We are often told that the civilization of a people is marked by the place of its women: a rule by which the Irish stand high. In the fifteenth century, as at all times, their annals record many noble ladies “distinguished for knowledge, hospitality, good sense and piety”; “humane and charitable”; “a nurse to all guests and strangers, and to all the learned men in Ireland.” Of these Margaret, daughter of O’Carroll lord of Ely, wife of Calvagh O’Connor Faly lord of Offaly (lands which lie across the boundaries of the modern King’s and Queen’s Counties and Kildare), was the most illustrious. She came of a learned race. The O’Carrolls, in the course of little more than a century (1253-1373), held the See of Cashel for sixty years; and O’Carroll had been Archbishop of Tuam; and Margaret’s father, lord of Ely, was “the general patron of all the learned men of Ireland.” “This Teige was deservedly a man of greate accompt and fame with the professors of Poetrye and Musicke of Ireland and Scotland, for his liberality extended towards them, and every of them in generalle.” So highly was he esteemed among the chiefs that he was forbidden by the Irish captains of east Munster to carry out his wish of resigning his lordship of Ely (1396). He made a pilgrimage, however, that year to the threshold of the apostles, with his companions O’Brien, Gerald, and Thomas Calvagh MacMurchadh of the royal race of Leinster; and coming back through England visited Richard ii. at Westminster, who received him graciously, and being then about to cross to Calais for his marriage with Isabella of France, and the conclusion of a treaty of peace with the French king, invited O’Carroll to accompany him in his retinue. Ten years later he was slain by the English, the boy-prince Thomas of Lancaster, son of Henry iv., being then Viceroy in Ireland, and under him the Lord Deputy Scrope. The English army fell on him unawares at Callan; for whose death indeed the sun stood still, said their account, to light the Deputy and the fierce Prior of Kilmainham in the evening surprise and the six miles’ ride of slaughter, where eight hundred, or some said three thousand, of his people fell. Some time after the massacre Margaret married the most successful leader in his day of the Irish, Calvagh O’Connor Faly, son of Murchadh, the “Lord of Offaly, of the cattle-abounding land,” descended from Conchobar of the race of Cathair Mór, King of Leinster. Brought up amid the perils and sorrows of constant war, her fortunes were now transferred to a country where the conflict with the English knew no interlude. To understand her story it is necessary to show very briefly the situation of Offaly.
The land of the O’Connors adjoined that of the O’Carrolls under the Slieve Bloom mountains. The old Offaly, from Sliabh-Bladhma, now Slieve Bloom, to the hill of Alenn, and from Sliabh-Cualann in Wicklow to the Great Heath, is a plain as level as a tranquil sea. On its western side a long low ridge north of Slieve Bloom had given shelter to the two St. Sinchealls; a church had risen by the holy well; and the fair-town of Killeigh on “the field of the long ridge,” profiting by the traffic from the Shannon to the Liffey. There Murchadh O’Connor founded for the Franciscans a monastery (1393) said to be the third in size and importance of the monasteries of Ireland, the burial place of his race. In what was once the Abbey churchyard, tombstones of the O’Doynes, deeply sculptured with their armorial bearings, recall a great family of Offaly. On the eastern side of Offaly Norman settlers had pushed back the boundary from the Dublin hills to Rathangan, where a strong fort and church stood at the head of the plain through which the Barrow and the Slaney flowed south to Waterford and Wexford; and on that important trade route Thomas O’Connor Faly had founded a Franciscan monastery (1302), under the walls of Hugh de Lacy’s fort at Castledermot. To the north lay Meath—“cemetery of the valourous Gael”—whose colonists had incessant war with Offaly. It was a land over which the earliest Norman settlers had swept from de Lacy’s fort of Castledermot to that of Durrow; a land which was again the chief centre of struggle when the Irish attack drove the English power back to the plains of Meath, and which in the renewed wars of the English under the Tudors became the scene of ferocious reprisals and calculated obliteration of its race and name. From Calvagh’s first battle all his fighting was on the plains of Meath. Once he made a raid in the land of the O’Mores; and when his sons grew up they had disputes with Irish neighbours. But the only war of Calvagh from 1385 to 1458 was a war against the English.
