c. 1600 – c. 1660
We have seen already two revivals of Irish life, when after the Danish settlement, and after the Norman, the native civilisation triumphed. Even now, after confiscations and plantations, the national tradition was still maintained with unswerving fidelity. Amid contempt, persecution, proscription, death, the outcast Irish cherished their language and poetry, their history and law, with the old pride and devotion. In that supreme and unselfish loyalty to their race they found dignity in humiliation and patience in disaster, and have left, out of the depths of their poverty and sorrow, one of the noblest examples in history.
Their difficulties were almost inconceivable. The great dispersion had begun of Irish deported, exiled, or cast out by emigration. Twenty thousand Irish were reported in a single island of the West Indies in 1643; thirty thousand were said to be wandering about Europe; in 1653 four thousand soldiers were transported to Flanders for the war of the king of Spain. Numbers went to seek the education forbidden at home in a multitude of Irish colleges founded abroad. They became chancellors of universities, professors, high officials in every European state—a Kerry man physician to the king of Poland; another Kerry man confessor to the queen of Portugal and sent by the king on an embassy to Louis XIV; a Donegal man, O’Glacan, physician and privy councillor to the king of France, and a very famed professor of medicine in the universities of Toulouse and Bologna (1646-1655); and so on. We may ask whether in the history of the world there was cast out of any country such genius, learning, and industry, as the English flung, as it were, into the sea. With every year the number of exiles grew. “The same to me,” wrote one, “are the mountain or ocean, Ireland or the west of Spain; I have shut and made fast the gates of sorrow over my heart.”
As for the Irish at home, every vestige of their tradition was doomed—their religion was forbidden, and the Staff of Patrick and Cross of Columcille destroyed, with every other national relic; their schools were scattered, their learned men hunted down, their books burned; native industries were abolished; the inauguration chairs of their chiefs were broken in pieces, and the law of the race torn up, codes of inheritance, of land tenure, of contract between neighbours or between lord and man. The very image of Justice which the race had fashioned for itself was shattered. Love of country and every attachment of race and history became a crime, and even Irish language and dress were forbidden under penalty of outlawry or excommunication. “No more shall any laugh there,” wrote the poet, “or children gambol; music is choked, the Irish language chained.” The people were wasted by thousands in life and in death. The invaders supposed the degradation of the Irish race to be at last completed. “Their youth and gentry are destroyed in the rebellion or gone to France,” wrote one: “those that are left are destitute of horses, arms and money, capacity and courage. Five in six of the Irish are poor, insignificant slaves, fit for nothing but to hew wood and draw water.” Such were the ignorant judgments of the new people, an ignorance shameful and criminal.
The Irish, meanwhile, at home and in the dispersion, were seeking to save out of the wreck their national traditions. Three centres were formed of this new patriotic movement—in Rome, in Louvain, and in Ireland itself.
An Irish College of Franciscans was established in Rome (1625) by the efforts of Luke Wadding, a Waterford man, divine of the Spanish embassy at Rome. The Pope granted to the Irish the church of St. Isidore, patron of Madrid, which had been occupied by Spanish Franciscans. Luke Wadding, founder and head of the college, was one of the most extraordinary men of his time for his prodigious erudition, the greatest school-man of that age, and an unchanging and impassioned patriot. He prepared the first full edition of the works of the great Irish scholastic philosopher Duns Scotus, with the help of his fellow-countrymen, Thomas Strange, Anthony Hickey, John Ponce of Cork, Hugh MacCawell of Tyrone; and projected a general history of Ireland for which materials were being collected in 1628 by Thomas Walsh, archbishop of Cashel. The College was for the service of “the whole nation,” for all Irishmen, no matter from what province, “so long as they be Irish.” They were bound by rule to speak Irish, and an Irish book was read during meals.
No spot should be more memorable to Irishmen than the site of the Franciscan College of St. Antony of Padua at Louvain. A small monastery of the Frères de Charité contains the few pathetic relics that are left of the noble company of Irish exiles who gathered there from 1609 for mutual comfort and support, and of the patriots and soldiers laid to rest among them—O’Neills, O’Dohertys, O’Donnells, Lynches, Murphys, and the rest, from every corner of Ireland. “Here I break off till morning,” wrote one who laboured on a collection of Irish poems from 1030 to 1630, “and I in gloom and grief; and during my life’s length unless only that I might have one look at Ireland.” The fathers had mostly come of the old Irish literary clans, and were trained in the traditional learning of their race; such as Father O’Mulloy, distinguished in his deep knowledge of the later poetic metres, of which he wrote in his Latin and Irish Grammar; or Bonaventura O’h’Eoghasa, trained among the poets of Ireland, who left “her holy hills of beauty” with lamentation to “try another trade” with the Louvain brotherhood. Steeped in Irish lore the Franciscans carried on the splendid record of the Irish clergy as the twice-beloved guardians of the inheritance of their race. “Those fathers,” an Irish scholar of that day wrote, “stood forward when she (Ireland) was reduced to the greatest distress, nay, threatened with certain destruction, and vowed that the memory of the glorious deeds of their ancestors should not be consigned to the same earth that covered the bodies of her children … that the ancient glory of Ireland should not be entombed by the same convulsion which deprived the Irish of the lands of their fathers and of all their property.” More fortunate than scholars in Ireland they had a printing-press; and used it to send out Irish grammars, glossaries, catechisms, poems. Hugh Mac an-Bhaird of Donegal undertook to compile the Acta Sanctorum, for which a lay-brother, Michael O’Clery, collected materials in Ireland for ten years, and Patrick Fleming of Louth gathered records in Europe. At Hugh’s death, in 1635, the task was taken up by Colgan, born at Culdaff on the shore of Inishowen (†1658). The work of the fathers was in darkness and sorrow. “I am wasting and perishing with grief,” wrote Hugh Bourke to Luke Wadding, “to see how insensibly nigher and nigher draws the catastrophe which must inflict mortal wounds upon our country.”
