Henry VIII, like Henry II, was not concerned to give “civilisation” to Ireland. He was concerned to take the land. His reasons were the same. If he possessed the soil in his own right, apart from the English parliament, and commanded its fighting-men and its wealth, he could beat down rebellion in England, smite Scotland into obedience, conquer France, and create an empire of bounds unknown—and in time of danger where so sure a shelter for a flying sovereign? Claims were again revived to “our rightful inheritance”; quibbles of law once more served for the king’s “title to the land”; there was another great day of deception in Dublin. Henry asked the title of King of Ireland instead of Lord, and offered to the chiefs in return full security for their lands. For months of subtle preparation his promises were explicit. All cause of offence was carefully taken away. Finally a parliament was summoned (1541) of lords carefully bribed and commons carefully packed—the very pattern, in fact, of that which was later called to vote the Union. And while they were by order voting the title, the king and council were making arrangements together to render void both sides of the bargain. First the wording of the title was so altered as to take away any value in the “common consent” of parliament, since the king asserted his title to Ireland by inheritance and conquest, before and beyond all mandate of the popular will. And secondly it was arranged that Henry was under no obligation by negotiations or promises as to the land. For since, by the council’s assurance to the king on the day the title was passed, there was no land occupied by any “disobedient” people which was not really the king’s property by ancient inheritance or by confiscation, Henry might do as he would with his own. Royal concessions too must depend on how much revenue could be extracted from them to keep up suitably the title of king—on whether it was judicious to give Irishmen titles which they might afterwards plead to be valid—on whether Henry would find the promised grants convenient in case he chose later to proceed to “conquest and extermination.”
Parliament was dismissed for thirteen years, Henry, in fact, had exactly fulfilled the project of mystification he proposed twenty years before—”to be politically and secretly handled.” Every trace of Irish law and land tenure must finally be abolished so that the soil should lie at the king’s will alone, but this was to be done at first by secret and politic measures, here a little and there a little, so that, as he said, the Irish lords should as yet conceive no suspicion that they were to be “constrained to live under our law or put from all the lands by them now detained.” “Politic practices,” said Henry, would serve till such time as the strength of the Irish should be diminished, their leaders taken from them, and division put among themselves so that they join not together. If there had been any truth or consideration for Ireland in the royal compact some hope of compromise and conciliation might have opened. But the whole scheme was rooted and grounded in falsehood, and Ireland had yet to learn how far sufferings by the quibbles and devices of law might exceed the disasters of open war. Chiefs could be ensnared one by one in misleading contracts, practically void. A false claimant could be put on a territory and supported by English soldiers in a civil war, till the actual chief was exiled or yielded the land to the king’s ownership. No chief, true or false, had power to give away the people’s land, and the king was face to face with an indignant people, who refused to admit an illegal bargain. Then came a march of soldiers over the district, hanging, burning, shooting “the rebels,” casting the peasants out on the hillsides. There was also the way of “conquest.” The whole of the inhabitants were to be exiled, and the countries made vacant and waste for English peopling: the sovereign’s rule would be immediate and peremptory over those whom he had thus planted by his sole will, and Ireland would be kept subject in a way unknown in England; then “the king might say Ireland was clearly won, and after that he would be at little cost and receive great profits, and men and money at pleasure.” There would be no such difficulty, Henry’s advisers said as those of Henry II had said before, to “subdue or exile them as hath been thought,” for from the settled lands plantation could be spread into the surrounding territories, and the Irishry steadily pushed back into the sea. Henceforth it became a fixed policy to “exterminate and exile the country people of the Irishry.” Whether they submitted or not, the king was to “inhabit their country” with English blood. But again as in the twelfth century it was the king and the metropolis that were to profit, not any class of inhabitants of Ireland.
A series of great Confiscations put through an enslaved Pale parliament made smooth the way of conquest. An Act of 1536 for the attainder of the earl of Kildare confiscated his estates to the king, that is, the main part of Leinster. In 1570 the bulk of Ulster, as territory of the “traitor” Shane O’Neill, was declared forfeited in the same way. And in 1586 the chief part of Munster, the lordship of the “traitor” earl of Desmond. Another Act of 1536 forfeited to the crown all ancient claims of English lords to lands which had been granted to them, and afterwards recovered by the original Irish owners. Another in 1537 vested in the king all the lands of the dissolved monasteries. By these various titles given to the crown, it was hard for any acres to slip through unawares, English or Irish. An Act of 1569 moreover reduced all Ireland to shire land; in other words, all Irish chiefs who had made indentures with the crown were deprived of all the benefits which were included in such indentures, and the brehon or Irish law, with all its protection to the poor, was abolished.