The family were bitter Irreconcilables; since the days of an older Calvagh, the “Great Rebel,” who a hundred years before (1307), had been invited with thirty of the Offaly chiefs to dine at Castle-Carberry on Trinity Sunday with “the treacherous baron,” Sir Pierce Bermingham, the “Hunter of the Irish”; and were deceitfully murdered, the Great Rebel and all, as they rose from table. This new Calvagh fought the invaders for over sixty years, from youth to old age, with scarcely a pause—a man of humour as well as courage. Once when the English troops with their Irish followers had ridden to the very borders of Killeigh (1406)—the religious and business centre of Offaly—Calvagh with half a dozen horsemen came upon a body of plundering kerns, one carrying off on his back a great cauldron which Calvagh had lent his friend MacMaoilcorra for brewing beer. “There is your caldron with the kerns,” cried MacMaoilcorra helplessly, “take it and discharge me of my loan.” “I accept of it where it is,” mocked Calvagh, and flung “the shot of a stone” which hit the cauldron straight, at the great noise and report whereof the plunderers cast away their spoil and fled in consternation. In the great rout of the English that day the Irish won back from them the chiefest relic of Connacht, the cap or mitre of S. Patrick stolen from Elphin.
In Calvagh’s days the Irish revival had pushed back the rule of Dublin Castle to a strip of coast land some twenty miles by thirty. There flew a tale of panic (1385) that the Irish “were confederate with Spain,” and that “at this next season, as is likely, there will be made a conquest of the greater part of the land.” Revenue was falling, English colonists were flying across the water, and prayers for help were sent over to the English king. The king’s favourite De Vere, appointed Marquis of Dublin and Duke of Ireland (1386), got no farther than Wales, and English pretentions over the island under a confused series of shifting rulers became the mock of Europe. Stung by the taunt that he who desired to be made head of the Holy Roman Empire could not even subdue Ireland, Richard ii. made his fantastic journey across the Irish Channel (1394), carrying a wardrobe of untold cost in which one jewelled coat alone was worth thirty thousand marks, and with a following of four thousand squires and thirty thousand archers, a greater army, some said, than Edward iii. commanded at Crecy. Thus Calvagh had the rare opportunity of seeing the arrival in Ireland of the only king of England who landed there in the five hundred years between the coming of Henry ii. and John (1171 and 1210), and that of James ii. (1689)—all four driven over by personal necessities, not by any concern whatever for the Irish people or their well-being. The English troops were flung back from the O’Connor land and from Ely of the O’Carrolls, with many men slain and many horses captured, and fresh supplies were sent for from England. But Richard, unlike any other king that visited Ireland, was moved by the spirit of the country. The temper he had shown thirteen years before in the Peasant Revolt—“I am your King and Lord, good people; what will ye?”—manifested itself again amid the troubles of his Irish lordship. To the Irish people he showed the first signs of sympathy and respect. Laying aside the hostile banners of England, he substituted the golden cross and silver birds of his patron saint, Edward the Confessor—the only King of England reported to have any connection with an Irish house, if as some historians say (on what evidence I do not know) his Queen’s sister Driella was wife of O’Brien, king of Munster. “To Us and our Council,” he wrote to England, “it appears that the Irish rebels have rebelled in consequence of the injustice and grievances practised towards them, for which they have been afforded no redress.” Peace was made with “his rebel MacMorrough”; and treaties signed with the chiefs, seventy-five of them, were sent to England in two hampers, while Richard returned to Westminster leaving Roger Mortimer, heir to the throne, as Viceroy. The next year, as we have seen, he received O’Carroll of Ely at his palace with especial honour.
With his disappearance the policy of peace and reform came to an end. The meaning of Mortimer’s rule was clear to the Irish. He claimed by inheritance of Lionel Duke of Clarence, son of Edward III., to be Earl of Ulster, Lord of Connacht, Trim, Leix, and Ossory, thus threatening the Ulster chiefs with a war of conquest, and the lord of Offaly and the middle Irish with the complete encircling of their lands, their isolation and destruction. Edmund Mortimer, son-in-law of Clarence, had already appeared as Viceroy (1380-1381), carrying with him the sword adorned with gold “which had belonged to the good king Edward” the Confessor, and his great bed of black satin embroidered with the arms of de Mortimer and Ulster: he sent much spoil and cattle to England, and died in the midst of his warfare. His son Roger was appointed Viceroy (1382-1383) a boy of ten; and orders were sent to arrest all those who by land or water should send or sell horses, salt, armour, iron, gold, silver, corn, or other provisions, to any of the Irish. Once more this same Roger Mortimer was Viceroy in 1395, riding to war for his inheritance in the dress and arms of an Irish chief. Calvagh captured the earl of Kildare who was held to ransom by his father; and the Carlow men routed and slew the young Mortimer himself (1398). On which Richard sent over his half-brother, the Duke of Surrey (1398), and already forgetful of his Irish compacts of three years before, granted his favourite lands which by treaty belonged to MacMurchadh. When war naturally followed the king proposed to subdue the Irish by a new visit (1399), this time forsaking the tradition of the Confessor for that of Henry ii., and bearing the royal regalia of England and the miraculous consecrated oil of St. Thomas of Canterbury used at coronations. Chanting a last collect with the canons of St. George he set sail for Waterford, bringing with him the Duke of Lancaster (afterwards Henry v.) a boy of twelve years, to take his first lesson in war. The army was set to fell MacMurchadh’s woods; a space was cleared, villages and houses set on fire, and in that scene Richard made the young Henry knight, even while the Duke of Lancaster was landing in Yorkshire to seize the English crown. Before July closed the betrayed king had hurried back to England, there to meet his death of horror.
