It might have seemed impossible amid such complicated tyrannies to build up a united country. But the most ferocious laws could not wholly destroy the kindly influences of Ireland, the essential needs of men, nor the charities of human nature. There grew up too the union of common suffering. Once more the people of Ireland were being “brayed together in a mortar” to compact them into a single commonwealth.
The Irish had never lost their power of absorbing new settlers in their country. The Cromwellians complained that thousands of the English who came over under Elizabeth had “become one with the Irish as well in affinity as in idolatry.” Forty years later these Cromwellians planted on Irish farms suffered themselves the same change; their children could not speak a word of English and became wholly Irish in religion and feeling. Seven years after the battle of the Boyne the same influence began to turn Irish the very soldiers of William. The civilisation, the piety, the charm of Irish life told as of old. In the country places, far from the government, kindly friendships grew up between neighbours, and Protestants by some device of goodwill would hide a Catholic from some atrocious penalty, would save his arms from being confiscated, or his children from being brought up as Protestants. The gentry in general spoke Irish with the people, and common interests grew up in the land where they lived together.
The Irish had seen the fires of destruction pass over them, consuming the humanities of their law, the honour of their country, and the relics of their fathers: the cry of their lamentation, said an Italian in 1641, was more expressive than any music he had heard of the great masters of the continent. The penal days have left their traces. We may still see in hidden places of the woods some cave or rock where the people gathered in secret to celebrate mass. There remain memorials of Irishmen, cast out of their lands, who to mark their final degradation had been driven to the livelihood which the new English held in the utmost contempt—the work of their hands; their dead bodies were carried to the ruined abbeys, and proudly laid in the roofless naves and chancels, under great sculptured slabs bearing the names of once noble families, and deeply carved with the instruments of the dead man’s trade, a plough, the tools of a shoemaker or a carpenter or a mason. In a far church in Connemara by the Atlantic, a Burke raised in 1722 a sculptured tomb to the first of his race who had come to Connacht, the figure in coat of mail and conical helmet finely carved in limestone. Monuments lie heaped in Burris, looking out on the great ocean; and in all the sacred places of the Irish. By their industry and skill in the despised business of handicrafts and commerce the outlaws were fast winning most of the ready money of the country into their hands.
It would be a noble achievement, said Swift, to abolish the Irish language, which prevented “the Irish from being tamed.” But Swift’s popularity with the native Irish was remarkable, and when he visited Cavan he was interested by verses of its poets and wrote an English ballad founded on the Plearáca Ui Ruairc; he helped the rector of Anna (Belturbet) in his endeavours to have prayers read in Irish in the established churches in remote places. The Protestant bishops and clergy in general, holding that their first duty was not to minister to the souls of Irishmen, but rather as agents of the government to bring Irish speech “into entire disuse,” refused to learn the only language understood by the people. Clergy and officials alike knew nothing whatever of the true life of Ireland. Now and then there was a rare exception, and the respect which Philip Skelton showed for the religious convictions of a country-bred maidservant should be remembered. But in general the clergy and all other political agents opposed kindly intercourse of the two races. The fiction of complete Irish barbarism was necessary to maintain the Protestant ascendency, and in later days to defend it. The whole literature of the Irish was therefore cast aside as waste refuse. Their race is never mentioned in histories of the eighteenth century save as an indistinct and obscure mass of wretchedness, lawlessness, and ignorance, lying in impenetrable darkness, whence no voice ever arose even of protest or complaint, unless the pains of starvation now and again woke the most miserable from their torpor to some wild outrage, to be repressed by even more savage severity. So fixed and convenient did this lying doctrine prove that it became a truism never challenged. To this day all manuscripts of the later Irish times have been rejected from purchase by public funds, to the irrevocable loss of a vast mass of Irish material. By steadily neglecting everything written in the native tongue of the country, the Protestant planters, one-fourth of the inhabitants, secured to themselves the sole place in the later history of Ireland. A false history engendered a false policy, which in the long run held no profit for the Empire, England, or Ireland.