Ireland herself, however, remained the chief home of historical learning in the broad national sense. Finghin Mac Carthy Riabhach, a Munster chief, skilled in old and modern Irish, Latin, English, and Spanish, wrote a history of Ireland to the Norman invasion in the beautiful hand taught him by Irish scribes; it was written while he lay imprisoned in London from 1589 to 1626, mad at times through despair. One of a neighbouring race of seafaring chiefs, O’Sullivan Beare, an emigrant and captain in the Spanish navy, published in 1621 his indignant recital of the Elizabethan wars in Ireland. It was in hiding from the president of Munster, in the wood of Aharlo, that Father Geoffrey Keating made (before 1633) his Irish history down to the Norman settlement—written for the masses in clear and winning style, the most popular book perhaps ever written in Irish, and copied throughout the country by hundreds of eager hands. In the north meanwhile Michael O’Clery and his companions, two O’Clerys of Donegal, two O’Maelchonaires of Roscommon, and O’Duibhgeanain of Leitrim, were writing the Annals of the Four Masters (1632-6); all of them belonging to hereditary houses of chroniclers. In that time of sorrow, fearing the destruction of every record of his people, O’Clery travelled through all Ireland to gather up what could be saved, “though it was difficult to collect them to one place.” There is still preserved a manuscript by Caimhin, abbot of Iniscaltra about 650, which was given to O’Clery by the neighbouring Mac Brodys who had kept it safe for a thousand years. The books were carried to the huts and cottages where the friars of Donegal lived round their ruined monastery; from them the workers had food and attendance, while Fergal O’Gara, a petty chieftain of Sligo descended from Olioll, king of Munster in 260, gave them a reward for their labours. Another O’Clery wrote the story of Aedh Ruadh O’Donnell, his prisons and his battles, and the calamity to Ireland of his defeat. “Then were lost besides nobility and honour, generosity and great deeds, hospitality and goodness, courtesy and noble birth, polish and bravery, strength and courage, valour and constancy, the authority and the sovereignty of the Irish of Erin to the end of time.”
In Galway a group of scholars laid, in Lynch’s words, “a secure anchorage” for Irish history. Dr. John Lynch, the famous apologist of the Irish, wrote there his historical defence of his people. To spread abroad their history he translated into Latin Keating’s book. For the same purpose his friend, Tuileagna O’Maelchonaire, a distinguished Irish scholar, translated the Annals of Ulster into English. O’Flaherty of Moycullen in Galway, a man of great learning, wrote on Irish antiquities “with exactness, diligence and judgment.” “I live,” he said, “a banished man within the bounds of my native soil, a spectator of others enriched by my birthright, an object of condoling to my relations and friends, and a condoler of their miseries.” His land confiscated (1641), stripped at last of his manuscripts as well as of his other goods, he died in miserable poverty in extreme old age (1709). To Galway came also Dualtach Mac Firbis (1585-1670), of a family that had been time out of mind hereditary historians in north Connacht. He learned in one of the old Irish schools of law in Tipperary Latin, English, and Greek. Amid the horrors of Cromwell’s wars he carried out a prodigious work on the genealogies of the clans, the greatest, perhaps, that exists in any country; and wrote on their saints, their kings, their writers, on the chronicles and on the laws; in moderate prosperity and in extreme adversity constantly devoted to the preservation of Irish history. In his old age he lived, like other Irish scholars, a landless sojourner on the estates that had once belonged to his family and race; the last of the hereditary sennachies of Ireland he wandered on foot from house to house, every Irish door opened to him for his learning after their undying custom, till at the age of eighty-five he was murdered by a Crofton when he was resting in a house on his way to Dublin. In Connacht, too, lived Tadhg O’Roddy of Leitrim, a diligent collector of Irish manuscripts, who gathered thirty books of law, and many others of philosophy, poetry, physic, genealogies, mathematics, romances, and history; and defended against the English the character of the old law and civilisation of Ireland.