So ended the royal dream of chivalry in Ireland, as it had closed before in England. Whatever imaginative feeling for the Irish, whatever memories of their old tradition or visions of a reconciliation of the two civilizations, had stirred Richard ii., these disappeared under the Lancastrian kings. Stern conquest was their creed, as soon as their wars in England, Wales, Scotland, and France would allow it.
The comings and goings of English governors in Ireland during the French wars read like the wanderings of the Wiking raiders, now on the Irish side of the sea, now on the French, as the chances of campaign might open the best prospects of adventure, plunder and ransom. Viceroys, deputies, lords justices, of a summer or two, each with his twelve months’ policy of extortion, slaughter, and vain treaties, headed brief marches and skirmishes, campaigned on the plan that there was never a battle to be opened on a Monday or after noonday, hunted or purchased prisoners not for their defeat but for their ransom, and in succession sailed away for the better ventures of the French war. “The most cause of destruction,” the English colonists declared to the king in 1435, arose because “during thirty years past the Lieutenants and other Governors did not come here but for a sudden journey or a hosting.” As their power shrank their salaries and armies were increased. Governors no longer pretended to control the war, but returning to the lawless practice of the first adventurers, ordered any man who could to go out and fight however and wherever he pleased; and the lords about Dublin, freed from all restraints of law, kept troops of horse and foot against “Irish enemies,” “English rebels,” and their own personal foes.
The Lieutenant sent by Henry iv. to rule Ireland (1401) was his son Thomas of Lancaster twelve years old; and the first in a series of changing deputies Sir Stephen Scrope, an old soldier trained in French and Flemish wars, and as ready to serve Henry as Richard. He it was who slew O’Carroll, Richard’s friend; and against him Murchadh and Calvagh O’Connor warred victoriously in Meath (1406, 1408). The prior of Kilmainham being deputy (who had also been on that ride of death when the sun stood still), the O’Connors captured the sheriff of Meath (1411) and took a great price for his ransom. The three months’ rule of Sir John Stanley (1413) first governor of Henry V. was ended by his death after the curse of the chief bard Niall O’Higgin whom he had plundered at Usnach—“the second poetical miracle” of this famous bard. In vain his successor Archbishop Cranley, whose eighty years alone held him back from battle, gathered his clergy at Castledermot to pray for English victory: O’Connor and MacGeoghagan routed the English, and held to ransom prisoners for two thousand six hundred marks besides other fines (1414). Sir John Talbot Lord Furnival followed (1414), hovering between Ireland, England, and France—to the English “an ancient fox and politique captain,” to the French “a very scourge and daily terror,” to the Irish “a son of curses for his venom and a devil for his evil.” He called out the troops to active war, slew many rebels, and gave protection to neither saint nor sanctuary; it was his policy to “oblige one Irish enemy to serve upon the other,” by forcing defeated chiefs to swear that they would fight under him against their countrymen. Still the O’Connors raided Meath for arms, horses, and prisoners (1417). Calvagh was once treacherously captured by a Meath lord, from whom Talbot in hope of a ransom purchased him; but the prisoner escaped that same night. To Talbot succeeded (1420) James the White Earl of Ormond, back from the French wars. Precepts drawn up to guide his conduct declared that as “the Irish are false by kind, it were expedient and a charity to execute upon them wilful and malicious transgressors the king’s laws somewhat sharply.” He too had been at the death of O’Carroll, and once again, it was said, the sun miraculously stood still for three hours, and no pit or bog annoyed horse or man on his part, while he slaughtered the Irish on “the red moor of Athy.” Twice every week the clergy of Dublin went in solemn procession praying for his good success against those disordered persons which now in every quarter of Ireland had degenerated to their old trade of life, and repined at the English. The colonists petitioned Henry v. that he would induce the Pope to proclaim a holy crusade against the Irish, “in perpetual destruction of those enemies.” It was in the bitterness of this exasperated conflict that Murchadh O’Connor Faly won a last victory (1421), before he laid down arms and entered his monastery of Killeigh to die—“Murchadh of the defeats.”
