The first Irish revival after the Danish wars showed the strength of the ancient Gaelic civilisation. The second victory which the genius of the people won over the minds of the new invaders was a more astonishing proof of the vitality of the Irish culture, the firm structure of their law, and the cohesion of the people.
Henry II in 1171 had led an army for “the conquest” of Ireland. Three hundred years later, when Henry VII in 1487 turned his thoughts to Ireland he found no conquered land. An earthen ditch with a palisade on the top had been raised to protect all that was left of English Ireland, called the “Pale” from its encircling fence. Outside was a country of Irish language, dress, and customs. Thirty miles west of Dublin was “by west of English law.” Norman lords had married daughters of Irish chiefs all over the country, and made combinations and treaties with every province. Their children went to be fostered in kindly houses of the Irish. Into their own palisaded forts, lifted on great mounds of earth, with three-fold entrenchments, came Irish poets singing the traditions, the love-songs, the prayers and hymns of the Gaels. A Norman shrine of gold for St. Patrick’s tooth shows how the Norman lord of Athenry had adopted the national saint. Many settlers changed their names to an Irish form, and taking up the clan system melted into the Irish population. Irish speech was so universal that a proclamation of Henry VIII in a Dublin parliament had to be translated into Irish by the earl of Ormond.
Irish manners had entered also into the town houses of the merchants. Foreign traders welcomed “natives” to the seaports, employed them, bought their wares, took them into partnership, married with them, allowed them to plead Irish law in their courts—and not only that, but they themselves wore the forbidden Irish dress, talked Irish with the other townsfolk, and joined in their national festivities and ceremonies and songs. Almost to the very gates of Dublin, in the centre of what should have been pure English land, the merchants went riding Irish fashion, in Irish dress, and making merry with their forbidden Irish clients.
This Irish revival has been attributed to a number of causes—to an invasion of Edward Bruce in 1315, to the “degeneracy” of the Normans, to the vice of the Irish, to the Wars of the Roses, to the want of energy of Dublin Castle, to the over-education of Irish people in Oxford, to agitation and lawyers. The cause lay far deeper. It lay in the rich national civilisation which the Irish genius had built up, strong in its courageous democracy, in its broad sympathies, in its widespread culture, in its freedom, and in its humanities. So long as the Irish language preserved to the people their old culture they never failed to absorb into their life every people that came among them. It was only when they lost hold of the tradition of their fathers and their old social order that this great influence fell from them, and strangers no longer yielded to their power.
The social fusion of Normans and Irish was the starting-point of a lively civilisation to which each race brought its share. Together they took a brilliant part in the commerce which was broadening over the world. The Irish were great travellers; they sailed the Adriatic, journeyed in the Levant, visited the factories of Egypt, explored China, with all the old love of knowledge and infinite curiosity. They were as active and ingenious in business as the Normans themselves. Besides exporting raw materials, Irish-made linen and cloth and cloaks and leather were carried as far as Russia and Naples; Norman lords and Irish chieftains alike took in exchange velvets, silks and satins, cloth of gold and embroideries, wines and spices. Irish goldsmiths made the rich vessels that adorned the tables both of Normans and Irish. Irish masons built the new churches of continental design, carving at every turn their own traditional Irish ornaments. Irish scribes illuminated manuscripts which were as much praised in a Norman castle as in an Irish fort. Both peoples used translations into Irish made by Gaelic scholars from the fashionable Latin books of the Continent. Both races sent students and professors to every university in Europe—men recognised of deep knowledge among the most learned men of Italy and France. A kind of national education was being worked out. Not one of the Irish chiefdoms allowed its schools to perish, and to these ancient schools the settlers in the towns added others of their own, to which the Irish also in time flocked, so that youths of the two races learned together. As Irish was the common language, so Latin was the second tongue for cultivated people and for all men of business in their continental trade. The English policy made English the language of traitors to their people, but of no use either for trade or literature.