Unsuspected by English settlers, the Irish tradition was carried across the years of captivity by these exiles in their own land. Descendants of literary clans, historians and poets and scribes were to be found in farmhouses, working at the plough and spade. Some wrote prose accounts of the late wars, the history of their tribe, the antiquities of their province, annals of Ireland, and geography. The greatest of the poets was Dáibhí O’Bruadair of Limerick, a man knowing some English and learned in Irish lore, whose poems (1650-1694) stirred men of the cabins with lessons of their time, the laying down of arms by the Irish in 1652, Sarsfield and Limerick, the breaking of the treaty, the grandsons of kings working with the spade, the poor man perfected in learning, steadfast, well proved in good sense, the chaffering insolence of the new traders, the fashion of men fettering their tongues to speak the mere ghost of rough English, or turning Protestant for ease. Learned men showed the love of their language in the making of dictionaries and grammars to preserve, now that the great schools were broken up, the learning of the great masters of Irish. Thus the poet Tadhg O’Neachtain worked from 1734 to 1749 at a dictionary. Another learned poet and lexicographer, Aodh Buidh MacCurtin, published with Conor O’Begly in Paris a grammar (1728) and a dictionary (1732); in his last edition of the grammar he prayed pardon for “confounding an example of the imperative with the potential mood,” which he was caused to do “by the great bother of the brawling company that is round about me in this prison.” There were still well-qualified scribes who copied the old heroic stories and circulated them freely all over Ireland. There were some who translated religious books from French and Latin into Irish. “I wish to save,” said Charles O’Conor, “as many as I can of the ancient manuscripts of Ireland from the wreck which has overwhelmed everything that once belonged to us.” O’Conor was of Sligo county. His father, like other gentlemen, had been so reduced by confiscation that he had to plough with his own hands. A Franciscan sheltered in a peasant’s cottage, who knew no English, taught him Latin. He attended mass held secretly in a cave. Amid such difficulties he gained the best learning of his unhappy time. Much of the materials that O’Clery had used for his Annals had perished in the great troubles, and O’Conor began again that endless labour of Irish scholars, the saving of the relics of his people’s story from final oblivion. It was the passion of his life. He formed an Irish library, and copied with his own hand large volumes of extracts from books he could not possess. Having obtained O’Clery’s own manuscript of the Annals, he had this immense work copied by his own scribe; and another copy made in 1734 by Hugh O’Mulloy, an excellent writer, for his friend Dr. O’Fergus of Dublin. He wrote for the learned, and delighted the peasants round him with the stories of their national history. It is interesting to recall that Goldsmith probably knew O’Conor, so that the best English of an Irishman, and the best learning of an Irishman at that time, were thus connected.
It was the Irish antiquarians and historians who in 1759 drew Irishmen together into “the Catholic Committee”—Charles O’Conor, Dr. Curry, and Wyse of Waterford. O’Conor by his learning preserved for them the history of their fathers. Dr. Curry, of a Cavan family whose estates had been swept from them in 1641 and 1691, had studied as a physician in France, and was eminent in Dublin though shut out from every post; he was the first to use his research and literary powers to bring truth out of falsehood in the later Irish history, and to justify the Irish against the lying accusations concerning the rising of 1641. These learned patriots combined in a movement to win for the Irish some recognition before the law and some rights of citizens in their own land.
Countless poets, meanwhile, poured out in verse the infinite sorrow of the Gaels, recalling the days when their land was filled with poet-schools and festivals, and the high hospitality of great Irishmen. If a song of hope arose that the race should come to their own again, the voice of Irish charity was not wanting—”Having the fear of God, be ye full of alms-giving and friendliness, and forgetting nothing do ye according to the commandments, shun ye drunkenness and oaths and cursing, and do not say till death ‘God damn’ from your mouths.” Riotous laughter broke out in some; they were all, in fact, professional wits—chief among them Eoghan Ruadh O’Sullivan from Kerry, who died in 1784; a working man who had laboured with plough and spade, and first came into note for helping his employer’s son, fresh from a French college, with an explanation of a Greek passage. Jacobite poems told of the Lady Erin as a beautiful woman flying from the insults of foreign suitors in search of her real mate—poems of fancy, for the Stuarts had lost all hold on Ireland. The spirit of the north rang out in a multitude of bards, whose works perished in a century of persecution and destruction. Among exiles in Connacht manuscripts perished, but old tradition lived on the lips of the peasants, who recited in their cabins the love-songs and religious poems of long centuries past. The people in the bareness of their poverty were nourished with a literature full of wit, imagination, feeling, and dignity. In the poorest hovels there were men skilled in a fine recitation. Their common language showed the literary influence, and Irish peasants even in our own day have used a vocabulary of some five thousand words, as against about eight hundred words used by peasants in England. Even the village dancing at the cross-roads preserved a fine and skilled tradition.