These laws and confiscations gave to the new sovereigns of the Irish the particular advantage that if their subjects should resist the taking of the land, they were legally “rebels,” and as such outside the laws of war. It was this new fiction of law that gave the Tudor wars their unsurpassed horror. Thus began what Bacon called the “wild chase on the wild Irishmen.” The forfeiture of land of the tribe for the crime of a chief was inconceivable in Irish law; the claim of the commonalty to unalterable possession of their soil was deeply engraven in the hearts of the people, who stood together to hold their land, believing justice and law to be on their side, and the right of near two thousand years of ordered possession. At a prodigious price, at inconceivable cost of human woe, the purging of the soil from the Irish race was begun. Such mitigations as the horrors of war allow were forbidden to these “rebels” by legal fiction. Torturers and hangmen went out with the soldiers. There was no protection for any soul; the old, the sick, infants, women, scholars; any one of them might be a landholder, or a carrier on of the tradition of the tribal owners, and was in any case a rebel appointed to death. No quarter was allowed, no faith kept, and no truce given. Chiefs were made to “draw and carry,” to abase them before the tribes. Poets and historians were slaughtered and their books and genealogies burned, so that no man “might know his own grandfather” and all Irishmen be confounded in the same ignorance and abasement, all glories gone, and all rights lost. The great object of the government was to destroy the whole tradition, wipe out the Gaelic memories, and begin a new English life.
But even with all legal aids to extermination the land war proved more difficult than the English had expected. It lasted for some seventy years. The Irish were inexhaustible in defence, prodigious in courage, and endured hardships that Englishmen could not survive. The most powerful governors that England could supply were sent over, and furnished with English armies and stores. Fleets held the harbours, and across all the seas from Newfoundland to Dantzic gathered in provisions for the soldiers. Armies fed from the sea-ports chased the Irish through the winter months, when the trees were bare and naked and the kine without milk, killing every living thing and burning every granary of corn, so that famine should slay what the sword had lost. Out of the woods the famishing Irish came creeping on their hands, for their legs would not bear them, speaking like ghosts crying out of their graves, if they found a few water-cresses flocking as to a feast; so that in short space there were none almost left and a most populous and plentiful country suddenly left void of man and beast—a place where no voice was heard in ears save woe and fear and grief, a place where there was no pause for consolation nor appearance of joy on face.
Thus according to the English king’s forecast was “the strength of the Irish diminished and their captains taken from them.” One great house after another was swept out of Irish life. In 1529 the great earl of Kildare died of a broken heart in the Tower at the news that his son had been betrayed by a forged letter into a rising. His five brothers and his son, young Silken Thomas, captured by a false pledge of safety, were clapped all six of them into the Tower and hanged in London. The six outraged corpses at Tyburn marked the close of the first and last experiment in which a great ruler, sharing the blood of the two races, practised in the customs of both countries, would have led Ireland in a way of peace, and brought about through equal prosperity and order a lasting harmony between the English and Irish people. Three hundred years later an old blackened pedigree kept in the Tower showed against the names of half the Fitzgeralds up to that time the words “Beheaded” or “Attainted”—so terrible were the long efforts to extinguish the talent and subdue the patriotism of that great family.
Ormond, too, was “to be bridled.” It was said his house was in no mood to hand over the “rule and obedience” of south Ireland to the king. At a feast at Ely House in Holborn (1547) the earl and seventeen of his followers lay dead out of thirty-five who had been poisoned. No inquiry was made into that crime. “God called him to His mercy,” the Irish said of this patriot Ormond, “before he could see that day after which doubtless he longed and looked—the restitution of the house of Kildare.” His son was held fast in London to be brought up, as far as education could do it, an Englishman.
The third line of the Anglo-Norman leaders was laid low. The earl of Desmond, after twenty-five years of alternate prison and war, saw the chief leaders of his house hanged or slain, before he himself was killed in 1583: and his wretched son, born in the Tower, was brought from that prison to be shown to his heart-broken people—stunted in body, enfeebled in mind, half an idiot, a protestant—”the Tower Earl,” “the Queen’s Earl,” cried the people.
The Irish chiefs were also broken by guile and assassination. O’Brien was separated from his people by a peerage (1543), an English inauguration without the ancient rites as head of his lands, and an English guard of soldiers (1558). That house played no further part in the Irish struggle.