For thirty-seven years Calvagh now led his people’s fight against “the English manner of government,” in other words, the destruction of the Irish. He seized more lords and officers, won more wealth, and recovered more Irish territory than any lord in Leinster. At this time the Desmonds, out of favour under Lancastrian kings, had withdrawn to Munster to build up their dominion in the south, while the Ormonds and their cousins and rivals the Talbots fought for power. Passing strangers appeared in Dublin Castle; but with occasional interruptions the actual authority swung back, now to Ormond and his half-brother the prior of Kilmainham, now to Talbot and his brother the Archbishop of Dublin, till each family had held the chief control many times. The Talbots stood for pure English rule, and excelled in severity alike towards colonists and natives. They used for their wars and their rewards Irish taxes, coyn and livery; but at Westminster they represented Ormond’s iniquity in levying the like taxes, and his faint and wavering sympathies for his countrymen, as treason of the darkest hue; his favouring his Irish friends, keeping Irish soldiers for his following, letting lands slip into Irish hands, making Irishmen knights of the shire; with a few additions thrown in of his sloth, violence, and corruption—“courses ruinous and destructive” to the English. In the midst of this discord Calvagh seems to have leaned to Ormond. His wife, apparently by a friendly arrangement, was given tribute from an Ormond lordship in Kildare. He himself held Talbot’s cousin Thomas to ransom in his prison at Killeigh: he took “blackrent” or tribute from the English of Meath.
Meanwhile both Ulster and Offaly were set aflame by the coming of a new Mortimer Viceroy (1423) Edmund, son of Roger of the Irish dress. When he landed with an English army O’Neill and O’Donnell had already marched over Louth and Meath (1423), compelling the English to give hostages and guarantees for their pledge that they would be under tribute for ever. Edmund called O’Neill and some of the leaders to his Trim Castle, and made arrangements with him; but they had scarcely left when he died of plague (1424), and Talbot, then Lord Chief Justice, pursued the chiefs and carried them prisoners to Dublin, demanding hostages and ransom. Calvagh on his side raided Meath, where he seized the Marshal of the English army, the Seneschal of the Viceroy’s manor, and other squires. But it was now the turn of Ormond, who had lately come to Ireland bringing a host of Saxons, and adding great strength to the English wars; and Talbot made terms with Calvagh before the appointment of the new viceroy. But the peace was brief. Calvagh entered into alliance with the princes of Ulster. He married his daughter Finola to O’Donnell, “harrasser and destroyer of the English.” And when O’Neill with O’Donnell marched a great army to Mullingar (1431), and on the Moat where O’Melaghlin had in old times ruled and judged Leinster, gathered the chiefs to take his wages and acknowledge him leader for the war, Calvagh joined his host in the ravaging of Westmeath till the English paid a heavy price for the sparing of their country. Later, when his son-in-law O’Donnell was captured and imprisoned in Dublin Castle (1434), then sent to England (1435), and finally to the Isle of Man (1439) to die there in prison, Calvagh marched, year after year, through Meath to avenge his captivity. The Justiciary or Deputy himself was taken prisoner by Calvagh’s son, and kept some time till the English of Dublin ransomed him. In the feuds of the barons he found allies. The son of MacFheorais, chief of the Berminghams and heir of “the treacherous baron,” suffered “an abuse” in the great court of Trim, the Governor’s castle. For as he entered the court (1443) under the safeguard of Ormond, the son of Barnewell, Treasurer of Meath, beat a Caimin—namely, a stroke of his finger on the nose of Bermingham’s son. On which he stole out of the town, and went towards O’Connor Faly, and they joined together, and it is hard to know that ever was such abuse better revenged than the said Caimin. They burned and preyed Meath and obtained their full demands—that Calvagh should have his duties from the English during his life as Lord of his territory, and that the Clan-Feorais should have all their hostages freely restored; and not only that but they obtained in this “war of Caimin” all conditions such as they demanded for holding peaceable quiet with the English. Ever more formidable, Calvagh now led his kerns to Moyclare beyond Maynooth and to Tara itself (1446). Talbot, made Earl of Shrewsbury, was called back from the French wars. He re-built Castle Carberry, the castle of the old massacre, to defend Meath against Berminghams and O’Connors, caused Calvagh to make peace, to ransom his son taken in the wars, and deliver many beeves for the royal kitchen; and made a statute (1447) that English and Irish should no more be confounded together by their dress, but that every Englishman who did not shave in the English manner once at least in two weeks, should be treated as an Irish enemy—a statute which survived till the reign of Charles I. His last characteristic outrage was the treacherous capture of Felim O’Reilly who had gone to Trim at his own invitation, and the like deceitful seizing of the Savadges. Talbot seems to have been distinguished for his violated pledges among the crowd of English officials whose broken faith became a byword. “Thy safe-guarding,” said the poet, “I confide to God; to Mary’s sweet and only Son; that He may shelter thee from Anglo-word of Englishmen, and from the gentiles’ act of violence.” The prisoners all died in Trim Castle, disappointing the Viceroy of his ransom. After which Talbot disappeared for the last time to France (1447), followed by the curses of the Irish—“the learned say there came not from the time of Herod anyone so wicked in evil deeds.” In his stead came Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York, heir to the English crown, and to all the earldoms and lordships of the Mortimers.