It would be long to tell of the workers in all the Irish provinces—the lawyers hiding in their bosoms the genealogies and tenures of their clans—the scribes writing annals and genealogies, to be carried, perhaps, when Irishmen gathered as for a hurling-match and went out to one of their old places of assembly, there to settle their own matters by their ancient law. No printing-press could be set up among the Irish; they were driven back on oral tradition and laborious copying by the pen. Thus for about a hundred years Keating’s History was passed from hand to hand after the old manner in copies made by devoted Irish hands (one of them a “farmer”), in Leitrim, Tipperary, Kildare, Clare, Limerick, Kilkenny, all over the country; it was only in 1723 that Dermot O’Conor translated it into English and printed it in Dublin. It is amazing how amid the dangers of the time scribes should be found to re-write and re-edit the mass of manuscripts, those that were lost and those that have escaped.
The poets were still the leaders of national patriotism. The great “Contention of the Poets”—”Iomarbhagh na bhfiledh”—a battle that lasted for years between the bards of the O’Briens and the O’Donnells, in which the bards of every part of Ireland joined—served to rouse the pride of the Irish in their history amid their calamities under James I. The leader of the argument, Tadhg Mac Daire, lord of an estate with a castle as chief poet of Thomond, was hurled over a cliff in his old age by a Cromwellian soldier with the shout, “Say your rann now, little man!” Tadhg O’h’Uiginn of Sligo (†1617), Eochaidh O’h’Eoghasa of Fermanagh, were the greatest among very many. Bards whose names have often been forgotten spread the poems of the Ossianic cycle, and wrote verses of several kinds into which a new gloom and despair entered—
“Though yesterday seemed to me long and ill,
Yet longer still was this dreary day.”
The bards were still for a time trained in “the schools”—low thatched buildings shut away by a sheltering wood, where students came for six months of the year. None were admitted who could not read and write, and use a good memory; none but those who had come of a bardic tribe, and of a far district, lest they should be distracted by friends and relations. The Scottish Gaels and the Irish were united as of old in the new literature; Irish bards and harpers were as much at home in the Highlands and in the Isles as in Ireland, and the poems of the Irish bards were as popular there as in Munster. Thus the unity of feeling of the whole race was preserved and the bards still remained men who belonged to their country rather than to a clan or territory. But with the exile of the Irish chiefs, with the steady ruin of “the schools,” poets began to throw aside the old intricate metres and the old words no longer understood, and turned to the people, putting away “dark difficult language” to bring literature to the common folk: there were even translations made for those who were setting their children to learn the English instead of their native tongue. Born of an untold suffering, a burst of melody swept over Ireland, scores and scores of new and brilliant metres, perhaps the richest attempt to convey music in words ever made by man. In that unfathomed experience, they tell how seeking after Erin over all obstacles, they found her fettered and weeping, and for their loyalty she gave them the last gift left to her, the light of poetry.
In Leinster of the English, “the cemetery of the valorous Gael,” Irish learning had a different story. There it seemed for a moment that it might form a meeting-point between the new race and the old, joining together, as the Catholics put it, “our commonwealth men,” a people compounded of many nations, some Irish by birth and descent, others by descent only, others neither by descent nor by birth but by inhabitation of one soil; but all parts of one body politic, acknowledging one God, conjoined together in allegiance to one and the same sovereign, united in the fruition of the selfsame air, and tied in subsistence upon this our natural soil whereupon we live together.
A tiny group of scholars in Dublin had begun to study Irish history. Sir James Ware (1594-1666), born there of an English family, “conceived a great love for his native country and could not bear to see it aspersed by some authors, which put him upon doing it all the justice he could in his writings.” He spared no cost in buying valuable manuscripts, kept an Irish secretary to translate, and employed for eleven years the great scholar O’Flaherty whose help gave to his work its chief value. Ussher, archbishop of Armagh, also born in Dublin, devoted himself to the study of Irish antiquities. Baron d’Aungier, Master of the Rolls, put into writing every point which he could find in original documents “which for antiquity or singularity might interest this country.” The enthusiasm of learning drew together Protestant and Catholic, Anglo-Irish and Irish. All these men were in communication with Luke Wadding in Rome through Thomas Strange the Franciscan, his intimate friend; they sent their own collections of records to help him in his Catholic history of Irish saints, “being desirous that Wadding’s book should see the light,” wishing “to help him in his work for Ireland,” begging to see “the veriest trifle” that he wrote. The noblest English scholar was Bishop Bedell, who while provost established an Irish lecture in Trinity College, had the chapter during commons read in Irish, and employed a Sheridan of Cavan to translate the Old Testament into Irish. As bishop he braved the anger of the government by declaring the hardships of the Catholic Irish, and by circulating a catechism in English and Irish. Bitterly did Ussher reproach him for such a scandal at which the professors of the gospel did all take offence, and for daring to adventure that which his brethren had been “so long abuilding,” the destruction of the Irish language. The Irish alone poured out their love and gratitude to Bedell; they protected him in the war of 1641; the insurgent chieftains fired volleys over his grave paying homage to his piety; “sit anima mea cum Bedello!” cried a priest. He showed what one just man, caring for the people and speaking to them in their own tongue, could do in a few years to abolish the divisions of race and religion.
The light, however, that had risen in Dublin was extinguished. Sympathies for the spirit of Irishmen in their long history were quenched by the greed for land, the passion of commerce, and the fanaticism of ascendancy and dominion.