Families, too, still tried to have “a scholar” in their house, for the old learning’s sake. Children shut out from all means of education might be seen learning their letters by copying with chalk the inscriptions on their fathers’ tombstones. There were few candles, and the scholar read his books by a cabin fire in the light given by throwing upon it twigs and dried furze. Manuscripts were carefully treasured, and in days when it was death or ruin to be found with an Irish book they were buried in the ground or hidden in the walls. In remote places schools were maintained out of the destitution of the poor; like that one which was kept up for over a hundred years in county Waterford, where the people of the surrounding districts supported “poor scholars” free of charge. There were some in Kerry, some in Clare, where a very remarkable group of poets sprang up. From all parts of Ireland students begged their way to “the schools of Munster.” Thus Greek and Latin still found their way into the labourer’s cottage. In county Cork, John Clairech O’Donnell, in remembrance of the ancient assemblies of the bards of all Ireland, gathered to his house poets and learned men to recite and contend as in the old days. Famous as a poet, he wrote part of a history of Ireland, and projected a translation of Homer into Irish. But he worked in peril, flying for his life more than once before the bard-hunters; in his denunciations the English oppressor stands before us—plentiful his costly living in the high-gabled lighted-up mansion of the Irish Brian, but tight-closed his door, and his churlishness shut up inside with him, there in an opening between two mountains, until famine clove to the people and bowed them to his will; his gate he never opened to the moan of the starving, “and oh! may heaven of the saints be a red wilderness for James Dawson!”
The enthusiasm of the Irish touched some of the planters. A hereditary chronicler of the O’Briens who published in 1717 a vindication of the Antiquities of Ireland got two hundred and thirty-eight subscribers, divided about equally between English and Gaelic names. Wandering poets sang, as Irish poets had done nine hundred years before, even in the houses of the strangers, and found in some of them a kindly friend. O’Carolan, the harper and singer, was beloved by both races. A slight inequality in a village field in Meath still after a hundred and fifty years recalls to Irish peasants the site of the house where he was born, and at his death English and Irish, Protestant and Catholic, gathered in an encampment of tents to do honour to his name. The magic of Irish music seems even to have stirred in the landlords’ parliament some dim sense of a national boast. An English nobleman coming to the parliament with a Welsh harper claimed that in all Ireland no such music could be heard. Mr. Jones of Leitrim took up the challenge for an Irishman of his county who “had never worn linen or woollen.” The Commons begged to have the trial in their House before business began, and all assembled to greet the Leitrim champion. O’Duibhgeanain was of an old literary clan: one of them had shared in making the Annals of the Four Masters; he himself was not only a fine harper, but an excellent Greek and Latin scholar. He came, tall and handsome, looking very noble in his ancient garb made of beaten rushes, with a cloak or plaid of the same stuff, and a high conical cap of the same adorned with many tassels. And the House of Commons gave him their verdict.
James Murphy, a poor bricklayer of Cork, who became an architect and studied Arabian antiquities in Portugal and Spain, gives the lament of Irish scholars. “You accuse their pastors with illiterature, whilst you adopt the most cruel means of making them ignorant; and their peasantry with untractableness, whilst you deprive them of the means of civilisation. But that is not all; you have deprived them at once of their religion, their liberty, their oak, and their harp, and left them to deplore their fate, not in the strains of their ancestors, but in the sighs of oppression.” To the great landlords the Act of 1691 which had given them wealth was the dawn of Irish civilisation. Oblivion might cover all the rest, all that was not theirs. They lived in a land some few years old, not more than a man’s age might cover.
By degrees, however, dwellers in Ireland were forced into some concern for its fortunes. Swift showed to the Protestants the wrongs they endured and the liberties which should be theirs, and flung his scorn on the shameful system of their slavery and their tyranny (1724). Lord Molesworth urged (1723) freedom of religion, schools of husbandry, relief of the poor from their intolerable burdens, the making parliament into a really representative body. Bishop Berkeley wrote his famous Querist—the most searching study of the people’s grief and its remedies.
Gradually the people of Ireland were being drawn together. All classes suffered under the laws to abolish Irish trade and industry. Human charities were strong in men of both sides, and in the country there was a growing movement to unite the more liberal of the landowners, the Dissenters of the north, and the Catholics, in a common citizenship. It had proved impossible to carry out fully the penal code. No life could have gone on under its monstrous terms. There were not Protestants enough to carry on all the business of the country and some “Papists” had to be taken at least into the humbler forms of official work. Friendly acts between neighbours diminished persecution.
“Let the legislature befriend us now, and we are theirs forever,” was the cry of the Munster peasantry, organised under O’Driscoll, to the Protestant parliament in 1786.
Such a movement alarmed the government extremely. If, they said, religious distinctions were abolished, the Protestants would find themselves secure of their position without British protection, and might they not then form a government more to the taste and wishes of the people—in fact, might not a nation begin again to live in Ireland.
The whole energy of the government was therefore called out to avert the rise of a united Irish People.