The chief warrior of the north and terror of Elizabeth’s generals was Shane O’Neill. The deputy Sidney devised many plots to poison or kill the man he could not conquer, and at last brought over from Scotland hired assassins who accomplished the murder (1567). A map made in the reign of Elizabeth marked the place of the crime that relieved England of her greatest fear—”Here Shane O’Neill was slain.” After him the struggle of the north to keep their land and independence was maintained by negotiation and by war for forty years, under the leading of the greatest of Irish statesmen and generals Hugh O’Neill earl of Tyrone, and the soldier-patriot Aedh Ruadh O’Donnell earl of Tirconnell. English intrigue triumphed when Red Hugh was poisoned by a secret agent (1602) and when by a crafty charge of conspiracy his brother Rory O’Donnell and Hugh O’Neill were driven from their country (1607). The flight of the earls marked the destruction by violence of the old Gaelic polity—that federation of tribes which had made of their common country the storehouse of Europe for learning, the centre of the noblest mission-work that the continent ever knew, the home of arts and industries, the land of a true democracy where men held the faith of a people owning their soil, instructed in their traditions, and themselves guardians of their national life.
Henry VIII had found Ireland a land of Irish civilisation and law, with a people living by tribal tenure, and two races drawing together to form a new self-governing nation. A hundred years later, when Elizabeth and James I had completed his work, all the great leaders, Anglo-Irish and Irish, had disappeared, the people had been half exterminated, alien and hostile planters set in their place, tribal tenure obliterated, every trace of Irish law swept clean from the Irish statute-book, and an English form of state government effectively established.
Was this triumph due to the weakness of tribal government and the superior value of the feudal land tenure? How far, in fact, did the Irish civilisation invite and lend itself to this destruction?
It has been said that it was by Irish soldiers that Irish liberties were destroyed. The Tudors and their councillors were under no such illusions. Their fear was that the Irish, if they suspected the real intention of the English, would all combine in one war; and in fact when the purpose of the government became clear in Ireland an English army of conquest had to be created. “Have no dread nor fear,” cried Red Hugh to his Irishmen, “of the great numbers of the soldiers of London, nor of the strangeness of their weapons and arms.” Order after order went out to “weed the bands of Irish,” to purge the army of all “such dangerous people.” Soldiers from England and from Berwick were brought over at double the pay of the Irish. For warmth and comfort they were clothed in Irish dress, only distinguished by red crosses on back and breast; and so the sight was seen of English soldiers in Irish clothing tearing from Irish men and women their Irish garments as the forbidden dress of traitors and rebels. Some official of Elizabeth’s time made a list to please the English of a few names of Irishmen traitorously slain by other Irishmen. There were murderers who had been brought up from childhood in an English house, detached from their own people; others were sent out to save their lives by bringing the head of a “rebel.” The temper of the Irish people is better seen in the constant fidelity with which the whole people of Ulster and of Munster sheltered and protected for years O’Neill and Desmond and many another leader with a heavy price on his head. Not the poorest herdsman of the mountains touched the English gold.
The military difficulties of the Irish, however, were such as to baffle skill and courage. England had been drilled by the kings that conquered her, and by the foreign wars she waged, into a powerful military nation by land and sea. Newly discovered gunpowder gave Henry VII the force of artillery. Henry VIII had formed the first powerful fleet. The new-found gold of Brazil, the wealth of the Spanish main, had made England immensely rich. In this moment of growing strength the whole might of Great Britain was thrown on Ireland, the smaller island. The war, too, had a peculiar animosity; the fury of Protestant fanaticism was the cloak for the king’s ambition, the resolve of English traders to crush Irish competition, the greed of prospective planters. No motive was lacking to increase its violence. Ireland, on the other hand, never conquered, and contemplating no conquest on her part, was not organised as an aggressive and military nation. Her national spirit was of another type. But whatever had been her organisation it is doubtful whether any device could have saved her from the force of the English invasion. Dublin could never be closed from within against enemies coming across the sea. The island was too small to give any means of escape to defeated armies while they were preparing for a new defence. They could not disappear, for example, like the Dutch of the Cape Colony into vast desert regions which gave them shelter while they built up a new state. Every fugitive within the circuit of Ireland could be presently found and hunted down. The tribal system, too, which the Tudor sovereigns found, was no longer in full possession of Ireland; the defence was now carried on not by a tribal Gaelic people but by a mixed race, half feudal and half tribal by tradition. But it was the old Irish inheritance of national freedom which gave to Ireland her desperate power of defence, so that it was only after such prodigious efforts of war and plantation that the bodies of her people were subdued, while their minds still remained free and unenslaved.
If, moreover, the Irish system had disappeared so had the English. As we shall see the battle between the feudal tradition and the tribal tradition in Ireland had ended in the violent death of both.