No doubt the race of O’Connor Faly was a family of irreconcilables; men fighting honourably to defend their land and people, each leader of them in his turn strong to obtain “great rewards from the English for making peace with them, as had been usual with his predecessors.” They were the sort of people for whom Dublin Castle for a hundred years past, and many hundred years to come, had but one name, “the Irish enemy,” ever bitterly complaining of the “mere Irish, men that are truly beastly and ignorant,” living under “the wicked and damnable law called Brehon Law,” “which by reason ought not to be named a law, but an evil custom.”
There was a good deal however that Dublin Castle did not know or care to know. In the midst of this desolating war the story of Margaret, wife of O’Connor, gives us a glimpse into the life of the Irish clans behind the fastnesses that screened them from English view. It might seem that amid centuries of conflict, ever-present danger, preyings and raidings, statutes to shut them out from learning, trade, or advancement in their church, and torrents of slander to defile their name, the Irish might in truth have fallen into the nomad barbarism and the beastly ignorance of which they were accused by the English from that time to this. In fact however the people, endowed with an immense vitality, were busily occupied with commerce and with learning. Irish princes were lively competitors with the English merchants of the Pale. In all their territories the places of fairs were thronged with dealers, English and Irish, who did business together in peace and amity, while profits poured into Irish coffers. English statutes forbade any Englishman to deal in an Irish market: English merchants therefore put on Irish dress, rode on Irish saddles, talked Irish, and went on trading as before. Towns and monasteries of the colonists forced from the government charters allowing them to traffic with Irish dealers. The O’Connors lay at the meeting point of natural trade-routes, with their fair-town at Killeigh, and their establishments at Rathangan and Castledermot; and Margaret was a patron of commerce, as she was of learning and religion. “She was the only woman,” the Annals tell us, “that has made the most of repairing the highways and erecting bridges, churches, and Mass books, and of all manner of things profitable to serve God and her soul, and while the world stands her many gifts to the Irish and Scottish nations shall never be numbered.”
She was a patron too of the schools of the learned, which under the Irish revival had sprung into new and vigorous life, training students in every corner of Ireland, and sending out scholars to all the universities of Europe. “The company that read all books, they of the church and of the poets both: such of these as shall be perfect in knowledge, forsake not thou their intimacy ever”—this, according to an Irish poet, was the high duty of chiefs, of the noble and wealthy; and Margaret was faithful to the tradition of her people. Her friendship for the learned, the royal magnificence of her bounty was long remembered in Ireland. The year 1433 was a year of trouble. Ormond ravaged the land of Ely and destroyed the fortresses of the O’Carrolls. Margaret’s daughter Finola—“the most beautiful and stately, the most renowned and illustrious woman of her time, her own mother only excepted,” blessed with “the blessing of guests and strangers, of poets and philosophers”—only saved Tirconail from the enemies of O’Neill and of MacDonnell and his Scots by herself going, after the fashion of the strong-hearted and independent women of Ireland, to meet them at Inishowen, and there “made peace without leave from O’Donnell.” It was a year terribly named in Irish tradition, “‘the summer of slight acquaintance,’ because no one used to recognise friend or relative,” for the greatness of the famine that lay on the land. Such was the time of Margaret’s great benevolence. “It is she that twice in one year proclaimed to and commonly invited (i.e., in the dark days of the year, to wit, on the feast day of Da Sinchell [26 March] in Killachy), all persons, both Irish and Scottish, or rather Albaines, to two general feasts of bestowing both meat and moneys, with all manner of gifts, whereunto gathered to receive gifts the matter of two thousand and seven hundred persons, besides gamesters and poor men, as it was recorded in a Roll to that purpose, and that accompt was made thus, ut vidimus—viz., the chief kins of each family of the learned Irish was by Gilla-na-naemh MacÆgan’s hand, the chief Judge to O’Connor, written in the Roll, and his adherents and kinsmen, so that the aforesaid number of 2,700 was listed in that Roll with the Arts of Dan, or poetry, Music, and Antiquity. And Maelin O’Maelconry, one of the chief learned of Connacht, was the first written in that Roll, and first paid and dieted, or set to supper, and those of his name after him, and so forth every one as he was paid he was written in that Roll, for fear of mistake, and set down to eat afterwards. And Margaret on the garrots of the great church of Da Sinchell clad in cloth of gold, her dearest friends about her, her clergy and Judges too. Calvagh himself on horseback by the church’s outward side, to the end that all things might be done orderly, and each one served successively. And first of all she gave two chalices of gold as offerings that day on the Altar to God Almighty, and she also caused to nurse or foster too [two] young orphans. But so it was, we never saw nor heard neither the like of that day nor comparable to its glory and solace. And she gave the second inviting proclamation (to every one that came not that day) on the feast day of the Assumption of our Blessed Lady Mary in harvest, at or in the Rath-Imayn, and so we have been informed that that second day in Rath-Imayn was nothing inferior to the first day.”
