After the fall of the Danes the Normans, conquerors of England, entered on the dominion of the sea—”citizens of the world,” they carried their arms and their cunning from the Tweed to the Mediterranean, from the Seine to the Euphrates. The spirit of conquest was in the air. Every landless man was looking to make his fortune. Every baron desired, like his viking forefathers, a land where he could live out of reach of the king’s long arm. They had marked out Ireland as their natural prey—”a land very rich in plunder, and famed for the good temperature of the air, the fruitfulness of the soil, the pleasant and commodious seats for habitation, and safe and large ports and havens lying open for traffic.” Norman barons were among the enemy at the battle of Clontarf in 1014. The same year that Ireland saw the last of the Scandinavian sea kings (1103) she saw the first of the Norman invaders prying out the country for a kingdom. William Rufus (1087-1100) had fetched from Ireland great oaks to roof his Hall at Westminster, and planned the conquest of an island so desirable. A greater empire-maker, Henry II, lord of a vast seacoast from the Forth to the Pyrenees, holding both sides of the Channel, needed Ireland to round off his dominions and give him command of the traffic from his English ports across the Irish Sea, from his ports of the Loire and the Garonne over the Gaulish sea. The trade was well worth the venture.
Norman and French barons, with Welsh followers, and Flemings from Pembroke, led the invasion that began in 1169. They were men trained to war, with armour and weapons unknown to the Irish. But they owed no small part of their military successes in Ireland to a policy of craft. If the Irish fought hard to defend the lands they held in civil tenure, the churches had no great strength, and the seizing of a church estate led to no immediate rising out of the country. The settled plan of the Normans, therefore, was to descend on defenceless church lands, and turn them into Norman strongholds; in reply to complaints, they pleaded that the churches were used by the hostile Irish as storing places for their goods. Their occupation gave the Normans a great military advantage, for once the churches were fortified and garrisoned with Norman skill the reduction of the surrounding country became much easier. The Irish during this period sometimes plundered church lands, but did not occupy, annex, or fortify them. The invaders meanwhile spread over the country. French and Welsh and Flemings have left their mark in every part of Ireland, by Christian names, by names of places and families, and by loan-words taken into Irish from the French. The English who came over went chiefly to the towns, many of them to Dublin through the Bristol trade. Henry II himself crossed in 1171 with a great fleet and army to over-awe his too-independent barons as well as the Irish, and from the wooden palace set up for him in Dublin demanded a general oath of allegiance. The Normans took the oath, with some churchmen and half-a-dozen Irish chiefs.
In Henry’s view this oath was a confession that the Irish knew themselves conquered; and that the chief renounced the tribal system, and handed over the land to the king, so that he as supreme lord of all the soil could allot it to his barons, and demand in return the feudal services common in Normandy or in England. No Irish chief, however, could have even understood these ideas. He knew nothing of the feudal system, nor of a landlord in the English sense. He had no power to hand the land of the tribe over to any one. He could admit no “conquest,” for the seizing of a few towns and forts could not carry the subjection of all the independent chiefdoms. Whatever Henry’s theory might be, the taking of Dublin was not the taking of an Irish capital: the people had seen its founding as the centre of a foreign kingdom, and their own free life had continued as of old. Henry’s presence there gave him no lordship: and the independent temper of the Irish people was not likely, after their Danish experience, to be cowed by two years of war. Some cunning explanation of the oath was given to the Irish chiefs by the subtle Angevin king and his crafty Norman counsellors—that war was to cease, that they were to rule as fully and freely as before, and in recognition of the peace to give to Henry a formal tribute which implied no dominion.
The false display at Dublin was a deception both to the king and to the Irish. The empty words on either side did not check for a month the lust of conquest nor the passion of defence.
One royal object, however, was made good. The oath, claimed under false pretences, yielded under misunderstanding, impossible of fulfilment, was used to confer on the king a technical legal right to Ireland; this legal fiction became the basis of the royal claims, and the justification of every later act of violence.
Another fraud was added by the proclamation of papal bulls, which according to modern research seem to have been mere forgeries. They gave the lordship of the country to Henry, and were readily accepted by the invaders and their successors. But they were held of no account among Irish annalists and writers, who make no mention of the bulls during the next three hundred years.