The uplifting of the national ideal was shown in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries by a revival of learning like that which followed the Danish wars. Not one of the hereditary houses of historians, lawyers, poets, physicians, seems to have failed: we find them at work in the mountains of Donegal, along the Shannon, in lake islands, among the bare rocks of Clare, in the plains of Meath, in the valleys of Munster. In astronomy Irishmen were still first in Europe. In medicine they had all the science of their age. Nearly all our knowledge of Irish literature comes from copies of older works made by hundreds of industrious scribes of this period. From time to time Assemblies of all the learned men were called together by patriotic chiefs, or by kings rising into high leadership—”coming to Tara,” as the people said. The old order was maintained in these national festivals. Spacious avenues of white houses were made ready for poets, streets of peaked hostels for musicians, straight roads of smooth conical-roofed houses for chroniclers, another avenue for bards and jugglers, and so on; and on the bright surface of the pleasant hills sleeping-booths of woven branches for the companies. From sea to sea scholars and artists gathered to show their skill to the men of Ireland; and in these glorious assemblies the people learned anew the wealth of their civilisation, and celebrated with fresh ardour the unity of the Irish nation.
It was no wonder that in this high fervour of the country the Anglo-Normans, like the Danes and the Northumbrians before them, were won to a civilisation so vital and impassioned, so human and gay. But the mixed civilisation found no favour with the government; the “wild Irish” and the “degenerate English” were no better than “brute beasts,” the English said, abandoned to “filthy customs” and to “a damnable law that was no law, hateful to God and man.” Every measure was taken to destroy the growing amity of the peoples, not only by embroiling them in war, but by making union of Ireland impossible in religion or in education, and by destroying public confidence. The new central organisation of the Irish church made it a powerful weapon in English hands. An Englishman was at once put in every archbishopric and every principal see, a prelate who was often a Castle official as well, deputy, chancellor, justice, treasurer, or the like, or a good soldier—in any case hostile to every Irish affection. A national church in the old Irish sense disappeared; in the English idea the church was to destroy the nation. Higher education was also denied to both races. No Irish university could live under the eye of an English primate of Armagh, and every attempt of Anglo-Normans to set up a university for Ireland at Dublin or Drogheda was instantly crushed. To avert general confidence and mutual understanding, an alien class was maintained in the country, who for considerations of wealth, power, a privileged position, betrayed the peace of Ireland to the profit of England. No pains, for example, were spared by the kings to conciliate and use so important a house as that of the earls of Ormond. For nearly two hundred years, as it happened, the heirs of this house were always minors, held in wardship by the king. English training at his court, visits to London, knighthoods and honours there, high posts in Ireland, prospects of new conquests of Irish land, a winking of government officials at independent privileges used on their estates by Ormond lords—such influences tied each heir in turn to England, and separated them from Irish interests—a “loyal” house, said the English—”fair and false as Ormond,” said the people of Ireland.
Both races suffered under this foreign misrule. Both were brayed in the same mortar. Both were driven to the demand for home rule. The national movement never flagged for a single generation. Never for a moment did the Irish cease from the struggle; in the swell and tumult of that tossing sea commanders emerged now in one province, now in another, each to fall back into the darkness while the next pressed on to take his place. An Anglo-Norman parliament claimed (1459) that Ireland was by its constitution separate from the laws and statutes of England, and prayed to have a separate coinage for their land as in the kingdom of England. Confederacies of Irish and Anglo-Normans were formed, one following another in endless and hopeless succession. Through all civil strife we may plainly see the steady drift of the peoples to a common patriotism. There was panic in England at these ceaseless efforts to restore an Irish nation, for “Ireland,” English statesmen said, “was as good as gone if a wild Irish wyrlinge should be chosen there as king.”