We know something of the manner of these national festivals, for the Irish were long practised in the organizing of general conventions, and their poets have left us some curious details. One tells of a company of the Tyrone poets gathered in 1577 at O’Neill’s house, where the poets sat ranged along a hall hung with red on either side of the chief, and standing up beside the host pledged him in ale quaffed from golden goblets and beakers of horn; and having told their song or story for a price, took their gifts of honour. Another describes a greater company, such an assembly as that of Margaret, invited in 1351 to the castle of William O’Kelly.
“The chroniclers of comely Ireland, it is a gathering of a mighty host, the company is in the town; where is the street of the chroniclers?
“The fair, generous-hearted host have another spacious avenue of white houses for the bardic companies and the jugglers.
“Such is the arrangement of them, ample roads between them; even as letters in their lines.
“Each thread of road, bare, smooth, straight, firm, is contained within two threads of smooth, conical roofed houses.
“The ridge of the bright-furrowed slope is a plain lined with houses, behind the crowded plain is a fort, as it were a capital letter.”
The castle itself was worthy of one born into the Irish inheritance, of the great lineage of their race: far off it is recognised, the star-like mass of stone, its outer smoothness like vellum—a castle which was the standard of a mighty chieftain; bright is the stone thereof, ruddy its timber.
“Close is the joining of its timber and its lime-washed stone; there is no gaping where they touch; the work is a triumph of art.
“There is much artistic ironwork upon the shining timber: on the smooth part of each brown oaken beam workmen are carving animal figures.
“On the smooth wall of the warm mansion—amazing in its beauty—is the track of a slender, pointed pen; light, fresh, narrow.
“The bardic companies of pleasant-meadowed Fóla, and those of Scotland—a distant journey—will be acquainted with one another after arriving in William’s lofty castle.
“Herein will come the seven grades who form the shape of genuine poesy; the seven true orders of poets, their entrance is an omen of expenditure.
“Many coming to the son of Donnchadh from the north, no less from the south, an assembly of scholars: a billeting from west and east, a company seeking for cattle.
“There will be jurists, of legal decisions; wizards, and good poets; the authors of Ireland, those who compose the battle rolls, will be in his dwelling.
“The musicians of Ireland—vast the flock—the followers of every craft in general, the flood of companies, side by side—the tryst of all is to one house.
“In preparation for those who come to the house there has been built—it is just to boast of it—according to the desire of the master of the place, a castle fit for apple-treed Emain.
“There are sleeping booths for the company, wrought of woven branches, on the bright surface of the pleasant hills.
“The poets of the Irish land are prepared to seek O’Kelly. A mighty company is approaching his house, an avenue of peaked hostels is in readiness for them.
“Hard by that—pleasant is the aspect—a separate street has been appointed by William for the musicians, that they may be ready to perform before him.
“This lofty tower opposite to us is similar to the Tower of Breoghan, from which the best of spears were cast; from which Ireland was perceived from Spain.
“By which the mighty progeny of Mil of Spain—a contentious undertaking—contested the land with sharp spear points, so that they became men of Ireland.
“From Greece to fair Spain, from Spain to Ireland, such the wanderings of the mighty progeny of Mil, the host of the seasoned, finely wrought weapons.”