Thus the grounds of the English title to Ireland were laid down, and it only remained to make good by the sword the fictions of law and the falsehoods of forgers. According to these Ireland had been by the act of the natives and by the will of God conferred on a higher race. Kings carved out estates for their nobles. The nobles had to conquer the territories granted them. Each conquered tract was to be made into a little England, enclosed within itself, and sharply fenced off from the supposed sea of savagery around it. There was to be no trade with the Irish, no intercourse, no relationship, no use of their dress, speech, or laws, no dealings save those of conquest and slaughter. The colonists were to form an English parliament to enact English law. A lieutenant-governor, or his deputy, was set in Dublin Castle to superintend the conquest and the administration. The fighting garrison was reinforced by the planting of a militant church—bishops and clergy of foreign blood, stout men of war, ready to aid by prayers, excommunications, and the sword. A bishop of Waterford being once sent by the Lord Justice to account to Edward I for a battle of the Irish in which the king of Connacht and two thousand of his men lay dead, explained that “in policy he thought it expedient to wink at one knave cutting off another, and that would save the king’s coffers and purchase peace to the land”; whereat the king smiled and bade him return to Ireland.
The Irish were now therefore aliens in their own country. Officially they did not exist. Their land had been parted out by kings among their barons “till in title they were owners and lords of all, so as nothing was left to be granted to the natives.” During centuries of English occupation not a single law was enacted for their relief or benefit. They were refused the protection of English law, shut out from the king’s courts and from the king’s peace. The people who had carried the peaceful mission of a spiritual religion over England and Europe now saw that other mission planted among themselves—a political church bearing the sword of the conqueror, and dealing out anathemas and death in the service of a state which rewarded it with temporal wealth and dominion.
The English attack was thus wholly different from that of the Danes: it was guided by a fixed purpose, and directed by kings who had a more absolute power, a more compact body of soldiers, and a better filled treasury than any other rulers in Europe. Dublin, no mere centre now of roving sea-kings, was turned into an impregnable fortress, fed from the sea, and held by a garrison which was supported by the whole strength of England—a fortress unconquerable by any power within Ireland—a passage through which the strangers could enter at their ease. The settlers were no longer left to lapse as isolated groups into Irish life, but were linked together as a compact garrison under the Castle government. The vigilance of Westminster never ceased, nor the supply of its treasure, its favoured colonists, and its ablest generals. From Henry II to Elizabeth, the aim of the English government was the same. The ground of Ireland was to be an immediate holding, “a royal inheritance,” of the king. On an issue so sharp and definite no compromise was possible. So long as the Irish claimed to hold a foot of their own land the war must continue. It lasted, in fact, for five hundred years, and at no moment was any peace possible to the Irish except by entire renunciation of their right to the actual soil of their country. If at times dealings were opened by the English with an Irish chief, or a heavy sum taken to allow him to stay on his land, this was no more than a temporary stratagem or a local expedient, and in no way affected the fixed intention to gain the ownership of the soil.
Out of the first tumult and anarchy of war an Ireland emerged which was roughly divided between the two peoples. In Ulster, O’Neills and O’Donnells and other tribes remained, with only a fringe of Normans on the coast. O’Conors and other Irish clans divided Connacht, and absorbed into the Gaelic life the incoming Norman de Burghs. The Anglo-Normans, on the other hand, established themselves powerfully in Munster and Leinster. But even here—side by side with the great lords of the invasion, earls of Ormond, and Desmond, and Kildare—there remained Irish kingdoms and the remnants of old chiefdoms, unconquered, resolute and wealthy—such as the O’Briens in the west, MacCarthys and O’Sullivans in the south, O’Conors and O’Mores in the middle country, MacMurroughs and O’Tooles in Leinster, and many more.
