.]
As in Italy and elsewhere, so too in Ireland, the monks were the
painters, the illuminators, the architects, carvers, gilders, and
book-binders of their time. While outside the monastery walls the
fighters were making their neighbours' lives a burden to them, and
beyond the Irish Sea the whole world as then known was being shaken to
pieces and reconstructed, the monk sat placidly inside at his work,
producing chalices, crosiers, gold and silver vessels for the churches,
carving crosses, inditing manuscripts filled with the most marvellously
dexterous ornament; works, which, in spite of the havoc wrought by an
almost unbroken series of devastations which have poured over the doomed
island, still survive to form the treasure of its people. We can have
very little human sympathy, very little love for what is noble and
admirable, if--whatever our creeds or our politics--we fail, as we look
back across that weary waste which separates us from them, to extend our
sympathy and admiration to these early workers--pioneers in a truly
national undertaking which has found only too few imitators since.
THE NORTHERN SCOURGE.
While from the fifth to the eighth century the work of the Irish Church
was thus yearly increasing, spreading its net wider and wider, and
numbering its converts by thousands, not much good can be reported of
the secular history of Ireland during the same period. It is for the
most part a confused chronicle of small feuds, jealousies, raids,
skirmishes, retaliations, hardly amounting to the dignity of war, but
certainly as distinctly the antipodes of peace.
The tribal system, which in its earlier stages has been already
explained, had to some degree begun to change its character. The
struggles between the different septs or clans had grown into a struggle
between a number of great chieftains, under whose rule the lesser ones
had come to range themselves upon all important occasions.
As early as the introduction of Christianity Ireland was already divided
into four such aggregations of tribes--kingdoms they are commonly
called--answering pretty nearly to the present four provinces, with the
addition of Meath, which was the appanage of the house of Ulster, and
included West Meath, Longford, and a fragment of the King's County. Of
the other four provinces, Connaught acknowledged the rule of the
O'Connors, Munster that of the O'Briens, Leinster of the McMurroughs,
and Ulster of the O'Neills, who were also in theory over-kings, or, as
the native word was, Ard-Reaghs of the entire island.
[Illustration: DOORWAY OF MAGHERA CHURCH, LONDONDERRY.]
Considering what a stout fighting race they proved in later
ages--fighting often when submission would have been the wiser
policy--it is curious that in early days these O'Neills or Hy-Nials seem
to have been but a supine race. For centuries they were titular kings of
Ireland, yet during all that time they seem never to have tried to
transform their faint, shadowy sceptre into a real and active one.
Malachy or Melachlin, the rival of Brian Boru, seems to have been the
most energetic of the race, yet he allowed the sceptre to be plucked
from his hands with an ease which, judging by the imperfect light shed
by the chroniclers over the transaction, seems to be almost
It is difficult to say how far that light, for which the Irish
monasteries were then celebrated, extended to the people of the island
at large. With one exception, little that can be called cultivation is,
it must be owned, discoverable, indeed long centuries after this Irish
chieftains we know were innocent of the power of signing their own
names. That exception was in the case of music, which seems to have been
loved and studied from the first. As far back as we can see him the
Irish Celt was celebrated for his love of music. In one of the earliest
extant annals a _Cruit_, or stringed harp, is described as belonging to
the Dashda, or Druid chieftain. It was square in form, and possessed
powers wholly or partly miraculous. One of its strings, we are told,
moved people to tears, another to laughter. A harp in Trinity College,
known as the harp of Brian Boru, is said to be the oldest in Europe, and
has thirty strings. This instrument has been the subject of many
controversies. O'Curry doubts it having belonged to Brian Boru, and
gives his reasons for believing that it was among the treasures of
Westminster when Henry VIII. came to the throne in 1509, and that it
suggested the placing of the harp in the arms of Ireland, and on the
"harp grotes," a coinage of the period. However this may be we cannot
doubt that music had early wrought itself into the very texture and
fabric of Irish life; airs and words, wedded closely together,
travelling down from mouth to mouth for countless generations. Every
little valley and district may be said to have had its own traditional
melodies, and the tunes with which Moore sixty years ago was delighting
critical audiences had been floating unheeded and disregarded about the
country for centuries.
The last ten years of the eighth century were very bad ones for Ireland.
Then for the first time the black Viking ships were to be seen sweeping
shore-wards over the low grey waves of the Irish Channel, laden with
Picts, Danes, and Norsemen, "people," says an old historian, "from their
very cradles dissentious, Land Leapers, merciless, soure, and hardie."
They descended upon Ireland like locusts, and where-ever they came ruin,
misery, and disaster followed.
[Illustration: KILBANNON TOWER. _(From a drawing by George. Petrie,
Their first descent appears to have been upon an island, probably that
of Lambay, near the mouth of what is now Dublin harbour. Returning a few
years later, sixty of their ships, according to the Irish annalists,
entered the Boyne, and sixty more the Liffy. These last were under the
command of a leader who figures in the annals as Turgesius, whose
identity has never been made very clear, but who appears to be the same
person known to Norwegian historians as Thorkels or Thorgist.
Whatever his name he was undoubtedly a bad scourge to Ireland. Landing
in Ulster, he burned the cathedral of Armagh, drove out St. Patrick's
successors, slaughtered the monks, took possession of the whole east
coast, and marching into the centre of the island, established himself
in a strong position near Athlone.
Beyond all other Land Leapers, this Thorgist, or Turgesius, seems to
have hated the churches. Not content with burning them, and killing all
priests and monks he could find, his wife, we are told, took possession
of the High Altar at Clonmacnois, and used it as a throne from which to
give audience, or to utter prophecies and incantations. He also exacted
a tribute of "nose money," which if not paid entailed the forfeit of the
feature it was called after. At last three or four of the tribes united
by despair rose against him, and he was seized and slain; an event about
which several versions are given, but the most authentic seems to be
that he was taken by stratagem and drowned in Lough Owel, near
Mullingar, in or about the year 845.
He was not, unfortunately, the last of the Land Leapers! More and more
they came, sweeping in from the north, and all seem to have made direct
for the plunder of the monasteries, into which the piety of centuries
had gathered most of the valuables of the country. The famous round
towers, or "Clocthech" of Ireland, have been credited with a hundred
fantastic origins, but are now known not to date from earlier than about
the eighth or ninth century, are always found in connection with
churches or monasteries, and were unquestionably used as defences
against these northern invaders. At the first sight of their unholy
prows, rising like water snakes above the waves, all the defenceless
inmates and refugees, all the church plate and valuables, and all sickly
or aged brothers were hurried into these monastic keeps; the doors--set
at a height of from ten to twenty feet above the ground--securely
closed, the ladders drawn up, food supplies having been no doubt already
laid in, and a state of siege began.
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