Such was the assembly, “the mound of grand convention,” to which Margaret invited Irish scholars. In such national festivals the passion of war was exchanged for a nobler pride of life. The chief recognised his place in the wide commonwealth of the Gaelic people. Each one of the company of scholars was reminded that whatever lord he served, Ireland was his country and the fortunes of the race his care. And the people themselves, sharing the festivities of those joyous assemblies, and entertained by the best that Ireland could give of music and literature, could still exult through their successive generations in the kinship of the whole race, Irish and Scots. Irishmen to-day may remember that the scholars gathered by Margaret’s munificence were among those to whom we owe all that we now know of Irish history; they were of the men who in the Irish revival of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries spent their lives in searching out, preserving, copying, the records, laws, and traditions of their people. They were the lively translators of books from abroad, the students of the modern sciences, the band of scholars whose powerful influence was drawing the inhabitants of Ireland, English and Irish, into one culture. Their spirit is shewn in many sayings of the time.
“If you praise one for nobility praise his father likewise. If you praise one for his wealth, it is from the world it comes. If you praise one for his strength, know that sickness will render him weak, and if you praise a person for his fairness or the beauty of his body, know that the bloom of youth endures but a short while, and that age will take it away. But if you praise him for manners or learning, praise him as much as you will ever praise anyone, for this is the thing which comes not by heredity or through upbringing, but God bestowed it upon him as a gift.”
“Wisdom is life and ignorance is death, for of God’s gifts upon earth there is none which is higher and more comely and pure than wisdom, for to him who possesses it, wisdom teaches the performance of good things.”
Such were the people whose culture had to be destroyed and their energies broken in the name of civilization. Twelve years later (1445) Margaret with a company of patriots—MacGeoghagans and others—hardened by long fighting, went on pilgrimage to St. James of Compostella, the shrine most dear to the Irish people, in the “fair Spain” whence their race had come. These pilgrimages are interesting, as showing the travel of Irishmen to Europe. In the Cambridge Modern History Ireland is described as “a mere terra incognita,” cut off by its barbarism, and by its position from the larger influences of Europe: “of one Irish chieftain it was placed on record that he had accomplished the hazardous journey to Rome and back.” In this half century alone (1396-1452) we read of two companies of chiefs and men of the poorer sort journeying to Compostella (1445, 1452), and of two companies who travelled to Rome (1396, 1444); and apparently of yet a third company, who brought back to Ireland tales they had heard of the French wars “from prisoners at Rome” (1451). By land and sea traders and scholars were crossing and re-crossing to the Continent, not only from one part of Ireland but from every province: “Do not repent,” men said, “for going to acquire knowledge from a wise man, for merchants fare over the sea to add to their wealth.”
Margaret returned to the distractions of a new conflict and the treacheries of a false peace (1445). Calvagh and the Berminghams were again making “a great war” with the English, cutting much corn and taking many prisoners, “and they made peace afterwards;” on which MacGeoghagan, just home from his pilgrimage, went with others under protection of the Baron of Delvin “where the English were”—that is to the Governor’s castle at Trim. “But the English not regarding any peace took them all prisoners.” MacGeoghagan was after that set at liberty, his son being given as hostage. “And Margaret, O’Carroll’s daughter, went to Trim and gave all the English prisoners for MacGeoghagan’s son and the son’s son of Art, and that unadvised to Calvagh, and she brought them home.” It was an act as free and brave as that of her daughter Finola, who had made peace for the O’Donnell land. Such women of great soul stand out on the stage of Irish history, nobly praised by the poets.
“She is sufficiently distinguished from every side
By her checking of plunder, her hatred of injustice,
By her serene countenance, which causes the trees
To bend with fruit; by her tranquil mind.”
The story of Margaret was closing in sorrow. Finola, “the fairest and most famous woman in all Ireland beside her own mother,” after the death of O’Donnell in the fifth year of his captivity in an English prison, married Aedh Boy O’Neill, “who was thought to be King of Ireland,” “the most renowned, hospitable, and valourous of the princes in his time, and who had planted more of the lands of the English in despite of them than any other man of his day;” he was wounded to death on Spy-Wednesday (1444), “and we never heard since Christ was betrayed, on such a day a better man.” A little later Finola, “renouncing all worldly vanity betook herself into the austere devout life in the monastery of Killeigh; and the blessing of guests and strangers, and poor and rich, of both poet-philosophers and archi-poet-philosophers be on her in that life” (1447). The next year Margaret’s son, Cathal, was slain by the English of Leinster. Calvagh, leading the Irish of Leinster in a great army, marched to Killculinn near the hill of Alenn on the border of the old Offaly, and there, his leg broken, his sword and helmet torn from him, the English horsemen were about to bring him into Castlemartin when “Cathal’s son returned courageously and rescued him forceably.” Another son Felim, heir to the lordship of Offaly, a man of great fame and renown, lay dying of long decline, on the night that Margaret herself passed away (1451). “A gracious year this year was, though the glory and solace of the Irish was set, but the glory of heaven was amplified and extolled therein.” “The best woman of her time in Ireland”—such was the Irish record of that lofty and magnanimous soul. “God’s blessing, the blessing of all saints, and every our blessing from Jerusalem to Inis Gluair be on her going to Heaven, and blessed be he that will read and hear this for blessing her soul.”