For a time it seemed as if the house of the Fitzgeralds, the most powerful house in Ireland, might mediate between the peoples whose blood, English and Irish, they shared. Earl Gerald of Desmond led a demand for home rule in 1341, and that Ireland should not be governed by “needy men sent from England, without knowledge of Ireland or its circumstances.” Earl Gerald the Rhymer of the same house (1359) was a patriot leader too—a witty and ingenious composer of Irish poetry, who excelled all the English and many of the Irish in the knowledge of the Irish language, poetry, and history, and of other learning. A later Earl Gerald (1416), foster-son of O’Brien and cousin of Henry VI, was complimented by the Republic of Florence, in a letter recalling the Florentine origin of the Fitzgeralds, for the glory he brought to that city, since its citizens had possessions as far as Hungary and Greece, and now “through you and yours bear sway even in Ibernia, the most remote island of the world.” In Earl Thomas (1467) the Irish saw the first “foreigner” to be the martyr of their cause. He had furthered trade of European peoples with Irishmen; he had urgently pressed union of the races; he had planned a university for Ireland at Drogheda (Armagh having been long destroyed by the English). As his reward he was beheaded without trial by the earl of Worcester famed as “the Butcher,” who had come over with a claim to some of the Desmond lands in Cork. His people saw in his death “the ruin of Ireland”; they laid his body with bitter lamentations by the Atlantic at Tralee, where the ocean wind moaning in the caverns still sounds to the peasants as “the Desmond’s keen.”
Other Fitzgeralds, earls of Kildare, who had married into every leading Irish house, took up in their turn the national cause. Garrett Mor “the great” (1477-1513), married to the cousin of Henry VII, made close alliances with every Irish chief, steadily spread his power over the land, and kept up the family relations with Florence; and by his wit, his daring, the gaiety of his battle with slander, fraud, and violence, won great authority. His son Garrett inherited and enlarged his great territory. Maynooth under him was one of the richest earls’ houses of that time. When he rode out in his scarlet cloak he was followed by four hundred Irish spearmen. His library was half of Irish books; he made his English wife read, write, and speak perfectly the Irish tongue; he had for his chief poet an Irishman, “full of the grace of God and of learning”; his secretary was employed to write for his library “divers chronicles” of Ireland. The Irish loved him for his justice, for his piety, and that he put on them no arbitrary tax. By a singular charm of nature he won the hearts of all, wife, son, jailor in London Tower, and English lords.
His whole policy was union in his country, and Ireland for the Irish. The lasting argument for self-government as against rule from over-sea was heard in his cry to Wolsey and the lords at Westminster—”You hear of a case as it were in a dream, and feel not the smart that vexeth us.” He attempted to check English interference with private subjects in Ireland. He refused to admit that a commission to Cardinal Wolsey as legate for England gave him authority in Ireland. The mark of his genius lay above all in his resolve to close dissensions and to put an end to civil wars. When as deputy he rode out to war against disturbed tribes, his first business was not to fight, but to call an assembly in the Irish manner which should decide the quarrel by arbitration according to law. He “made peace,” his enemies said, and the nightmare of forced dissension gave way before this new statesmanship of national union.
Never were the Irish “so corrupted by affection” for a lord deputy, never were they so obedient, both from fear and from love, so Henry VIII was warned. In spite of official intrigues, through all eddying accidents, the steady pressure of the country itself was towards union.
The great opportunity had come to weld together the two races in Ireland, and to establish a common civilisation by a leader to whom both peoples were perfectly known, whose sympathies were engaged in both, and who as deputy of the English king had won the devoted confidence of the Irish people.
There was one faction alone which no reason could convert—the alien minority that held interests and possessions in both islands, and openly used England to advance their power and Ireland to increase their wealth. They had no country, for neither England nor Ireland could be counted such. They knew how to darken ignorance and inflame prejudice in London against their fellow-countrymen in Ireland—”the strange savage nature of the people,” “savage vile poor persons which never did know or feel wealth or civility,” “having no knowledge of the laws of God or of the king,” nor any way to know them save through the good offices of these slanderers, apostles of their own virtue. The anti-national minority would have had no strength if left alone to face the growing toleration in Ireland. In support from England it found its sole security—and through its aid Ireland was flung back into disorder.