It has been held that all later misfortunes would have been averted if the English without faltering had carried out a complete conquest, and ended the dispute once for all. English kings had, indeed, every temptation to this direct course. The wealth of the country lay spread before them. It was a land abounding in corn and cattle, in fish, in timber; its manufactures were famed over all Europe; gold-mines were reported; foreign merchants flocked to its ports, and bankers and money-lenders from the Rhineland and Lucca, with speculators from Provence, were carrying over foreign coin, settling in the towns, and taking land in the country. Sovereigns at Westminster—harassed with turbulent barons at home and wars abroad—looked to a conquered Ireland to supply money for their treasury, soldiers for their armies, provisions for their wars, and estates for their favourites. In haste to reap their full gains they demanded nothing better than a conquest rapid and complete. They certainly cannot be charged with dimness of intention, slackness in effort, or want of resource in dilemmas. It would be hard to imagine any method of domination which was not used—among the varied resources of the army, the church, the lawyers, the money-lenders, the schoolmasters, the Castle intriguers and the landlords. The official class in Dublin, recruited every few years with uncorrupted blood from England, urged on the war with the dogged persistence of their race.
But the conquest of the Irish nation was not so simple as it had seemed to Anglo-Norman speculators. The proposal to take the land out of the hands of an Irish people and give it to a foreign king, could only have been carried out by the slaughter of the entire population. No lesser effort could have turned a free tribal Ireland into a dependent feudal England.
The English kings had made a further mistake. They proposed, like later kings of Spain in South America, to exploit Ireland for the benefit of the crown and the metropolis, not for the welfare of any class whatever of the inhabitants; the colonists were to be a mere garrison to conquer and hold the land for the king. But the Anglo-Norman adventurers had gone out to find profit for themselves, not to collect Irish wealth for London. Their “loyalty” failed under that test. The kings, therefore, found themselves engaged in a double conflict, against the Irish and against their own colonists, and were every year more entangled in the difficulties of a policy false from the outset.
Yet another difficulty disclosed itself. Among the colonists a little experience destroyed the English theory of Irish “barbarism.” The invaders were drawn to their new home not only by its wealth but by its beauty, the variety and gaiety of its social life, the intelligence of its inhabitants, and the attraction of its learning and art. Settlers, moreover, could neither live nor till the lands they had seized, nor trade in the seaports, nor find soldiers for their defence, without coming to terms with their Irish neighbours. To them the way of wealth lay not in slaughter but in traffic, not in destroying riches but in sharing them. The colonists compromised with “the Irish enemy.” They took to Irish dress and language; they recognised Irish land tenure, as alone suited to the country and people, one also that gave them peace with their farmers and cattle-drivers, and kept out of their estates the king’s sheriffs and tax-gatherers; they levied troops from their tenants in the Irish manner; they employed Irishmen in offices of trust; they paid neighbouring tribes for military service—such as to keep roads and passes open for their traders and messengers. “English born in Ireland,” “degenerate English,” were as much feared by the king as the “mere Irish.” They were not counted “of English birth”; lands were resumed from them, office forbidden them. In every successive generation new men of pure English blood were to be sent over to serve the king’s purpose and keep in check the Ireland-born.
The Irish wars, therefore, became exceedingly confused—kings, barons, tribes, all entangled in interminable strife. Every chief, surrounded by dangers, was bound to turn his court into a place of arms thronged by men ready to drive back the next attack or start on the next foray. Whatever was the burden of military taxation no tribe dared to disarm any more than one of the European countries to-day. The Dublin officials, meanwhile, eked out their military force by craft; they created and encouraged civil wars; they called on the Danes who had become mingled with the Irish to come out from them and resume their Danish nationality, as the only means of being allowed protection of law and freedom to trade. To avert the dangers of friendship and peace between races in Ireland they became missionaries of disorder, apostles of contention. Civil wars within any country exhaust themselves and come to a natural end. But civil wars maintained by a foreign power from without have no conclusion. If any strong leader arose, Anglo-Norman or Irish, the whole force of England was called in, and the ablest commanders fetched over from the French wars, great men of battle and plunder, to fling the province back into weakness and disorder.
In England the feudal system had been brought to great perfection—a powerful king, a state organised for common action, with a great military force, a highly organised treasury, a powerful nobility, and a dependent people. The Irish tribal system, on the other hand, rested on a people endowed with a wide freedom, guided by an ancient tradition, and themselves the guardians of their law and of their land. They had still to show what strength lay in their spiritual ideal of a nation’s life to subdue the minds of their invaders, and to make a stand against their organised force.