Margaret left her husband to the gallant and hopeless struggle for the saving of Irish civilization. The next year he too made pilgrimage to Compostella (1452). But disaster gathered round him. MacGeoghagan, the most famous and renowned among the captains of Ireland, was slain, and his head carried to Trim and Dublin. Two sons of Calvagh were killed in war. His daughter Mòr, the wife of Clanricard, died of a fall from her horse; with her ended the system of alliances by which Calvagh had fortified himself west of the Shannon and in Ulster (1452). His old enemy Ormond, the best captain of the English in Ireland, he for whom the sun of old stood still, had come back to the Irish wars. He had been called to London in 1447 on a charge of treason, for trial by battle with his chief foe the Prior of Kilmainham—Ormond by the King’s leave staying at Smithfield “for his breathing and more ease” while he trained for the fight; the Prior learning “certain points of arms” from a fishmonger paid by the King. But the royal favour prevailed, Ormond made clear his desire to exterminate the Irish, and without trial or battle was declared “whole and untainted in fame.” He returned to ravage Kildare and Meath in war with the rival house of the FitzGeralds, earls of Kildare, and to make a last triumphant march round the bordering Irish tribes. Calvagh was forced to “come into his house” and make terms of peace (1452). The peace was made null by Ormond’s death a month later, and Calvagh “went out into the wilderness of Kildare” where the new deputy with his cavalry surrounded him unawares. Teige, his son, “most courageously worked to rescue his father from the English horsemen; but O’Connor’s horse fell thrice down to the ground, and Teige put him up twice, and O’Connor himself would not give his consent the third time to go with him, so that then O’Connor was taken prisoner.” The same year he was released. But his wars were practically over. In 1458 he was buried by his father Murchadh and his wife Margaret in Killeigh; defender of his country for sixty years, and for thirty-seven years lord of Offaly. Last of all, Finola, after forty-six years of the religious life (1493), rested also in the splendid abbey of Killeigh.
Of the glories of that abbey, of its rich glass, its gold and silver work, its sculptured tombs, its organs, nothing now remains but a bare fragment of wall. In the year that Silken Thomas and his five uncles were hanged at Tyburn (1537), Lord Leonard Grey wasted the land of O’Connor Faly, who had married the sister of Earl Thomas; making him “more like a beggar, than he that ever was a captain or ruler of a country.” Vast quantities of corn stored up at Killeigh were carried to the Pale; and from the ruined Abbey Grey furnished out the buildings of Maynooth, which had been stormed and taken from Earl Thomas two years before; carrying off from its sack a pair of organs and other necessary things for the King’s College at Maynooth, and as much glass as was needed to glaze the windows of the College and of His Grace’s Castle there. The tombs of the great house of O’Connor Faly were utterly destroyed so that no trace of them remains.
The destruction of the great abbey was the symbol to the Leinster Irish of their final desolation, the ruin which submerged the whole people of Ireland on the fall of the House of Kildare. Then began in the rich plains of Leinster the ruthless policy of wholesale extirpation of the Irish old inhabitants, to “plant” the country anew from across the sea. The fruitful land became to Irish eyes a vast cemetery of their dead. In their lamentation they remembered that Brian Boru’s grave was there, and the grave of his son “that bore the brunt of weapon-fight”: and still the graves were multiplied. “Great are the charges that all others have against the land of Leinster”—a poet of the O’Byrnes sang….
“Charges against her all Ireland’s nobles have: that beneath the salmon-abounding Leinster country’s soil—region of shallow rivers foamy-waved—there is many a grave of their kings and of their heirs apparent.”
“The red-handed Leinster province” holds the bones of the long line of O’Connor Faly, men and women who adorned their country with courage and piety, art and learning.
“They shall be remembered for ever,
They shall be speaking for ever,
The people shall hear them for ever.”